Wednesday, December 13, 2006


Last night I was rewatching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (which I just acquired a used copy of on DVD), and I was struck by something that had always bothered me, but that I'd never known quite what to do with.

Namely, Chinese civilization dates back thousands of years, yet up until relatively recently none of the ancient cultures of the Far East had any recorded contact with Christianity (or Judaism, for that matter). According to most strains of Christian theology all of those countless millions of people are now in hell, all because God never revealed his true name to them. All of the beauty they created - art, music, literature, philosophy, technology, martial arts - was apparently pointless because of geographical barriers that they had no control over.

For the diehard fundamentalist there's nothing to question; if the Bible seems to suggest that all of those people deserve to go to hell, then that's simply all there is to it. Less dogmatic Christians would reason that we simply don't know the whole story, and that a just God will certainly take what they don't know into account when passing judgment. Like CS Lewis, they might posit that those who wholeheartedly seek after God will find him even if they don't call him by his proper name.

As we move away from the more conservative traditions, we'll find Christians willing to acknowledge the glimpses of truth found in Eastern philosophies, and even the notable similarities between Christian and Buddhist thought, and with such acknowledgments one can conclude that perhaps those thousands of years of Far Eastern history aren't as worthless as some unquestioningly assume.

As a Christian I still believe that the Bible presents the best picture we have of who God is and how he wants to relate to us, and that while different religions contain their own glimpses of eternity they aren't necessarily equally reliable paths for those seeking God. At the same time, though, I find myself increasingly convinced that the Holy Spirit can work and is at work outside of the context of 'orthodox' Christianity.

To acknowledge that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life is to recognize that our salvation is entirely dependent on him, and not necessarily on the labels we place on the boxes we construct in our constant attempts to define the infinitely powerful Creator of the universe we inhabit. There will always be those who reject him, but ultimately it's not our place to speculate on the eternal destiny of others.

At the same time, many who appear to have rejected God have, in reality, merely rejected a false impression of God that they were given by the bad example of some Christians. And the god that many 'believers' present to the world is small, petty, fickle and utterly undeserving of anyone's worship. That many who reject Christianity conflate those gods (lower-case g) with God (upper-case G) does not necessarily mean that they have truly rejected God, even if they carry that mistaken impression with them for the rest of their lives. As evidence of that we see many 'nonbelievers' who live godlier lives than the 'believers' who drove them away from the church.

But I digress. At the end of the day, all of our debates about God are rather like a group of two-year-olds arguing about the nature of the grown-up world, when any attempt their parents might make to explain to them what it's really like would go almost completely over their heads.

That isn't to say that God is completely unknowable, only that there's so much in this vast universe that we can just barely begin to comprehend that the best God can do in reaching out to us is to give us just enough knowledge of him to provide a starting point for managing our own lives. Fear and pride continually drive us toward the notion that we can bring others closer to God by micromanaging their lives for them (and even many who preach against such legalism with their words say something very different with their actions), but in the end we are no more qualified to do so than a toddler is capable of running a household.

There is tremendous beauty to be found in Far Eastern cultures. The fundamentalist has no choice but to dismiss that beauty as meaningless, but I'm convinced that the God who authored beauty is honored whenever human beings strive to emulate their Creator's creativity. Without devaluing my own beliefs I can affirm the good that I see in those who may not share my theology, and through those relationships build on my own understanding of the God I strive to know.

And no, that doesn't really have much to do with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It's a beautiful movie, though.


Peterson Toscano said...

You are a pagan and will rot in hell. :-)

Actually, you speak much wisdom here. How do we account for the beauty and the wisdom of these ancient pre-Christian-Judeo people? For Quakers, we believe that that of God is already in everyone. (some think it is because of what Jesus did on the cross working retroactively since God is not bound by time. Others believe it is simply how it is and the work of Jesus opens further doors to God. And there is a bunch of belief in between).

This belief of God in the Other enabled the early American Quakers to see the native peoples as more than mere savages, thus enabling them to live peacefully along side native peoples and even facilitating with ending conflicts often started by non-Quaker white people.

There came a time that many native peoples would not agree to a treaty unless a Quaker was present. It wasn't just that the Quakers were known to be turstworthy, but also because they recognized and valued what was divine in the native people's life and practice.

But when we see the Other as a non-believing pagan savage ruled by the god of this world, we will always treat the Other poorly as less than. We will war against the Other. We will take advantage of their child labor. We will discount their humanity. We will condemn them to hell. We will deny the truth that God works in their lives and is expressed through them.

And so have we done for centuries often doing it in Jesus' name.

Anonymous said...

I mean, I've heard it's bad, but with no real reason why. So much of Western culture has pagan roots, but those roots are white, so they are seen to be safe (at least, that's my opinion). I mean, the days of the week, the months of the year, most of our names... they all have pagan roots...

Anyway... that's my little tangent

Anonymous said...

Robert Fulghum - by definition, as a Unitarian, a pagan who has been consigned to hell repeatedly - said that arguments about the name of God are like fleas arguing about the name of the dog. And that arguing about the will and intent of God is like the fleas arguing about which way the dog is walking.

I am probably more of a univeralist than I want to admit. But the work of most religions seems to be to put God in a conscriptive box with rules beneficial to the culture doing the boxing-in. "This is OUR God," seems to be the dominant result - and those who don't buy into "OUR God" get booted into other-land. There is "us" and there is "them," and "them" is always the wrong side.

I'm probably too tired to make much sense of this - but I find myself agreeing with you.

Dwight said...

Peterson, I didn't know that about the Quakers. It is good to know that, and it doesn't surprise me. What surprises me is that more of Quakers aren't doing that same sort of thing in the current world with gays and lesbians, Iraq, Darfur, AIDS. Sorry, I am just pinning for my own Quaker denom to stop worrying about surviving and start doing what Jesus would.

Anyway, how I look at this issue is that God created humanity in God's own image, male and female they were created and therefore, every person on the planet has a special place in God's heart and God will do anything to get them to notice Jesus (whatever his name may be to that person). So I am almost a universalist, but believe that people can and do choose to reject God outright and on purpose and they know what they are rejecting.

I do not believe that if someone rejects the abusive God of the child abusing priest or elder that they are rejecting God, though it looks like that to some.

Dwight said...

Sorry that last paragraph should read, They are not rejecting God, even though it may look like that to some. In other words God knows that they are rejecting the work of the devil that is disguised as the work of God, therefore understanding rejecting that work is not the same as rejecting God.

Anonymous said...

outstanding blog, my friend. your words are a resounding echo to my own journey. from finding yourself challenged and changed in your conservative views regarding women in ministry, to your recognition that everyone in the world does not have a "mega-super-mart" where they can go have every fastidious fancy catered to in the check-out lane, to finding yourself daydreaming about a Norman Rockwell painting of which you will never be a part solely b/c you like guys. i feel ya bro!

i chose to comment on this particular entry b/c i am a c.s. lewis fanatic and i liked your allusion to emeth, the good calormen, in lewis' "the last battle." that reading, though written for children, spawned some prayerful study as i sought peace about those who are genuinely seeking and pursuing, but not in the same way as me.

btw, i found the link to your blog on meta-physical stephen's blog from gcn. thanks a lot for your honest insight.