Bonus Post: So Why Be Good?

My last two posts have been about the universal reconciliation I believe all of humanity can look forward to, and how sin is just another word for animal instinct.  I want to head criticism off preemptively, because I can hear the argument now:  “If we’re all saved and sin doesn’t exist, why bother following Christianity? Why bother following any religion, actually, or even worrying about being good?”  In other words, can we be good without the impetus of damnation or salvation?  It is, ironically, a question from which many atheists have to defend themselves.

The Humanist Connection

At the risk of pissing off both Christians and Humanists, I think the answer lies, at least partially, in Humanist beliefs.  Humanists International says “human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives.”  Human beings have the ability to reason, to be empathetic, and have the capacity for a wonderful imagination and problem solving.  Whether you believe (as I do) that these are God-given gifts or simply the product of millennia of evolution is beside the point: we can all agree these abilities exist.  We are a communal species, and as such, individuals benefit when the community benefits. Monkeys know this – they sleep together for protection and scream warnings to eachother.  Lions know this – cubs are co-mothered and co-nursed by all the females within the pride.  I could go on with crows, ants, and really any other communal animal.  So, if animals with no religious beliefs (as far as I know), no promise of heaven or threat of hell, can behave in a way that is beneficial for their society, can’t we as humans do so as well?

Humanists believe so.  The Humanist Society of Western New York puts it this way:

“We owe it to ourselves and others to make it the best life possible for ourselves and all with whom we share this fragile planet. A belief that when people are free to think for themselves, using reason and knowledge as their tools, they are best able to solve this world’s problems. An appreciation of the art, literature, music and crafts that are our heritage from the past and of the creativity that, if nourished, can continuously enrich our lives. Humanism is, in sum, a philosophy of those in love with life.”

Isn’t that a statement we can all agree with?

I also just want to point out the many secular societies that are doing good without any religious impetus: The ACLU, Doctors without Borders, The Nature Conservancy, and you know I’m going to go ahead and list Planned Parenthood, too.

Getting back to Christianity…

This is quickly turning into a defense of Humanism, so let me tie it back into my own beliefs. As a Christian, I believe it is my responsibility to “do good.”  Not because I will be “saved” for doing so, but because I want to show my gratitude to my God, who has given me so many beautiful gifts: this earth and all its wonders; art in the form of music, painting, and dance; the promise of a life hereafter.  I believe that everyone on earth is my sibling in Christ, and as part of my family it is my responsibility to help them, just as one would do for their flesh-and-blood family.  I act – or at least, I try to act – out of love. My underlying motivations might be slightly different than that of an atheist or agnostic, but the end result is the same: the ability to care about and for humanity without needing to be scared into it by the idea of damnation or bribed into it by the idea of salvation.

A follow-up question might be, “so why keep reading the Bible?”  I do believe it was divinely inspired.  That does not mean I think it is infallible, or a perfect recording of history.  The key word is inspired here, people.  And it continues to provide inspiration, today. I view the Bible as a guide – something that can be read over and over to reveal new truths, help us meditate upon ourselves and society, and give us an idea of what is important to God.  Is it the only way to know God? No.  I think prayer is important, too (even though I’m terrible at it), and honestly just going outside and marveling at nature is probably the best way to be humbled and awed before God.

“Human decency” is a phrase for a reason: It’s something we’re all capable of, regardless of religious beliefs (or lack thereof).  Honestly, if you are only good because somebody is making you be good – whether it’s God, a parent, a parole officer, or whoever, then you’ve got some serious soul searching to do.  So why be good? If for no other reason, be good because a rising tide lifts all boats.  Gratitude to a higher power is optional.

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Romans 08 – Universal Reconciliation

28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. (Read the rest of the chapter here!)

Predestination and/or Universal Reconciliation?

Predestination! Volumes can (and have) been written on it.  Does God chose who gets saved, are they “predestined?”  Does God chose who gets saved and who goes to hell – apparently a different viewpoint than “predestination” with its own label of “double predestination.”  Or do we get to chose our own salvation, God just infallibly knowing what we’re going to do from the beginning, but not directing our actions?

I’ve written a whole post about destiny vs. free will already, and while it doesn’t mention “predestination” exactly, I think it gives a pretty good overview of my personal beliefs on the subject. (TLDR: I think we have free will within a set framework ordained by God.)  What I realized, as I prepared to write a whole new post on predestination, is that I’m a proponent of universal reconciliation. As Wikipedia so succinctly states, universal reconciliation “is the doctrine that all sinful and alienated human souls—because of divine love and mercy—will ultimately be reconciled to God.”  I guess in a way this is predestination. As in, I believe we are all predestined to the aforementioned reconciliation.

I believe, and indeed undertook this blog to prove, that God is above all else welcoming, accepting, forgiving, and loving.  If one believes in God as the ultimate form or source of love and forgiveness, Hell as a final destination – or any other eternal separation from the divine – simply doesn’t make sense.  And Paul, in building up his case around the word “predestination,” makes some excellent points to that effect in this chapter.

Paul points us towards universal reconciliation and God’s unending love

“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death,” opens this section of Paul’s letter.  Referencing ideas I explained more in depth in a past blog post: I believe that Christ anointed the whole world though his blood, making the whole world holy. Therefore everybody is, as Paul puts it, “in Christ Jesus.”  If you follow that logic – that everyone has been anointed through Jesus regardless of their personal beliefs or actions – then that means there is no condemnation for anyone anymore.  Through the faith of Jesus Christ, we are now saved in Christ Jesus.

A few verses later Paul says, “if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness.”  It sounds like a separation of “us” from “them,” a traditional “saved” and “not saved” argument. Perhaps it was, at least in part.  I don’t know if even Paul grasped the full magnanimity of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross (though he certainly came closest to it in the New Testament writers).  Again, if Christ anointed the entire world through his blood, that means everyone has the Spirit of Christ.  I think that this passage is another one of Paul’s careful comparisons of Jewish law pre- and post- Messiah.  Those who do not have the Spirit of Christ do not belong to Christ, because he had not yet come to fulfill the law.  But Christ is in us now, and we belong to Christ, and our spirit is alive because of it, fully ready for a future reconciliation with God.  As an aside, I don’t think it means God didn’t love the people that came before Jesus.  Perhaps they, too, having remains on Earth, are also anointed posthumously, they just weren’t alive to receive the good news.

Paul continues to talk about the Spirit, “The Spirit himself testifies that we are God’s children. And now, if we are his children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ…” We are all God’s children.  We have been made in God’s likeness – one of the first things the Bible teaches us.  God loves us as Xyr children, something Jesus made very clear.  I don’t see any stipulations to these two truths.  The Bible does NOT say “God made man in his likeness, except for brown men and gay men, whom he hated.” Jesus does NOT say “suffer the children to come to me, except for the Muslim children or immigrant children, whom I despise.”  No, we are all God’s children.  And as Paul’s statement here illustrates, we will all inherit the kingdom.

Then we get to this:  “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.  For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among man brothers. And those he predestined, he also called, and those he called, he also justified, those he justified, he also glorified.” I agree with (one) scholarly consensus that Paul is most likely talking about collective society, and that followers of Jesus should devote themselves to living like Jesus, in a life of service and bringing people to God.  That, perhaps, is the true calling of Christians: to live an exemplary life of service to God and community that is so appealing it can’t help but attract more followers.  That would truly make Christianity a shining city upon the hill.  Unfortunately, it has been skewed beyond recognition over the centuries, often becoming an exclusionary and oppressive force.  Paul, I think, would be horrified.

“If God is for us, who can be against us?” Paul asks.  Indeed, many things can be against us, as Paul acknowledges in the verses following the initial question. But in the long run, none of it matters. He concludes: “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Let me just repeat that for you: Nothing in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God.  Nothing.  No sin, no shortcoming of our own or others can keep us from God.  Divine beings such as angels cannot keep us from God.  Death itself cannot keep us from God.  If nothing can keep us from God, what conclusion can we draw but one of universal reconciliation?  God loves us as beloved children, each and every one of us.  Praise God for Xyr mercy, praise God for Xyr love, and praise God for the future we have with Xyr.

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Romans 07 – Sin as Animal Instinct

22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. (Read the rest of the chapter here!)

Making Sense of Paul’s Writing

Paul has dense, rhetorical arguments.  I find them hard to follow sometimes.  If you, too, find Paul a little hard to follow sometimes, remember this: According to historians, these letters were supposed to be read out-loud in dramatic fashion, almost like a one-man play.  They also would have been delivered with a messenger, who, after the first reading, would be asked to clarify Paul’s point.  The letter would be read and discussed several times by the congregation. We don’t get to ask Paul (or his envoy) any questions directly, but we can read these letters multiple times, and read supporting material – of which there is tons on Paul and his letters – to help us understand better. I’ve got two books about Paul on my nightstand right now to get me through Romans.

This chapter is one of those dense passages, with back and forth reference to the law and sin, life and death, doing what he does not want to do but not doing what he does want – I don’t know if it is a problem with the translation or what, but it was thick.  In a nutshell, Paul is putting forth the argument that the law (found in the Torah) was important because it showed God’s chosen people the difference between moral and sinful living. “I would not have known what sin was,” writes Paul,  “had it not been for the law.”  However, in doing so it also condemned them.  The way I understand it, it’s kind of like a restrictive diet: You cold turkey all junk food: no cake, no chips, no soda. You are healthy, yay! But, even knowing those things are bad for you, you can’t stop thinking about them, and many people will give in to temptation and eat them again at some point anyway.  (This diet analogy is not a judgement call on anyone’s eating habits, just an oversimplified analogy to get us through Paul’s writing.)

So what’s to be done?  Are we just condemned by the very thing that saves us?  That’s where the good news of Jesus comes in, which Paul explores in later chapters, as will we.  For now, let’s push through this theme of law and sin and death.  This heavy focus on the law of the Torah, and highly analytical argument about it’s pro’s and con’s from Paul, is put forth because he was speaking to a largely Jewish and Jewish-sympathizing audience.  Their whole way of life – not just in the Synagogue but out of it – is built around the Torah.  The law was given to Moses from God Most High, a sacred and central part of their being a chosen people set apart and loved by God.  So yeah, they got mad when Paul started attacking it, saying that Jesus had nullified the law.  In an effort to make his audience more likely to accept Jesus as the Messiah, Paul had to tread very carefully: showing his respect for the law (because he did respect it), and slowly building a case around said law that exposes how Jesus is its ultimate fulfillment.

I hope that helps clarify this chapter, and indeed the ones surrounding it, a little bit.  But what I really want to talk about today is sin. The word “sin” appears nineteen times in this 25-verse chapter.  It’s a loaded word.  Of course it’s about our shortcomings, but it’s been made, over the centuries, to mean a nearly irrecoverable character flaw.  Sin damns us to hell, sin makes us the evil, sin makes us the lowest of beasts.

Sin as Animal Instinct

And actually, I agree with that last analogy, the lowest of beasts.  For what I think Paul was most describing here is our reptilian brains – our animal instincts.  Paul just lacked the terminology that we have today. What pet owner hasn’t seen one dog “covet” another’s toy or treat? Greedy squirrels hoard so many acorns they literally cannot remember all of them (to our benefit, because then new oak trees grow).  Don’t even get me started on the ecological havoc pigs can wreck: you could film lunar sequences in our pigs’ grow-out paddock, with its five-foot deep craters and being completely denuded of plant life.  Animals steal, rape, and kill – and not just for food.  Lions have been documented killing zebras and not eating the carcass, the same sort of behavior domestic cats exhibit when they sport-hunt songbirds. It even has an official name: surplus killing.

So, when Paul talks about the law teaching him what sin is, I think it is essentially this: learning that we have the capability for nobler actions than our first basic instincts. It may be natural to covet our neighbor’s big house, but we won’t let that covetousness build rancor in our hearts.  We may be naturally greedy, but we will overcome that base greed by practicing sharing on large and small scales.  We have more capacity than any animal (even pigs) to damage the planet, but we can start living lighter, both individually and collectively.  We can recognize, and hopefully then curb our worst impulses, especially the three most harmful ones: stealing, raping and killing.

As I said in my first post about sin, the greatest sin is to act out of not-love.  Animal instincts are all about protecting your own skin, hoarding resources for yourself.  And that is not loving.  Natural, yes, but not loving.  God must know this about us, that we have these less-than-noble animal instincts. So would God really condemn us for them?

Grace is overcoming our baser instincts.

I don’t think so, but that doesn’t get us off the hook.  I know my girls are going to fight, that doesn’t mean I just let it happen.  I know they would only eat cookies if given the choice, but I make sure that that doesn’t happen, either.  God wants us to do better, and will help us do so.  We have been given the higher intelligence to reason this through, guides (such as the Bible) to help show us the way, and grace through Jesus for the mistakes we will make.  Because we will make mistakes.  But making mistakes is not an irredeemable character flaw, nor will it necessarily damn us to hell (a place I’m not sure actually exists, but that’s for another time and another post).  God has given us so much grace, grace beyond the stain of any sin.  All we need to do to be washed clean is turn our hearts towards Xyr.  Listen for God’s message with open hearts and open minds: because those messages rarely come from a booming voice in the clouds, but most often from quiet and unexpected places.  If we do that, we are already on the right path.  Will we stumble and fall occasionally? Yes, after all, we’re only human (and humans are animals). But grace will always be ready to turn back and offer us a hand.

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