I have always been interested in Christianity. More specifically, I have always been interested in the answer to this question: Does Jesus save?
I have always struggled with having a faith in Jesus. My own family is made up of theists, but nobody ever bothered with the traditional religions. Grandma couldn’t understand why anybody wanted a faith where you looked up at a bloody, half-naked man every Sunday (good ol’ Catholics), and I couldn’t understand how anybody could put their faith in a man who looked like a hippie (good ol’ Protestants). So while Grandma and I both ended up deists (that’s not a typo), we found our spiritual sustenance outside the mainstream.
Still, I’ve always had the question. Norway has a state religion. It allows for freedom of religion for everyone – except the nation itself and its monarch. The reigning monarch of Norway must be – according to the country’s constitution – an Evangelical Lutheran, since the Evangelical Lutheran church is the offical church of Norway. (Denmark has a similar law, while Sweden voted a few years ago to separate state and church.) What this meant when I was a kid was that Christianity and church history were school subjects (nowadays, they teach about all religions). It’s not as indoctrinating as it sounds; we were simply taught when our viking kings converted and killed any one who disagreed, how the church was organized and what it believed and why. (Good ol’ Marin Luther.) We never prayed in school and nobody ever asked us if we believed in Jesus.
That question would come up when we turned 14, the age of confirmation. After many summers of Bible summer camp, many Sundays of Sunday school because what else was there to do in the country, plus the aforementioned classes in school, I knew a lot about Christianity, but not much about faith. I was still baffled about how Jesus could save my soul and life, and knew of only one person in my tiny village who was so Christian she wore a cross but I never dared ask her anything. My whole approach to the matter was not aided by the language of the Bible (I still don’t care for that whole the Lord this, the Lord that wording) nor by the rather unfortunate view I had of God Himself (strict, unforgiving). An episode when I was 10 (and I may have told this story before) shut the door on the church itself: School kids attend a Christmas mass before the school holiday starts, and at ours, a junior high choir sang some absolutely beautiful songs. You could hear the congregation sigh with pleasure. What we could not do, was applaud in the Lord’s church, said our minister. Right then, I wanted nothing of a god who wouldn’t let people show appreciation for each other, no matter where it was.
The church back then was pretty strict, still steeped in piety and stoicism. Nowadays, people do applaud at church concerts, whether the music is religious or secular. But it doesn’t matter, because I still haven’t figured out the whole Jesus thing. All my classmates and my best friend and my second cousin, were all confirmed. I remember asking my best friend about her motives for her confirmation. She said it was because she believed in God, but I saw the reaction she had to all the money and presents she got, and thought she had lied to me.
There are those who have said to me not to take it all so seriously. I do take it seriously, though, because faith matters to me. And, apparently, so does having the right faith. I’m not terribly worried about my soul; what I’m trying to work out is who’s right. Do we die once and live forever as souls? Do we die once and that’s it? Do we die many times and are reborn many times? Do we even have a soul?
The whole religious stuff aside, understanding Christianity as a major player in the development of Europe and western civilization helps understand other parts of western history. The reason there was still some order and cohesiveness in the former Roman empire after it fell, was the church. The church unified people, educated people, and helped form our modern justice system. However silly you think believing in a man in the sky is, you should nevertheless be aware of the role and history of the church as institution and governing body.
There is another question: How did an illiterate Jewish carpenter end up being the inspiration for today’s western democracies? I have just finished reading Jesus, Interrupted by Bart D. Ehrman, and although Ehrman doesn’t address my question, he does explore rather thoroughly what original Christians and Christianity was like, and how we’ve got the Bible all wrong. Ehrman focuses on the New Testament in this book, and all its discrepancies – some so irreconcilable that to acknowledge them would upset the church. Ehrman says this isn’t necessarily the case; no matter who the historical Jesus was, it has no bearing on the faith itself. You can understand that there are huge contradictions between each of the gospels, and you can even know that several of the letters attributed to the apostles and to Paul were forgeries, and it won’t matter to your actual faith in God or to the inspiration you can get from the Bible. Ehrman himself said studying the Bible from a historical point of view only made him no longer believe the Bible was inspired by God; it didn’t make him lose faith. As a book inspired by people, the Bible has had incredible influence and staying power. And it has that right. It contains every human condition under the sun.
And I now know that I can choose whether or not to believe Jesus is the Son of God, or just another prophet, like the Muslims claim. The New Testament supports both views. There is no historical reason to believe that I must believe in this Jesus fellow to save my soul. I now know where (and when) the Catholic church got some of its theology from, so I won’t sweat that particular question any more.
But I needed to get it answered. I have grown up surrounded by Christianity my whole life; it is the only mainstream religion I am in any way familiar with. So of course I have to ask myself, are the Christians right? Must I follow Jesus to be well not only now, but forever? I think the answer is “no”, but the Bible does offer universal truths that people should follow (like the golden rule). However, being good to others doesn’t depend on a faith in Jesus or in any theism.
Still, there is one question Ehrman raises, not as a main part of his book, but in his closing chapter, by way of explaining how he also ended up agnostic and no longer a practicing Christian (assuming I’ve understood him correctly): He couldn’t work out the suffering part. No matter what he read, or what he was told, nothing could answer the question: Why does a benevolent god allow suffering? Upon hearing that (I have the audiobook version), it occurred to me that that was the question Buddha asked, too, and set about trying to answer.
So I find that although one question has been put to rest, I still have more exploring to do: Is there a god? What exactly is faith, anyway? Is it all really a delusion? Because I’m not entirely sure anymore. And it excites me.
Funny story: We were unpacking upon arrival at a one-week Bible camp. A couple of loudmouths had already unpacked when I and a quiet, shy girl took our beds in the four-bed room. Nobody paid any attention to me, but the loudmouths noticed a lack with the fourth girl’s packing. I thought it was the fact that there wasn’t a single change of underwear in the girl’s suitcase, but no. She was reamed into for forgetting her New Testament. As I recall, I never needed to use mine.