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Pondering Godliness During a Pandemic

The year of our Lord 2020 provided a perfect storm of agitation and opportunity. We wrestled our way through a contentious political season where we witnessed pillars of moral society abandoned or subverted to advance partisan agendas.

Cell phone camera coverage of racial injustice brought us face-to-face with insidious
bias and flooded us with stories that jolted us with the realities of the Black experience
in America and slavery’s compounding legacy of harm. The global COVID-19 pandemic not only magnified the harmfulness of racial inequities, but fully exposed flourishing self-centeredness and dwindling concern for the health and wellbeing of others. It was with this festering backdrop that I made use of my pandemic-induced isolation to reexamine my bedrock beliefs in the context of today’s realities; to challenge the Christian teachings/understandings of my first 70+ years; and to ask, “where does this lead me?”

My spiritual being was shaped by the Methodist Church where I was baptized, confirmed, and married. The sermons, choir anthems and hymns, spiritual retreats, Bible studies, Sunday School classes, church conferences, leadership forums… that have swayed my belief system are too numerous to recount. Suffice it to say that I have been schooled in Methodist doctrine all my life. I particularly appreciate the Wesleyan Quadrilateral and its inclusion of reason and personal experience, along with scripture and tradition, as key considerations in exploring matters of faith. This approach well suits the retired engineer that I am wherein processes of analysis and validation are familiar turf.

I have long believed in God as master designer, creator of the universe and promoter of good in all situations; and I believe in and regularly embrace the Holy Spirit as my direct link to God. I also believe in science, in the laws of physics, in evolution, and in the rightness of our ever unfolding but never complete search for understanding of our earthly realm. That science and the theory of evolution contradict the story of Adam and Eve in no way diminishes my wonderment at God’s creation. What God has created is far beyond our ability to fully comprehend, but that does not limit use of our God-given intellect for furthering our society. The chief imperative is that we all remain true to ethical standards and never start believing that we are becoming gods ourselves. It is my belief that we are uniquely created and armed with far more gifts and abilities than our own efforts can fully utilize — but we must continually strive to achieve our own actualization.

As I have been exposed to more of the world, I have begun to take exception to the notion that Christians are the only ones who got it right — that the rest of the world’s seekers failed to see the one true God. During business trips to Japan, I was intrigued to learn more about the Shinto and Buddhist faiths. Shinto, I learned, emphasizes unity, harmony and tolerance which helps explain why its beliefs abide in souls alongside Buddhist beliefs. In the Spirit of Buddha I found an emphasis on compassion and loving kindness; urgings to resist greed and anger; guidance for mastery of mind; encouragement for understanding the laws of causation; and warnings to avoid ignorance -– lessons often expressed in parables. Are not these calls for virtuous living and good utilization of our gifts as righteous as what the Christian faith asks of us?

This brings me to the third member of the Holy Trinity and the foundational Christian teaching that the only way to God is through Jesus the Christ. This, to me, excludes Buddhists and Hindu, Islamists and Shinto, native peoples, and seekers of other faiths from having meaningful relationships with God unless they convert. I understand how pivotal this teaching is and how it is the basis for Christian churches’ enormous efforts at worldwide evangelism. I now find this tribalization of God misguided. If I believe there is a God of all who does not mandate conversion to Christianity, then rationality forces me to relegate Jesus to a stature as a godly prophet of highest virtue, possibly the son of a tribal god, but not the only son of the God of all.

As I have come to more fully comprehend how entrenched racial bias is in our culture, I cannot help but wonder what role my Christian religion has played. The Jewish people proclaimed themselves the chosen people of the one true God. I have long found it exceedingly difficult to picture a God of mine gifting a “promised land” to twelve tribes of Israel and then telling them that in order to receive their magnificent gift, they had to massacre all of the inhabitants. To me that story has always smacked of rationalization of arrogant human behavior rather than the benevolent actions of a loving God of all creation — including the Canaanites.

Then along came Jesus. He was born into a Jewish family but professed to be the Lord of all people, even wholeheartedly embracing gentiles. To make His point, He obliterated a great many rules, traditions and customs of the Jewish people. He showed by His example vastly different treatment of women and those marginalized by society. He even brought forth a new great commandment that overshadowed the ten given to Moses: that we love one another.

Based on the way Jesus uprooted or reinterpreted so many of the underpinnings of Judaism, including openly embracing non-Jews, it is surprising that early Christians reaffirmed their lineage to Judaism rather than leave its biased and vengeful God behind and go forth as a new love movement. Could it be they maintained the link merely to extend the notion of superiority, for they claimed to be “also chosens” who simply followed their newfound Messiah? I cannot help but wonder what role this Judo-Christian superiority complex has had in shaping Western Civilizations’ attitudes toward other peoples of the world. Is this conviction the underlying source of instilled prejudices that are so prevalent in today’s societies? It sure seems to be at the heart of white supremacy and anti-Arab attitudes.

I previously expressed some misgivings about the godliness of Old Testament writings, particularly the proclaimed superiority of the Jewish people. The creation story was edifying for its time, though right from the beginning it established the primacy of the male and defined female as somewhat less. Treatment of women, slaves and deviates throughout the stories may reflect social norms of the time but can hardly be viewed as godly. Manifold lessons on hospitality seem not to extend to Palestinians. His inspiring poetry notwithstanding, the actions of King David were sinful and sordid to an extreme, and yet he is revered and praised not just for his winning ways but for his godly leadership.

Christians pay greater heed to the teachings in the New Testament. There, too, my long-held sense of message inconsistencies is being validated as I explore more. The message of Jesus is love – pure and unbounded. When I venture in the Bible beyond the actual teachings of Jesus and into representations of how those lessons are to be applied in daily life, I begin to encounter guidance that seems antithetical to Jesus’ message of love.

Carl Krieg, in a series of four articles titled “The Subversion of Jesus bythe Rich and Powerful” (published between July and October 2020 by
ProgressiveChristianity.org), provides a compelling examination of the intentional
distortion of Christianity during its first century for the benefit of the rich and powerful – who, he contends, went so far as to free themselves from culpability in Jesus’ death by casting it as fulfillment of God’s Will.

A prime example of message distortion is found in what is purported to be Paul’s first letter to Timothy wherein slaves are called upon to obey their masters, women to obey their husbands, and everyone to obey their rulers. According to Dr. Krieg, the “wealthy, in concert with the priests and bishops, contorted Jesus’ gospel of love and created a religious institution that justified sexism, racism and authoritarianism.” (from Part One.)

Greed-and-power-driven influences that distorted the gospel message during the first Christian century remain active in our midst even to this day. What more glaring example could there be than how some religious leaders and their followers rationalize rather than condemn unethical, libelous, and corrupt conduct by our elected officials and their agents? Also consider church policies that perpetuate exclusion. The United Methodist Church is finally being forced to elucidate its policies and practices regarding persons identifying as LGBTQ+ and their acceptable roles within the church. Rather than perpetuate biased church dogma of the past, it is an opportunity for my church to declare loving acceptance per the example of Christ.

Although Christian churches’ patent hypocrisy has been conspicuously exposed in recent years, most notably due to sexual-abuse scandals, this latest era of “religious” ungodliness, growing awareness of false privilege and the insidious legacy of slavery, and the unloving treatment of persons identifying as LGBTQ+ portend a potential tipping point.
Will this festering in souls like mine trigger a religious uprising sufficient to rid our Christian church of power-driven bias and center us on getting along with our God and with each other?

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This reasoned updating of my beliefs has revealed:

❖ my acceptance of other pathways to God than just via Jesus.
❖ my rejection of Judo-Christian exceptionalism.
❖ my growing skepticism of the godly origins and intent of more of the Bible.
❖ my greater awareness of the harm of racial and social biases, the fraying of
our moral fiber by religious charlatans, and greed-driven forces attempting
to sculpt a more divergent society.
❖ my hope for a tipping point for Christianity.

These revelations may have shaken foundations of my Christian faith, but they also cleared away some of the clutter and dust that clouded God’s divine message of love and acceptance. They suggest that I embrace a purer perception of godliness and actualize the best of my being by promoting a more inclusive and just society.

I still have as my guide the Holy Spirit that links me to my God, even as the breadth of His/Her loving acceptance is expanded in my revised assemblage of beliefs. I cherish the constant dialogue and guidance, and I relish the Spirit’s active collaboration with me in expressing messages of acceptance and encouragement.

Disclaimers regarding the Bible’s time dependencies and contradictions are not new to me, though they were typically exposed during Bible-study sessions and never considered intentional distortion. In weekly worship services, the tendency is to gloss over message authenticity and to affirm all readings as “the Word of God for the people of God.” I will be more circumspect in my hearing of the “Word” and in affirming my faith via the church’s traditional creeds. I still have much to glean from Jesus. His teachings and His example, as recounted by those actually present, will be given highest credence and will be the standard by which all other “holy” guidance will be more closely questioned and validated.

I still have my local church. I am not yet ready to abandon this body of believers that serves goodness in our community and provides inspiration and encouragement for my personal walk of faith. Church has always brought together many good people who have dominated my circle of friends. Though not as progressive as I might like, my local church strives to be a relevant church for our time and has as its common thread this year the promotion of empathy. By my continuing involvement, I hope to continue to grow in my faith, inspire greater discernment in our orthodoxy, and help craft a more empathetic community.

Finally, I need to faithfully transform these fresh insights into constructive life forms. I know that I will not be alone. Inspiring forces with diverse perceptions of God are working diligently for the betterment of our earthly realm. Together may this growing legion of newly inspired servants tip the balance of power so that love, acceptance and justice prevail. And when the reckoning comes, I hope my advocacies and actions will be deemed both good and faithful. As a small step in that direction and as a parting gift to those who made their way through these ponderings, I share the lyrics to my latest song written in collaboration with the Holy Spirit:

“Awaken Us”
A call for goodness

Awake, our better angels; a time for grace has come.
Restore our moral compass and guide us to shalom.
May empathy and virtue, compassion and resolve,
be hallmarks of our actions, with charity for all.
Our better angels, awaken!

Awaken, patriot spirit, to serve our common good;
may liberty and justice for all be as it should.
By working with each other, there’s nothing we can’t do;
with selfless dedication, let’s make our dream come true.
Our patriot spirit, awaken!

Awaken social justice; we’ve love enough for all.
In every single person are images of God.
Help rid our world of bias and false supremacy.
Repair their damaged prospects and let our brethren be.
Let social justice awaken!

Awaken the good in us, Holy Spirit. Awaken us!

Click here for PDF of the Hymn.

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Edwin (Ed) Darling is a retired engineer living in Ocala, FL. He is married and has an adult daughter. A regular church goer, he sings in the choir and currently serves as chair of their staff-parish committee. Throughout his career in technical management, he worked to refine his creative skills and enjoys bringing new ideas to life – whether entire processing facilities, shop projects or his compositions. Both his writings and his music have received special recognition.

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