Taking stock

July 4, 2009 at 6:28 pm (Christianity, God, Islam, personal, reflections on my journey)

I have theologically rejected a lot of my former Christian beliefs. My thoughts about salvation are pretty much what Jasmine describes here, which is that it’s our responsibility to cultivate goodness in our selves. I then think of heaven and hell as the natural consequences of what we cultivate through our lives, and I’m more comfortable with varying degrees of reward or punishment than with a bi-modal either-or. What about salvation through Jesus? The idea of atoning sacrifices has its roots in Judaism, where I understand it to be about a person humbly sacrificing something valuable to them – an animal – as a form of worship, to draw closer to God, in much the same vein as fasting. This does not apply to the death of Jesus, because he was no-one’s possession to be sacrificed. If you argue that he took the wrath of God altruistically, suffering hell on our behalf, this would be horribly unfair unless Jesus actually was God (which I won’t discuss now but I think is problematic). Nor does it seem to be necessary: having your sin forgiven alone does not instantly make you a better person; we need redemption for it to make sense, and I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that the “fallen” and “redeemed” states of the Christian doctrine are nonexistent. Instead there’s a whole rainbow of natural states through which we move upwards by concerted effort – a concept Christianity seems to sneak in through the back door.

Having said that, I’ve come to realise that my thinking is still wired up in a Christian way in a lot of things. I still feel Christian. I guess our automatic thought obeys habit, and old habits die hard. It means I feel very uncomfortable and anxious about change. This has confused me lately.

As for Islam, I’m not sure whether I can trust it either. I don’t see why Jesus needed to have been born to a virgin, nor why he should return at the end of time. These seem like Christian doctrines that have found their way in somehow. I think Islamic theology is closer to my beliefs than anything, but I have trouble seeing the Qur’an as the literal words of God – I think at least some of the meanings might be from God, but I think putting undue emphasis on the actual words is almost like idolising the message. I also dislike the way Muhammad is revered to the extent that every little insignificant thing he may have done is copied, things that have no spiritual significance. I also feel Islam is too legalistic for my liking, too letter-of-the-law, e.g. specifying to the nth degree things that must be done in worship and things that invalidate it;  but this may arise from hadith, which are perhaps vulnerable to the effect of people’s insecure desire to have detailed instructions vs. God’s instructions which are usually more vague.

Generally a problem I have with organised religion is the need for an explicit belief in God and in that religion. As Jasmine said in a comment on her post, faith may be more subtle than that. Everyone is not equally able to join a religion; it depends on exposure and many other factors, so this seems an unfair criterion for salvation. I don’t like the assumption that someone is “in the fire” because they did not profess a particular faith, and I don’t like a refusal to pray for their forgiveness based on that assumption.

But to be honest, I want to believe in something. I want to find a path that I can trust, I want the hope and self-esteem that comes from committing to spiritual self-betterment and having some success with it. It’s really tiring me that I’m not.

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12 Comments

  1. Aynur said,

    I have many of the same issues you do with Islam, in the organized – traditional sense. I’m relatively sure the idea of Jesus coming back at the end of time is not in the Qur’an, or not explicitly stated therein.
    I think that all prophets should be revered, not one over the other. And that’s what’s happened, that Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) has been almost idolized. For example, his name is placed next to Allah’s in many calligraphy pieces, or in masjids.

  2. Lisa said,

    I cried a lot whe I read this and had to read it over several times habibty.

    First, know that you are not alone in navigating the rough waters of blogland. It has been a tough pill to swallow at times, hasn’t it? I really wish that more bloggers understood what it’s like to be stuck between religions, unable to fully veer towards either side completely. I am also hurt by the little things.

    The reason that I couldnt help but cry was this statement:

    “Having said that, I’ve come to realise that my thinking is still wired up in a Christian way in a lot of things. I still feel Christian.”

    I understand completely Sarah. I think it’s easier for us to veer towards Christianity on the social issues, on how easy it is to get the warm fuzzy of Jesus dying to save us. I too have rejected Christian beliefs in many ways, at least that is what I found out when I took Faith in writing’s quiz and Islam was #4.

    Do you think that we do believe in a lot of Islamic things,but just feel scared to? Or is a problem of the social things Islam offers which are sometimes hard to accept like polygamy?

    I have trouble with the idea that the Prophet couldn’t have heard about Christianity or Judaism, despite his job as a caravan trader. So much of Christianity is included in Islam, and the only deviations have to do with the Prophet losing his right to be the final messenger. Just because he was illiterate doesn’t mean I’m 100% set on the idea that it was the literal word of God when he heard the words iqrah.

    Sometimes, I feel like a loser for not really fitting in anywhere Sarah. But, these words comfort me as well tonight. Maybe we already have created our own little niche. Our beliefs are Islamic in that I too don’t think Jesus died and now can just give up on everything. Maybe we are Muslim, but we just can’t take that next step of applying Shariah to our lives, of going all the way.

    I need more information first. I need to understand why no one seems to think that maybe just maybe The Prophet because he was intelligent, did know about Christianity and Judaism, so as to write about it in the Qur’an which was orally transmitted anyway.

    So many people seem to think that the lack of translations is proof that the Qur’an is real. I actually think that it’s oral transmission might suggest problems. Love you and praying that you too find your way sweetie.

  3. Jasmine said,

    What really helped me on the same journey is allowingmyself the freedom to look inside myself, and stop looking outside of myself for answers.

    All of the things you do not like about any religion have been created by humans who have written a book – Laws, Legalities etc – push all of that to one side and come back to it much much later once you are done with self examination and exploration.

    God speaks to us through inspiration and the text is there to encourage that inspiration and feed that inspiration – not shape it and guide it. The Quran says repeatedly: “acknowledge God and do good works” – it says it many many times in nearly every chapter. Quran Ch.90 especially is a very very good one “Al Balad” .

    The Bible says repeatedly: “love your brother as you love yourself, love your brother as you love yourself, forgive, do good”

    As for praying: by my definition – any appeal to God is a prayer, and as with anything in life that we do repeatedly – we improve.

    All books are valid, all knowledge worth considering – but the only thing to follow is your own intention, and the only thing to practice is your own character and everything else we must dismiss: even opinions, because you have angels all around you all of the time, and they are always with you, guiding you.

    My step-One was to forget and delete all information that came to me through humans and to assess what I wanted to be (in terms of character) and focused purely on that. Step two for me was to stop letting people influence my decisions and step-three was starting to read the Quran again with this new freedom of intention. I found it useful.

    This is submission: its letting go of what humans give you and giving in to what God has given you – your nature.

    Then practicing religion is refining that GOd given nature to do good in the world and eliminate any badness that has infected that nature over the course of your life.

    It is beautiful.

  4. Sarah said,

    Thanks for all your comments. Sorry for taking a while to respond – I’ve been away without internet access.

    Aynur – I’m sure once I’ve read the Qur’an I’ll have more of an idea what I think. I know what you mean about those calligraphy placards – it seems wrong to me.

    Lisa – as I understand it, Muhammad did encounter Christians and Jews. I guess I feel that the similarities are not miraculous coincidences, but that God spoke to him through his own mind (if at all) which included perhaps confirming some of the things he’d heard about. I think as long as it all makes sense, then I’m OK with it, but the jury’s still out as I haven’t read it all.

    As for the social issues, I guess it might be a question of what is absolute and what is relative to culture and time period and can therefore change. I don’t think Muslims need to imitate the socio-cultural environment of 7th century Arabia in order to practice Islam properly. It’s tempting to take religion as a package deal in this sense because it’s just easier. But a lot of it doesn’t sit right because it’s culturally alien to us. Having said that, although Christianity has adapted to culture much more, I sometimes think it has gone too far. In my old church you were encouraged to have intimate long-term relationships before marriage as per our culture, but without sex, which I think is nonsense. It’s a difficult thing to work out how big a role these issues should play in our religious choices. I hope to touch on that in my next post – I’ve come back from my workshop full of ideas about religion, and not about physics, oddly enough!

    Jasmine – I know what you are saying, and I think I understand that faith should come from within. I get caught up in worrying about the specifics and whether they matter, trying to get the “correct” view on a religion in order to work out whether I can trust it or not, but I don’t really know what I WANT religion to say. I’m looking outside myself for the answers I guess. Looking within, I just seem to draw a blank. Or maybe I’m too scared to properly look within. I’m scared to pray incase God hates me for questioning my former beliefs, and I’m scared of hearing an answer that I don’t like and not knowing whether to trust such a subjective experience anyway. Maybe I need to be more confident in what I believe, and less neurotic. 🙂

  5. jasmine said,

    your fear of God sounds like faith to me sarah ;0) otherwise, why would you fear? Perhaps your nervousness comes from guilt? I’m guessing. But you dont need to feel guilty for wanting to know things ;0)

    • Sarah said,

      Jasmine – guilt yes, and neuroticism 🙂
      Sometimes I feel confident in what has become apparent to me. I think my heart is still stuck on fear and guilt while my head has moved on. I need to get my heart involved again at some point.

  6. susanne430 said,

    For me it is simple —

    God is holy, perfect, righteous.

    I am a sinner.

    I cannot clean myself and make myself pure enough for God’s holiness.

    God is merciful, gracious, loving and forgiving.

    He saw my need: buried in the filth of my own sin.

    He cleaned me. Saved me. And I now have a relationship with God. When I abide in Him (John 15), He works through me, therefore, good works are a natural result (fruit) of living close to God.

    Religion is man’s attempt at cleaning himself so he will be good enough for God. (That’s why Islam has sooooo many rules .. even how you use the bathroom!)

    I need and have a relationship with God. Not because of something good I did, but because of HIS mercy and compassion, love and forgiveness.

    Following Jesus for salvation is all about God.

    Following your own good works is very man-centered. How good do you have to be to reach His standard?

    It’s not about the warm fuzzies of Jesus dying for us. It’s about GOD and HIS goodness in reaching out to helpless men and women who were unable to be good enough to reach His holiness. It’s about a loving God who saw our desperate condition and did something we would never be able to do.

    It’s all about Him.

    And I love Him for it. I cannot save myself. But I don’t have to.

    God did it for me!

    I am joyful because He set me free! 😀

    • Sarah said,

      susanne430 – welcome to the blog! My first overtly Christian comment… something of a landmark 😉

      I am very familiar with the gospel you describe here. I’m glad that you find it simple and credible. I’m not sure I do. The most complicated part is the part you summed up as: “He cleaned me. Saved me. And I now have a relationship with God.” The trinity, Jesus as God, and the resurrection are all neatly wrapped up in there. 🙂

      For me it’s about faith in God and making the effort to do good deeds. This is what Judaism is mostly about, which Jesus endorses. And Judaism’s rules by the way are much more complicated than Islam’s. But I think people who are insecure do gravitate towards rules. Christians do this too. It’s a bit harder to construct a set of rules from the New Testament, but I’ve seen people do it.

      “good works are a natural result (fruit) of living close to God.” Yes, I’m familiar with that one too! But the question is, why do saved (redeemed) people sin? Do they just not have enough faith? If it’s black-and-white and we are either “fallen” or “redeemed”, then why do the shades of grey come in? And don’t Christians make an effort to control their sinful natures? I don’t see how getting saved really makes a difference. It seems like the same struggle in the end.

      Perhaps you want to quote Paul with the “thorn in the side” argument – i.e. God only partially redeems our nature in this life so that we stay humble and don’t start to get self-righteous. Personally I don’t think there’s any danger of that happening while we believe that we are, in our natural state, “buried in the filth of our own sin”. I can’t see that God would want to withhold the transforming power that was unleashed by the resurrection. So perhaps the issue is with Christians’ faith levels?

      Maybe that’s the case. Paul says we should “work out our salvation with fear and trembling”, which presumably means striving to perfect our faith. This seems just as man-centred as striving to do good works, and perhaps it is really just the same struggle by a different name.

      “How good do you have to be to reach His standard?” The answer seems to be, universally, that we don’t have to be perfect. God is forgiving, merciful.

      So what I have found is that aside from the specifics, religions have a lot in common. 🙂

      Thank you for commenting, it’s nice to have different viewpoints to make me think 😉

  7. susanne430 said,

    “But I think people who are insecure do gravitate towards rules. Christians do this too. It’s a bit harder to construct a set of rules from the New Testament, but I’ve seen people do it.”

    Yes, I totally agree. I’ve read — and agree — that by nature we like to have checklists — lists of rules to follow — so that we can measure our progress. “Oh, I read my Bible, I dress this way, I do this good deed, I didn’t swear today, oh, I did that every day this week…all right! I am marking off more and more of this list and climbing up the ladder!” — it’s kind of that mentality when you have a list of rules to follow. I agree that many Christians do that as well. Paul wrote that we have been freed from the law (Christ fulfilled it), yet our natural tendency is to go back under bondage. (Read Galatians) Why? Because we feel we need a list of rules to follow. Paul declares that Jesus set us free from rules so that we could serve Him!

    “why do saved (redeemed) people sin? Do they just not have enough faith? If it’s black-and-white and we are either “fallen” or “redeemed”, then why do the shades of grey come in? And don’t Christians make an effort to control their sinful natures? I don’t see how getting saved really makes a difference. It seems like the same struggle in the end.”

    Saved people sin because we are still humans with our fleshly natures which are prone towards sin. When we abide in Jesus, He can shine through us and we do good works. But when we start straying from God and start doing things in our own power, the yucky side comes out. As I saw on a friend’s page one time, something like “we aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” So we are redeemed and fallen at the same time. We are sinners (fallen) saved (redeemed) by God’s grace. As we abide close to God and live according to His Spirit working in us, we can defeat the sinful natures. The so-called Christians you likely see are not living close to God and, therefore, you don’t see a difference. There are many people who say they are Christians yet they do not follow Christ. In the Bible, Jesus did not say, “Go down to the Baptist church, cut your hair, wear a modest dress, stop drinking, cussing and smoking and you’ll make it to heaven one day.” He said, “follow me.” Following implies walking close to someone and as we follow Christ, we become like him in our actions and words and thoughts. When you stray, you aren’t following … and therefore you sin or are prone towards it.

    Hmmm, no I never thought to use Paul’s “thorn in the side” argument for this, but thanks for the offer. 🙂

    And thanks for allowing me to have my say. I found your blog from Lisa’s, I think. I was blog hopping earlier today. I have a personal blog besides the one that links my name. That is a shared blog that I have with my Syrian friend. We rarely blog there any more. I should probably change the web address to this one instead. Let me go do that so you can visit me there if you ever want to see who this strange person is. 🙂 OK…I hope it works. If not, here it is http://susanne430.blogspot.com/

    Take care and thanks for the welcome! I added you to Google Reader so I may be back to visit!

    • Sarah said,

      The main difference in what you’re saying seems to be that we cannot be good of our own accord, only God can make us good.

      Christianity is not alone in believing that a connection with God through faith, prayer, worship etc helps us to do good. But it is perhaps unique in believing that this is the only mechanism at work in our salvation. Most religions require us to exercise self-discipline in our actions, i.e. it’s a two-way thing.

      And actually, I think in practice, Christianity demands self-discipline in our actions too. On the one hand, “good works are a natural result (fruit) of living close to God”, which would imply no effort is required; but on the other hand, the effort comes in to the “living close to God” part, or “following Jesus”. Isn’t this just a vague, roundabout way of saying that we make effort with our actions? Then there are also Paul’s descriptions of “taking every thought captive and making it obedient to Christ” and so on, which speak of this self-discipline too.

      Perhaps good works are not essential for salvation, but bearing good fruit is certainly expected, and the process of producing that good fruit doesn’t seem profoundly different from other religions. I certainly agree with you that the ubiquitous Pharisee mentality of checking off a ticklist of over-simplified “good deeds” is not the way to go, but I can’t think of a religion that genuinely teaches this.

      Additionally, I find the idea that there is nothing good in a person quite negative. This doctrine would have us all feel terrible about ourselves, and then an indiscriminate, unconditional love becomes quite hard to receive so undeservedly. It was for me, anyway. I’d rather believe that I can please God; that through my efforts and God’s help I can evolve my nature, grow my soul into a healthy tree, and feel good about myself. It just seems like a more balanced view to me.

      “Hmmm, no I never thought to use Paul’s “thorn in the side” argument for this, but thanks for the offer. :)”
      No offense intended! It was just something that came to mind as I asked myself why we are not in fact fully redeemed once we get saved. Your answer to that question is that we are not living close enough to God, which I agree with. I suspect we may disagree on what living close to God actually means, though in practice we probably all go about it the same way.

      Thanks again for a stimulating discussion! I’ll check out your blog 😛

  8. Achelois said,

    I love it that you are now, touch-wood, so much more confident and seem happier. Hip, Hip, Hooray for WWR!

    • Wrestling said,

      😀 You’re sweet!
      I was not in a good place for a while. I relate so much to how LK writes, in fact she is even more honest than I was about it.
      Thank God I am comfortable with myself now!

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