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A visitor's essay

A simpler Christianity, based more
on practice & experience than beliefs

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Both conservative Christians and Atheists stress belief rather than experience or practice, as the defining characteristic of a person's religious identity. This emphasis on belief remains a part of mainline Christianity as well. Consider the use of creeds in most denominations, and even the occasional church trial for heresy. Religious liberals generally downplay the importance of conforming to a specific belief system. They generally accept other religions as alternative routes to God and to salvation. They believe that followers of all of the world's major religions are held within God's good graces, regardless of their beliefs.

For the first several centuries after Christ death, Christianity was defined not so much by belief systems as by religious practices. According to the historical record -- but not necessarily according to church belief -- there were many small independent Christian sects, each with its own set of religious convictions. Many cities had several Christian leaders teaching contrasting belief systems. Some believed that Jesus was very much a human -- a teacher and native healer. Others taught that he was a prophet who had been specially selected and anointed by God. Others taught that he was a spirit being who merely resembled a human. Others had still different concepts. Many of these groups were anything but hierarchical. Their practices threatened the Christian powers -- both the priests and government leaders like Constantine who saw Christianity as a state religion -- a way of exerting greater control over the masses. Along with the official canon, the church codified the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed. They successfully reigned-in differences, increased conformity, reduced the status of women, installed a top-down power structure, created a religious hierarchy, and concentrated power in religious and state structures.

This emphasis on belief remains today, most evident among fundamentalists, who tend to accept salvation as dependent on "right belief." A person spends eternity in Heaven or Hell, depending upon whether she or he has trusted Jesus as Lord and Savior. A 1909 publication "The Fundamentals: A testimony to the truth" was the source of the term Fundamentalist." It proposed five required beliefs for conservative Christians:

bulletThe original writings of the Bible, were inerrant (without error).
bulletJesus Christ was born of a virgin.
bulletAtonement: that through Jesus' death, the relationship between God and Man (which had been damaged by Adam and Eve's sin) has been restored.
bulletResurrection: that after Jesus' death and burial, he arose again.
bulletSecond coming: that Jesus return to earth is imminent.

It is interesting that Atheists seem by and large to make the same assumption -- that one's belief system is the defining characteristic of a person's religious identity. Most of their writings seem to be efforts to discredit the belief systems of orthodoxy and to purport the belief systems of those who believe no higher deity exists. Rarely do I see writings by atheists who say they are atheists not because of their logical deductions, but because their experiences have established in them a sense that no God exists.

I used to think "leap of faith" meant suspending one's rational mind long enough to be able to embrace such difficult notions as the trinity, the virgin birth, or the resurrection of the body. It disturbed me that I was thus barred from the society of believers because my thought processes were too rational to take this leap.

But I grew less interested in "thinking about" religion and more interested in simply living as though my life had divine purpose and as though God existed. I came to see "leap of faith" as not having much of anything to do with beliefs. Instead, I see it as a grand experiment. Being experiential, it has more to do with a leap of practice than a leap of belief.

My own son struggles with the difficulty of believing the things Christians supposedly are supposed to accept. My response to him --- though I don't think he quite gets what I'm saying yet -- is for him to let go of his worries, and to allow himself to doubt and wonder. I suggest he experiment. I have told him, spend several days as though no God exists, as though all there is in this life is what you can perceive with your senses or can figure out with your logical mind. There is no mystery, no purpose other than those purposes you devise for yourself. Later, spend several days living as though God does exist, as though there is an essential purpose for your life, as if there is mystery beyond what our senses and minds can claim for us. See what you discover for yourself.

My own experiment was not a trial of a few days, but more one of years. My faith has become much more personal. My sense of Providence is now much more palpable, as I have relaxed about "beliefs" and simply lived as though God is in my life. Choosing to be a person of faith, I have discovered joy, resilience, comfort, and passions that I never would have known without simply choosing to live as though God exists.

If fundamentalists cry out that this is heresy, ask them how Christ supposedly selected his disciples. He did not use a litmus test to sort out the ones with "wrong beliefs." He simply said, "Come follow me." He emphasized practice and experience rather than belief.

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Copyright © 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2004-NOV-25
Latest update: 2004-NOV-25
Author: Anon

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