Bible Buffet


I have somewhat mixed feelings on the idea what might be considered salad bar religions, where adherents take a bit of this and that and mix them to taste. Neo-pagan religions are probably the best example, but they’re certainly not the only culprits. When you get right down to it, all religions are more or less like that. People make judgments about whether someone else is a real Christian or Muslim, as if there’s only one way to do that. Most holy books that I know of contradict each other so much that you pretty much have to pick and choose. There remains the issue of whether you’re going to decide which parts to follow yourself, or trust someone else to tell you. People will say the most authentic version of a religion is the one that its founder intended, but not only are records incomplete and inconsistent, but even they were often combining earlier traditions. As much as people want to say religions are unchanging, they actually develop with the times. Even though Jesus said he didn’t intend to alter the scriptures, other stuff in the New Testament indicates that he did. For instance, he says Moses allowed divorce because of the hardness of people’s hearts, but that his own followers should never divorce. Who knows whether that’s subject to change again? If there’s one true faith, as believers are fond of saying, why would prophets disagree with each other? Wouldn’t God have just told the right thing to the first guy, and not needed all the rest? I have to suspect that, if there is a God, he’s not a particularly effective communicator. Not with humans, anyway. We apparently misinterpret everything and have to be told again.


One issue I find with just picking the parts of religion you like and disregarding the rest is how sincere you can really be when you do that. While all religion is personal, I have to wonder if some people actually believe what they claim to, or they just think it would be nice. Along with that comes the question of whether you’re just dismissing the inconvenient parts. As unnecessary as some religious sacrifice appears, you can tell the people who go through with it are pretty serious about it. When you just want the good stuff without the rules, how deeply can you really say you believe it? To my non-religious mind, the most important thing isn’t how authentic your religion is, but whether it’s good. I think everyone who isn’t purposely wearing blinders on the subject realizes that religion doesn’t really work as the ultimate source of morality, and that it’s totally possible to be good without believing in God.

That said, “good” isn’t always that simple, and there are some moral aspects to many religions that are worth examining in this respect. Certainly, the teaching of turning the other cheek goes beyond merely being nice to other people, and a person doing this isn’t causing anyone harm. That said, there might be times when selfishness and standing up for yourself aren’t bad. The same goes for the Buddhist concept of freedom from desire. I don’t necessarily see desire as a negative thing, at least not all the time. The people who really stick to this precept, however, aren’t likely to blow up Planned Parenthood clinics or campaign against gay marriage, so I can’t say they’re not good. I do think that, while it’s possible the material world isn’t real, it’s all we know, so world-denying philosophies seem rather short-sighted. People who hold to them might turn out to be right after all, but if they’re wrong they would have missed out on the opportunity to live a fulfilling life. I don’t think it’s advisable to ignore what you have now in favor of what you MIGHT have in the future. Anyway, ideas like these are worth questioning, but they have a certain amount of merit and a morality that goes beyond just “behave yourself.” I guess my main thing is that it doesn’t matter which religion you follow so much as it does that you actually think about your beliefs and have a little more support for them than “God said so.”

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7 Responses to Bible Buffet

  1. Thoughtful essay, as always, Nathan!

    I also thought I’d briefly address this point that you wrote:

    “As much as people want to say religions are unchanging, they actually develop with the times. Even though Jesus said he didn’t intend to alter the scriptures, other stuff in the New Testament indicates that he did. For instance, he says Moses allowed divorce because of the hardness of people’s hearts, but that his own followers should never divorce. Who knows whether that’s subject to change again? If there’s one true faith, as believers are fond of saying, why would prophets disagree with each other? Wouldn’t God have just told the right thing to the first guy, and not needed all the rest? I have to suspect that, if there is a God, he’s not a particularly effective communicator. Not with humans, anyway. We apparently misinterpret everything and have to be told again.”

    I agree with you that anyone who doesn’t recognize that Judeo-Christianity is an evolving faith doesn’t understand it. God’s dealings with mankind changes and progresses over the years, and that’s explicit, not just from the Old Testament to the New, but within the Old Testament. God’s approach to Adam is not the same as his approach to Melchizadek or to Noah, or to Abraham or to Moses and the Israelites. And even within the Law covenant, there was an explicit understanding that that covenant arrangement would change. Jeremiah 31:31 prophesied that there would be a New Covenant.

    As regards what Jesus said, you wrote: “Even though Jesus said he didn’t intend to alter the scriptures, other stuff in the New Testament indicates that he did.”

    Let’s dive right into that. Jesus said “Don’t think I’ve come to abolish the Law and the Prophets. I’ve come not to abolish but to fulfill them.”

    Jesus was thought by the Pharisees as someone who was going to destroy the Law. The opposite was true; he’d arrived to bring about its fulfillment in him. He was the only person who could fulfill the Law, not just because he was the only one who understood it perfectly, but because as a perfect man he could do what was impossible for imperfect mankind to do, and in so doing, open the door to a better way, to that promised new covenant between man and God: grace. The Law, in being fulfilled, is thus transformed into something greater, the Law of Love, which no longer required works of the flesh (which because it couldn’t be fulfilled by us led to death) but the receiving of grace, which is life-giving.

    We could spend a lot of time on this, and the Apostle Paul certainly does, but I want to get to the next part of your statement, which is Why. Why wasn’t this first established with Moses? As a person, God doesn’t change, but that doesn’t mean he treats everyone exactly the same way. You don’t deal with an infant the same way you deal with a young child or the same way you deal with an adult. And even amongst adults, we don’t deal with acquaintances the same way we deal with friends.

    In other words, faith is progressive, and that’s because God deals with mankind realistically as they are at any given time. Mankind in its infancy was not ready for grace. They needed the simple carrot and stick, and to be shown that apart from the direction of their Maker they would fall into ruin. And even with that they proved time and again to be a “stiff-necked and stubborn” people. Look at Jesus’ lament in Matt 23:37: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”

    This helps explain why God permitted certain things at that time, but which when he did away with when Jesus instituted the Law of Love, which is summed up as “treat others as you would want to be treated.” The discussion on divorce, which you mentioned, is a good example. In Matthew 19, we’re shown the Pharisees trying to trip Jesus up by asking him if it’s lawful for a man to divorce his wife. Jesus responds by underscoring the seriousness of the marriage vow, and reminding them that it’s a divinely appointed arrangement. The Pharisees, thinking they’re clever, then ask: “Why then did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

    Jesus replies: “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.”

    Jesus acknowledges that although it was not that way from the beginning, God allowed divorce for a time because he was dealing with a hard-hearted people living in a world that were not ready for the serious responsibility that comes of loving one another.

    And yet, Jesus shows a way that is not unreasonable, when he next says that divorce IS permissible on the grounds of sexual unfaithfulness. But a person who just leaves his spouse to marry another is committing adultery.

    Sure, it’s a tough stance, and even the apostles openly say so: “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry”! But he’s establishing an ideal based on love. If you don’t want to be left by your spouse, then don’t leave your spouse. Honor your words and vows.

    So, I’d say that God is a very effective communicator; it’s just we’ve not been very good at listening; and that may be because the idea that we’re responsible for how we treat one another is NOT a popular one, even today, regardless of whether we’re religious or not. It’s more egregious when we’re religious, but it seems as if most of mankind prefer to defer their responsibility to others, such as authority figures, who they can then blame when things go sour. But that’s cowardly and delusional.

    God doesn’t care about religion; he cares that we love each other. Jesus didn’t die to give us a new religion. He died to give mankind a relationship with God that will enable us to enjoy our lives. Jesus said: “I came that they may have and enjoy life, and have it in abundance [to the full, till it overflows].” (John 10:10) It’s taken a long time, but I see good signs that some are starting to finally figure that out.

    • Nathan says:

      In other words, faith is progressive, and that’s because God deals with mankind realistically as they are at any given time. Mankind in its infancy was not ready for grace. They needed the simple carrot and stick, and to be shown that apart from the direction of their Maker they would fall into ruin.

      That suggests that people grew smarter over time, which I’m not sure is always the case.

  2. Living here in Indiana, we see lots of Amish and Mennonites. I’m always amazed at how they’ll bastardize their religion in the name of convenience. I see them wearing Crocs and using cel phones.

    • Nathan says:

      I’ve heard that, with the Amish, they’re allowed to adopt new technology if it’s deemed to be in the best interest of the community rather than just the individual. I can see cell phones fitting in with this, but the Crocs not so much.

  3. I just read a quote yesterday– or the day before, I’ve been on social media less often lately so it’s hard to remember– about the difference between believing in the Bible and believing in Jesus, oh here I’ll find it again: http://sonderbooks.com/sonderquotes/?p=4029&utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter Rereading it now I’m not so sure how easy it’d be for a nonChristian to understand out of context there, but the basic idea is once you understand in your soul who Christ is, adhering unwaveringly to the imperfect translated words of the Bible isn’t what it’s about. It gives ME at least a clearer understanding of what is “good” Cafeteria religion and what isn’t. I mean, I’m a sucky Catholic when it comes to strict dogma, but the things I truly disagree with in the church are all things that I disagree with BECAUSE of my faith and understanding of the Love of Christ. But there are other things that are a matter just of being lazy or selfish, like how often I skip Mass– THAT on the other hand I feel I’m deliberately making the choice to sin, minor sin though it may be– oh okay! Also my opinion there!– because I know I’m doing it out of laziness, not out of love. Like, when Jesus broke the Sabbath to heal people, that was breaking the rules out of love instead of selfishness. I was going to say “intention has a lot to do with it” but then I thought “the road to hell…” but then again, whoever made up THAT line might have been one of the strict rule-abider-types to begin with.

    So then of course the non-religious say “Well then, see, it’s still about morality separate from religion!” But I don’t think that invalidates religion. Religion is more of a path for living morality than it is morality in and of itself. Some people try to SAY it is morality in and of itself, but I think they’re wrong for the same reasons you think they’re wrong. Like the quote says, Bible leads you TO Jesus, and in Jesus’ example you see what it means to be Good. I mean, I do believe there are many paths up the mountain, but following This Guy Jesus works for me, so I do. Y’know?

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