Tuesday, November 24, 2015

What is Truth?

As I've been taking this Peter Rollins course, I've been reading his old books as a refresher. I ran across this seemingly long-forgotten concept that really made me happy. Rollins posits that truth is an act and not a state of being, which isn't so novel until he fleshes it out with examples. He defines the act of truth specifically as one that positively transforms reality. This is in contrast to a typical definition where truth is an empirical description of reality.

The example he uses is SS agents coming to the door of a home during Nazi occupation and asking if there are any Jews present. The owner, knowing there are Jews present, but not wanting to turn them over, faces an ethical quandary. In reality, some people did in fact tell the "truth" and leave those Jews they were protecting in the hands of God. Others "lied" and continued to hide the Jews. Rollins argues that denying the presence of Jews is actually the truer statement, because it positively transforms reality.

Coming from a scriptural perspective, if Jesus is "the truth," then anything resembling Christ or in line with his life and teachings would also be truth. Rollins argues that saving Jews during the holocaust is inarguably true, no matter what factual inaccuracies one must espouse to do it.

Yes, it's a convenient example - one difficult to disagree with, but I think the larger notion of truth as an action that positively transforms the world helps in a lot of situations.

There's the old trope of a wife asking her husband if a dress makes her look fat. As a husband, you know there are some realities to navigate there. It may very well be that the wife has chosen a dress that is unusually unflattering and she would look (and feel) much better in something else. Saying as much is an important truth in the moment, because there's a potential she'll be embarrassed later on. Now if the wife has simply chosen one of many dress options that all make her look equally beautiful (even if she might actually be overweight), you say as much, because it is also true. There is no other answer you can give which will positively transform reality.

Again, this is a convenient and common example that doesn't always translate to real life - but I imagine you can imagine a lot of scenarios where this is a helpful guide (certainly more helpful than asking yourself, "is this an accurate description of reality?).

Putting our words up against some arbitrary definition of "true" or "factual" is ultimately pointless. The point in life is not to be accurate (especially since we've long entered a period where bias and perspectival error are well accepted and few people believe truth, by that definition, is even possible), it is to positively transform the world.

Of course, this adds a layer for Christians (or really anyone) when debating how to speak truth. It certainly seems easier to say whatever will make our own lives easier and, in a way, one could argue that positively transforms the world from my perspective. Using this definition of truth, though, requires a willingness to submit our own preferences and ease to the greater good. Something we're not always very good at.

Then again, using the standard definition of truth requires much the same thing - only it gives us less room to justify our actions and correct or ethical. This idea from Rollins makes more space for interpretation and disagreement, but we live in a world where that's reality anyway.

In any event, I'm not at a place where I'm adopting this notion of truth wholesale anyway, but I do think it's worth thinking about - or perhaps the larger point it's making about how we approach ethics. I'd love to hear what other people think, though. Chime in.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

There's No Such Thing as Equality

I've been "attending" this online video course by Peter Rollins on Wednesday nights. He's walking us slowly through his latest book, The Divine Magician. I'm really enjoying the experience a lot. Much of the discussion is about Rollins' notion (and certainly not his alone) that our search for fulfillment is really what we need to be saved from; that desire is not really the problem, but the belief that achieving this desire will somehow make us whole.

I asked specifically about the Kingdom of God and the way Christ talks about the Kingdom in scripture. That sure can come off as something to be sought after and it provides a picture of fulfillment. Rollins responded by going back to a dynamic he's spoken of before, but which struck me in a different way this time. He talked about the Kingdom as something that does not exist, but that insists. In other words, the Kingdom is just an idea, a notion - like justice or peace or democracy - that drives us to act. We seek justice; we seek the Kingdom. These concepts bring to mind various ideas about how the world needs to be different. But, Rollins warns, if anyone ever says they've found "the Kingdom" or can perfectly describe it, we'd better be wary of trouble.

I connected this with the old mathematical trope: I can walk half the distance from me to you an infinite number of times without ever reaching you. Of course this doesn't make sense in the real world, but it is mathematically logical. There are an infinite number of numbers between 0 and 1, for example. We can go half the distance 1/2, and then go half again, 1/4. We can do this forever and never, ever get to zero. I think this is analogous to what Rollins meant - that we can move towards justice or the Kingdom or whatever else and do so continually, but we aren't going to reach it. The Kingdom insists; it doesn't exist.

Now there are some eschatological questions raised here - namely, do we think there will ever be a time when the Kingdom is fully realized? That's certainly the traditional Christian hope. I suspect Rollins will address this next week in the course, but I also suspect he'll say it doesn't matter. We should be focused on the now not on the if - that very notion of future completeness can get us right back into the failed self-fulfillment mess that started this post. I'll leave this question for another day (although, personally, I suspect the reality of eternity in Christian thought, that there is no end, probably means there's also no end to the insistence of the Kingdom, but that's just me).

To get to the subject of the title, though, it made me immediately think of our current social battles for equality, particularly this battle between #BlackLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter. I think what we're seeing is the insistence of the latter. All lives do indeed matter, at least we all (or most of us) affirm as much. It's an intellectual truth. At the same time we do not exist in a world where it's an actual truth. Life is thrown around and thrown away all the time. Particularly, the lives of minority and historically disadvantaged groups more than others. Essentially the tension is between those saying, "just because we don't see the reality of our belief doesn't make our intentions less sincere," and those saying, "the very fact that our beliefs are not reality speaks to the insufficiency of our resolve."

In the end, though, I think the first step for both parties to acknowledge is that equality is not possible. I think, deep down, we know that #AllLivesMatter will never be a physical reality, but we might hope for a world in which arbitrary factors like race or gender don't predispose one life to matter more than another. No one is really expecting utopia, just a sort of flawed yet unbiased world.

Perhaps we need to take a step further and recognize that equality is not a possible result either.

That is not to say equality can't be insistent in its non-existence, because it has to be. We must be pushed toward equality with constant fervor and impassioned commitment. We're just not going to get there.

The very fact that we're different means we'll be treated differently. Now we can certainly improve the lot of those who are left out or left behind, certainly, but we're not going to get there. And, if for some reason, we DO get there, we create a society in which every individual is seen as equal to everyone else, we're still not going to be equal. Why? Because we're all different, with different abilities, actions, feelings, beliefs. We're different people; we're not capable of treating different people in the same way.

Say we have an unemployed factory worker with three kids and a mortgage in rural Ohio. If the person in question is male, he's going to have an easier time navigating his situation than if he were female. If the person is white, he's going to have a more difficult time than if he were black. This is not good. No one thinks it is, but it is reality.* We can work to make the differences expressed here less different, and that would be great, but we're not going to eliminate them.

This notion, that equality is impossible could seem to undercut the very power of the movement for equality, but I'd argue it may actually strengthen that power. Now, instead of chasing an impossible dream, we are empowered to chase an intermediate one. Does anyone think Martin Luther King believed equality would happen if all people had fair and equal access to the ballot box? Not a chance, but he understood the massive move toward equality it represented. He recognized as much in his speeches, "I may not get to the mountain top with you..." None of us is going to get to the mountain top, but we need that mountain to motivate us. We need the concepts of justice and equality to insist on something different than what we have.

From the perspective of power (as an educated, white, American male) its an extremely helpful statement to make - that equality is impossible, because it removes the burden of fairness. We powerful people are suckers for fairness. We're allergic to anything that might make our lives more difficult. We're the first to call "reverse discrimination" if it seems like the equality train is moving too quickly. Recognizing that equality is not an exact science, not a true reality, moves the discussion from, "will this change harm anyone (namely, me)," to "will this change improve the lot of those who've been disadvantaged (namely, someone else)?"

Power will continue to be power and people like me will probably continue to oppose moves toward equality that minorly inconvenience us just because we can, but the ethical bargaining position from which we operate will not be nearly as strong. We will no longer be able to say, "this solution doesn't produce equality," because that's not the goal. Incremental steps become the only acceptable steps and much more difficult to argue against.

I've rambled on far longer than I planned, so I'll leave it there. This doesn't just apply to equality, but across the board with so called societal virtues. This way of thinking undercuts the perverse ideology that so often bogs down our societal systems and helps us focus more on the moment. I think it is a genuine path forward and something important for everyone to consider.

*I recognize that there are people who would refuse to agree this disparity exists. Rollins has some thoughts on this as well - namely that this is a subconscious form of denial. Likely the believe so greatly in the goodness and rightness of the system that they refuse to see its flaws. Often we are incapable of facing the real brokenness in our systems and relationships, even when they're right in front of our face. You see this played out sometimes when a man is accused of sexually abusing children, often the wife is the most resolute believer in his innocence simply because recognizing the obvious truth is truly too much to bear. Our national narrative of equality and freedom is often so ingrained in us any challenge to it is unbearable and must be denied, disproved, and destroyed.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Do We Really Believe?

It's a rough morning (quite honestly, it's been a rough few months, since I started this post in June and am just getting around to finishing it, yet it seems as timely as ever.* The truth is, I'm having a hard time believing these days. It's not really a crisis of faith - at least not faith in God, that's pretty secure for the most part. What I'm having trouble believing is that all these Christians around me really have faith. I mean, I know they do. Intellectually. I see the fervency with which they live and, being in some measure of relationship with many of them, I get it. You don't have to convince me. I have a sincere belief that people deserve the benefit of the doubt when it comes to faith. Nobody's perfect - we're all great big hypocrites in some way (or many). At the same time, as I'm understanding in my head, my heart struggles; it hurts. I see a lot of words and actions that confuse me, that send a message that doesn't quite make sense - words and actions that, frankly, break my heart.

So much of our actions in this world (and by that I mean, human action) come from a place of deep fear. In the end, we're scared that someone will take what we have. Even if it's not something tangible, we live in this delicate balance where, in an instant, it could all be gone. Call it, "there, but by the grace of God, go I," syndrome.

And it's not as though that phrase isn't true. There really is nothing separating my relatively mild (or non-existent) suffering from those people and places where suffering seems unbearable - nothing except grace, or maybe just dumb luck. The problem is not that the phrase is untrue, but that we don't really mean it.

We more often mean, "there, but by the amount in my savings account, go I," or "there, but by the loaded gun under my pillow, go I," or "there, but by my obedience to God - or there, but by my cunning intellect - or there, but by my good job, go I." We talk a lot about blessing or grace, but we don't really mean it. Many of us overtly.

If we let these refugees in, they'll bomb our churches and take our jobs. Society doesn't have any right telling me what to do with my money or my guns. Sure, I could help that guy out, but what if he takes advantage of me - I might lose my home or my car.

So much of our fear is about control. We're afraid we won't have any. Without control, we can't protect those things we hold most dear. Rarely, rarely, rarely, is one of those things we're afraid of losing our faith. We're scared of losing comfort, security, possessions, money, family - and none of those are impossible scenarios. They're probably pretty natural fears. The difference, though, is how Christians face them. How do we deal with the thought of losing what we have, or, more fearfully, how we deal with having those things we love taken from us.

We buy into the myth of scarcity. That there isn't enough. "If we tried to give everyone what they need, we'll all be poor." "I have to look out for myself - or at least for the people I love."

Not only are these individual actions challenged by the words and life of Jesus and the historic tradition of the Church, but they betray a larger denial, the one I have trouble understanding sometimes. do we not believe in a God with the ends under control? I recognize that things might be a bit chaotic now, but do we really believe that love will win? That my suffering today is part of that victory, the very means by which it comes about, in imitation of Christ?

Maybe we really don't believe. That's my doubt.

That's my doubt when I see such hateful rhetoric addressed toward any group of people. We are not called to love some people more than others. I think the Luke passage says as much - everybody loves their friends and family; everybody loves those who are nice to them. Some people are even moved with compassion towards those who suffer. That's not really the challenge of Christianity, though.

I'm not saying we shouldn't be afraid (although God does say that a lot) - I'm saying we can't let that fear dictate what we say or how we act. I don't understand how people can claim the power of the cross and also advocate the power of the gun, or the army, or the law, or the power of some big-ol' freakin' wall.

And I don't mean to say we should just be able to believe unconstrained (I have a bank account and a mortgage and locks on my doors). I am saying we should be honest. We have to say either, "I'm scared of __________ and I'm reacting out of fear," or "I'm not convinced this will work in the short term, but ultimately it's the right thing to do." Faith and love and grace and peace will not save us from pain or suffering or heartbreak or death - in fact they'll likely invite more of each. But warmongering and mistrust and self-protection will never get us what we desire.

There's no such thing as a regrettable means towards a glorious end. That's a lie we tell ourselves when we're scared to justify doing what we know is wrong.

That's why my doubts are just doubts, not beliefs. I don't believe these people I see saying and doing things that make me sigh and shake my head are really without faith. They are merely human, doing what comes natural. If we were the kind of people who could act entirely on our beliefs, well, we wouldn't need each other, would we? We wouldn't need to meet each week and remind ourselves of who we are and what we're called to do. We just wouldn't need that bread and that cup, because we'd already be transformed.

Do we really believe?

Of course not. It's darn near impossible, but the very fact we still ask the question means there's hope somewhere. I think.

*Seriously. I didn't change a bit of it after the events of this week, just cleaned up the language some, made it a little more readable. It was all there.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

It's Not What You Think by Jefferson Bethke

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. My integrity is not for sale. Those who know me well are aware a free book isn't enough to assuage my cutting honesty. If I've failed to write a bad review, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

I had never heard of Jefferson Bethke when I picked up his new book, It's Not What You Think. I had heard of the title of his first book (Jesus > Religion - which, by the title, sort of seems more interesting to me than this one). He is evidently a youtuber, although I was unaware (which is understandable since this week I also found out my own cousin has 5 million subscribers - I am decidedly NOT a youtuber). It seemed like an interesting title nonetheless - I'm a fan of anyone challenging conventional notions of anything.

It's a great book. It's really good. Bethke does indeed, as the title (and my intro) suggest, challenge some basic assumptions of Christian thought in ways that encourage people to make their faith more a lifestyle than an accessory. This is good. He has clearly done a lot of study and reading to inform his position and writes with the freshness and excitement of youth. The book is lifegiving and graceful. It's good for people to know that love is at the core of all creation, that people and relationships are foundational to life, that the Kingdom of God and the narrative of sacrificial love embodied in Jesus Christ are present realities that both counter and defeat contemporary notions of right and power. Just about anyone would benefit from reading this book.

Based on the suggestions for further reading in the back, Bethke and I have read a lot of the same books and thus it's not surprising he's arrived at many of the places I've arrived in faith. You won't see a lot different in this book than you see on this blog. Bethke is a young man, and one clearly interested in learning and development. His thinking will continue to evolve. Because of that, critique seems less than helpful. Instead I'd like to offer a challenge.

Throughout It's Not What You Think, Bethke shows great willingness to question and challenge traditional interpretations to better capture the free and expansive grace of God in the human story. In the same way, I'd challenge him to look past some traditional assumptions that have arisen to support particular interpretations of creation, humanity, and sin - particularly in the first few books of the Bible. For example, he refers to the notion of a six day creation, to the idea Moses wrote the Torah, even the concept that heaven is a return to some Edenic paradise. Now, these are not really central to the arguments made in the book, but one's perspective on them does have far reaching implications that, I think, would dovetail well with the direction his faith and thought seem to be progressing.

Overall, it's a great book. I think it's immensely accessible and could in now way harm someone's faith (which sounds like a backhanded compliment, but being non-threatening while talking about God, especially while challenging traditional beliefs, is pretty impressive). It's not something advanced faith thinkers will really find groundbreaking, but that's not the target audience. I look forward to seeing what contributions Jefferson Bethke will make in the future. I pray he avoids the trapping of evangelical celebrity and continues to focus on relationship and theology - there's a real gift there to share with the world.

*Although, because I just have to be a little nit-picky, I'd challenge the editing team to spend a little more time on the theological review - after a stellar, concise explanation of baptism, the comment is made that "of course Jesus didn't have to be baptized." That's certainly a legitimate position to take, but not in light of the description of baptism preceding it. Also, there's one reference to Israel "worshiping Baal because Moses took to long on the mountain." Israel made a golden calf, yes, but as representative of Yahweh. There's some pretty important theological distinctions (not to mention worship lessons) there.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze.com® book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Narratives and Results

I read Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me this weekend. He's an influential thinker in matters of race and society (although that seems to limit the kind of things he thinks and writes about), come to greater prominence in the last year specifically addressing policing and prisons in the country. Obviously, I'm white, so it's difficult to process everything in the book, which is written as a series of letters to his 15 year old son, but reads much like a memoir.

I appreciate his statement that the white struggle to deal with issues of race in our past and present is not a struggle someone else can do for us. It's not a sentiment you hear often, but something I resonate with - that there is not one struggle, but many, from every perspective and position. It's challenging.

Perhaps more challenging, though, is his assertion that the brutality and violence we often rue in our police and prison system is not a regrettable anomaly, but the natural output of our society. Yes, race is mixed up in this pictures because race is mixed up in everything we've ever done as a society, but by presenting the large picture of "you act as you are," Coates addresses a bigger picture that should concern even those deniers of race disparities.

He argues we have a militant and aggressive police force because we are a militant and aggressive country. We might outsource most of that over seas, but it still represents the core of who we are as a people (and if it truly doesn't, then we need to act differently toward the rest of the world). This argument has given me pause to look at all those things we decry in our society:

We hate that our political leaders have entrenched themselves in intractable positions, unwilling to talk or make real progress because they perceive it as some kind of moral or ideological defeat. Yet we have a nation that blunders blindly into war just about anywhere we can frame an ideological message and keep throwing money at problems long after it makes any sense (I'm thinking Syria, but there are a lot of foreign policy moves that would fly here).

The same thing plays out across society. We hate that our attention span is so short, that our people don't seem to care about real issue or knowledgeable arguments. We prefer sex and violence to plot and narrative in our entertainments. Our most vocal and consistent support in sports is for a game in which grown men (and sometimes children) literally kill themselves and each other on the field, then we pat our backs for being mildly outraged when they do the same thing off the field (although not so outraged to stop employing them).

Coates takes an interesting tactic, though. He advises his young son to stick to his own struggle. He doesn't advocate trying to change the system or change the world, but to deal with the situation he's found himself in (as an advantage black man in the 3rd generation since the 60's) and address the world as best he can from that position - even if its not enough to change things, it is the very best that he can do.

You read Between the World and Me searching for glimmers of hope. There's a sense in which Coates has hope, even though he can't rationalize it. There are certainly no words of hope, other than the thankfulness of having one generation in a slightly better position than the last. There is, however, an undercurrent of expectation - something I'll label latent hope. Coates acts as though he expects things to improve, even though there's no real evidence to have such faith, simply because there's not much option outside nihilism, and no one wants to pass nihilism on to their children.

As a Christian, it's a challenge, partly because, while Coates respects the place of faith in Black American history, he doesn't believe in a god. I do see a Christian response in his advice to focus on one's situation to make a difference that might count. Nothing pains me more than Christians who adopt the persona and narrative of conservative and liberal, those who take on the mantra of Republican or Democrat and play the partisan game of our nation. I say that with intention. Nothing makes me more upset. Poverty, rape, slavery, addiction - those things are far more terrible, for sure, but in playing the political games of nations, Christians are, whether consciously or not, giving up on the Church as the hope of the world.

I've said it before; I'll say it a lot more. The message of Christ was for anyone who has any respect for his life or teaching to live as an alternative to the narrative of nations and power. It is only through a alternative lifestyle that we could ever hope to tackle the horrors of poverty and injustice in any meaningful way. The message of Christ is essentially the same message Coates gives to his son at the end of Between the World and Me: live your own struggle. The narrative of the world you've been given will not resonate with the narrative that speaks truth to your soul. Don't get fooled. Skip that national narrative and struggle with the one in your heart.

Coates and Christ might not preach the same narrative (then again, they might be closer than were comfortable with), but it's good advice. We need to speak into the world, with our words and, more important, with our actions, from our own narrative, not adopting one of the positions made available to us by the narrative of power. Participating in the society we have will only continue to produce the results we're unsatisfied with. Playing the game means we've already lost.

The great myth of power is that there exists no alternative; the challenge of the gospel is to live into that non-existent alternative and, through our lives, make it real.

*And I fully admit, Coates will likely be as disappointed with what I've gotten out of his book as he is with all the other people who seem to miss the point. I'm thankful either way and highly recommend it.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Loving Victims without Condoning Abuse

In 2014, the San Francisco 49ers lost their All-Everything LB, Patrick Willis to injury. Coming in to replace him was a rookie from Wisconsin, Chris Borland, who ended up playing better than Willis for the rest of the season. At the end of the year, Willis decided to retire - seemingly leaving a huge space for Borland to fill. A week later, at 24 years of age, owing $600,000 back to the team, Borland also retired. He was just too scared of future brain damage.

ESPN Magazine does a fantastic job of laying out the conflicting nature of Borland's decision and life. He was all about football and he doesn't necessarily want to take that away from anyone - he won't tell you not to let your kid play - simply that his research and experience scared the heck out of him. At the same time, it also explores his difficult relationship to the game.

Borland is often asked to speak at symposiums about football safety. Mostly these conferences are designed to make the game safer for people. Borland, though, doesn't believe the game can be made safe - that people who think it can be freed from these long term serious medical problems, are just hurting people in the long run. After one rally in support of a paralyzed former player that felt more like a pep rally than anything else, Borland was scratching his head at the whole thing, "You don't have to promote the game to help people who've been hurt by it."

This really hit home for me in a different context.

I don't like war. I don't believe war ever accomplishes anything positive - what may seem good is always overwhelmed by the less visible bad. Fighting puts out society back a step, rather than moving us forward. I pray that all soldiers everywhere, no matter what side they fight for, would simply lay down their arms and refuse to fight. If that happened, there'd be no more war.

At the same time, there is a great need to care for those who've been affected by war. Those who suffer and, perhaps, those who don't realize they suffer. I want to be involved in taking care of veterans and their families - but that cause always seems draped in the flag, like its a patriotic effort in support of war. I know it is for a lot of people, but certainly it doesn't have to be that way.

As a Christian, I should worry more about caring for people than how people perceive my actions, but I do still worry. I'm not sure I can help that. Peace is something I take very seriously; it's at the core of my faith. I wouldn't want someone to get the wrong idea about what I support and condone, especially at a time when my tribe, evangelical Christians, seems so ready and willing to support blasphemous violence in the name of Christ.

At the same time, as much as I believe in peace, I believe it happens because of love. I believe that love shown to someone, even if the reasons are unclear or obscured, will have an effect on people, drawing them more into a life of love. I believe that supporting veterans unconditionally can and will lead people away from fighting simply by the example of love.

In the end, I resonate strongly with the conflicting position Borland finds himself in - both as a respecter of football and someone afraid of its effect on the world (and the individuals who play). He talks about it as dehumanizing, but doesn't want to violate those people who deeply love the game. He's trying to care for people while not caring for the thing they love.

I get it. I wish we had more space for this kind of tension in our society.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Reincarnation and the Meaning of Life

Perhaps the underlying notion of reincarnation deserves additional consideration. I don't mean the notion that our spirits are somehow reborn over and over again until we get life right, but the notion that the purpose of life is not to be the best person you can be, but to embrace life itself (which, in turn, leaves you to be the best person you can be). Reincarnation ends when striving ends, when balance is achieved. We westerners sometimes think of reincarnation as the move up a ladder - be more and more perfect until you get it right, but that's not how the teaching works. Enlightenment comes not by doing life right, but by doing life, being at peace with simply living. The notion underlying reincarnation is that there's something transformative about not seeking transformation.

That's the kind of paradox a good Christian can get behind.

Our tradition looks at eternity the same way (at least our theology does; common practice may be a different story). Jesus talks about a never-ending kingdom - this is what scripture means when it talks about heaven, not a fantasy world up in the clouds, but real life done right. There's no end to the kingdom of God, no "point" to heaven. This is pretty much the same thing Buddhists call Nirvana - a place of enlightenment, peace.

But Christians continue to seek after heaven as some sort of goal. Scripture teaches pretty plainly that there is no end (death is just a bump in the road); resurrection means life goes on - it may be a changed life, a transformed one, but it's a life everlasting. We need to stop thinking about "this life and the next." There is just one life and the good news of Jesus' gospel is that we can live into this life now; we can have access to God's never-ending Kingdom right now, before we die. This really is like reincarnation - at least the underlying principle. It's not about dying and coming back (although that happens once), it's about living well as an end in itself. That's how we find purpose in life, it's how we encounter Christ's kingdom, it's how we discover enlightenment. It's how we get to heaven, even if we're not yet dead.

Even the concept of purgatory plays on the same theme. Purgatory is this limbo state in which people wait out or work out or suffer through all the sin and junk that keeps us from being the people God created us to be. The end result of purgatory is heaven. In some sense, we could say the Christian belief is that all life is purgatory. This process by which we live and love and grow and learn is a process by which we discover our purpose: to live - and, in doing so, find transformation.

This is the reason Jesus is so important - because in Christ you find not only the words of life, but the example of life. This embrace of living (even unto death) is how we figure out what it means to live into this eternal kingdom. In Christ we see the fulfillment, the coming together of everything God has revealed from the beginning of time - life lived rightly, embodied in one man.

I think it's easy to pick these connections out across all human beliefs, because I strongly believe that God has been revealed to all people in all times. By that I don't mean all roads lead to God, but that all roads come from God. I also believe all roads lead to Christ, even if you never know the name of Christ or the story. All truth is God's truth and discovering the truth means discovering Christ. Now, as a Christian, it seems especially helpful to have a whole body of teaching laid out to direct and challenge us to right living; it seems preferable over a couple millennia of essentially trial and error - at the same time, I think it's really valuable to have such diverse perspectives on truth. To me, it's even more evidence of a God involved with creation when we see the same core notions of life and eternity emerging from different cultures and locations.

I affirm Christ as Truth and the only means by which we find God. But I'm also not willing to dent the possibility that while all roads may not lead to God, they all, if pursued honestly, lead to Christ, or, more specifically, the Truth Christ embodies.

In the end, it is not the Christian culture that sets the standard for others, but God's creative purpose in the world that transcends all cultures and religions. This is the message of Christ, who came no to start a new religion, but to put an end to all religion - to unify all people in the transformative power of love and to shift our focus from the ends to the means: living life well, for it's own sake.

It's there we find heaven, and life everlasting.