Though you wouldn't know it by the lack of commercialism, it is Easter, not Christmas that is the most significant Christian holiday of the year. In films and movies, the importance of one of the events of the Easter season, the paradoxically named "Good Friday" which features the bloody torture and crucifixion of Jesus, has become, sadly, the main focus of Easter. Instead of highlighting that theme, I wish to re-emphasize the importance of the most significant event of Jesus' life and the event which causes the greatest controversy for non-Christians: Jesus' resurrection from the dead, which traditionally takes place on Easter Sunday. While a whole lot of film and theology focuses on his crucifixion to the exclusion of all else, it is the resurrection that is the culmination and exclamation point of all Jesus' life and ministry. Without the resurrection, we have just another bold teacher, a revolutionary even, who like Socrates before him, is put to death by the hands of his own people, his main offense being the speaking of the plain truth.
But Jesus did more than just speak truth, he WAS the truth...the literal TRUTH, in bodily form. In other words, Jesus was, and still is, God in the flesh. He didn't come just to re-emphasize the great moral teachings of the Bible and Jewish teaching, rather he came to DO, not just to teach. And his single greatest act was to demonstrate for us all that death is not the end of life, but rather the beginning.
But I don't wish to de-emphasize the importance of the torture and crucifixion of Jesus, well demonstrated by such movies as Mel Gibson's "The Passion", as it too holds an important moral lesson for us, as well as theological; a truth can be best summed up by the short, but accurate saying: "You have to go through hell to get to heaven."
Perhaps for you, the dear reader of this blog, life is just one wonderful event after the other, rich in possibilities and opportunities. But for me, pseudo Thomas Merton, life is just one, long, slow trip through Hades, with an occasional rest stop. Life has been very hard and difficult, and much too often the problems and pains of life on earth have overwhelmed me, well beyond my ability to handle them. By all rights and means, I should be, at least, on heavy duty psychiatric drugs, if not locked up in the real-world equivalent of the Arkham Asylum.
Yet here I am, drug free and asylum free, and the only reason I am, is due to the love and goodness of God. Nothing that science or society has ever offered me has been of any use in my deepest problems, but that which is freely offered by God through Jesus, is better than the best the world has to offer.
CHRISTIANITY: THREE MAIN TYPES.
In the realm of Christianity, there are divisions like protestant vs. Catholic, evangelical vs. mainstream, liberal vs conservative, and so on. But rather than focus on these obvious external divisions, I'd like to point out what I've believe are the three main types of Christianity as practiced in the United States.
1. SOCIAL CHRISTIANITY -- this is for those who go to church, and claim the title as Christian, because they like the social atmosphere of church, believe in God, and feel good that they belong to an organization devoted to such an interesting guy like Jesus. Beyond that, they don't really allow their lives to be affected by the TEACHINGS of Jesus or the prophets, rather they're just in it for their own selfish purposes.
2. RELIGIOUS CHRISTIANITY -- these are the Christians who go to church every Sunday morning, or in the case of some churches, every Sunday morning, and every Sunday morning Bible class, and Sunday evening service, and anything else that happens during the week. For Catholics, a truly religious person might go to mass every day of the week. These are the people who are very wrapped up in the ritual and culture of Christianity: they take God and theology very seriously, but for all their zeal, don't really understand any of it. Yet the religious observances makes them feel good, (and rather "righteous" besides, if you know what I mean...) and often these religious Christians are thought to be the true believers and imitators of Christ.
3. SPIRITUAL CHRISTIANS -- This is a rather small subset of Christianity, and they are they least visible and the least understood. Spiritual Christians are not content just to be one outwardly, by attending church services and carrying a big Bible and so on, but they are far more interested in being a Christian inwardly. They understand that Jesus was not trying to create a new religious institution, but was rather conveying truths and insights that can literally transform a person from the inside out. Spiritual Christians are not interested in having huge churches, or being on TV and radio, or becoming household names, rather they are perfectly content to live in obscurity, sometimes even actively seeking it out. They know the great secret of the teachings of Jesus, Paul and Peter: that Christianity is about transformation of oneself through the power of God. Sure, there are rules and regulations that are important to follow, but they are only important if you follow them to where they LEAD, which is the very real existence of God himself. Often spiritual Christians are not too concerned about denominations and other divisions, but will actively support any church that preaches the truth about Jesus.
Of course these three main types are not three exclusive sets, but there is overlap, and a person can sometimes be both outwardly religious, and inwardly quite spiritual. Or a person can be a social Christian, but be quite rapped up in Christian culture and so forth. The three types are really just three points along the continuum that is Christianity, the social Christian being the lowest point on the continuum, the spiritual Christian being the pinnacle.
I've been everywhere along that continuum, but there is no reason one has to be. For the record, the Christianity that I'm advocating in this post is that of the third type, the pinnacle: Spiritual Christianity.
THE HEART OF CHRISTIANITY
Christianity can be, and has been, systematized into a bunch of neat little doctrines and dogmas that one must believe if they are to be truly regarded as "Christian." I guess that sort of thing is important and has it place, but please listen to what I'm about to tell you.
Christianity is NOT a system. It is not a bunch of rules and regulations one follows in order to be worthy, or to be a better person, or to be rich and famous. While all those things are certainly possible, and have been exploited by various personalities within Christianity throughout the ages, there is something far more important at stake.
If Christianity is NOT a system of beliefs, then what is it? Quite simply, Christianity is all about relationships. And there is one relationship in particular which is paramount, the one between you and God himself.
Christianity is unique amongst all the world's religions, even unique among the "big three:" Islam, Judaism, and itself; in that the very core of the faith is the idea and the reality that you can come to know God in a very personal, subjective fashion. He's not some all powerful being that is "out there" some where in outer space or beyond (like Islam and Judaism), but rather God is so close as to be literally inside of you. But no Christian goes so far as to say that because God is inside of you, then you ARE God. That is a point made by the New Agers, but Christians understand that there is quite a bit of difference between ourselves and the Ultimate Power of the Universe. Nor do we equate God and the Universe (matter, really) like many New Agers and pagans do. Again, God is a separate, complete BEING in and of himself, and while he transcends everything, even matter, he is not matter (or "pure engergy"), nor is he us, but he is himself. "I AM WHO I AM" is the ultimate expression of unique individuality, as well as existence.
Hence, God is a being just as were are beings, and he is a being who one can come to know in an intimate way.
INTIMACY WITH GOD
The modern American understanding of "intimacy" is often used as a code word for sexual intercourse. However, that really cheapens our understanding of the term, as well as its importance. Intimacy is not about sexual union, it is about absolute trust and being able to trust another being with out fear, without pain and without suffering. Yet sadly, for an overwhelming majority of us, there is no one on this earth we can trust with the absolute assurance they will not harm us in any way. Hence, we hold back, even when we think we aren't. It's not that we don't want intimacy with another person, it's just that it seems like an ideal which is simply not possible in this life.
But what if I told you that absolute intimacy, absolute trust, can be found? What if I said there was a person who loved you far beyond any love you are capable of, and who will only ask that you try to love them in return? What if I told you this person will never, ever hold your past against you, but rather is more than willing to help you overcome all that garbage and misery in your past? Would you be interested in such a person?
Well, that person is Jesus; or you can call him God, which is just as appropriate. His greatest desire is not to make everyone into little moral robots who never do wrong, but rather his greatest priority is entering into an intimate, personal relationship with each and everyone of us. And through this intimate relationship, we learn a powerful truth that no scientist will ever be able to get a hold of through empirical methods: God is REAL, God is LOVE, and God wants the very best for us. But be warned: what we might consider the best and what God considers the best can be two very different realities.
So what is God's idea of the best for us? Simple: that we become beings that literally embody all of his qualities, and live a life that not only brings us great joy and peace, but live a life that brings forth these qualities in others. Amongst household names, Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II would be the best examples of this in the Catholic realm, Billy Graham perhaps the best example amongst the Protestants.
Often we humans look for happiness and peace in all the usual places: relationships with other humans, money, fame, success, health and so on. But what if you could have all the peace and happiness those things bring, without all the work, bother and evil side-effects? Would that be something that interests you?
Why do people want money, fame and success anyway? The answer is very simple: because it FEELS good; it makes one "happy." But what if you could have the "happiness" without having to have the stuff that is normally associated with it? What if this happiness were so deep-seated, so powerful, that you wouldn't even want all the other stuff because it would diminish your happiness? Such a state of inner bliss is possible, and in one of those strange paradoxes that can only be experienced to be understood, it comes most easily to those who don't have or bother with all that other stuff.
A relationship with God is like the greatest romance you could ever imagine, times a thousand. It has all the feelings and goose bumps of earthly love and companionship, but none of the evil side-effects: jealously, betrayal, anger, and so on...well, at least not from God's side of the equation! God can do and be many things, but one thing he is not is dishonest or deceptive. He is what he is.
Once you realize that God is real, and that he wants to have a relationship with YOU, you run-of-the-mill human being, not much else in life really matters so much. Imagine someone who is ALWAYS glad to see you, always wants to spend time with you, is always willing to discuss any topic you like, and someone you can absolutely trust with your deepest darkest, secrets and needs, without fear you will be betrayed. Sadly, there is no human on this earth who can fulfill those desires, but there is one in Heaven who can.
Even more, what wouldn't you give for someone who's main desire is your own personal growth and development as a human being? Someone who can enable within you those virtues and qualities that seem so impossible? How would you like someone is completely and totally for your best interests, all the time, and will not ever enable your deep, dark failings?
Again, such a person exists, and only exists, in the person of Jesus.
While it may be somewhat confusing as to why Christians have "three gods," let me shine a little light on that topic: the Christian God is one being, but who's being is expressed in three distinct persons: the Father in Heaven, the son Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Why these three? Simple: it is the way we need to have and understand God. God the Father is the ultimate transcendent being, who is beyond our human understanding and reason. God the son Jesus is the God you can talk with, joke with, and put your arm around; he is just like us! And God the Holy Spirit is that "divine spark" within: it is God within us, in our hearts, at the very core of our being. Pretty cool, isn't it? But all three are in complete unity and harmony, hence their "oneness." They don't fight, they don't argue, they never, ever have disagreements. They are always and forever in agreement and all pursue the exact same goal: relationship with mankind.
God wants the best for us, but to get us to see and appreciate the best, he needs to knock down and cart away all those other ideas and concepts of what we think the best is, and this can be a rather painful and inconvenient process. For there is nothing more shocking and incomprehensible to a person than the truth, especially the truth about themselves. There is no more destructive force in all of mankind; but, conversely, there is no more powerful force for healing and wholeness. Hence the healing ministry of Jesus: it was not just a means to show off his divine power, it with a demonstration of the power of ultimate Truth.
And that idea, the idea of there being ultimate, absolute TRUTH is perhaps the most shocking thing of all in the realm of Christianity. Truth, by it's very nature, is exclusive, unique, and discriminating. In Christianity, there is always a BEST answer. Truth is, by it's very definition, narrow, tiny, and rigid. Hence truth throughout the ages has always gotten a bum rap, but never so much so as right now in our own times. How often have you heard the phrase "everything is relative." That is the same as saying there is no absolute truth, it just depends on who you are and where you came from. But the problem with the relativity concept is self-evident: conflict. If one thinks killing people who are Jewish because they are Jewish is a good idea, and another person thinks killing Jewish people because they are Jewish is a bad idea, then you have conflict. Hence, the idea that truth is relative is the greatest enabler of conflict you could possibly have, for conflicting idea are just that: instigators of conflict.
One thing a person learns who pursues a relationship with God is that truth is ultimately absolute and unique. There may be some things on this earth that are "relative" to one's perspective, but there are many things which are universally true for everyone, whether or not someone wants to notice. Truth, like facts, is a stubborn thing.
TO SEE CLEARLY
The ultimate benefit of Christianity is often said to be going to Heaven after you die, and to spend all eternity enjoying the peace, love and happiness that we are denied in our life here on Earth. But there is another very important benefit to Christianity that comes into play while we are still very much alive: the ability to see clearly.
I'm not speaking of glasses or optics when I speak of seeing clearly, rather I'm referring to the ability to know and understand truth. To be able to see into men's hearts, to see beyond the words written on a page, to see beyond the speech given by the politician or school teacher into the very core of their "agenda" if you will.
Jesus if often referred to as a prophet, and in a very real sense, he was a prophet. Often, both in Christian and secular circles, one likes to think of prophets as being those people who can foresee the future, which is certainly one element of being a prophet. But more in accord with Biblical and Jewish tradition, a prophet is not one who can accurately predict the future, but rather a person who can see the truth of a situation in the hear & now, and call a spade a spade.
To be more blunt: a prophet is a person who sees past the pomp and circumstance, into the secret places of a man's heart. When you are in the presence of a real prophet, you feel rather uneasy, especially if you have something to hide, because you literally feel like they can see right through you, right into your very thoughts: and they can.
But even more so than the ability to see what is covered up, a prophet is the most unpopular person in a society for a very significant reason: they take a stand for the truth. Truth, love and goodness are all complimentary concepts, just as lies, hate and evil are complimentary. But in the hierarchy of concepts, truth is arguably the most important, for without truth, you cannot have love nor goodness.
Hence prophets stand for what is true, and expose lies in order that all other virtues; like love, goodness and peace; can flourish. But there is an obvious problem with such a stand: it hurts people's feelings; it crushes their pride and self-sufficiency; and makes them feel "unclean." Hence true prophets are almost always persecuted unto death, just like Jesus and Socrates. Of the twelve apostles that followed Jesus, it is known that all except for John the Apostle (and Judas Iscariot) were martyred, along with many thousands of Christians who came after them. People just don't put themselves in a position to be killed by others if they know what they are proclaiming is itself a lie, a fabrication. People don't die for lies.
Now to be clear: being a prophet has NOTHING to do with self-righteousness and all that sort of garbage; rather a true prophet EXPOSES the lie of self-righteousness, for no one is truly righteous anyway, and a prophet more so than anyone else knows this very, very well. Hence the greatest enemies of the prophets are often the self-righteous, religious fanatics that are evident in every faith and non-faith. Even atheists, who of all people should know better, have their squad of militant fundamentalists who proclaim the non-faith of atheism with all the rigor and energy of a Billy Graham. Their names are very well known to those of us who are interested in science and religion: Steven Pinker, Daniel C. Dennet, Richard Dawkins, Stephen J. Gould, Sam Harris, David Mills, and back in Darwin's day, Thomas Huxley; a.k.a. "Darwin's Bulldog." They are much more like the self-righteous Christians they attack than they are different, as if Christianity and other religions are the only ideologies that are capable of self-righteousness! A self-righteous atheist is just as ugly as a self-righteous religious nut, there really is no difference.
Yet despite the danger, a stand for truth must be taken. It does no good if you are a prophet, and seeing evil, you keep your mouth shut and say nothing. In order for evil to be eradicated, it must be exposed, and only a prophet has the ability to take a stand regardless of the consequences.
Perhaps that's why I like movies like "They Live" and "The Matrix" -- one of the main plot points in both films is that the protagonist is suddenly given the ability to "see" the actual reality around him, rather than the construct he is given. And so it is with Christians, spiritual Christians anyway. Through a relationship with God, you are given the ability to see that which is "hidden." I've put scare quotes around the term "hidden" for a reason: evil never really hides, it is brazen and it is bold and it loves lots of public attention and adulation. You don't discover a bizarre complex of conspiracies (Knights Templar, Illuminati, the Trilateral Commission, etc.) when you are given the power to see, rather you find that the conspiracies are there to throw one off the scent of what the real problem is: man's near universal contempt for the truth. It's much easier for us to believe that there is a small group of men manipulating everyone and everything than it is for us to realize that we ourselves are living a lie, let alone contributing to it! Hence a true prophet is never a popular person.
Are spiritual Christians the equivalent of the Old Testaments prophets? In a word, yes, that's what we are called to be. However, too many Christians get the wrong idea, and think that being a prophet is getting in someone's face and shouting Bible verses at him. But in reality, the prophets were almost ALWAYS sent to those who were, supposedly, believers and worshipper in God! In other words, prophets were sent to the hypocrites--you can imagine how this could cause problems, for there is nothing worst than a hypocrite who has convinced himself of his righteousness, regardless of his faith or non-faith. Hence, most prophets end up getting killed; not a line of work for the feint-of-heart. Note that prophets are not killed because they are obnoxious and rude, but because they take a stand for what is true and right and refuse to compromise. When a group or movement of any type starts to resort to violence or obnoxious behavior to get it's point across, you can almost always rest assured that what they stand for is a lie, even if you know nothing about their ideology.
SO WHY BE A CHRISTIAN???
A TRUE CHRISTIAN stands for what is right and just, without being obnoxious. They do not jump on the band-wagon for the feel-good cause-of-the-day, whether it be global warming, baby seals, or consumerism. Rather a true, spiritual Christian will go after the greatest crisis of them all: the evil that lurks in every human heart, especially our own.
And once we have dealt with the evil in our own heart, we can begin helping those who wish to escape the darkness, much like Morpheus helping Neo in The Matrix film. And just as Morpheus and Neo realized, there are those who will simply prefer to live in the darkness, and will destroy anyone who attempts to lift the veil.
But a true Christian knows that life on earth is short, and it is better to live a just, good life and be killed for it, than it is to live a mediocre, half-hearted existence and live to grow old. For death is certain, and certain as anything can be certain, and whether or not you grow old is immaterial, as is the question of living your life in such a way that you are a benefit to others, and not a stumbling block.
And Christians know that this life on earth is just a testing ground, a place to try and forge the hearts of men. We do not look forward to a long life here, but an eternal life in a much, much better place than this.
And Christians know that it is not God who chooses whether or not a person goes to Heaven or Hell, but they know it is the person them self who makes the choice; they choose by the way they live their life here on Earth. If they live a life that is a lie, and a life that glorifies in lies, then they will be allowed to live in the darkness of hell for all eternity, and will never have to put up with the light of Heaven. But for those who are much more interested in living a life that is honest, humble, and simple; they have made their choice, and it will be continued in the after-life. What you do, say and think in the here & now has consequences that are truly, literally, eternal.
To be a Christian, a true Christian, is to know God, to know the truth, to know true love and true goodness, and to enjoy them to the fullest. I know of know other "system" on this earth that can deliver on these things, not one.
So if these things are of interest to you, you are more than welcome to join. All that is required is a deep, unrelenting quest to know what is true, and the belief that the truth can be known.