October 7, 2007

The Heart of the Issue

Over the last several months, a question cooking for years has come to the forefront of my consciousness regarding the position of the Christ-based faith amongst the panoply of religions. Because it is becoming clear to me that where this question is heading is towards an inevitable confrontation between Christianity and all other contenders in the broad field. That may sound like an overblown assessment, but I believe it will, probably soon, prove to be true.

This confrontation will not emerge willy-nilly as an accidental artifact of religious progress; it is being deliberately fomented by ‘powers and principalities’ operating behind the scenes. You can see the situation crystallizing if you observe the current trends. In parts of the world, it has become ‘politically incorrect’ to say things considered negative against certain religious groups—primarily, Jews and, sometimes, Moslems. Usually, other religions (eg. Hinduism, Buddhism) get swept along in this current, becoming incidental beneficiaries of the implied protection. However, it appears that the protection offered the ostensibly maligned groups has, behind it, the tacit motive of shielding the race, rather than the religion, per se. Thus, it’s not really Judaism that is being sheltered, but all Jews; and not Islam, so much as Moslems, which usually means Arabs. The tacit reasons tho, are quite different. If ‘political correctness’ is bestowed to Islam (thus, Arabs) it appears to be designed to create the impression that the authorities involved (be it government, universities, or whatever) are not prejudiced against Arabs, but only against ‘religious extremists’ of that stripe. The hope seems to be that, appearances to the contrary, we in the Western ‘democracies’ are not innately hostile towards Arabs, but only towards the ‘terrorists’ among them. In the case of Judaism, on the other hand, the result of ‘anti-hate’ legislation has been to supply a convenient instrument to silence any criticism of the state of Israel or its proponents.

One group that has received rather little benefit from political correctness and its adjunct legalities is Christianity. The kind of remark that would immediately elicit the label of ‘hate’ if directed towards Judaism (or possibly, but not always, Islam) can slide by the public awareness with nary a concern if it is directed instead at the Christian faith. Of course, there are historical reasons for this ambivalent response. One being the long-standing effect of the Schism. Since that event, it was ‘normal’ for Protestants to denigrate Catholics, and vice-versa, in the battle of faith that was waged both militarily and metaphorically over the past centuries. Another reason might be the feud between science and religion (essentially Christianity) in the USA, wherein the faith became more and more an open target for abuse as the society at large becomes increasingly secular.

The media have played a role in the gradual erosion of the position of respect once held by the Christian credo. Movies and TV ‘exposés’ have taken stories of the failures and dereliction of prominent Church leaders and turned them into ‘compelling dramas’ that, while based on truth, have cast aspersions on the whole concept of religion and Christianity. So far, the other major religions seem to get a ‘free pass’ on this accountability of leadership, except for the vilified Islamic extremists of course. Surely there are corrupt leaders in every faith; but the fact is that the USA—epicenter of the entertainment industry—was recognized, until recently, as a Christian nation. Time will tell if the microscope of Hollywood will be turned on other religions for ‘realistic depictions’ of their fallible leaders.

The point of these observations is that the religious scene is being segregated in the public, or secular mind into the two major camps of Christianity (such as the caricature exists) versus the collection of other beliefs. In the realm of religion or, to employ a broader term, spirituality, there are interesting movements afoot. Many of the New Age branches have unabashedly borrowed concepts and personages from Christianity, often claiming to enhance that structure with their ‘new insights,’ yet not hesitating to criticize the main tenets of the treasury they have just robbed. These revamped and upgraded versions of ancient mystic religions (Babylonian, Hindu, etc.) will mix reincarnation with Jesus and other notions to create hybrids that are abominations to the Christian faith. The worst phenomenon is that the primitive Christian creed itself has been so fragmented into smaller, more diluted, less authentic, more heretical sects that it has been sapped of almost all of it original vitality. It is essentially impossible to find a pure Christ-based creed in any institutional church. If it exists, it does so in the bosom of small study groups and in individual believers scattered thru-out the family of man.

One of the more insidious religious belief systems to emerge among the galaxy that sprang out of the 19th century explosion of religious energy is Baha’i. There is much to commend in the beliefs of Baha’i—that, in fact, is what makes it so subversive to Christianity. For any pilgrim ready to flee the wretched futility of materialism for the sanctuary of religion, the fundamental tenets of Baha’i are compelling indeed. Their system offers the ‘three unities:’ Unity of God, unity of religions, unity of mankind… You can’t quarrel with that, can you? In addition, to those ‘window shoppers’ from other faiths, Baha’i assures that ‘you don’t give up your faith, you upgrade it.’ (They can state this because of their doctrine of ‘progressive revelation’… see my essay on Baha’i). To the Christian skeptic, they say that their founder, Baha’u’llah, fulfilled the NT scriptures that foretell the Second Coming of Christ, and anticipating the obvious objections, that it was all accomplished in a spiritual rather than physical sense. That interpretation using the scriptures of Christianity is very hard to refute. If you disagree with it, they say you are not looking thru spiritual eyes but are focused on the material world. If you persist, they can accuse you of being stuck in the same blinders that prevented the Pharisees from recognizing the First Incarnation of Christ! It becomes very difficult for a Christian to dispute the claims of Baha’i, and may even dislodge some believers with shallow roots into being transplanted to their backyard.

Yet there is a fundamental tenet of faith that distinguishes the Christ-based belief from all other systems devised by man or god. That is why the final showdown will transpire between Christianity and all other belief systems (and that includes even ‘science’ which is more accurately labeled scientism). The distinction is embodied in the Man-God, Jesus himself, and is the quintessence of the faith that is called by His name. You see, every religion devised by the mind of man is based on the idea that each person must earn his/her way to ‘salvation.’ Now, salvation may be understood as ‘heaven’ or as ‘Samadhi’ or the final liberation from physical incarnation, or whatever; but it’s the destination after death in this world. The word ‘earn’ also needs explanation. In some faiths, it’s clear—you must obey the ‘Law’ (as they define it by, for e.g., Torah, or the Koran). In the Eastern traditions embracing reincarnation, it’s more complex—you must live a ‘spotless’ life (after innumerable attempts) until you finally earn liberation from the cycle of karma. While Baha’is don’t talk much about laws, they are assiduous laborers for the cause they hold dear, following the directions of their founding fathers to bring about the desired end of world peace. Their focus seems to be on what they can do to move humanity towards this goal.

The subtle pivot point about the systems based on works is that we are not all equally capable of performing them. Some people just have more self-discipline than others. Some people are better able, at least, to present a righteous appearance to the outside, despite the rot within their soul. This inevitably creates a class system where there are the priests, gurus, holy men, etc.—who are perceived as ‘masters’ who have lifted themselves to holy heights—and there are those below them, who have attained some lower degree of righteousness by their efforts. Of course, there are the absolute ‘losers,’ who can’t manage to get anywhere, spiritually, for reasons of moral turpitude. The inevitable result of a caste system is that those near the top end will naturally judge themselves spiritually superior to those seen as ‘below’ their level. We are familiar with the typical outcome of this attitude when assumed by ‘Christian preachers’ (you know the names of those guys from TV). The same happens in any faith. One extreme result is illustrated by Hinduism, where the Brahmin caste hardly thinks about the suffering of the lowest Harijans because, after all, they earned this fate by their failures in past lives. Any works-based religion brings division and discord from pride and prejudice, automatically.

Those creeds that teach that ‘God is within you, or within everything,’ lead to the notion that we are God, therefore everything we do is perfect, is part of our ascension to final merger with the ‘cosmic consciousness’… who is just the collective mind of…us. This human-centric belief can lead to some egregious abuses, as self-serving, eloquent leaders can convince gullible followers that even heinous acts are legitimate since they are committed by ‘gods.’ Once again, it is a works-based platform, but perilously, the works are not evaluated on the premise of an external, divine judge, but decided by the doers themselves.

In complete counter-distinction to the path of ‘works’ to attain nirvana/heaven, the pure Christ-based faith (as expressed in the Bible, but rarely proclaimed by any institutional church) puts all humanity on an equal footing. It tells us ‘All have sinned, and are far from God;’ and ‘There is none righteous, no not even one!’ Because of the stain of sin, embedded in our very DNA, we are born with the nature to follow the compulsions of our mind, to act selfishly, in other words, to sin. It’s a vicious cycle, and there is absolutely no way we can exit from it on our own efforts. Then, you wonder morosely, ‘Are we doomed; is there no hope?’ Yes; that’s our predicament! Well, praise God; not really. That is precisely why God sent the Christ, as Jesus, our one Savior. Jesus alone, of all humans, lived a perfect life, as our representative; and God offers us all the opportunity to partake of that achievement, vicariously in Christ. That is the very crux of the faith! By ‘faith,’ anyone can accept the gracious gift of ‘imputed righteousness’ extended by Jesus. The good news (gospel) was enunciated clearly, succinctly, unequivocally by Jesus, and recorded by John (John 3:16): ‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, so that whoever believes in him will not die, but will have eternal life.’

One could deliver a sermon on that one verse of scripture, but I’ll just tantalize with a paragraph. The ‘world’ in this context is translated from a Greek word that implies all humanity—it doesn’t matter what race, language, nation, or church you come from, God loves all, equally. God doesn’t have other ‘begotten’ offspring; Jesus was the only one, ever, and thus is uniquely qualified to offer the perfect antidote to the vexing sin problem. ‘Whoever’ came down as ‘whosoever’ in the King James translation, but either way, it obviously includes every human being, regardless of birth-right, position, wealth, intelligence, piety, or ethnic descent. We are all eligible to partake of the benefits. But, we have to signal our acceptance of the free offer. There’s no skill-testing question involved, but we have to acknowledge that, yes, God’s plan makes total sense—I believe His promise simply because it comes from the Creator, and I’m ready for the package. The benefit, of unparalleled value, is the promise of eternal life, sentient existence in some plane of reality that is beyond our present understanding. And this life to come is the alternative to what is, otherwise, the natural consequence of unregenerate, physical life outside of God’s provision—death. Note that there are just two choices, diametrically opposite one another—‘death’ versus ‘eternal life.’ Notice, it’s not ‘eternal death’ versus ‘eternal life,’ nor even ‘hell’ versus ‘heaven.’ (I’ll let you think about that without trying to elaborate what I am convinced it means. But to add a clue, ‘death’ is apparently final, while life is described as ‘eternal,’ by the only person ever to resurrect from the grave.)

Quite clearly, in the Christ-based system, there are no class distinctions, no swollen-egos, no losers, for we are all in the same, sorry state. We are lost, except that, through no striving of our own, God extends a golden favor, a divine boon, the attainment of liberty from karma, forgiveness of sin, through His emissary, His Avatar, Jesus. Instead of the futile attempt at the impossible task of self-improvement, we have only to accept the achievements of Jesus on our behalf. It sounds too good to be true—and therefore, many who hear the gospel just can’t accept it. They are to be pitied. Many of them decide to ‘accept’ it but they have to adduce their own formula to it, like a spiritual hedging of bets. (E.g. I ‘believe’ in Jesus, but I ‘keep’ the Ten Commandments too, just in case.) This just brings them back to a works-based faith, and we end up with the notorious abuses of the spiritually privileged over the ignorant.

In conclusion, there are only two religious systems: the pure Christ-based faith on one side, and the works-based creeds in the opposite corner. You who call yourselves spiritual have a clear choice before you—will it be God’s sublime plan… or some concoction devised by the devious mind of man? To say you choose ‘science’ and rationalism over ‘mere religion’ is to opt for another, disguised religion, for these are simply ingenious means of worshipping ourselves as gods, making idols of abstractions and conjecture. At the closing days of this Age, this World, there is no third option, sorry.

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