He's not my God

Several times, people have asked me why I think my religion is true and all the others are false. Basically, this is asking why my God is better than the alternatives (including the "null" religion of atheism). This is sometimes posed from an attitude of "What gives you the right to force your beliefs onto others?"

When I thought about how to answer that question, I realized that it doesn't actually make sense, because He's not "my" God in any sense of the word. A god could be referred to as mine for a number of reasons:

The last reason turns out to partially answer the attitude question, but I'll take them in order.

He doesn't do what I say

The ex-husband of someone close to me once threatened her by saying that he was close with God and if she didn't do what he said, then he'd get God to punish her. The expectation that God would respond to his request reveals that he would use "my God" in this sense.

Politicians, especially presidents, often finish their speeches with "God Bless America!" From their tone, I am often tempted to take this as an imperative command to the Almighty to "keep up the good work!" Sometimes they state it as "May God Bless America!" This skirts around the issue, but in my mind it still has the direction backwards.

When Joshua came upon the Angel of the Lord on the battle field as described in Joshua 5:13, he asked "Are you for us, or for our adversaries?". The Angel replied "No; but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come. He was not "on" either side -- he was on God's side and the question was which of the armies was on God's side. Joshua's appropriate response was to fall on his face in worship and obedience.

I'm trying to be like Joshua, and sometimes succeeding when God keeps my pride in check.

I don't decide who He is or what He says

This topic is obvious: I didn't write the Bible. I don't get to interpret it any way I please. I sometimes get stuck in a rut where I think that my view of a particular scripture is the only view, and I need someone to help me see more clearly. Luther had the revelation that the Bible was written for everyone, and that we should each try to understand rather than just following someone else's interpretation. The Bible is open to all -- pick it up and see for yourself what it says.

Harder for me to swallow, but just as true: When my opinion and God's opinion are in conflict, He's not going to be the one to switch sides. His word is Truth, and mine is, well, opinion. The best I can hope for his that He's loving -- and thankfully that turns out to be true beyond belief.

Equally important, but a whole other essay, is the fact that I'm not the judge.

He isn't the god of my ancestors

I'm not sure exactly where my ancestors come from, although my grandfather has begun to trace them back a generation at a time. They are certainly European, and in my travels through Europe, it was striking to me how most places had people who looked different from me, but in Denmark people looked just like me and my sister: blue eyes, blonde and red hair, and fair skin. If I were choosing the god of my ancestors, this would lead me to the Norse gods: Odin, Thor, Freya, and their colleagues. This would lead me to follow Norse Wicca or Norse Heathenism, which are the modern descendants of these religions.

Because I was brought up in the west, my intellectual ancestors are the Greeks and Romans, whose gods Christians encountered as they spread from Israel and Judea. This would be a second option for seeking the gods of my ancestors.

In fact, if I chose the god of many of my teachers, it would be Atheism. If I chose this direction, I would most likely be a member of "The Brights," whose purpose is to "Promote the civic understanding and acknowledgment of the naturalistic worldview, which is free of supernatural and mystical elements." Indeed, if one views the natural world as the whole world, then the smartest humans are indeed the brightest creatures in the known Universe. I hold a different view, that compared to the Creator, we are in fact quite dim, seeing truth only as though through a dark glass.

Instead, the followers of the god I have chosen came from a small and often enslaved group of middle-eastern herders. This religion has unfolded as a series of covenants: one to Abraham (a shepherd), one to Moses (born the son of an Egyptian slave), and one through Jesus of Nazareth. This turns out to be an astoundingly unlikely choice for me to make, and it has taken quite a lot of evidence to convince me that it is the one true choice.

He is not God only over me and mine

It is strange to me that Christianity is viewed as intolerant and discriminatory. Christ taught through Paul that "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28) Christ calls people from "every nation and from all tribes and peoples and languages." (Revelation 7:9) His love is incredibly inclusive, encompassing even those who have done terrible things: He called Saul of Tarsus (who had persecuted Christians in a misguided zeal for God) to be a member of the early Christian leadership. Jesus himself called a tax collector (think mob thug) to be one of the twelve Apostles; he had fellowship with drunkards and prostitutes, and he touched the untouchable lepers in order to heal them.

It is not surprising to me that Christians are sometimes viewed as intolerant and discriminatory. I grew up in an American "Christian" culture with an attitude very like those of the Pharisees of Jesus' day, secure in my own righteousness (though my desires drove me to terrible deeds) and extremely critical of misbehavior on the part of others. My study and prayer continues to lead me to view others as made in the image of God, and to be cherished and nurtured, rather than as competitors or possible servants. It leads me away from my natural instinct to want to dominate and control others and towards a desire to see them in right relationship with God while respecting their free will. My own record of behavior, compared against my own standards, finds me condemned; this leaves me no room to condemn others. Jesus lived a perfect life, and offered it as a sacrificial payment for my own life, and he clearly teaches me that I am to love others as he has loved me. He's paid the price for all who choose to follow him -- the more, the merrier! "Come on in -- the water's fine!"

Attitude and Response

"What gives you the right to force your beliefs onto others?" My first answer is "MU", which is an ancient Zen answer which, when given to a question, unasks the question. It rejects the premises of the question: that they are my beliefs, and that somehow they would not be true if I didn't push them. This frees me to present the matter from a more appropriate point of view, enabling my second answer (in the form of an analogy):

If I met a blind man who was walking across a field towards a cliff, and I could see the cliff and his direction of travel, and did not warn him about the cliff, would that be right? Rather, it is clear that I should lead him to the bridge that spans the gulf to the peak on the other side. By telling him about the cliff, I do not bring it into existence; by not telling him, I do not protect him. Suppose he replies that he does not believe that there is only one way across the chasm; perhaps someone has told him otherwise, or perhaps he is stubborn and announces that he does not believe in gravity and so is willing to go over the chasm without the bridge. I already know how to get across, by explaining the evidence I have seen I seek only his gain and not my own, but moved by love I feel compelled to try and explain the truth until it is clear that I'm making it more likely for him to try without the bridge. My study of the Bible and the available evidence has convinced me that Jesus is the bridge. The only bridge.

Here's the deal: Each of us is going to die. When we do, something happens next. There are several theories: reincarnation (eastern religions), snuffing out of existence (atheism), dissolution into a vast consciousness (yoga), I get to be god of my own world (if I'm a good Mormon), eternal bliss in worship of God (if I have a relationship with the Christ), laying on couches in cool shade with nubile virgins (if I'm a good Muslim), eternal life in a burning landscape (if I have bad karma, if I'm a poor Muslim, if I have no relationship with God), and perhaps others I'm not familiar with. It would be arrogant to assume that I get to decide, at that point, what happens next (what makes me King of the Beyond?) It is also clear that they cannot all be correct (again, I don't have the knowledge or power to create any of those outcomes, so something or someone else is going to choose). I'm taking the bridge.

Related essays

I'm not the judge.

True like gravity.

Version 2. Copyright 2004, Russell M. Taylor II