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Monday, December 10, 2007

Faith and the Bible (and laziness and Bible-thumping)

I grew up Catholic and went to a Catholic school for the first eight years. I can't say I learned much about religion, God, or prayer, even though those things were forced on me every day. The only part of religious instruction I found interesting was the Lives of the Saints, because I liked learning about how other people lived.

In the Lives of the Saints, at least in the versions I have read over the years, equal emphasis is placed of the prayer and spiritual lives of the Saints, and on their public lives of good works. In fact, it is often easer to place more emphasis on their works, simply because the lists can be so long. My family's patron saint, for example, St. Brigid, is known for founding a huge double monastery (male and female dormitories) in Kildare, Ireland; for her kindness to the sick and poor, and for influencing many of the missionaries who spread out over Europe during the dark ages. Few details are known about her prayer life or her spirituality.

I only learned a few Bible verses in school, and Bible reading was not encouraged. IN eight years of Catholic school the only things I took away were this:

"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what's coming to you in this kingdom. It's been ready for you since the world's foundation. And here's why:

I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.'

"Then those 'sheep' are going to say, 'Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?' Then the King will say, 'I'm telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.' (Matthew 25 34-40)

And this:

"The most important [Commandment]," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these." (Matthew 22:37-39)

Call me crazy, but these two verses, which made the most impact on my religious life, sound to me like a call to action. We are meant to do something. I myself am not a shining paragon of virtuous action, but I do what I can. Most of the time. I don't do stuff because I want something in return, and I don't do it because I am trying to work my way into heaven. I do it because, as near as I can tell, it's the right thing to do.

I have always been perplexed by people who claim you don't have to actually do anything in order to be a good Christian. I think everybody knows a few hypocrites like this. They have convinced themselves that all they have to do is proclaim to themselves and whomever will listen that they believe in Jesus--usually in the loudest, corniest, or most obnoxious way possible--and then all their sins will be forgiven and, without further effort or exertion on their part, they will be taken bodily up to Heaven at the time of the Rapture (the end of the world). People like this creep me out for a number of reasons, but mostly because I find this view to be a poor excuse for laziness and hatefulness and a perversion of what is really a very simple faith.

People like to quote bits of scripture, taken out of context, to justify the most atrocious things. If you take any bit of text out of context, you can make it mean almost anything. Here is a good example, that lots of people like to use:

So Jesus said to them, “Because of your unbelief;[or little faith, or lack of faith] for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.(Matthew 17: 20)

So people say, "I have faith. My faith is much bigger than a mustard seed, really. It's so big that I can't even contain it. I have to tell it to everyone I meet. I believe in Jesus Christ as my own personal savior. I need do nothing else. " All too often, this line of reasoning runs on like this: "My only Christian duty is to now try to force everyone else around to this same way of thinking!" which sometimes leads to "Jesus wants me to force everyone else to believe in him and his way of thinking, and I will be richly rewarded with the spoils of my crusades!" Which sometimes leads to TV evangelism, and sometimes leads to wars.

People of this ilk are overlooking a few things. In the first place, Jesus preached and lived a life of love, kindness, and forgiveness. He taught; he did not force. Furthermore, an entire Chapter of Matthew (Matthew 6) is devoted to the idea that people should pray and do good works in secret; indeed, those who blow their own horns about their own righteousness have already gotten enough fun out of being seen and heard. They will get nothing else from God.

And the most important part of all:

A mustard seed is a living thing. If you have faith like a mustard seed, that is a living faith. It may seem small from the outside. (In fact, many modern translations of the Bible focus on the size, putting in Jesus' mouth the words "If you had faith only as big as a mustard seed. . . ." which seems to me like a self-serving bend of the truth.) But the thing to remember is, it grows. It makes a mustard plant which in turn makes more seeds. A living faith, like a child (another often mis-used quotation (Matthew 19:14)) will grow and change and eventually go out into the world and do things.

People who have faith like a mustard seed, get it. They get that a living faith means acting as Jesus did when he was among the living. They get that we are called to help each other. To be good to each other. To tolerate each other. To act with love.

People who have mustard-seed faith, even a tiny little bit of it, get it. They get that believers are called to do more than just believe. A person who truly believes in Jesus and the Bible, understands that believers are compelled to do good works, because the Bible tells them so.

But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? (James 2:20)

1 comment:

Holly said...

Good post. I myself am not religious. However, I always find the best representatives of any religion are not the prostelatizers but those who quietly go about living their life as best they can in a way that represents their religion well. My grandparents were like that.