August 26, 2021

Making Religious Choices

There are phrases in Christianity (really in ALL religions) that some people find off-putting, and there are reasons for that. Some of the phrasing in the Bible or sometimes just popular catchphrases in Christian culture can really sound painfully exclusionary, limiting, or even bigoted. But that’s not originally how they were meant to be read or used.

I remember growing up as a very young kid in south Alabama – a heavily Christian area, specifically Southern Baptist – the thick of the Bible Belt. However, I was raised in a secular, non-religious home, but the extended family was all rigidly and most stereotypically negatively Baptist. So, I grew up hearing a lot of the popular catchphrases like, “Have you found Jesus?” (honestly, even to this day, I didn’t know he was missing), or the infamous, “The only way to heaven is through the church.”

I still have a hard time with black and white perspectives on religion.

Even as a child, I found a lot of this exceedingly uncomfortable when I would think about the fact I didn’t even know much about religion at the time or who this Jesus guy even was, or especially wondering why Jewish or Buddhist kids were supposedly going to hell just because of the culture they’re raised in. Even as a religious adult with a lot of theological knowledge banging around my cluttered head, I still have a hard time with these reductionist, black and white perspectives on religion. The world just doesn’t seem that simple or easy to me, I firmly believe it shouldn't to you either. If it does, I don't know... maybe you should get out more?

And, more importantly, that’s not what all those Bible stories are really about anyway. They’re about making tough choices and taking a stand on those tough choices. There is one story in particular that I'll use as an example. In it, King Solomon prays to God to consecrate the newly constructed Temple of Jerusalem, the ultimate "House of God," so to speak:

Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in the Temple in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands to heaven. He said, “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart.

“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built. Regard your servant’s prayer: O Lord, heeding the cry that your servant prays to you today; that your eyes may be open night and day toward this house. Hear the plea of your servant and of your people when they pray toward this place.

“Likewise, when a foreigner comes from a distant land because of your name and prays toward this house, then hear them and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel.”

We're faced with so many delimmas every day that just being alive is stressful.

So, Solomon prays that God will answer the prayers of anyone, even pagan foreigners, so that everyone would know his power and goodness. This making-a-choice thing can be exceedingly and constantly difficult – we’re faced with so many moral, ethical, and practical dilemmas every day just by being alive. It’s stressful. If you've ever seen the sitcom, The Good Place (a fantastic show in its own right), these day-to-day complexities were enough for the powers that be to want to erase all of existence. Kind of understandable, right?

But the hard choices involving religion (or a selection/commitment to religion) isn’t so much picking the “right” religion or rolling the dice on the right god to worship. It was mostly about taking a stand for what’s right and sticking with it – sweeping away the worldly distractions that turn us from making good decisions:
What will people think of me?
How much money will it cost?
Is this good for my reputation or career?
How much will this hurt or embarrass me?

I’m not going to give you some profound and easy answer to religion or who’s going where in the afterlife, because I don’t have it (and neither does anyone else, no matter what they claim). What I will do is leave you the easiest bit of wisdom I’ve found and let you interpret it as you see fit, not to redefine what you believe, but maybe to redefine what the concept of “God” is:

Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious, rude, or selfish, and love does not brag. Everyone who loves is born from God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.
(1 Corinthians 13:4-6; 1 John 4:7-8)