— George Takei
Back in October, I wrote about a dinner debate I had with two friends over the definition of the word “Christian.” There was one moment in that conversation that has continued to play in my mind.
As I wrote in my earlier article:
Her definition of the word “Christian” corresponds with what the Episcopal Biblical scholar Marcus Borg defines as the “heaven and hell framework.” Man is born in a state of original sin (thanks to Eve and that apple), but God sacrificed his son Jesus on the cross in order that those who believe in him shall have eternal life in heaven.
While I have often been excited by the teachings and stories about Jesus and found great meaning in the symbolism of the resurrection, I come up against a brick wall when confronted with the idea that only those from a Christian background have access to salvation.
After a fruitful discussion of some of the writings about Jesus that have informed and inspired me, and how my understanding of their meanings varied from my Baptist friend’s theology, my friend concluded that I could not be considered to be a “Christian” if I interpreted the story of Jesus in this framework.
The other friend at the table at this point said, “It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or anything.”
This is the part of the conversation I keep thinking about.
My first reaction, of course, was to wonder why someone would assume that I would ever think that my own religious point of view made me a bad person. If I did, wouldn’t I believe something else?
Whether my working hypothesis about the nature of the world and our place in it is labeled Christian or not Christian does not change anything. It certainly doesn’t change my sense of my own morality.
What is interesting about “It doesn’t make you a bad person” is that its text belies its meaning. It says that the speaker equates being a Christian with being a good person.
If someone were to say this to someone of a different faith, say a Muslim or a Jew, would it not be perceived as, at best, insensitive? Imagine the kind of hot water a politician would get into for saying to a Muslim, “You’re not Christian but that doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.”
Beyond that, there are quite a few atheists out there who not only think that their point of view is more rational but also more moral than that of Christians. It is hard to imagine them saying, “You’re not an atheist, but that doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.”
Being able to say something like this means that you feel confident that you hold the socially dominant point of view. That your assumption is society’s default assumption.
The conversation with my friend about the requirement to accept Jesus to enter heaven ended, as it had to, with a friendly acknowledgement of our differences.
Later, though, I had to wonder. If you do not think that my difference in belief makes me a bad person why would you have me damned to hell for it?
— Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham, The Spirituality of Imperfection
If I am full of myself, there is no room in me for what you bring. I keep myself intact when I convert you; I keep myself intact when I politely tolerate you; in a mutual interaction, I lose something of myself to create an opening for your perspective, your experience to enter my world…
‘Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares’ (Hebrews 13:2). This ancient advice to “entertain strangers,” to be open to others, to invite them in and offer them food and listen to their stories, point to the reward that comes from this “entertaining,” this response of mutuality: in that other, we may just find an angel.
Now I admit that I have never seen any sort of mystical angel, a divine glowing being with halo and wings, and I suspect I never will. But I have met a fair number of angels in human guise, if an angel is also someone who offers me something I never expected to receive, tells me something I never expected to hear, shows me something I never expected to see, helps me understand something I never expected to grasp, or otherwise breaks into my usual mindset. When another manages this feat, moving past my defenses and my absolutely true opinions to remind me that I really, finally, do not know everything, then I have been visited by an angel."
— Rev. Dr. Kathy Hurt, Unitarian Universalist minister
— Lee Barker (Unitarian Universalist, minister, educator)