Abraham Joshua Heschel (second from right) marching with MLK and others in Selma, AL
I think I can safely say I’ve come to a conclusion in my spiritual journey. I’d like to make a statement of that conclusion. Some may find it absurdly simple and self-evident, and I’m ok with that. I’m just processing out loud here.
I’ve come to the conclusion that I judge the truthfulness of a belief system/philosophy/religion by the impact it has on healing and restoring human relationships and human relationship with the rest of creation. Today, not tomorrow, not a thousand years in the future when everything will be ok. Whatever I may hear of, I ask myself, “Does this approach offer hope for the world today? Reconciliation? Radical love? Forgiveness? Today?”
By this standard (though I’m coming from a specific biased place), with my semi-limited knowledge of world religions/belief systems/philosophies, I find historical, traditional Christianity to offer the greatest sense of hope and potential for healing and restoration of all that I’ve come to know.
While saying this, I should add that the religion most caustic, most opposed to radical healing and restoration of God’s creation that I’ve come into contact with is modern Christianity.
There are many reasons why I say this, but the primary one that struck me today is modern Christianity’s world-nial and primary focus on questions of heaven and hell at the exclusion of real, physical life today. In this system of thought, the radical commitment to love of neighbor and enemy, humility, forgiveness, respect for and cherishing of all of God’s creation, the centrality of church to redeem the world; all of these are relativized, made less important, than questions of eternal reward and punishment. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard (and have myself said), “This world is fallen and cursed because of human sin, irrevocably broken beyond fixing. God is not concerned with saving the world, but instead saving humans from the world. And God will be blowing up the world and starting all over anyways, so we’d better be ready for his return.”
In fact, in a discussion with a person who’s been a self-confessed Christian for a long, long time recently, they told me, “You’re going to Cincinnati to address problems of poverty. You probably won’t change much.” It was almost as though I was confronting the Nathan of several years ago, the Nathan so concerned about “saving people” for heaven without a deep understanding of the call for justice today. The Nathan more interested in living in a place that is comfortable, safe, where I can shake my head and talk about people “over there” (most often in the city), spend time with persons most like me (in ethnicity and common commitments and social class). Meanwhile, I would be offending and ignoring God’s call to radical reconciliation in the world; the Biblical mandate for Christians, out of all the people in the world, to be the most committed to breaking cycles of poverty, violence, abuse, and social neglect. People of the resurrection, of a God more powerful than the fear of death, should be the most free to be people of reconciliation, yet more often we retreat into our cultural homogeneity. And what’s worse, we justify it with our theology.
We have literally wrapped the gospel of the Bible around the American individualist dream. Shoved the gospel into a hole that doesn’t fit, and therefore trimmed off the gospel to make it more palatable, less invasive, less life-altering.
I’m come to realize how how absurdly out of touch that belief is with the Bible, how it destroys the desire and the motivation in people to work for bettering this world. If God’s just going to start all over again anyways, why invest in a world that’s just “a-passin” away? When we believe this, our Christianity becomes irrelevant, insipid, evil, and empty. And something always fills that void. In America, it is the second-most evil approach in life in my book; self-centered individualism. It is an infection, a cancer in Americans that has metastasized into a disease unto death. I have become so progressively disgusted with this individualism and its unholy blend with modern Christianity that I deeply struggle with self-righteousness when I come into contact with it. Because the God of the Bible is much less focused on my individual life, and much more focused on recruiting people to join him in His project of setting things right in His world again. Or, as I like to say these days, “Christianity is not about God finding his place in my story, it’s about finding my place in God’s bigger story.” The truth of Christianity is thus much less dependent on my personal feelings of God’s “realness” or what have you and much more dependent on whether I see something transcendent, something deeply hopeful, in Jesus and in the God of the Bible. And I do. Much more deeply today that before, which makes my heart ache to see God’s justice and God’s agenda come to pass.
I don’t mind as much when American consumers worship at this altar as their primary belief system. But modern Christianity has so deeply bought into this cultural message. Our worship songs focused on “I” and “me” desiring emotional connection with the God who “fulfills the desires of our hearts” and “has plans for us, plans to give us hope and a future,” who “makes all things work for good” in our lives (all Scripture ripped out of context to focus on the individual, with God being judged on whether we sense His care for our individual lives on a daily basis). Our churches with professional pastors working their butts off to teach well and worship leaders to sing and play and provide an interesting experience for others to consume. Our budgets devoted to buildings for each individual church filled with the latest in modern technology to attract the crowds; flat-screen TVs, Max Lucado book studies full of sappy self-help reassurance that we matter, etc. Sometimes I just want to prophetically vomit in the aisle of the church worship gathering and leave it as a testament to how I think God feels.
This feeling became more acute today as I listened to Krista Tippett’s Speaking of Faith while scrubbing at brick with a wire brush for hours on end. She interviewed Arnold Eisen, chancellor of Jewish Theological Seminary, about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel; his legacy, and his prophetic voice in the world. This was the third time I listened to this interview because I became absolutely captivated by the words and leadership of Heschel the first time around, and want his words to sink deeply into my life. One of his key phrases was this;
“The opposite of good is not evil, it is indifference.”
I see the truth, and find great meaning in that, though I would rephrase it to state, “The opposite of good is evil, which is most often expressed through indifference.”
Listen to the interview here. I promise you, if you have a soul that even mildly cares about the world around you, you will be inspired by Heschel to be a more active, more honest, more hopeful presence in the world.
I welcome comments on my thoughts on other religions if anyone’s interested, but I didn’t want to write forever and ever.
“I would say about individuals: an individual dies when he ceases to be surprised. What keeps me alive — spiritually, emotionally, intellectually — is my ability to be surprised. I say, I take nothing for granted. I am surprised every morning that I see the sun shine again. When I see an act of evil, I am not accommodated — I don’t accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere. I’m still surprised. That’s why I’m against it; why I can fight against it. We must learn how to be surprised, not to adjust ourselves. I am the most maladjusted person in society.”
– Abraham Joshua Heschel