I recently wrote at length about my faith in response to some questions from a young woman who is considering converting to Christianity. I’d like to share part of that with you. It’s not a systematic theology, it’s a gushing forth of faith as I experience it. It’s not even been thoroughly proofread, much less edited. I hope that you find something of worth in it.
What I’m offering you below is my understanding of my faith in God through the person of Jesus Christ. It’s highly personal, and the result of my studies and of my experiences of the Divine. I know not everyone’s faith takes the form that mine does, and I know that I judge some versions of Christianity to be failures, but I admit that this is only my articulation of my experience. It’s the best I can do with what I have, and that, I think, is all any of us can hope for.
To me God is not a ruling authority in the sense that a monarch would be, one whose rules we have to follow meticulously in order to curry his favor. God is the incredible force that existed before there was existence. God was so much defined by love that where there was nothing he created something out of himself. He didn’t create to sit and weigh the good and the bad, but to pour his love into something. That love and that creative force is the image of God in which we were created. No matter what else happens, we carry that love within us. And love is nothing if it is only given by coercion, and so we’re able to hold true to that love or not as we see fit. Sometimes we do that wonderfully and sometimes we don’t, but the love that is poured out into us does not decrease.
So where then do all the rules come from. Most of them have their origin in sacred scripture. And how one views those scriptures define much of how one interacts with those rules. Many churches (including the one in which I grew up) consider the Bible to be whole and complete and a direct transmission from God to us. It contains all rules for life, tells of our condition in relation to God, gives our history and is an infallible document that is the ultimate rule of life.
I don’t hold to that. Throughout history people have been aware of the presence and guidance of God. They understood their world and themselves in relation to this experience of the divine, and they developed much around those experiences, including the writings that become our Bible. They are not history in the modern sense. They are divinely inspired, but not transcriptions of God’s word. They are a record of our spiritual ancestors and their understandings of the divine in their times and in their cultures. They are a guide to us that shows our tradition and a past of human interaction with God. They have the authority of tradition and the authority of so many finding their own spiritual lives reflected in or shaped by those writings.
But they are products of their time and place. We understand that slavery is wrong, even though the Bible gives rules for handling slaves and slaves are exhorted to be true to their owners. In a time and place in which slaves were treated as dirt, then rules for their fair treatment were a reflection of the light of God. In a time in which we understand the ownership of another person to be an affront to God, then we are called to a different standard. If we can accept that the rules of slavery in the Bible point toward the spirit of God rather than the social order he has prescribed, then can we not also accept that it is the light of God that we are called to follow now above and beyond the understandings of that same light that others have held in the past. The Bible is not a rule book for getting into heaven, but a record of people’s continual struggle to live in a way true to God in a world that is ever changing.
Jesus said the Kingdom of God isn’t some coming manifestation of God’s power. It’s neither His reign over Earth as Emperor nor a reality that is coming to us after we die. Instead he said it’s already here. “The kingdom of God is among you.” God is not striving to hold us to his immutable law. His kingship is not one of domineering, of forcing people’s loyalty. It is one of invitation. He does not say, “I am your master, obey or be destroyed.” He says, “I am here, be with me.” In Jesus the very idea of a king was turned on its very head. He is our Lord, but he exercised no power over others. In his hierarchy one must strive to be at the bottom, serving all, not at the top, commanding all. To be part of the Kingdom of God isn’t following rules in order to secure one’s eventual reward. It is being open to the light of God and living true to it. To do so as a Christian is to live in awareness of the tradition that has brought us to where we are. To follow Jesus is to remember that God’s love is so overpowering that he wasn’t content with creating out of love. He had to become one with his creation, to live as we do. That which is beyond all things through love became part of things and through love redefined power, law and rule. Christianity is (or should be) a way of invitation to live the light of God in a way that transcends mere lists of rules. In the Kingdom of God our actions are determined by love of God and love of one another.
Is there a heaven and a hell? I don’t know. I think so, but I don’t think that hell is a pit of eternal punishment ruled over by a bitter fallen angel who wants all to fall along with him. And I don’t think that heaven is a place of happiness and singing and white robes and gold streets. I believe that just as God created everything out of no thing in love, that love is the cause of all things returning to God. “Every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess,” is not a declaration that God will prove his might, but a hope that everyone will be swayed by the power of love. I have that hope, and I don’t believe that God’s love ceases at death. We are not forced to be with God. If there is a hell then it is a place where those who refuse his love can dwell apart from that which is everything. That is their choice. For me, life (or afterlife) without an awareness of the presence, power and love of God would be pain. But my experience of that love tell me that it is never out of reach. Not now. Not after death. Not to anyone. That’s the story of Jesus. It wasn’t an isolated incident. It wasn’t just a moment in history. His coming, death and return are eternal. I wrote this recently in my journal.
The presence of God comes to us, and even when it seems to be gone forever, when it seems that the harshness of the world has crushed the very spirit which breathed life into it, that presence will return. It is coming. It is here. It will come again. That promise is not of an end point. That promise is for all points.
If there is a heaven, then I don’t think I can describe it. Writers throughout the ages have used metaphor of gates made of pearl and streets made of gold to cast a city that was like their own, only perfect. I can’t come up with a metaphor. I just believe that heaven is the eternal fulfillment of that promise I mentioned above, and I can’t imagine what that will be like.