The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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Questions from a Seeker

July 11th, 2004 · No Comments · christianity, metaphysics

Question: I just read DaVinci Code, and I liked the book a lot. What interested me was that there were other versions of Christianity, like the Gnostics, who sound like they were more Eastern, or pagan in their beliefs. I was brought up Catholic and never believed in everything they teach, but do still consider myself more Christian than anything else. So it interests me that there were versions of Christianity back then or now that are closer to what I believe. But which is true?

Answer: By considering yourself a Christian, you are self-identifying as a member of Western culture, but this doesn’t of itself begin to describe your faith. What you believe is the collection of ideas and notions you’ve accumulated in your own experience. Although one church or another may attempt to lay claim to you as a member, none can possibly expect that every congregant gets the same thing, or even expects the same thing, out of participation with a church. Faith and belief are internal to you, and your practice of faith is what you make it to be. Even though you may not believe what the church said, you still believe something, and that personal faith is what you should build on using every means at your disposal.

The people who initially converted to Christianity were at first pagan, so a lot of what they did as pagans got reflected in the official rites of the Church. Initially, there wasn’t any general agreement about what Christianity was until the Romans developed the process to define what Christianity was. Over the following centuries, heretics were identified among the high-profile royalty or clergy who didn’t follow the state line, and these were punished severely. Yet large groups of Christians across Europe had remarkably different views of faith and dogma than those promulgated in Constantinople and only occasionally did these differences inspire papal efforts at correction or crusade.

To enormously over-simplify, the primary distinction between Christianity and the pagan faiths it replaced was the idea that divinity could only properly be communicated with via an universal hierarchy of appointed clergy. Before that, if you wanted to speak to any god, it was usually just a matter of having the intention to do so. One fundamental theme of Gnosticism is that each person can only discover divinity for themselves, and that hierarchies of clergy only get in the way. Thus the Gnostics were doctrinally opposed to the existence of the Church, and the Church reacted in fear and anger to crush this most heinous anathema. The fact that this material has come to light again can only be indicative of the general dissolution of the power of the Catholic Church. Incidentally, there were many sects about as varied as their Christian counterparts, each with its own enormously complex and dogma: so even Gnostics disagreed among themselves about the nature of the true faith.

Today, you can attend Christian services of an amazing variety: Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Gnostic, and independent. Although the rites and rhetoric may differ, congregations themselves are remarkably similar wherever you go. In your spiritual journey, remember that there are many good things to be gained from participating in Christianity, but there is no requirement to play by their rules or believe what they say. The Bible contains much which is potent and worthy, and many churches inspire an appreciation of the divine. You can find many things in a church, but rarely spirituality — and almost never God. In the end, what’s important is that you build and maintain a faith that provides you with a way to cherish your successes and keep hope alive when difficulties arise.

How you describe the divine, how you acknowledge, worship, or analyze the divine, is entirely up to you. You can call it Jesus, you can call it Zeus, you can call it Allah, Buddha, or Bruce. (Sorry, too much Dr. Seuss.) You can worship one god, three, a dozen, or hundreds. Your rituals can be simple or elaborate. Your texts can be ancient or improvised. Whatever you do with intention that has meaning for you is a sacred act of power and wisdom.

Personally, I find it more empowering to consider God as a collection of personalities, like the Greek or Egyptian pantheons. If God is unknowable and unreachable, what’s the point of caring if he’s there or not? With a set of gods, you make divinity reachable, understandable, even interactive. The purpose of a ritual, a simple as a prayer, or as complex as high mass, is not to invoke divinity or instruct divinity. The purpose of ritual is to prepare the worshiper in mind and spirit to be more fully open to the experience of the divine. If whatever you’re doing now doesn’t do it for you, you need to find out what does.

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