Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Monotheism - all for one?

Now for a quick comparison of the monotheistic religions. I want to do this to highlight differences in the belief systems and especially the differences in the societal outcomes of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths. It is often falsely assumed that these religions are really essentially the same because they hold as a primary tenant the worship of one God and recognize Abraham as the 'father' of all who believe in one God. Remember that Abram came from a polytheistic culture and was 'called out' from his people by one who claimed to be the One True God and who would make of him a new nation which in turn would be a blessing to every nation and every people. The obvious challenge to the unity of these religions is the extreme enmity between the Islamic nations and any who support or recognize Israel. There is also a split in Jewish thought in reference to the identity of Christ. Messianic Jews believe that Jesus is the fulfillment of God's promise: the Messiah, Immanuel, God with us. So there has been a division of thought along the way in all three of the monotheistic religions leaving significant differences.

Jewish belief centers on "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is One" and the summary of the O.T. law, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart... and your neighbor as yourself." The Islamic faith accepts the historical veracity of the O.T. but its central pillar is, "There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his Prophet." The Christian faith, though founded on the history of the O.T., centers in the work of Christ on the cross: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16).

In a simple comparison of the statements above, several things catch my attention. First, the oneness and unity and uniqueness of God is taken for granted in Jewish and Christian thought. The exclusion of other 'possible gods' in Islamic thought is unique and partially due to a pre-Muhammad worship of 365 gods, one for each day of the year. This gives Islam a unique negativism which is consistent throughout its social, cultural and religious development. Anything which does not conform is suppressed or eradicated to achieve a forced unity, at least in appearance. Second, and more importantly, is the concept of love apparent in the Christian and Jewish faiths but in different ways. The summary of Jewish (or Mosaic) law is more of a command: Love God, love others. Notice that there is no qualification for this love and the Levitical law is explicit in the care and concern (love) for foreigners who do not share the same beliefs. The New Testament (NT) turns the meaning of love to a new focus: God's love for us. We 'must' respond in love to God and to others because of the demonstration of God's love in the person and work of Christ. This conceptual development of love is completely absent in Islamic thought; there is no evidence of God's love and certainly no encouragement to love him back nor anyone else as far as I can tell.

The effect of these ideas on society is tremendous indeed. Our modern definition of love has little to do with the Biblical meaning or model. We tend to think of love as a feeling or an attraction which satisfies a personal desire. The definition of "agape", the Greek term used in reference to God's love, means unconditional and unmerited love and only focuses on providing for and benefiting the recipient of that love. In a society where the meaning of 'agape' is understood, there is a true respect for the needs and well being of others and a value placed on the responsibilities and commitments which come as a result. This rarely happens in an Islamic culture (and it is a culture as much as a religion!) because the emphasis is on submission to authority out of fear, not obedience out of love. So any religion based on law becomes a struggle for power, one group against another. But a religion based on 'agape' should be a desire for relationship with personal commitments to care for and stimulate growth.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The role of the church

Let's focus our attention now on the church. But there are actually 3 questions to discuss here: What is church? Is it a necessary part of a healthy society? If it is necessary, then what is its role and how do we distinguish it from the roles of family and government?

Religion has been a part of every human society since the beginning of time. This signifies an apparent need for belief in something beyond our physical perception and temporal understanding. Even France, which has worked hard to eradicate any type of value training or religious teaching in its schools, might be said to have faith in the omniscience of collective human knowledge. But religion has also been the single most powerful instigator of conflict and hatred between people and cultures. This is because humans have a need for an eternal purpose, something much bigger than any one of us, and the belief in that purpose drives every thought and action to the point that a conflicting belief cannot be tolerated.

So, many might say that religion is destructive to a healthy society. This is true in some cases. But when I speak of 'church', I don't mean religion. And what is the difference? Religion is defined as: a. Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe or b. A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship. There are really only 3 categories of religion: a. belief in no god, b. belief in one god, c. belief in many gods. I discuss this a bit in another post. Church really has its roots in a different concept. Jesus refers to church in Matthew 16 saying that his church will be built on the fact that "[He (Jesus) is] the Christ, the Son of the living God." So the whole concept of church revolves around the teachings of Christ, His claim of deity, and the purpose for which He came to live among us. The church, as a gathering of families and individuals, signifies a common desire to know who God is, what a relationship with Christ means, and its significance for one's every day life. That is different from religion because it is the development of a relationship, not just a system of belief.

Beliefs are important because they help us define right and wrong. If there are no absolute values, there is nothing on which to base a system of laws to govern a society. A collective agreement on what is right and wrong can always be challenged, but an eternal truth (apart from our 'acceptance' of it) creates a true standard for conduct. Some might call that restrictive but that would be short sighted and show their ignorance of human nature to be deceptive and controlling. There is really something greater than a 'collective good' that benefits only 99% of the population or less. Christ shows us that each individual is of the utmost importance, not the collective society. We must be willing to change the structure of the society if the worth of the individual is not valued. This is where the church should excel. The church teaches the worth of the individual and his eternal purpose in Christ. The church teaches respect and love for a God who truly loves each person as a special and unique creation. The church teaches our responsibility to Him and to our neighbor. The church supports the roles of the family and the government, teaching respect for those in authority. The church defines the family unit (as taught in Scripture) and defends the freedoms and responsibilities of the individual. The church provides a means to serve the community through care for the elderly, the poor, the sick and the needy. The church proclaims the good news that God does not want any to perish (either now or in eternity) and that all can have a full and meaningful life with eternal purpose.

This leads us back to the 10 Commandments. The first four are the primary teaching points of the church and deal with our personal relationship with God: respect God's deity and authority, respect God's Personhood and character, respect God's Name, respect God's day. These are for our individual as well as collective benefit in relationship to our Creator. The other commandments are reinforced by the church and teach respect for others in our community for everyone's benefit.