Jesus didn’t have to be the Christ, and there is no such thing as Original Sin. If you take those two positions as starting points, everything changes about the Christianity that has been handed to us. We have to start thinking about “Christianities,” in the plural. There is a wide variety of ways to perceive the person of Jesus and the implications of his living and dying. The concept of sin is central to some; the experience of love is central to others. The idea of God playing a trick on God by sending Jesus to die in our place and save us from hell if we believe because God loves us so much but not enough to save us from hell if we don’t believe just won’t do it for a lot of us. We have to find a different center for our faith to coalesce around. It’s already there, we just have to weed out the nonsense and focus on the heart of truth (as we perceive it).
The parable of the tares and the wheat speaks to the task before us. At night, a malicious neighbor seeds a person’s newly planted wheat field with weed seeds. When the two sets of seeds germinate, the workers realize the problem and wonder what to do. Wait until the harvest, the owner advises, we’ll separate things out then. This parable has always been taken to mean that true believers and the infidel live side by side in the world, and will be separated on Judgment Day, with the “wheat” going to everlasting life and the “weeds” going to purest hell. Well. We are at the point of understanding the Bible as the wheat field, containing valid, helpful, insight and a wealth of misinformation, to be separated out by those who have reached the place of mature judgment (A different take on Judgment Day) and understanding.
My suggestion is that we take the parable of the prodigal; the story of the good Samaritan; the parable of the sheep and the goats; the “Golden Rule;” the command to love God, neighbor, and self; the list of “the fruits of the Spirit;” the recommendation to “think about” “whatever is good, true, honorable, etc.’” the Sermon on the Mount; and other, similar, Biblical texts as “the heart of truth,” and live in ways which exhibit our affinity with this “core of faith.” Our “faith,” then would consist of trusting this “way” over all other competing, and contrary, “ways.” Our “faith” would be our understanding of, our belief in, the way our life ought to be lived. It would be the answer to the question, “Toward what—In light of what—do we live?” And, we would throw away all the other stuff about sin, and hell, and Armageddon, and the Apocalypse as being unnecessary, in the way of “the way,” and completely absurd.
And, if it appalls you to consider this kind of snipping and sewing, I will remind you that the Bible as we have it exists by virtue of this very process. The Bible as we have it was snipped and sewn together. I’m simply saying that the people who did the snipping and sewing had their agendas, and their perspectives, and their interests which they served by choosing these texts and discarding others, and that we are not only free, but are also required, to decide for ourselves the extent to which we will be bound by their orientation and outlook and ideas about how things should be. The people who complied the Bible were no smarter, and had no more authority, than the people who sort through the Bible, keeping “this,” and relegating “that” to the trash pile, or the museum show case. We decide for ourselves what it means to live well, and what we need to do it. But, this doesn’t mean that anything goes, or that one person’s ideas are as good as another’s.
The Holy Obligation—the Divine Imperative—is to determine what is good, and do it. What is the core around which our lives coalesce? We choose, but we cannot take the choice, make the choice, lightly. Ah but, what’s to keep us from it? What’s to keep us from living any way we like? This is the question that fueled the fires of organized religion. The people cannot be trusted to do what is right—to love God, neighbor, and self, for instance. They must be compelled to take the best interest of others, even those who aren’t like them, especially those who aren’t like them, into account. They must be forced to care about the welfare of all people. They must be threatened with the agony of hell, and promised the wonders and joys of eternal life. You see, I’m sure, the problem. What’s to keep your neighbor from stealing your cows, or putting weed seeds in with your wheat, if he, if she, doesn’t fear the wrath of God? The masses need hell to keep them in line.
It’s one thing to build a life around loving our neighbor if we can depend on our neighbor loving us in return. In a world where our neighbor is glad to take advantage of our love, we have to set limits, draw lines, establish boundaries, build fences, post guards, wear guns, because our neighbors have no respect for us and what is ours. You and I may be able to live together in a caring community of mutual concern, but those people down the street, or on the other side of town, don’t have a clue.
And, if you don’t have a clue about the people I mean, come with me while we take this love one another show on the road to, say, Osama bin Laden. Do you think he’s going to buy it? “Osama, won’t you come be our neighbor, and we will all live in peace, and toast marshmallows in the courtyard together?” And, we don’t have to go as high up as Osama. We could stop by the headquarters of a few war lords, or talk to some pirates, or visit with some drug dealers and pimps. I don’t see any of them buying into what I’m selling here. What’s in it for them? They won’t get their kicks walking the way I’m suggesting.
So, we better include in the parts of the Bible we keep, that passage about being “wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” and the story about the shrewd business manager. We had better love our neighbors with our eyes open. And set clear limits. And draw firm lines. And walk carefully along “the way.”