In my last post I was critical of Christianity. Well, really more about the church. In this one, I want to point out what I believe are Christianity’s finest contributions to the understanding of God.
Christianity’s greatest (and in my opinion matchless) contribution to our understanding of God is, without question, the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth. I have heard people argue that Jesus was not divine, that he was merely a good man and a great teacher, but I have never heard anyone argue that Jesus was not, at the very least, a man among men.
Christians, of course, believe Jesus was very much more than that. We believe that Jesus was God, that he was, and is, “the image of the invisible God”, that when we watch Jesus, we are watching God. We believe that if you want to know what God is and is not, you can see God in Jesus, but not in the same way you can see God in, say, me. While I hope you can often, even usually, see God in me, there are unfortunately times when if you look at me you will see see little God, and a huge, ugly, stinking pile of me. Christians believe that at any and every moment, Jesus’ life was the life of God. If you want to know how God loves, watch Jesus. If you want to know what God values, watch Jesus. If you want to know whether a Christian is living the Christian life well, watch Jesus. Don’t just follow, or rebel against, authority. Watch Jesus.
Now I’m a fan of Buddhism. I admit it. I admire a lot of its teachings (a ton of them are shockingly similar to those of Jesus), and I believe its contributions to spiritual knowledge are incredibly significant (the centrality of the irreplaceable art of meditation, its eight-fold path, its four noble truths, etc.). I believe there is a lot we can, and should, learn from it. Still, I am not a Buddhist for a hugely important reason. That reason is Jesus. While Buddhism teaches about Nirvana, a final blending into an impersonal energy, the incarnation of God in Jesus tells us that God is personal.
This matters because if you have ever had a friend or loved one pass away, Buddhism says that particular person is gone forever — they have either reincarnated as another person/creature, or they have reached Nirvana and blended into the impersonal energy of the universe. Many branches of Buddhism do not even believe in anything they call “god.” Christianity, on the other hand, says that person continues to exist, although not in a way you or I can currently understand (1 Jn. 3:2; Col. 3:3-4). For more information on this, see one of my posts about the false self.
Christianity understands God as one, yet existing in three aspects, or “persons”. The magnificence and beauty of this is hard to overstate. Stated simply as possible, God the Father is the power source, God the Son is the one who, like you, has been embodied and therefore “gets you”, and God the Holy Spirit is the one who can “live in you” moment by moment and show you what is true. That, of course, is a hugely oversimplified summary, but it’ll have to do. Perhaps the best picture of this in the gospels is when Jesus prayed. There you have God the Son, praying through God the Spirit, to God the Father.
Jesus’ horrific death, nailed to a cross as a still vibrant young man, stands in marked contrast to the death of Buddha at eighty years old, dying peacefully between two trees. The violence is Jesus’ death should tell Christians something about violence, but most Christians miss it. Instead, Christians speaking of the Crucifixion are usually referencing the death of Jesus as sacrifice for sin, which is unfortunate. There are at least nine different understandings of the meaning of the death of Jesus, and what it actually meant is a mystery. All we can do is contemplate it and be grateful. But if Christians would instead focus on learning to respond to violence, suffering, and opposition in the way of Jesus, the world would be overcome by loving, gracious, forgiving people. “What kind of life would make it possible for me to die that way?” The keys of transformation lie in the answer to that question.
This event is the bookend to the incarnation of God in Jesus, and both events say much the same thing, which is that there is actually no separation between physical and spiritual. Spiritual is physical, and physical is spiritual. In taking on human flesh to begin with, Jesus blesses human embodiment. It is good to cry and feel and hunger and thirst and have sex. We don’t have to (and shouldn’t) split life up into sacred and secular. All of life is good. God declared it that way in creation, and again at the birth of Jesus, and again in his resurrection. The human body is the temple of God. But what we also see in resurrection is that the bodies we will have after death will not be the same as our physical bodies before death. Jesus was not initially recognized by those he appeared to after resurrection. We don’t know what the change was (back to our scriptures again in 1 Jn. and Colossians), but it was substantial. Of course the resurrection of Jesus is a precursor to yours and mine (1 Cor. 15:16-20).
For these reasons and more, I am a Christian, and a Christian pastor. Though we have much to learn from other religions (and most Christians ignore this only from fear), I believe Jesus offers us the sweetest, fullest, finest vision of human life, and Trinity the most beautiful, and appropriately complex, understanding of God.
Christianity is my story, and I’m stickin’ to it.