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 04 – Hope over Faith

18 Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” (Read the rest of today’s chapter here!)

When faith may be too hard…

It is easy to get disheartened watching the news.  This is probably true at just about any point in history, but I’ve been really affected by it lately:  Mitch McConnell seems hell-bent on rendering the Constitution ineffective in an effort to keep white males in power. Singed koala bears make for a pitiful sight, and then I feel guilty about feeling bad for them before anything else because, yes, there are other problems not being talked about: like the impact those same fires have had on Australia’s indigenous people (a topic totally missing from any news story that I haven’t gone out searching for). A change of residence for Harry and Meghan seems to be the top story in the news cycle over deteriorating international relations and continuing impeachment developments. Yet who am I to judge, because I can’t stop thinking about Kanye and Kim’s walk-in fridge for a family of three – another story that has zero impact on my life but bothers the hell out of me for its sheer excess.

Last post I talked about how it was Jesus’ own faith that saved us, not our faith in Jesus.  When faced with such bleak realities as the ones above, it’s even easier to say “why have faith at all?”  My answer, after reading today’s chapter, is that maybe faith is the wrong word. Maybe we need to have hope.  Faith implies “complete trust and confidence in something.” Don’t get me wrong, having faith is good, but may not be something we are able to carry with us all the time.  Even the most devout have times of doubt, which, by definition, would mean that they lose faith – even if it is temporarily.  That can feel like a failure on the part of the believer and do some real mental damage.

…hope still may be achievable.

Hope, however, means “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.”  And it is not to be confused with optimism.  As N.T. Wright explains in his book Paul, “Hope could be, and often was, a dogged and deliberate choice when the world seemed dark.”  He was writing about ancient Jewish and early Christian history, but the same is true now: Hope must be a dogged and deliberate choice on our part.  Wright goes on to say, “You have to practice it, like a difficult piece on the violin or a tricky shot at tennis.  You practice the virtue of hope through worship and prayer, through invoking the One God, through reading and reimagining the scriptural story, and through consciously holding the unknown future within the unshakable divine promises.”

Who doesn’t wish for – hope for – a better world even in the darkest hours? Perhaps the darkest hours are when our desires are strongest, when our hope is strongest.  Our faith and optimism may be gone, but our deep yearning for a better world remains.  This hope is why we keep going to church, keep reading the Bible, keep praying to God.

I agree with Paul, that our righteousness (to use his word) will be attributed to us, especially when we continue to act when there seems to be no divine promise within eminent fulfillment.  Abraham had faith in God before his promise to be a father of many nations.  As I quoted Paul above, “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations.”  If we, too, act in hope – hope that we can restore the ecology of Australia and truly the whole world, hope that justice will prevail in the American political system, hope that the fate of those in need will become more important than the address of one royal couple – then we, too, will be blessed by God.

Take Action.

Practically, this means getting out there and acting.  At least I think so.  Paul may disagree – as he spends a lot of this chapter discussing how works alone cannot prove a person’s righteousness.  However, I think that this criticism was more about a blind adherence to the law (whether secular or religious) to the detriment of acting out of love for your neighbor.  In other words, self-betterment over community-lifting.  Religion at large (and Christianity in particular) seems to have a certain propensity for navel-gazing to the point of ignoring the outside world burning down around it.  Self-reflection is good, but you can think a lot of things. Getting out there and doing them?  That truly reveals where your heart lies.

Let me qualify all of this by saying: start small, and don’t burn yourself out.  The world’s problems are huge and cannot be solved by one person, let alone one person in one day.  As a mother who suffers with a chronic condition that can cause overwhelming fatigue myself, I particularly want to reach out to those just struggling to get out of bed and make PB&J’s for their kids’ lunch: you’re doing more than enough already – I am not asking you to push yourself past your limits.

Now, that being said, everyone else look around you. Think of little ways you can act in hope.  My favorite, as always, is calling your representatives.  (Something I did on Tuesday, to urge Congress to do everything in it’s power to keep the US out of a war with Iran).  It just takes a few minutes.  If talking on the phone raises your anxiety, write them a letter or email- it’s not as immediate (since anthrax scares have become a thing letters take a few weeks to get through the security back-up, and there’s just so many emails it takes a while for staff to wade through them, too) but it still gets your voice heard.  Do a change dig (you’d be surprised how much is lurking in your car/purse/nightstand/junk drawer), take it to a Coinstar, and then donate that cash to any cause you deem worthy. It’s money you weren’t missing in the first place, and can make a huge difference for an organization doing good work.  My favorite local organizations that just about any community has are food pantries, the library, and the animal shelter.  Most take cash donations at the door.  Make extra of whatever you’re cooking for dinner, and take it to that neighbor or friend who has the sniffles.  These are little ways to act in hope that require very little work on our part, but can set us – and indeed the world – on the path to larger changes.

Hope isn’t easier than faith. It is a practice, a rigorous practice, to hope.  For many, this post may be all just about semantics, since faith is a rigorous practice, as well.  But if you struggle with keeping your faith in times of trouble, do not worry: you are not alone, and you are not a bad person for facing that struggle.  My hope is that you will keep your hope.  Even if your faith falters, you can still hope for a better world.  Even if your actions seem futile, you can still take those actions. To you, your righteousness will be credited, and the world you hope for, that we all hope for, will be one act of kindness closer.

Romans 03 – You Are Holy

21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Read the rest of today’s chapter here!)

Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment of Levitical law

I heard an interesting theory yesterday on the podcast Almost Heretical that I want to present to you here.  I’ll paraphrase as best I can: Jesus, as the ultimate sacrificial lamb, was not a penal substitution for our sins.  Or at least, that’s not the whole story.  He did die to atone for us, but it was more of a preparatory rite than a righting of wrongs.  In that way, he became the ultimate fulfillment of Levitical law.

You should really listen to Episodes 82 and 84 as Nate and Tim spend almost two hours talking about the details of this, but again, I’ll paraphrase: Blood was viewed as the ultimate spiritual cleanser and buffer agent.  In Levitical law, it wasn’t so much that an animal had to die to appease an angry God, but that the sacrifice of the animal’s life was worth it to obtain the blood necessary for temple rituals.  Without the blood, God was dangerous to his chosen people in a very real and physical way: coming into contact with the divine whilst unprepared could actually kill you.  We see lots of examples of this in the Old Testament: seventy men are struck down for looking at the Ark of the Covenant in 1 Samuel 6:19; poor Uzzah is killed for reaching out to steady the Ark in 2 Samuel 6:7, and I wrote a whole blog post about Nadab and Abihu being killed when performing a ceremony with the wrong sort of fire.

Blood, then, was one of the most important chemical compounds, if you will, that allowed humans to safely come into contact with the divine.  By anointing the whole world with his blood, Jesus made the whole world holy. By making the whole world holy, Jesus fulfilled all the preparatory rights of Levitical law, essentially giving us all priestly capabilities. God was not angry with us to the point of needing a human sacrifice, God yearned for us to be with Xyr so strongly that Xe sent Jesus to pave the way for all humanity to reach Xyr without an intercessory protocol.

Faith in Jesus Christ vs. Faith of Jesus Christ

In light of this, I want to point out the phrase in v. 22 “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.”  As I learned in Karen Armstrong’s excellent book, St Paul: The Apostle We Love to Hate, the phrase “faith in Jesus Christ,” was, until the twentieth century, more often translated as the “faith of Jesus Christ.”  This is an important distinction: It transfers the responsibility of our salvation from a personal faith in Jesus to Jesus’ faith in God that God would make his death the start of a new order.  And yet, it does not change Jesus claim in John 14:6 that “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” For indeed, his blood anointed the world, and made us all holy.

Logically, the next step could be to say that we live in a world where faith isn’t necessary.  Think about it: if the whole world is holy and original sin no longer exists (if it ever existed at all), and our salvation has been achieved through Jesus’ faith rather than our own, then what do we need to being reading the Bible for? Going to church for?  Following the ten commandments for?  Couldn’t we literally do anything and it have no effect on our salvation?

This is the problematic thinking that Paul addresses in the first half of the chapter, particularly in vv. 5-8.  There were those, such as the “spirituals,” pneumatikoi, or Gnostics (depending upon which source you read) around the time of Paul’s teaching that came almost exactly to the conclusion above: that anything goes.  Some would eat food sacrificed at pagan temples.  Many participated in prostitution.  Most distressing to Paul, they lost the spirit of egalitarianism of the early Christian movement: lording spiritual supremacy over other believers and even suing other Christians in Roman court for personal gain.

The problem with this “anything goes” sort of thinking is that it causes us to quickly devolve into greedy, mean, base animals.  That doesn’t mean anyone without faith is automatically a greedy, mean, base animal – many kind, wonderful people are agnostic or atheist.  They may even be more spiritually evolved than me: Perhaps God actually wants a post-faith world for us where we automatically follow the Golden Rule and don’t need Xyr constant supervision, I truly don’t know.  My analogy to justify Christianity, which I go into more fully in this blog post, is that this life is kind of like a semester of a college course. If you do well for the entire semester, you’re more likely to get an A. But if you’re struggling, you still have a chance to redeem yourself on the final exam.  Christianity, for me, is like having a study guide.  You can still pass the class without said study guide, but it may be harder to do so.  Since that study guide is freely available for all of us, why not use it?

You Are Holy

What I want you to remember today is this:  You are holy.  God anointed you through the blood of Jesus.  You literally have a direct connection to God now.  Historically, the church has done a good job of obscuring this.  Purity culture, misogyny, exclusion and suppression have taken the place of recognizing the divine spark in all of us.  So, the next time someone tries to shame you for your weight, sexual orientation, beliefs, appearance, or status, try to remember that you are holy, and now that the faith of Jesus has given that to the world, no one can take it away from you.