I read a short piece this afternoon on another blog I follow. It was about Christian faith and ‘souls’.
. . . It jarred, not for reasons you might assume, but it also germinated a few ideas. If you have a few minutes spare, you might like to read on.
The blog extract:
“If you believe you have an immortal soul, and that, as Christianity teaches, that soul is destined after your physical death to go to Heaven or Hell, you will want to do everything in your power to live your earthly life so that you go to Heaven.”
At face value the piece carried a common view of Christian belief. The problem for me was that it spoke of a Christianity I did not recognise. It reduced it to a set of rules that people should elect to follow in their self interest. This is not a ‘Christianity’ in which I could have any faith. Thank God I don’t have to, but more about that below.
I’m not much up on souls.
I do know me, although sometimes I confess I’m not sure that I know as much about myself as I would like. That aside, amidst the uncertainties, I know for certain I am more than the sum of the plumbing, the biochemistry and the electrochemistry I carry around with me in that ever expanding sack of fat (especially fat), protein, connective tissue, muscle, nerves and skin that people see, hear, touch, smell, and associate with me.
That sack; that body. I do not doubt I am more than it is. I am different. I am other. I transcend it. For me this is a puzzle that defies solution; the incomprehensible, the utterly unreachable; the seed of the eternal; the rock on which everything breaks. I am content to call it a soul. My soul is the thing that remains ‘me’ while my body changes, its cells and organs renewing themselves repeatedly, as it ages and eventually dies.
In this sense then, I share my fellow blogger’s belief in a soul.
I have no idea why I am certain of it. In fact, it’s not too hard to drift through the days of my fairly mundane life, cocooned in the cycles of working, eating, and sleeping, good times, bad times, and convince myself that these are the bounds of my existence. It’s not too hard to come to see this as all there is, all there was, and all there ever will be. Kind of comforting in a way I guess. But it doesn’t last. Any more than childhood lasts; any more than a career lasts, any more than health and beauty last; any more than life itself lasts. So, do I believe I have a soul because I want to cling to the hope that somehow what is ‘me’ will survive after my death? Do I believe because the alternative is too hard to bear thinking of? Is belief in a soul a kind of security blanket? A comforter? A buttress against reality?
I don’t think so. It would be easier to accept the seductive assurances of secularism. It would be so much less demanding to drift through life looking to science and technology for meaning; resting on the comfort of money and possessions; losing myself in the endless summer of consumerism. It’s just that there are recurring tiny tugs at my sleeve: the small voices of beauty; the fleeting moments of transcendence; the occasional grasped thread of meaning; the inexplicable gift of love. These things gently and persistently point me elsewhere for the meaning of my existence.
I can’t say why with any authority but I know calmly within myself that I am some thing of substance that transcends secular explanations that leave me short changed and frustrated.
So, why did that blog entry jar on me?
It was this sentence: “You will want to do everything in your power to live your earthly life so that you go to heaven”.
Plausible, right-intentioned even, . . . but headed entirely in the wrong direction: the complete and diametric opposite of the central message of the Christian Gospel. Of course, all things being equal I would want to do all I could to ensure I get to heaven, if I believed there were such a thing as heaven (which I do). The killer point is however that I cannot ensure that any of this will earn me entry. I can never pray earnestly enough, repent sincerely enough, or or live worthily enough to earn myself a place at the table.
The starting point for me as a Christian believer is the realisation of just how helpless I am and in what a hopeless position I find myself. Yes, being human I immediately jump towards the self-help manuals, the recipes for salvation, the right forms of worship, the works of mercy and charity that I hope will oblige God to notice me and accept me as his own. I do these things naturally but they are irrelevant and unable to help me achieve that goal. God, I sense, doesn’t play manipulative games you see.
The surprising, world changing, unexpected and irrational message of the Christian Gospel is that there is nothing that I can do and nothing I need to do! Everything that needed to be done for my acceptance and salvation has already been done by Jesus.
All well and fine, but what am I getting at?
I hear of so many people punishing themselves with feelings of unworthiness. (Done that once or twice myself). It’s hard to believe God is waiting to embrace people as they are, not as they think they should be. Nor is it helped by images of judgemental and self-righteous Christians but that, as they say, is another story. It is difficult to accept a free gift with no strings attached. Everything has its price in this world. It goes against human experience to think otherwise. Would it not be, however, the single greatest gift any of us ever received: to be accepted as we are, rather than who we might think we should be? This is the surprising and counter intuitive message of the Christian Gospel. It is so different from what we expect from experience, so ‘other’, that it is often discounted, disbelieved, and sometimes it even generates an angry response.
The thing is, the Christian Gospel says exactly that. Despite the oft repeated injunctions of those who should know better, the Bible does not anywhere say we need to earn our way to God. We cannot. God steps in and grabs us from the current. We do not swim to the edge and climb out. We cannot.
Good news for me as I find myself accepted by and belonging to God in spite of myself.
Naturally I want to do good things and love my fellow human beings but these things are responses to God’s initiative; not means to the end of manipulating God’s good favour.
I am not a slave to anybody or anything (if we discount my addictive behaviours and selfishness); not rules; not traditions; not the judgement of hypocrites. I am truly free to live life as God intended. What He has in store for ‘me’ (a.k.a. my soul) when this life is ended, I have no way of knowing, but I have no fear or worry about it either.
It doesn’t get any better than that.