Netflix keeps unearthing odd little gems for me to watch, so today I watched this movie about a Jesuit missionary trying to convert the Huron tribe. (It wasn’t bad, I recommend it. Except it seems to be dubbed over French.) The main character spent a lot of time lecturing both Native Americans and his adorable French protegee about things they should or shouldn’t do. Don’t fornicate. Don’t kill. Don’t interpret dreams. And I think that’s one of the most prevalent faces Christianity, among other religions, presents to the world: a set of edicts governing your behavior. If you discipline your actions, you purify your soul.
I think it may be closer to the other way around. I think Martin Luther got it right when he was protesting indulgences: it’s not your acts that save you, it’s your faith. Following the rules isn’t going to change your state of mind, at least not in a sincere and lasting way.
It’s the same with the other facet that outsiders see in Christianity: you know, the Jesus thing. There’s this ad campaign right now for a televangelist station, which presents words like savior, teacher, lunatic, then asks (from the perspective of Jesus), “Who do you say that I am?” — apparently distilling an entire belief system into one Gospel quotation.
The thing is, Jesus isn’t really a “who” question. You don’t hang faith on the identity of one person, on the reconciliation of that identity. Being secure in the belief of “who” Jesus was doesn’t just transform you into a perfect Christian. Faith is about turning your gaze outward, being part of something larger than yourself. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus channel and shape that faith through stories and lessons that they get out of ancient texts, and through trying to shape their behavior as well. What I’m trying to say is that you can’t manufacture faith from doctrine; doctrine grows from a faith that’s already there.
The most important point I would make, if I could address any non-religious people out there, is that faith absolutely isn’t about being perfect, not in any belief system. Religious people will try to tell you they’ve got it all right and you’ve got it all wrong, and that’s just not true. For me, faith is about accepting that our lives are pretty mysterious, that we make mistakes and that things don’t always turn out well. Perfection is impossible in this life; if I find some connection with God, I catch a glimpse of a greater significance to my existence than my brief life, barely a speck on the space-time continuum. And when I talk about greater meaning, I’m not saying that today’s suffering will all be “worth it” because we’re going to heaven. I mean that I can begin to see how my life is connected to everything else; how it has no temporal or spatial or metaphysical constraints.