“Nominally” Religious

Since this is going to be a discussion, feel I need to define the word “nominal” as I generally use it when thinking or talking about religion.

“Nominally” can certainly mean “in name only.” The “only” there is important and turns the word into perjorative. But generally when I use the term, especially when I am actually thinking about things, I do not include the “only” on the end and intend the term quite neutrally. I suppose I could say something like “self-described” but that never seems to flow well, and seems somewhat perjorative as well.
What I am really trying to say when I use something like the phrase, “nominal Christian,” is not that I suspect they are not, but rather that I cannot be positive that they are. The problem, as you might suspect, is partly the person under discussion (whether real or theorectical) and partly the definition of what a Christian is.

Starting with the second part, it is somewhat easy to identify the extreme cases. I think that most folks would agree that, say, Saint Francis of Assisi and Mother Theresa were certainly followers of Christ, and therefore Christians, while Madelyn Murry-O’Hare, the famous atheist was not. When you get in between though, things get sticky and vary from group to group. As a Catholic I was occaisionally identified as “not really a Christian” because I did not “accept Jesus as my personal saviour.” On the other hand I have met a couple of Bible thumping fire breathers that seemed so full of anger and hatred that I could not in any way consider them Christian. So, it seems to me that the criteria for “Christian” seems to vary a bit from church to church and person to person, but that does not stop people from identifying themselves as Christian (or not). But of course, God must know who the “Christians” are and are not, but will only sort things out on judgement day, at least according to the common teachings of the church.

Even when a suitable defintion is found, it has to be said that much of what it means to be a Christian is internal. It is clearly not just good works or loving your neighbor, virtually all religious and ethical systems preach that. It also involves some measure of faith and intention for a person to truly be a Christian.

And frankly without knowing a person very, very well it is difficult to gauge the degree to which a person is an actual follower of Christ (whatever that means exactly) and their sincerity in doing so.

So for the purposes of discussion, I often refer to someone as a “nominal” Christian.  I mean by that that they have in some way publically declared themselves Christian, either by simply going to church regularly, having been baptised or raised in a faith or by actually proclaiming it themselves. But as we all know, such public actions do not necessarily indicate anything about the person’s inner life and so on.

So for me, other than a few exceptionally well known spiritual figures and a few close friends, every one else is a “nominal” Christian. They certainly look like a Christian, but I have no way of knowing if they walk and quack like one.

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Before Things Get Too Serious…

I spotted this on a bumper at the library. After doing a double take I cracked up.

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I went to the website for this company and found a few more nice ideas. 🙂

Inquire WithinWWBDFun

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I Like Your Christ…and Many Christians

Due to circumstances beyond my control I was walking through the hallways of my former parish on a Sunday morning.  I recognized a few faces, but did not bump into anyone that I know well or would normally stop to chat with.  The parish is predominantly white middle class and so were the people I saw.

They were all very nice, all smiles and “good mornings.”  About what you would expect at a church in a small city.  People seemed content, if a bit rushed.  The walls were, for the most part, covered with inspirational slogans from both religious and non-religious sources.  Very pleasant.

Here in America it is impossible to generalize about individual Christians, because the vast majority of people you meet are at least nominally Christian.  I have met many people of a sincere and deep Christian faith.  Most of the people in that category I like very much.  My religious friends are often selfless, giving, prayerful and generally content in life.  They often ascribe their peace of mind to their religous faith and the action of God in their lives.

And I say, “Power to them.” 🙂

I will not deny the possibility that perhaps God has in fact entered their lives and hearts, and if so, that is wonderful for them.   There is, of course a totally non-supernatural explanation.  The community of church and the faith in something beyond themselves has been found in most cultures to create a sense of happiness and committment.  In fact, this is the path of the Buddha in a nutshell.   The best aspect of most religious practices is to lose yourself in the “other.”  In Christianity it is God or Jesus, in Buddhism humanity or the cosmos.

I just find that the latter makes more sense to me.

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This Just In…

In a bit of a coincidence, the very moment I am trying to sort out my feelings about Christian theology, especially the Catholic version, this little tidbit comes in. Frankly it is so riotous that I don’t even know where to begin.

Let us start with AOL, who asks the readers of this post to vote on where unbaptized babies go and whether the Church should change their teaching. I didn’t know that sort of thing was subject to democracy, but I could be wrong. Along the same lines, I guess I am confused about how changing the teaching changes whatever underlying metaphysical reality there might be in the situation.

This quote cracked me up:

“All of us have hope for the babies” that they will go to heaven, under the revised thinking on limbo, said the Rev. Luis Ladaria, a Jesuit who is secretary-general of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission.

It is almost like the folks in the Vatican are a committee trying to change a corporation’s health insurance, “We are hopeful the board will grant employees health insurance immediately rather than making them wait six months…” Yadda, yadda, yadda.

I guess Biblically speaking, the folks in the Vatican are sort of right, with the whole, “that which you bind on earth gets bound in heaven” thing to Peter, but it still strikes me as funny that the Vatican is bascially going to tell God what to do or something. But there is a very serious issue here and it is one of my big problems with Christianity, especially the Catholic flavor. Original Sin.

This to me is one of those confused theological questions the implications of which all sound wrong to me.

Basically the Catholic Church teaches that each of us is born with the “stain” of Original Sin and that baptism washes away that stain. Original Sin is basically handed down from Adam and Eve to the entire human family. But this question of limbo is just the sort of thing shows how confused the teaching is.

Limbo is thought to be a place of eternal happiness that is not heaven. Unbaptized babies can’t be sent to Hell, of course, that just wouldn’t be fair. But they also can’t go to Heaven because they have the stain of original sin. Seems that the only way to remove the stain of orignal sin is to have a priest pour water on your forehead. Apparently, as of now anyway, Jesus’s death and resurrection cannot remove Original Sin. And apparently God himself could not waive the rules — well, unless the Vatican says He can. Seems silly to me. But there is a serious objection to Original Sin.

This doctrine bascially says that we human beings have a defect that only God, through the Church, can correct. We are basically damaged goods until we go through the “soul wash” at baptism. This leads, I believe, to the prevelent Western view that people are basically bad. Violent, lazy, have to be controlled and so on. Now, I agree that as a species we are pretty screwed up, but I don’t think it is inherent in our nature.

This is one area where I find the outlook of Buddhism far superior to my Catholic raising. Buddhists believe that not only every person, but every creature great and small has a Buddha nature. That with effort and training that we can each become enlightened — each become a Buddha. Pretty much without any supernatural intervention too. Buddhism approaches mankind as basically good (although unfortunately deluded by our own egos) and that each person is infinitely perfectable by their own efforts.

This sounds much better to me than arguing over what happens up in the sky to an unfortunate baby who died before the priest got there.

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My Problem with Christianity: Part 2 — Hell

Before I really get started on this series, let me say that I have absolutely no intention of convincing or converting anyone of anything by writing this. The Dalai Lama said that since there are some 6 billion people on this planet, there is probably a need for 6 billion religions. I couldn’t agree more. And now, on with the show.

I remember the moment pretty clearly. We were sitting in the car, the love of my life and I (you know who you are 🙂 ). We were in high school and talking about the big things in life. We were at the corner of Central Avenue and Missouri, but I don’t think we were heading to church, though we might have been. I was making an argument that bothered me then and continues to confound me. If Jesus died for our sins and God is love, then what the hell is Hell still doing there?

My phrasing may be flip, but this is in fact a serious theological and philosophical conundrum. I may have been given a biased view, but it is my understanding that it was exactly this kind of question that lead Martin Luther to challenge his (at the time) Catholic faith. I was taught (in a college survey of religion class, not in Catholic school) that Luther did not “feel forgiven” within the framework of Catholic theology. This makes sense to me, because theologically, at least to my brain, the existence of a real but supernatural Hell causes some real problems.

At the time I first brought this up, my girlfriend expressed the argument that there had to be a hell, because people like Hitler had to go somewhere to be punished. A pretty common argument, actually. But one that has an inherent danger. We might all agree that Hitler needs to go to Hell. We might even add a few more onto the list. But once we put one person on the list, what is to stop us from adding almost everyone? Surely we have all committed sins. Not as grievous as Hitler, of course, but where do you draw the line?

Different sects in Christianity want to draw the line in various places, but frankly the line usually runs something like “if you belong to OUR church, you will be saved from Hell.” There is a slight variation of those who approach things more phenomenonlogically who say something like, “I feel that Jesus has held me close to his heart and I know I am saved.” Neither idea holds much truck with me.

In high school I came to the conclusion that a person could only go to Hell after they personally met God face to face (in Heaven that is) and rejected Him. But now, I think even that line of thought is inadequate. The theological question is, “did Jesus die for all of our sins or not?” If He did, then there can be no Hell, it seems to me. Or to paraphrase a quote I saw years ago from Jules Feiffer, “If Jesus died for all of our sins, who am I to deny His sacrifice by not committing them?” If he died for all of our sins, it would seem that His sacrifice also includes the “sins” of not believing in or accepting Him.

But most Christians believe in one way or another that Jesus didn’t really die for ALL of our sins. That someone will be sent to Hell. Even Jesus preached this. He talked of separating the sheep from the goats at the end of time. And in a teaching that probably kept Martin Luther awake at night, Jesus said that “not everyone who called ‘Lord, Lord'” would be saved either.

Personally it all sounds a bit capricious to me. I don’t pretend to know the mind of God, but from inside my head it seems like there is some secret and mysterious criteria for who is and who is not “saved” built into Christianity. At the street level it seems to translate into “We know we are saved” or even “I know I am saved” but either way, we can’t really tell about you! This does not strike me as the plan of an all loving God.

There are some who feel that Hell is not really a part of Christian theology. Their reading of the Old Testament does not find any mention of some place of eternal punishment. They argue that “sheol” in Hebrew is simply the place of the dead and that when Jesus talked of people suffering because they did not believe or act “correctly”that their suffering would be earthly, not supernatural. This makes more sense to me, but frankly very few Christians think this way, and general Christian theology does not proclaim this.

“Hell is real,” Christianity says, “and if you screw up, God will send you there.” Not a very comforting message and not one I can believe in whatsoever.

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My Problem with Christianity: Part 1 — Introduction

A few nights go some friends were talking and one of the guys was complaining about the poor service at a restaurant. He said, “I don’t know what it is about restaurants, I just don’t get appetizers.” A wiseacre in the group said “What’s to get? They are little pieces of food and you eat them.” Which struck me as a bit funny, but I was rolling on the floor when the first guy, more emphatically said, “No, I just don’t get them!”

And for me, it is the same with Christianity, for the most part. I just never really got it.

I was raised Roman Catholic and at one time would have been considered a pretty religious kind of guy. Went to church every Sunday, was an altar boy, went to Catholic schools for 10 of my 12 years and so on. Went on retreats, did the soup kitchen and social service kind of thing, read the Bible, found the New Testament pretty quotable and did so liberally and read the Catechism and other Catholic teachings and writings. Not exactly a theologian or anything, but for the most part better educated in things Catholic than most people in the pews, by my estimation.

I will be the first to admit that all this education and reading did not add up to any kind of spiritual practice. I did OK on the social justice kinds of things, both with the checkbook and volunteering, but prayer was not something I did a lot of and I never really felt any supernatural presence in my life.

To be honest, mostly what my education did for me was to make me cynical and critical, not only of the church hierarchy, but of the whole notion of God or any supernatural reality. Perhaps cynicism is just a natural state of mind for me or, as I like to think I evaluated the evidence and came to a logical conclusion.

As more of a mind clearing exercise, not thinking that anyone would actually care to read this, in the next few posts I am going to talk about some of that evidence and how I weighed it and how that has resulted in my moving away from Christianity, at least in the strict sense. Along with that I will talk about some of the aspects of Buddhism that have appealed to me and how they compare and contrast to my “street level” understanding of Christianity.

Stay tuned. 🙂

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Change of Direction

Anyone who knows me, and you know who you are, knows that I have been searching for something for some time now.  If I knew exactly what I was searching for, I suppose that I would have found it by now.  But apparently I haven’t.

When I read the Tao Te Ching a few years back it really struck a chord with me and resonated on a pretty deep level, but still something was missing.  In fact something was missing in pretty much every aspect of my life.  I am not sure, but I think maybe I am starting to put the pieces together.

For most of my adult life my spiritual life, such as it was, was in complete conflict with my intellectual life.  It went something like this:  I was raised Catholic and pretty much everything I was told only raised further questions in my mind.  And as George Carlin once said in a routine about why he is no longer a Catholic, the answer usually was “It’s a mystery!”  Well, I am not much on mysteries.

A few years ago, I saw Garry Wills’ book “Why I am a Catholic.”  Considering that it was his writings that raised some of my questions, I eagerly devoured the book.  Unfortunately the short answer was, that Jesus said some good things and that as an organization Catholics were a pretty nice group.  That may be enough for Mr. Wills (no disrespect intended, I think he is a wonderful author) but it was not enough for me.

In my next couple of posts I will go into what I see as the shortcomings of not only Christian theology (at least from my point of view) but also the shortcomings of a Catholic education as I experienced it.

I have recently turned to Buddhism not because it is exotic or foreign or even pretty much atheistic.  I have turned to Buddhism because it has a concrete method of doing things.  Jesus told us to love our enemies, but frankly he did not say exactly what he meant or how to accomplish such a remarkable feat.

The Buddha on the other hand operationally defined what he meant by compassion, and gave a concrete plan of how to achieve a state of loving-kindness.  Not only that, but there is good evidence (which will come in later posts) that the advice the Buddhists offer squares almost perfectly with modern psychological studies.

Now it is true that the methods described by the Buddhists are actually found pretty much in every religious tradition.  Every faith prescribes ethical living and loving kindness.  Every faith has a tradition of meditation.  But it seems to me that it is only Buddhism that emphasizes this method first and then allows one to apply it to whatever metaphysical beliefs you might have.  In fact, the Buddha himself refused to discuss metaphysics at all, such as  speculating on who or what even if God is.

Most other faiths have the metaphysics first, and then, perhaps if you are lucky you may find someone who will teach you the methods.

So, I will be going back to method and invite you along for the journey.  But hang on it will be a bumpy ride, I am sure.

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