Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Ivory Cubicle | What if Christianity Actually is a Religion?

I watched the Life of Pi the other day. Yes, I know, I’m behind. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it essentially tells a story of a guy who floats on a boat with a man-eating tiger, experiencing a religious epiphany with every deity known to man (except that maybe he actually doesn’t, since, well, Hollywood’s post-modern and deep like that). But it’s got good nature cinematography, so you should watch it anyways. And the flying fish are funny.

Anyways. That aside (I promise I’ll come back to it), I stumbled across something in the blogosphere, this little article called “it’s not a relationship, it’s a religion.” And my traditionalist side immediately went like this.

The Peculiar Problem of Being the One True Religion

For some reason it’s easy to try to distinguish ourselves from all the other religions, to identify ourselves as different rather than as correct. In a post-modern climate, where truth isn’t easy to come by and claims of truth are treated as bigoted and narrow-minded, it’s easier to not have to defend truth at all, especially not the scandalous claim that God himself came down to earth as a man, died and came back to life to save us from our sin, and then ascended into heaven after having entrusted his apostles with the sole authority to author additional sacred texts which would be handed down from generation to generation as the very unerring, unfailing, and quite unpopular words of God himself.

No, much easier to just remove yourself from the debate altogether, chalking it up to God’s mysterious transcendence, and pleading “relationship!” as the differentiating factor which sets Christianity apart from all the other religions. After all, a relationship is difficult to criticize. It’s hard to think of a relationship of being true or false.

But there are a couple of problems with this. The first is that claiming a relationship with God isn’t actually peculiar to Christianity.

In the Life of Pi, we encounter a boy named Pi who has grown up a good Hindu. The religious practices and rites that he experiences as a Hindu have introduced him to Vishnu. Then, one day, he discovers a church in the Indian countryside after accepting a dare to drink the holy water. Here, he meets Christ, in the words of an Indian priest, a God slain for us out of love. At night, he prays, “Thank you Vishnu, for introducing me to Christ.” Later, he claims that God “introduced” himself again by the name of Allah.

It’s easy for Christians to say, “well, these religious experiences aren’t real,” after all, they were precisely crafted to fit the plot of a Hollywood blockbuster. The problem is that if you actually start reading the sacred texts of other religions, the sentiments become even more entrenched. Whether it be the Hindu rejoicing at entering perfect union with the Brahman, or the Buddhist attaining a higher plane of peace through meditation, claims to encounter the divine are common throughout other religions. And I don’t think the Christian can just say “well, they were all just bad burritos.”

The second is that Christianity isn’t actually just a relationship. I think a bit of clarity in definition is in order. By saying it “isn’t just a relationship,” I don’t mean to say that the practices of the Christian religion are not actually relational. All of Christian practice is ultimately about God relating to man, and man relating to God. But the way the phrase “it’s a relationship” gets tossed around today, one thinks that “relationship-centered” Christianity is opposed to rites and rituals, or to formalities, and instead is just about God and man enjoying each other’s company.

But as much as God does indeed desire to be brought into a very personal relationship to us, there is a very strong, prominent component of religious practice to Christianity. James exhorts us that “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27). As far as mystical rites go, we have communion and baptism. I mean, not many rituals compete with the claim that we are participants in Christ’s body and blood through partaking of the bread and the wine (1 Cor 10:16).

Third, and this is more or less an expansion of the first point, Christianity often looks a lot like a bunch of other religions.

Example 1:

There is but one God. He is all that is.
He is the Creator of all things and He is all pervasive.
He is without fear and without enmity.
He is timeless, unborn and self-existent. He is the Enlightener.
And can be realized by grace of Himself alone. He was in the beginning; He was in all ages.

Does this sound like a Christian creed to you? I’m not sure there’s anything here that a Christian couldn’t affirm of the one true God. And yet, this is a Sikh creed.

Example 2:

Seers and sages, saints and hermits, fix on Him their reverent gaze.
And in faint and trembling accents, holy scripture hymns His praise.
He the omnipresent spirit, lord of heaven and earth and hell,
To redeem His people, freely has vouchsafed with men to dwell.

And that story of God dwelling with man to redeem his people is Hindu.

Example 3:

O save me, save me, Mightiest, Save me and set me free.
O let the love that fills my breast Cling to thee lovingly.
Grant me to taste how sweet thou art; Grant me but this, I pray.
And never shall my love depart Or turn from thee away.
Then I thy name shall magnify And tell thy praise abroad,
For very love and gladness I Shall dance before my God.

Again, something that a Christian would be proud to affirm. Except that it’s also Hindu.

The point here isn’t to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the Christian faith. But it is intended to destroy the notion that Christianity, by virtue of being true, can claim an exemption from being a religion and remove itself from the debates that take place in the religious marketplace of ideas. The problem with Christianity being the one true religion is that it’s still a religion, and has to be defended as the only religion that is the true way to God.

It’s messy, but it’s a mess we have to take up. And since I’ve thrown the mess out there, I guess I’ve figured out what I’m going to be writing on for the next few weeks.

All right. You know the drill. Comment. Share. Etc.

Posted by Nick Barden
Screenshots all from The Life of Pi.

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