Culture

Why the Weight of Heaven Crushed My Christianity

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My religious inspirations are Renaissance and Enlightement Hermeticists who sought to blend ancient wisdom, Biblical religion, scientific exploration, and the political expansion of Western Civilization. Photos: John Dee, Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin.

Now that the eminently talented, thoughtful writer/activist Walter Hudson has helped start the discussion Rhonda Robinson’s series on Judaism and Christianity’s common values sought to provoke, I feel compelled to weigh in from my unorthodox, Judeo-Christian occultist perch. I would invite other PJ Lifestyle writers to join in as well on this inter-faith, theological discussion.

The disagreement, pursued with respect: Rhonda believes that Christians should emulate the Jewish disinterest in heaven:

Boteach explains that “Jews do not follow Judaism for the purpose of reward in the afterlife.” Honestly, neither should Christians. And I would venture to say, most don’t.

It’s easy to see where that is the perception. That’s what most evangelists preach: the infamous knock on the door, followed by “If you die tonight where would you go?” style of evangelism.

Boteach points out that by focusing on reward in the afterlife it implies that there is nothing worth redeeming here. As I thought about this I had to agree. This life is a gift from God. This is His creation, which pleases Him. It is only right and good that we leave it a better place than we found it — out of our love for Him.

Walter dissented:

Pastor John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis refers to this fulfillment as Christian hedonism. What may sound like an oxymoron makes sense once explained. Piper demonstrates from scripture that “God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in Him.” In other words, fulfilling our purpose brings us eternal satisfaction. It’s the ultimate win-win, where obedience results in fulfillment, much the same way a child heeding his father’s guidance fares well. God knows what we need. We need Him. When we surrender to that, we are fulfilled. It is entirely about Him, but nonetheless serves our interests. Despite the deceitful influences of our sinful heart, no conflict exists between what truly fulfills us and what God commands.

When we understand this, the problems with Boteach’s response to the evangelical question of eternal disposition become clear. While worshiping God may not be about us, it certainly involves us and serves our interests as fully as it serves God’s. While our worship does not save us from hell, we certainly ought to seek such salvation. The Bible does not teach that God offers heaven as a reward for virtue points accrued on Earth, and any professing Christian which believes that their works will save them needs to return to the Gospel in search of grace.

That said, let’s be crystal clear. You want to be in heaven. You do not want to be in hell. Christians, Jews, and everybody else better take a profound interest in these eternal destinations, because God’s purpose will be fulfilled one way or the other. We will bring Him glory. The only question is whether we will do so as eternal witnesses to his undeserved grace and loving mercy, or as eternal examples of his perfect justice and holy wrath.

Nothing a Christian does secures entry into heaven. We do not strive to obey God’s commandments to maintain heavenly eligibility. We strive to obey God’s commandments because, as our creator, He issues them with authority. He knows how we work. He has the lockdown on best practices. He wrote the book. We thus follow his instruction as we might that of any manufacturer who knows their product best. To his eternal glory, He serves our every interest, even those we work in sin against.

I’m with Rhonda in this now whereas in a previous life I would’ve sided with Walter. I am no longer a midwestern Billy Graham Crusade-style Evangelical Christian. In fact I’m not a traditional Christian at all anymore. After a decade of wandering across mystic and occult and mushy inter-faith spiritualities and political ideologies all with an undergirding in Robert Anton Wilson’s Cosmic Trigger-style radical quantum agnosticism I’ve returned to belief in God. Specifically and consciously the God of Israel.

My values — the understanding of Good and Evil and the logical implications of a transcendent deity existing beyond our comprehension who has created all human beings in His Image — come from the Bible. Hence why my Jewish and Christian friends come to comparable moral and political conclusions on the important stuff.

But when we shift from values to theology then our differences begin to manifest. Values are about defining one idea as higher or better than another. The most important being the hierarchy established in Genesis — one God above all, every human being on an equal level and held to the same moral standards, and then all of the cosmos beneath us for our domination. One God means one Law for all. Humans above Mother Nature means that the more primitive, nature-worshiping traditions of ancient Canaan — human sacrifice and temple prostitution in particular — are off limits.

This is the essence of the Judeo-Christian value system as I understand it. If anyone would like to dispute this definition (which is largely inspired by my favorite talk radio host Dennis Prager who I listen to every morning while editing PJM) then please do. I’ll have a longer discourse on this subject hopefully soon. (Sorry I’ve been remiss on my long write-up of your Ask a Jew Prager-Hewitt events, RJ Moeller! I will focus and get that done soon! My first draft got too long so now I’m going to simplify and refocus it.)

Theology is less concerned with practical, day-to-day matters and instead with providing frameworks for discussing unknowable, ultimately unanswerable questions. Theology also dictates the style of worship, given that different theologies will emphasize different aspects of the Divine. The definition helps:

the·ol·o·gy

  [thee-ol-uh-jee]  Show IPA

noun, plural the·ol·o·gies.

1.

the field of study and analysis that treats of God and of God’s attributes and relations to the universe; study of divine things or religious truth; divinity.

The catalyst for my disillusionment with Evangelical Christianity began over a struggle not with Judeo-Christian values, but with a particular theology. I didn’t understand the difference then — as most people do not. Thus I ended up throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Because I grew angry with one man’s theology and his rigid preaching in its favor, I made the mistake of eventually abandoning Christianity altogether. (In retrospect I wish I’d done what the Christian youth group friends I’ve kept for 15 years did — just moderate their theology to accepting more mystery and clinging less to dogma while still remaining Christian.)

It all began with this unanswerable question that I encountered in the middle of my sophomore year in high school:

“So if you have to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior in order to go to heaven then doesn’t that mean that my Jewish grandmother who just died is being tortured in hell and that when I’m reunited with my family in heaven she won’t be there?”

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From sixth through eleventh grade I was a passionate, faithful, evangelical Christian. I was taught and trained and perpetually encouraged by my youth ministers and peers to embrace the lifestyle and study that would prepare me for my chosen career of Campus Crusade For Christ-style evangelist only further — living a monk-like, “Just Like Jesus” existence. I was a happy member of the “young Christian subculture” — those kids who come to school early for Fellowship of Christian Athletes (even though most of them aren’t in sports), that went to Jars of Clay and DC Talk concerts, proudly proclaimed themselves Jesus Freaks, eagerly “witnessed” to peers with “4 spiritual law” booklets, and passed out What Would Jesus Do bracelets.

Going to heaven was the most important thing that mattered. This life was but a drop in the ocean of infinity. Non-Christians were setting themselves up for an eternity of torture in hellfire and all they needed to do to escape was come to know how wonderful it was to have a relationship with Jesus who would wash you clean of your sins and give you access to God’s VIP party. It was as though about 90% of the world or so was infected with the most painful disease imaginable and without the Jesus vaccine then someday it would kill them. And we Evangelicals had a limitless supply of the antidote!

Ninety percent one might ask? Absolutely. Even though about a third of the population identifies as Christian, in youth group we learned all about fake Christians who didn’t really understand the Bible or believe, rarely went to church, and certainly hadn’t prayed the “I accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior” prayer that generated their Golden Ticket to Heaven. Thus they weren’t saved and were damned too. As a Christian I was scared for years thinking about how if members of my family died they would go to hell. No matter what I did or said I couldn’t get them to embrace my faith.

Yes, it really was taught to me along the lines of, “God’s throwing a great party in heaven. But you’ve got to RSVP.” For many years I did not question how strange it would be for a benevolent God to deny those entry to a party given his limitless wealth. It’s not like heaven is going to run out of cocktail weenies. (No need to worry about what’s Kosher in the afterlife! Not that as a Christian I was ever instructed on how to understand the Torah the way a Jewish Jesus would have taught it!)

And then one day one of my best friends confronted me with the previous page’s question that I couldn’t answer. And after a few years it eventually led to the unraveling of my Christianity (a longer, more complicated story for another day. A year’s worth of an adult Bible study demonstrated to me that the Bible was indeed something special but hardly the perfect puzzle where all the pieces easily fit together like I’d once been taught.) And so my descent into postmodern nihilistic secularism began.

My path back was influenced by a number of factors, experiences and arguments too numerous to explain in detail now. But I’ll emphasize one above all others as it’s perhaps the most bizarre and ultimately the real reason why I’ve returned to the Bible and the God who inspired it. In my occult experiments that I’ve pursued for years the Jewish and Christian mystical traditions have demonstrated themselves to be more amazing and powerful than any other.

How to prove that God exists? Actually try genuinely worshiping Him with intensity and sincerity. The way that the Bible can transform people from unhappy secularists who hate themselves and don’t want to have children into upbeat believers who see themselves as precious in God’s eyes and want a family of their own demonstrates the Divinity of the Bible. We cannot prove that God exists to the standards a court of law demands, but we can prove that worshiping Him can dramatically transform one’s life and personality for the better.

“Our method is science, our aim is religion.” — Aleister Crowley (a figure who got a lot wrong but many, many other things right. It is among my priorities to integrate together the Judeo-Christian tradition with Crowley’s system of Thelema and proscribe magickal practices. I think most Christians will be surprised the extent that is based in Jewish and Christian traditions. But a more thorough explanation of this will have to be saved for another time…)

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This may seem like a weird proposition but in my experience it’s entirely true: one can practice polytheistic Pagan magick without practicing the religion. How? Egyptian gods, the Roman pantheon, the horrifific Canaanite sex&death deities, Native American gods — they don’t actually exist in the real world. They’ve been conquered by the idea of an abstract-book based transcendent deity whose aspects can only be hinted at. A monotheistic God who is beyond image and idea worship is necessary for understanding Good and Evil. Multiple gods based in the power of nature mean numerous moral standards and a devaluing of human life to equal status with the barbarism of Mother Nature.

And magickal rituals aren’t really supernatural — they’re just a form of prayer/meditation designed to put one’s mind in an altered state in order to reprogram the way you perceive the world.

So here’s my conclusion after two years or so far of really focusing, reading history books, and trying to figure out how to the Judeo-Christian tradition emerged. How did monotheism come from polytheism? (These questions are important further because of the need to put them in a modern context. We live in an age in which the President is idolized and compared to God. And his political allies rally for the right to end the life of viable babies in the third trimester. Child sacrifice and temple prostitution are linked — Margaret Sanger was a hedonist and knew that given contraception’s imperfect record, abortion was necessary to facilitate a life in which women could deaden their souls with as much meaningless sex as men.)

In studying the development of ancient Egypt in particular, as cities and empires expand, it’s difficult to stamp out the existing cultures and their religious traditions. It’s easier to just graft them on to the existing system. So I think that as this evolves it can eventually reach the point where eventually multiple deities’ nature and tendencies effectively balance each other out. The adoration of four different deities that are understood as unified expressions of a supreme, transcendent deity creates a comparable transformative effect on the individual as the Judeo-Christian traditions’ trinities. Father, Son, Holy Ghost for Christianity. God, Torah, Israel for Judaism. The point is having multiple understandings of God to the point that God becomes an abstraction.

Hence why some pious Christians — and deists, and heretical Christians — throughout the Renaissance saw a number of Pagan prophets as relevant and valuable, even as predictors of monotheism and Christianity. This process of moving from idolatrous nature god to becoming a transcendent spirit also happened with deities in ancient Egypt. They eventually came to mean more what they symbolized, rather than being understood as actual people.

Thus, I utilize two Egyptian symbols alongside the Tetragrammaton, the Torah’s holiest name of God that makes up the foundation of my Judeo-Christian Hermetic practice. In a number of ways I regard Thoth and Ma’at — the Egyptian gods of writing, science, magic, law, order, and morality, theology, math, truth, balance, and justice — as predecessors to the nameless verb god of Judaism. Read the Egyptian Book of the Dead — this edition by my friend James Wasserman is extraordinary — and we also begin to see a moral system of laws too. The weighing of the scales to determine if one’s heart is worthy of the aferlife involves a recitation of one’s moral record, forsaking cruelty to others and self-destructive acts.

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Is this still a Pagan deity, or has it been conquered by Western Civilization and reinvented as a transcendent, healing concept, medicine?

My position in a nutshell: the Bible is the most important, most divine book of all time. But that does not mean that it appeared in a vacuum or that the God of Israel has not revealed aspects of His nature to other peoples around the world and throughout time. I believe that as long as we have the Bible as our moral and ethical foundation — as long as we grasp the critical distinction between idolizing a god and adoring the higher moral values that the deity has come to symbolize — then components from any other religious tradition can be adapted to function on top of it.

Now that I hope my approach to the Judeo-Christian makes sense in at least a thumbnail sketch sort of way, I’m going to move on to some of the points Walter raised last week and in his engaging piece this morning — “Religion Ought to Be Divisive”

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My friend Walter poses many compelling questions:

Aside from atoning for the sin of mankind so that believers could be credited with His righteous life and avoid the eternal judgment of Holy God, what difference did Christ’s death make worth talking about? Why would Christians want to unite in spiritual congress with those who deny the foundational tenant of Christianity? Even if such ecumenical union could somehow restore America (whatever that means), why would we sideline the truth of salvation for a temporal end?

And here’s where the infinite theological debate starts! What is really the foundational tenant of Christianity? Is it the belief that Jesus of Nazareth was God incarnate, died on the cross for the sins of humanity, and thus bridged the gap between man and God? Or is that one can only take advantage of this pathway to heaven by praying that special 4 Spiritual Law booklet prayer?

That was really where I hit a theological dead end with my youth pastor. He had no sufficient answer to my question, “If Jesus died on the cross for all of humanity then why does one have to ‘accept it’ in order to go to heaven?” He would then throw at me a dozen Bible verses to back up his position and then I’d have my own set of Bible verses that universalist Christians use in response.

It seemed to me that only a 10% success rate on mankind’s entry into heaven was an abysmal failure. My pastor’s insistence that even a single soul’s triumph over sin to be with God for eternity was a spectacular triumph. What nonsense — that did nothing to calm my anxiety about all the people I loved in my life being damned. Or to dissuade me from the Bible’s call to emulate Jesus in all ways by being willing to “pick up your own cross” and follow him in a total manner like the disciples.

Check out If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland — only $2.99 on Kindle! By all means disagree with universalist Christian theology that asserts everyone — even mass murderers, rapists, child molesters, and Adolf Hitler — achieve unity with the divine after death. (Mystics tend to prefer that manner of thinking about heaven — not the child’s caricature of white robes, harps, and a permanent family reunion. Heaven and Hell are metaphors for states of being.) But it’s not a new idea at all — there’s a long history of Christians believing this.

Walter questions the utility of blending religious traditions, a practice I’ve engaged in for over a decade:

Ecumenism, establishing or promoting unity among religions, has become increasingly popular in recent years. Yet, no objective case has been presented for why anyone should desire it. What end would sacrificing our distinct convictions serve? What true value do our beliefs hold if we prove so willing to compromise them?

Rather than ecumenicism, I think the related concept to keep in mind is syncretism, the act of intentionally blending together two or more beliefs that on one level may appear contradictory. Why very simply: to create new, better religions. The ancient Egyptian empires created peace for thousands of years by learning how to blend together each community’s deities, reinventing them as expressions of one greater deity. Judaism was similarly created through the blending together of several tribes’ ideas about God. Where it took an even greater step forward was in the establishment of a book-based, transcendent, portable, universal deity that equalizes all men. Some of my Christian friends — thought not all — will no doubt protest me saying this, but their religion did this too. Argue with me if you want but I really think that Christianity is a blending of Jewish and Pagan traditions. The myth of the dying and rising god, crucified or tortured and then to rise again, is just too common throughout world history. And its underlining meaning is clear too: it’s symbolic of the dying and rising of the crops.

But that fact does not invalidate the New Testament. For a decade I thought it did — but now it doesn’t. Because the Truth of the Gospel’s divinity, the reason to have faith in something unprovable like that Christ lived as God incarnate who died for the sins of the world (which I now do again), is proven in the same method as a blackhole. We cannot see God directly. We cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt any of the miracles described in the Bible. What we can prove is that those who worship God are transformed.

(My friend Andrew Klavan disagrees with me on this but that’s alright. He’s still just as entertaining and fun to read when he’s wrong. I’ll win him over to my position eventually.)

Islam did this too — though in a bad way. David P. Goldman has turned me on to the incredible writings of Jewish theologian adn philosopher Franz Rosenzweig who argues convincingly that Islam is a Pagan imitation of monotheism. Circling around the Kaaba and sending one’s bomb-strapped children off to murder Jews? How is that functionally different from child sacrifice to Canaanite nature gods? And let’s not even get started on the stomach-churning sexual practices still thriving today in the Muslim world. A few Robert Spencer pieces on the subject, though:

Canada (and the U.S.) Welcome Polygamy

Could the Rape Jihad Come to America?

The Silent Tragedy of Child Marriage

Why It May Be Easy for Huma Abedin to Stand by Her Man

When Slaves Choose Their Slavery

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For one of the upcoming seasons of my 13 Weeks Radical Reading Regimen I’ll have to focus on Rosenzweig.

Walter’s piece is filled with great questions, a number that I’ve wrestled with God and his angels over for most of my life now:

Either God exists, or He does not. If he does not, then religion is a waste of time. If He does exist, then religion is too important to get wrong.

As a truth claim, religion ought to be divisive. Why go to a house of worship once or more per week and devote time to reading and contemplating scripture if the subject matter has no basis in truth? Believing that your faith has a basis in truth will set you apart from those who do not share that belief. Shouldn’t that go without saying?

The theological question that matter most kick in once one gets beyond “Does God exist?” and onto the really tough questions of “What is God’s nature? And therefore what does He demand of us? How do these different rituals and theological beliefs shape us for the better or worse as human beings?” And I guess the key pivot here is this question which I challenge both Walter and Rhonda and everyone else to consider: Is God a noun or a verb? Is God a supernatural thing up in the sky or is he literally the verb “to be”, the method of transcendent creation from nothing to something?

In Walter’s conclusion he asks why we need a hyphenated God:

 More than “an observant Jew,” Jesus was and is the fulfillment of Judaism. He stands worthy of emulation, not because he was a swell guy who did nice things while uttering pretty words, but because he was and is God. Whether we agree on that point should not prevent us from coming together to pursue temporal values. We can fight for a better culture without hyphenating our God.

Rather than hyphenated God, how about a hyphenated religion? A question all who worship Jesus should consider: what is the difference between a Christian and a Judeo-Christian?

There are many reasons why when I chose to return to God and daily prayer, Bible study, and private worship I made a conscious choice not to identify as a Christian. It can be summarized with one of the images that Walter chose to illustrate his post, the “Buddy Christ” from Kevin Smith’s 1999-satire Dogma:

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This whole idea really resonated with me when I first encountered it as a sophomore beginning to doubt. And it still does — even though I don’t really like Kevin Smith anymore and now after seeing Dogma a dozen times find most of the rest of the film more juvenile and lame than a compelling commentary on religion.

Even while I was a Christian I tended to be annoyed by many of the other so-called Christians I knew. For me the idea that we were saved and most of the rest of the world damned was traumatic. But for most Christians it didn’t seem to faze them in the slightest. They just went to church and enjoyed the intense emotional experiences they had and the friends they made and the donuts provided after service.

Now, I see this in more traditional terms: for so many Christians they idolize Jesus. They are Jesus idolaters most ignorant of the broader spectrum of Jewish and Christian thought. They don’t actually worship God, they are just infatuated with how good it feels to experience the idea of total love. What they’re doing in practice is A) focusing more on the New Testament than the Old, and B) worshiping only one part of the trinity. Worshiping just one aspect of God is the same as worshiping a single Pagan god. It’s a rejection of the Book-based, Judeo-Christian tradition of finding an abstract God through journeying across His innumerable, transcendent qualities.

(This understanding is why I agree with Andrew Klavan’s newest piece expressing his worries with Joel Osteen. Andrew is not just a humorist, gifted prose stylist, and an exciting novelist. He can also shift into a number of thoughtful analyses of everything from culture to the political wars to the media to men and women.)

The reversion to Jesus Idolatry — the unbalancing of the Jewish and Pagan blend that Rhonda Robinson discussed so thoughtfully yesterday — happens because many Christians have no understanding of what idolatry actually is or why it’s so important that it’s the second of the 10 Commandments. The Bible as it was taught to me was New Testament-first. The Old Testament was read primarily through the obsession with the New and thus much of it was disregarded as only something Jews need worry about or devote much time to studying in considerable depth. (There were souls that needed saving!) I now believe that choosing to primarily read the Old Testament looking for clues and foreshadowing of Jesus — rather than vice versa, grasping that Jesus was a Jew with a deep understanding of the Torah — will produce innumerable misunderstandings and ultimately destructive theologies.

And yes — I will use that word to describe the theological belief that the majority of the world is hell-bound. I’m sorry if that offends anyone but it’s true — some theological ideas are more harmful than others when applied to the real world. And that’s  why these debates, though they may never end, are so important and I look forward to others considering these points.

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What Books Does PJ Lifestyle Editor David Swindle Recommend for 2013? Click here to see his picks at the Freedom Academy Book Club