What makes a person one religion or another? Does it matter WHAT we believe or is it more important WHO we believe? In my journey out of fundamentalism, I’ve investigated many religions and the ones that seem to make the most sense could care less about doctrine and concentrate more about the state of your own soul or your “Being” before God, Essence, Divinity, or whatever name you choose to call the World Soul.
This struggle to define our religion usually begins with doctrine, as mine eventually did (see my other blog listed on the right). For me, I began my spiritual journey with a unadulterated experience with the Divine in the form of Jesus. No one preached to me, no one outlined a “plan of salvation.” No one led me in the “sinner’s prayer.” I wasn’t baptized as an infant and raised in a Christian home. No, God found me first and then I muddied the waters with religion. Shouldn’t all spirituality begin this way? Why do we construct barriers to God? To keep the unsavory out? To make it very hard to commune with the Divine? Why?
So does it really matter how we PRACTICE our religion if we are connected to the Source? I believe our biggest problem is to confuse man-made religions with spirituality. The only ones decrying this notion are those who make their living from religion, otherwise they’d see religion as a barrier to God. But seriously, does it really matter if I attended a Buddhist temple for meditation, received the Eucharist at a Catholic church, and also attended bible study at a Baptist church? What’s wrong with sampling the buffet line of religious practice if my heart is firmly with the Supreme Soul? Who does it matter to, but those who would be the gatekeepers of salvation? I never used to believe that all roads lead to God, but I too was confusing practice with being and mistaking process with the goal.
In my journey out of fundamentalist churches I found that all religious arguments stem from doctrines of atonement and justification and the instantaneous applications of each to the human soul. Jesus came to save the world, but every faith argues about the requirements of salvation and proceed to explain to us HOW we are saved by showing us that their particular brand of religion provides the only means for this goal. (We could go back further and ask the question, “Why do we need salvation at all?” and that would be a most worthy question, but I am speaking here about those who accept already the need for salvation as a basic premise in the argument, specifically salvation offered by the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth).
When I experienced Jesus for the first time, I read about him in the New Testament, decided to amend my life through my own efforts, and then experienced an epiphany of Spirit on my way to work one day. I felt the presence of Jesus and an all-consuming love and peace in my soul and I “felt” the words (no auditory vision here) in my spirit telling me that I need not work for His love; I had it already and only needed to rest in that knowledge. The love and peace was overwhelming and lasted but a few minutes, but in those moments, I knew Jesus was real and that He had found me and drew me to himself.
“The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (Joh 3:8 ESV)
I knew something momentous had happened and I didn’t care how or why. The only reason I tried to find a church after that experience was to find people who had experienced the same thing as I did and to share it. That’s IT! I could have cared less about doctrine at that time. But doctrine came flowing my way; naysayers analyzing, scrutinizing, and proceeding to muddy the experience with shoulds and oughts and biblical interpretations. I got caught up in a whirlwind of study and exhausted myself trying to figure out which came first; the Spirit, my choice, doctrine, faith, etc.
But, you know what? It doesn’t matter. You can make the bible say whatever you want it to say about salvation. If you are Baptist you can find numerous “once saved, always saved” verses. If you are Catholic you can find numerous “you will be judged by your works” verses. You can analyze and scrutinize all the verses that talk of faith and still come up with differing opinions. This only makes sense since the bible is definately NOT systematic theology, nor is it a even a coherent chronology of like-minded believers. The bible is a conglomeration of individuals’ experiences with the Divine. There is no biblical model for the church despite Catholic claims to the contrary. There is no consistent theology of atonement and salvation despite Lutheran, Presbyterian, etc. claims to the contrary. Every believer comes to Jesus in their own way. Or, I should say, God draws individuals to Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, in completely unique ways. Why else do we read,
Act 2:1-8 ESV
(1) When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place.
(2) And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.
(3) And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them.
(4) And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.
(5) Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven.
(6) And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language.
(7) And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?
(8) And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?
God calls and baptizes with the Holy Spirit in a way that each will understand. And already, in Acts, we see the apostles at odds with each other over requirements for salvation, mingling Jewish requirements with a new faith which required nothing but faith (Acts 15).
And so it degenerates from there until we have what we have today; hierarchies and numerous sects all proclaiming their own unique brand of salvation. Catholics erect the barrier of the Church dispensing grace like a cosmic Pez dispenser. Protestants erect the barrier of the bible with “correct interpretation” as their filter of choice, but only as overseen by pastors and elders who believe they have more of the Spirit than anyone else. Catholics follow James. Protestants follow Paul. Both forget Jesus’ words,
For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. (Joh 3:34 ESV)
But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. (Joh 4:23 ESV)
God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (Joh 4:24 ESV)
It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. (Joh 6:63 ESV)
It is the Holy Spirit that saves and dispenses grace, not man-made rules or books written 2000 years ago. No one controls the Spirit, so why do they try to? Why do we accept their attempts to control our spirituality? Are we so insecure that we must have a guide? Why not accept that Jesus died to save the world? Period? Why do we care HOW this is done? If God is God there is no need for mere humans to attempt to live in a “right” or “wrong” way. How can it be possible that we can effect our own destiny when we did not choose to be born to begin with? Why would God lay the burden of salvation at our door, when we have no control over the universe? Why even accept another’s experiences as normative? Maybe we are all called to an individual path unrelated to another’s.
The next time we are tempted to control another’s religion or to define another’s faith process as invalid, maybe we should remember,
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, (Joh 10:14 ESV)
For those called to Jesus, they know. For those called to another path, they know. Let us not presume to know for someone else.