A concept that is built into our psyche is the notion that we are autonomous. We stand on our own two feet. We can be anything we want to be. We owe no one anything. We can eat the forbidden fruit in our Garden of Eden without suffering consequences. Our personalities are egocentric; everything revolves around the “I/Me.”
As we grow older we learn, sadly perhaps, that autonomy has its limits. We encounter things that are unconditioned, things and people that do not allow us to set the conditions for our relationship to them. Parental rules are perhaps the earliest experience of the unconditioned. Then, we have teachers and homework, other authority figures, traffic rules, a boss and workplace rules. At some point along the road we marry and learn that family life has unconditioned elements for us. Surprise, surprise, we demand certain conditions be met if we are to have a relation with this or that person or if we are going to participate in this or that activity.
Let’s put this in concrete terms. Imagine a man 40-45 years old who is climbing the corporate ladder. He wants to have a successful career, make enough salary to enjoy life and put something away for retirement. However, the job has unconditioned elements that can determine his destiny. He must follow certain procedures. There are corporate documents he must know and abide by. He must give all of himself to the task at hand. He gives obedience to the people who are mediators of the unconditioned. If he is to succeed, he must submit to the unconditioned of the corporate world.
For this man, and millions of others, the unconditioned requires a religious commitment. Now, religion does not require a God or gods or the supernatural or a certain organization or specific devotional exercises. According to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, a religion can be “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith.” A religion can be “an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group.”
A religion does not require the supernatural or the observance of devotional activities related to a god or gods. Every person experiences the unconditioned elements of human existence. Accordingly, all people are religious because the unconditioned elements in life require a religious response. The unconditioned demands our obedience. It has it attendant “sacred” documents and prescribed rituals. Much to our dismay, the unconditioned also extracts punishment for our disobedience.
The greatest unconditioned element in life is the reality of death. We may choose how and when we die, but we have no choice about dying. Others may die sooner or later than we. Others may die a more prestigious death, but we all die.
We will always have some kind of religion. We can’t do without it. Whatever has ultimate control over our existence is the unconditioned. We determine the content of our unconditioned. So this becomes the question we all ask: what form of religion most adequately addresses my ultimate concerns and helps me to relate to the unconditioned elements in life? I don’t have all the answers yet, but he content of the unconditioned for me is God as revealed in Jesus the Christ. My devotional and relational response to the Unconditioned, God, defines who I am and who I strive to become.
Many sincere people today are saying that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is responsible for the bigotry, hatred, and alienation in human society. They want more than what they find in any of the world’s religions. They want to make positive change in society and it appears to them that the major changes needed are blocked by the tenets of one religion or another. Therefore, if we are to improve the human condition we need rid ourselves of the religions that impede us.
This concern about the issues of the day creates intense anxiety and worry. If we look at our privileged position in life in contrast to those who barely eke out an existence, we grow anxious. We grow anxious over political inequities and expediencies. We want to heal but learn it is too late. We want to educate and are met with ignorance and hostility. We want to see change for the better and have to deal with wickedness, hatred, the ambitions of opponents, and bad institutions. We give our concerns devotion, passion, and strength. We must do so or we would never achieve anything.
A woman named Martha was caught up in the anxieties of her day. It is recorded in Luke 10:38-42. Like most of us she was caught up in the daily tensions of life and grew testy when it appeared her sister Mary did not have the same concerns. Jesus responded by saying, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”
Why was Martha so anxious and why are we anxious? It is because the things we are anxious about are not ultimate; they are finite; we can lose them in a breath; they all disappear the moment we die; they can be taken away.
Our religious concepts should be ultimate concerns, but too often, and perhaps most often, they, too, are finite concerns and not ultimate. Why do some people get so heated and anxious over defending a particular belief? Because it is a finite concern that could be taken away by further argument or study. Paul Tillich, a theologian of the last century [to whom I am indebted for much of my theology], often would refer to the “God above God.” By this he meant that the reality of God is more than our definitions of God.
Read what Jesus said about Mary. She “has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.” What is that “good portion?” Her portion was an ultimate concern. It is a concern that goes beyond the needs of daily life.
Would the world be better off without religion? No, because I believe the content of ultimate concern is religious. We cannot escape religion if we have ultimate concern. This describes the many folk who claim to be spiritual but not religious. Or religious people who are not connected to an identified religious group.
I will go a step further and claim that if the message of Jesus is the content of our ultimate concern it will give us a framework from which we can put our finite concerns in proper perspective and help us to overcome our anxiety.
I had some response to the blog on homosexuality, so listen up. Notice that I was not favoring homosexual marriage. I hold to the traditional Christian view of marriage is one man and one wife. I believe a church or fellowship can define marriage to fit its own particular needs and the church I am part of is doing that.
I was saying that we need to use witness and persuasion rather than legislation. We will never change the world through enacting legislation that embodies Christian values and expect nonbelievers to conform. Are we pushing the political envelope because our outreach methods no longer work? We need to change our preaching and witness to change hearts, minds, and social conditions.
I have a gay friend right now. At one time, years ago, I had a gay roommate in college [we didn’t use the word “gay” back then!] I also was the fourth pianist in a piano quartet and the other three men were gay. I do not understand the gay sexual orientation, though I acknowledge it. The way they express themselves sexually is not at all the way I want to express my self. However, I think I understand a little about what my friends went through for they did not dare reveal their sexual identity in those days.
One quartet member finished graduate school and became an outstanding high school teacher, but he could not reveal his sexual orientation and retain his position. He was never a practicing homosexual, but the fear of having his orientation discovered and the loss of job finally led to suicide. Such a human waste.
I don’t like the word “gay” but will use it here for clarity. These people are human beings with all of the aspirations, feelings, and experiences of straight people. Love and marriage is one of those aspirations. While I do not think marriage is appropriate I do believe some kind of civil union could be appropriate.
You see, a gay person can love another gay person. They can buy property together, care for one another, and have a lifelong union. Without some kind of civil union, or marriage, as some states have termed it, one partner cannot make health decisions for the other partner or any of the many other joint decisions that heterosexuals make daily. If homosexuality is going to be legal, then legal protection should be afforded to those who create a bond appropriate for the state.
My former roommate is up in years and has been living with a partner for many years who is younger than he. My friend is not in good health and the younger partner is tending to his needs. They live in a western state that affords them the same legal protections and rights that a married couple has. While I have never approved of my friend’s lifestyle, I love him and am grateful that he has someone to care for him in his own home at this time in life. For me to have any other attitude would deny who I want to be in Christ.
Baptists have always promoted soul freedom, the freedom of each individual to make choices before God without human interference. That includes the freedom of choosing sin and rejecting God. That includes the freedom to live a life style that is contrary to the majority population. Soul freedom goes both ways. To destroy that freedom for one with whom I disagree would ultimately destroy that freedom for me.
I had some typos in the last post, so will try to keep my thinking and typing skill at he same speed!
After writing the blog on religious freedom I was sent another blog on the same subject. My first reaction was agreement, then I took another read. I don’t agree entirely. Let me explain.
We need to make a distinction between persecution for what we do as individuals and persecution for what and who we are in Christ. In the blog I mentioned, it gave an example of real persecution of Christians in Iraq. Christians being killed and abused, not for what they were doing, but who they were as a class of individuals.
In the New Testament era we don’t have persecution of believers for agitating to change Roman laws or to enact legislation that would install Christian values into the Roman legal code. Christians were not even insisting that Caesar give the title of ”lord.”
The apostle Paul did not insist shopkeepers stop selling meat offered to idols. In fact Paul didn’t really tell believers to eating meat offered to idols. Their decision was to be based upon their personal conviction and the love of other people who would be offended by eating meat. I don’t believe Paul raised this question or asked where meat came from in cities other than Corinth.
Early Christians were persecuted for following Jesus as Lord and trying to live out His teachings. From all appearances, the Christians in Iraq were doing this.
Oh yes, Paul did make an appeal to Caesar, but what was his appeal? It was an appeal for Roman justice. It was not an appeal to change Roman law to benefit him and other believers. He submitted himself to the Roman law and told believers they should be subject to the governing powers. This subjection to law meant an acceptance of the consequences of disobeying it. Why should Christian complain about persecution for being a Christian? Why should we expect to get special attention and reprieve?
On the other hand, we can be persecuted for our own negative witness. The blog sent to me used the example of the baker in Colorado who refused to bake a cake for a lesbian couples’ wedding. In reading the original account of that incident, and if it were correctly reported, the baker would have sold them a cake already baked. His refusal was to bake a special cake for the occasion an now is supposedly being persecuted for Christian belief.
Really? Was his decision based on his being a Christian or on his revulsion at having to deal personally with the lesbians and having a hidden, or not so hidden, prejudice against lesbians and homosexuals? It is easy for us to take personal prejudices and feelings and turn them into theological dogmas.
What was his attitude toward the women? We don’t know. In what tone and voice did he state his objection? We don’t know. Was his refusal done in a Christian manner or in negative condemnation of them as persons? We don’t know.
I do not see troops rounding up Christians and putting them into jail simply because they are believers. I do see a lot of Christians being “persecuted” because they do not witness “with gentleness and respect.” When insulted, those who “speak evil” of our “good conduct as followers of Christ” should be “ashamed of what they say” and not be able to accuse us of bigotry and prejudice [1 Peter 3:16, GNB].
Why would the baker sell them a cake already done and refuse to bake a special cake? Hmmm. What was the witness there?
No, according to two leaders of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, President Russell Moore and director of policy studies Andrew Walker. They commented that laws that criminalize homosexuality are “an affront to the image of God embedded in all persons.” Moore and Walker wrote in response to a New York Times article about how anti-gay legislation in places like Uganda and Nigeria complicate international diplomacy.
They continued by pointing out that all are sinners and God has given authority to the state to maintain order and to carry out punishment of sinners. If ever thing Christians thought was sin was made illegal, the jails would be full and no one left to prosecute.
Attempts to criminalize homosexuality have been based upon Old Testament scriptures. Moore and Walker pointed out that Baptists, of all people, should know from their own history shows what happens when a state attempts to apply Old Testament law to the civil state.
“Our ancestors were whipped, beaten and exiled from Old England and from New England for refusing to sprinkle infants or to pay taxes for Anglican preaching,” they said. “We ought then to be, of all groups, in support of limiting the power of government to see itself as a theological broker.”
This is a refreshing change of direction and also establishes a logic for dealing with similar issues involving church and state. Any time government has to determine what is a religion and what is not, it becomes perilously close to establishing a religion. At the same time we have groups laboring for government to enact and to enforce legislation that would bind all citizens to a distinctively Christian ethic and theological understanding.
The current lawsuits involving Hobby Lobby and others over the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act falls under this same category. It is up to individual employees to decide whether or not they would utilize contraception of any kind. The argument from Hobby Lobby would simply transfer from government to employer who would determine a practice based upon religious belief.
Another example would be homosexual marriage. The state is primarily concerned primarily with paternity and property, and any ceremony which recognized that could constitute a marriage legally. A church or denomination can establish whatever definitions and practices it wants to define marriage. What a church considers to be marriage should not be made normative for the state. Interestingly, I have read of countries where two ceremonies were required: one for the state and one for the church, and the legal one was only the state ceremony. Maybe a reader can help me remember the country. I am guessing on of the predominately Catholic countries.
Christians use a tremendous amount of time and resources advocating legislation that would enshrine Christian principles. That same energy should be used to win others to a Christian point of view through witness and persuasion, not legislation.