My questioning of the traditional Christian religious story evolved with my experience of life’s vicissitudes, many self-induced, others seemingly out of the ether. One particular event shook me awake from my religious slumber. It was the death of my 29-year-old, pregnant sister in 1971. There was no earthly explanation for a good God after that event. And while the traditional, “we can’t understand God’s plan, so we must have faith”, works for some philosophically, in my family’s time of crisis, it was virtually useless.
After years of wandering my own desert, I arrived back at Christianity’s door with a new-found tolerance for its ambiguities. But my need to reconcile at least some of the glaringly obvious persisted.
I don’t know when, but I began to deconstruct the religious stories that represented my world for so many years. In that period, I came across the fact that the four gospels in the New Testament were selected out of several dozen. And the others had been condemned as heresy and banned.
In 1945, copies of these heretical gospels were found in a stone jar in an area of Upper Egypt called Nag Hammadi. I purchased the book titled The Nag Hammadi Scriptures and began to read. During this process I got a glimpse of the territory the official Christian religious map had deemed heretical and banned.
Here, it’s not my intention to compare these gospels to prove which one is true or false. As I mentioned before, I’m not a Biblical scholar. My point is that these books present stories about the same man during the same time that differ dramatically – not only on his teachings but also on the so-called facts.
This created a gaping hole in the map that had represented the Christian territory for me all my life. It brought home the point in a way that made it impossible for me to accept the traditional Christian story at face value.
I now see that story as one simulation of a reality, which may or may not have existed. In fact, it might even be a fourth level simulation: a simulation of a reality that doesn’t exist where even the attempts to validate it are artificial. (Think of the many arguments that use contradictory Biblical facts to justify the Bible.)
So why haven’t I abandoned the whole story? Why do I consider myself to be a secular Christian agnostic? First and foremost, I was born into the Christian religion. And secondly, because the Christian story represents universal human truths, as do so many other religions of the world.
So what? Because I think it points to why religions in general and Christianity in particular are getting such a bad rap today in America. And it’s this: Many believers are still confusing the map with the territory.
The map is a representation of some of the most inspiring truths available to humankind. But much of organized religion promotes worship of the map. And worshipping the map is like eating the menu in a fine restaurant. It’ll temporarily satisfy your hunger but it won’t be a very nutritious.
In today’s complex world, we need the spiritual nutrition found in the universal human truths are found in the real territory religious maps are intended to represent. Whether its Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or Hinduism these truths are represented in their maps.
When we move from asking God’s forgiveness for breaking the rules to forgiving ourselves for our lapses in our treatment of other human beings, we might learn the compassion upon which every religion is based. And in the process we might create a better world.
Robert De Filippis
Ps. For those of you who cannot abide same-sex marriage, please read the last paragraph again.