Monday, January 17, 2011

Is Christianity Worth Saving?

I suspect that if we had the opportunity to view the real life and teachings of Jesus, we'd all be pretty disappointed.

The Gospels that record his life and teachings were written a few generations after his death, likely based largely on oral tradition.  The Gospel of Mark was written first, and it appears likely that at least Matthew and Luke were written after Mark and used it as a source.  Each Gospel presents a different theme and understanding of the significance of Jesus.  These themes can perhaps even be contradictory, for example concerning whether Jesus claimed divinity, and what exactly he taught about the Kingdom of God.  Other Gospels of Jesus exist but are not included in the canon, which was debated and chosen by early Christians centuries after Jesus died.

My conclusion in all of this is that the teachings we have "from" Jesus tell us more about the religious views of the people propagating those teachings than about what Jesus actually taught.  The story is of a man who teaches about the nature of God and how we may enter into His Kingdom and who is put to death after a mockery of a trial.  Such a story leaves itself open to insert our religious understanding to make sense of it.  Perhaps it even demands it.

The Tolstoy interpretation of the Jesus incident is that the Kingdom of God can be entered into each present moment by doing good for others.  The good done for others can only be based on love and cannot include the use of force. 

I like the Tolstoy interpretation.  Tolstoy had no use for any claims of miracles, special divinity, after-life, or a "coming" Kingdom of God.  He had use only for what he took were fairly literal moral and spiritual teachings that can help guide how man is to live life now. 

The problem is that Tolstoy's interpretation is an extreme minority one.  The best we can say for it is that it is vaguely echoed in the pacifist-minded Mennonite churches with their literal interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount.  If you were to list widely accepted core beliefs of Christians, you'd probably list items that Tolstoy thought were either non-essential or contradictory to the message of Jesus.  Yet Tolstoy thought of himself as a Christian, perhaps even a "true" Christian versus the majority of hypocritical false Christians.

I have two questions then as I consider whether I should enter a church:

1. Is the Tolstoy interpretation compatible with Christianity?  That is, can a personal of peculiar religious beliefs that do not include belief in the divinity of Jesus, or of Heaven or Hell, or in pretty much any of the Old Testament, rightly call himself a Christian?

2. If the life of Jesus is so unknown and we are basically filling in the blanks with our own widely varying religious beliefs, why even bother with Jesus?  Why not have religious discussion in terms that do not rely upon trying to claim the "true" meaning of Jesus?