The Tragedy of Christianity
What follows is an email that I recently wrote to my aunt. I’m sharing it today because I believe that Christ and Christianity have drifted apart over the years, and I believe that many people have “church wounds” as I do, having tried to integrate oneself into the Christian fold a handful of times but not finding much success. This letter is shared in the spirit of helping more individuals create a direct relationship with the divine.
Let me first give some personal background. Feel free to skip this part and head straight to The Letter if you’re just looking for the heavy theological content.
I come from a line of devout Christians on my father’s side of the family.
My great-great-grandmother was involved in establishing some of the earliest Christian churches in Korea, and my grandmother was a huge Christian force in our family.
"Parish Church of St Michael, Mitcheltroy, Window" by imaginedhorizons is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
My father took us to church every Sunday for many years and sang in the choir. When I asked him why we attended church, he replied, “Because there will be times in your life when all is dark. And in those times, you need to believe in something greater than yourself.” So I begrudgingly put on my nicest clothes and woke up early on Sunday mornings in order to explore and build this belief in the divine.
The experience was a mixed one, for sure. On the one hand, I really enjoyed Sunday school, where we’d have charismatic members of the church speaking about the Bible in plain English. And I’ve always enjoyed singing, so even though the hymns were a bit slow, old-timey, and sometimes hard to relate to, the experience of having a few hundred people singing, backed by an organ, was neat.
And we had a very casual “communion” of donuts and coffee in “Fellowship Hall.” That was the best part! Free donuts!
Come to think of it, I also played the piano a few times at the church talent show. That was a lot of fun. A big, intimidating venue with what turned to be a very supportive audience. Good memories.
But, the dissonant impression that I got was that, despite the outward actions of communion, love, and fellowship, there was a deep fear at the core of the belief system. That underneath all the singing, the animated, happy storytelling of the cufflinked investment banker Sunday school teacher, and, yes, even the free donuts, I had the deep sense that we were all running away from the ever-present threat of eternal damnation in hell.
I sat with this dissonance for a long time, and when I was around age 12 or 13, I was enrolled in confirmation class, which marked the high-point of my involvement with the church. I was assigned a mentor, a peer group, and weekly homework assignments.
I endured for a while, but eventually dropped out when we were asked to perform catechisms. At the time, I was still wrestling with my faith and felt VERY uncomfortable swearing on my immortal soul that I held the beliefs espoused by Christian doctrine, the very beliefs that I was still considering and questioning.
I’ve made a few other attempts to re-engage with Christianity over the years, but never could quite get over the uncomfortable feeling in my stomach, the feeling that God’s infinite love seemed to come attached with some fairly punitive legalese. One notable example was the experience of sitting in on a presentation (given to a youth audience) on the perils of the rise of Islam, given by a Christian pastor who spent 10 years converting Muslims to Christianity, who told me, confidently, that “religions cannot co-exist.” Needless to say, this did not ease my concerns.
Likewise, when my grandmother died in 2018, I had the black-comical experience of witnessing the pastor, who, ostensibly was aiming to use his sermon to help reassure and comfort us, ended up painting a very clear picture of his own pain and hopelessness. Forgive me for judging, but I asked myself: “How can we look to this man for guidance when his own mental state is such a mess?”
And now, the good part. After the pastor spoke, my cousin, Jim, delivered a letter that grandma had written before her death.
The letter went something like this:
Hello to my beloved children and grandchildren,
I love you and miss you very much. I am so proud of each one of you.
I’m gone now, but I’m doing OK. Don’t worry about me.
I’m writing this letter because I have one last wish for each of you.
My favorite times have been when we are all gathered together as a family. How about for you? We can have those times again, you know. In heaven. All you have to do is to accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior.
I’ve been praying for you every day for decades. I’ve been wishing for this every day. I think it’d be a wonderful step for each one of you. Will you do so? This is my only request. It will be good both for me and for you.
See you soon.
I love you,
The letter hit hard. I don’t like letting people down, especially my family.
Grandma, you are a great woman. You’ve survived incredible adversity and demonstrated tremendous leadership in our family. You’ve always supported me and wanted what’s best. You’ve done this for the whole family. I love you.
Can I believe?
Before moving forward, I asked myself: could I embrace a seemingly-incongruent belief system just to appease her?
No. I’d have to believe in it whole-heartedly. I’d have to find a way to resolve the contradictions that I perceived in the doctrine.
I’ve now spent the last 18 months exploring religion and spirituality in greater depth and I’ve also made some of the greatest leaps in my personal and professional life during that time.
While I can’t claim a causative relation, I believe there is a strong correlation.
They say that “the world is as we are,” and I do believe both that investing deeply in my own spiritual development has helped my day-to-day life, and also that improvements in my day-to-day life have aided my spiritual development.
If you are also seeking, I hope that my experience, and the following letter, may aid you on your path.
The Letter to my Aunt
[Note: I have added italics, boldface, have put the biblical quotes in blockquotes, and have added illustrative images for aesthetic purposes. All of my words are what I wrote in the original email.]
Thanks for your message!
Response inline. Be warned that it turned out to be a doozy:
On Fri, Jan 24, 2020 at 6:32 AM David's Aunt wrote:
> Hi David. I hope you are well. I am praying that you find what you are looking for in your spiritual journey.
Thank you! So far, so good. I’ve recently found a church / religious center that feels like home.
> I'm sorry that you met with Christians who did not represent Jesus well.
> I'm not smart enough to present to you fairly what being a child of God and following Jesus means,
I don’t like the idea of you putting limits on your own capabilities and intelligence! But you are free to do as you please.
> but Tim Keller does a great job in my opinion. Here is a link to one of his sermons. I hope you give him a chance to present to you what being a Christian means.
I’ll watch the video.
> BTW -- Did you know that grandma's grandmother helped out first group of missionaries who arrived in Korea and help set up early churches in Korea?
Yes, I had heard about this.
> If you are truly searching, I trust that you give Christianity and Jesus a fair chance.
I listened to Tim Keller’s sermon.
Before listening, I was expecting to write a very different response than the one I’m going to write below. So, here goes:
Tim Keller contends that the central aspect of Christian faith is to set up one’s life for a meeting with God. To see His face.
You may not believe me when I say this: I have seen His face.
The following may cause more hurt and confusion, but I’ll write it in the name of truth:
The Tragedy of Christianity
In my opinion, the tragedy of Christianity is that the combination of human misinterpretation, cultural momentum, and leadership by those who have not had a direct experience of the divine ends up hampering each individual’s ability to have a first-hand, transcendent experience of the divine.
Christianity is not alone in this. It is the tendency of human-organized religions to gradually separate themselves from the divine. As we know well, humans are fallible. And the “principal-agent problem” ruins most large organizations; holy ones are not exempt from this.
I have a great respect for Jesus Christ. He is one of the greatest sages of all time. In the West, we generally consider him to be THE greatest.
Mainstream Christian doctrine
However, based on my current understanding of the world and of Christian doctrine, I cannot accept a reality where Jesus is the only son of God. Nor that the acceptance of this fact is the only “correct” way of living.
The Muslims also deeply revere Jesus, considering him to be both the penultimate prophet and the Messiah, but not the Son or incarnation of God.
Through this lens, you might consider my belief to be more “Islamic” in nature. (Though I believe I personally have more of an Eastern bent than the Muslims). I accept that he was very likely a real, historical person. I believe that, if he lived, that he did indeed perform the seven signs.
God in All
But was he the only one capable of such miracles?
No, not even according to Jesus himself:
Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.
– John 14:12-14
So it seems that belief (and love) are more fundamental than a divine birth!
John nods to this in his first epistle:
And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.
– 1 John 4:16
Likewise, one of his teachings that I consider to be absolutely fundamental is that “the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). The great tragedy being that most of us seek it OUTSIDE of ourselves! Whether through devotedly looking skyward or through petty materialism, we seek salvation through external means. And yet we are constantly surrounded by the reminder that salvation and love are always available to us.
Next, this may not be the perfect articulation of my critique, but my impression is that many Christians take the concept of Original sin too far, seeing the world we inhabit as “fallen,” and, in many cases “depraved.”
I see a beautiful world.
If we are all made in God’s image, then why should the world we inhabit be inherently sinful and wrong? Why can’t we rebuild the Garden here on Earth?
I’m concerned that this next point may be too ambitious, and that I won’t properly do it justice, but I’m going to include it because I think it is an absolute tragedy that it is so misunderstood: several scientists are coming to the conclusion that the nature of reality is non-dual, and that our perceived experience of separateness is merely an illusion created by the ego-consciousness that emerges from our brain/mind. Many Eastern sages over the millennia have told us that it is so.
But what about the Bible?
Classical Christian doctrine believes that Jesus was the only one who can honestly claim that, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).
However, I contend that there are several supporting arguments that the Bible actually does conform to and teach us about the non-dualistic aspect of reality.
Here’s a personally-selected example:
[I originally cited 1 Corinthians 12:12-13, but have expanded the quotation for this post.]
There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them.
There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord.
There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.
Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.
To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit,
to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit,
to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.
Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.
For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body – whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.
Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.
– 1 Corinthians 12:4-14
Is this not speaking about the oneness of humanity? Is this not hinting that the Spirit that each has access to is the same? I would even go so far as to say that this verse hints at the oneness of consciousness.
If these arguments are falling flat, which I suspect they may, I ask you to investigate the work of Franciscan friar, Father Richard Rohr. In the following video, he speaks briefly about the misunderstanding/misinterpretation of the Bible and the loss of non-dualistic thinking in the Christian mainstream.
How tragic would it be if the message has been lost and adulterated through misunderstanding?
This is a nice segue to the video call at Christmas: it seemed that you were expressing concern for my well-being when you suggested that you and other members of the family derive your sense of peace through a relationship with God. (As opposed to my dramatic, quasi-masochistic quest to push myself to my absolute limit.)
A. I have been steadily cultivating a deep relationship with God. And am deriving great pleasure from it.
B. I take on my burdens willingly. You may have seen anguish, annoyance, or unrest in me, but I consciously take on these negative emotions and the challenges that I set for myself as one attaches a yoke to an ox.
C. Yes, I am knowingly keeping my father out of my life. You seemed to be very upset about this. But you’ve also seen the pain that I’ve carried for most of my life about seeking his approval. This is a deliberate separation in order for me to move from boy to man. I was not old or mature enough to look for changes in my father when his/your father passed, but I suspect that it was a sobering moment which enabled him to take on a greater level of responsibility and authority in his own life.
I am undertaking the same transition right now. He wants nothing more than for me to live up to my full potential and to make him proud. I want the same. The great irony is that our interactions have been preventing me from achieving exactly what we both want. I suspect we both feel the pain of separation, but I firmly believe that this is the right step in the long-term, for the good of all. My father taught me through my upbringing that “sparing the rod spoils the child” and so I am living out what should prove to be my greatest act of “tough love” for the both of us.
Finally, I know that my behavior and beliefs are unconventional, but I hope that you can see a virtuous thread in my seemingly-sociopathic words and actions.
There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.
The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
– 1 John 4:18
I hope you aren’t afraid for me. But I understand if you are. I tell you that I’m on the grandest adventure of my life, closer to my destiny and my fullest potential than ever. But how do you know that? What if David has lost his mind? What if he’s delusional, self-sabotaging, and completely psychopathic? What if he encounters psychological and financial ruin? Will he still bristle with the same vim and vigor? Or will he join the ranks of the innumerable lost souls, a slave to debt and instant gratification?
I believe that we all have an intuitive sense for the oneness of all things. The trouble is that fear holds us back from embracing that intuition. I think that, deep down, there’s an animal fear that wants nothing more than safety, regularity, and comfort. But how can we ever rebuild the Garden by sticking to the known, well-trodden paths through life?
Perhaps we can, but that’s not my path; that’s not my calling. I’ll leave that to the 95% of people who are already doing exactly that.
The experiment I’m making with my life is to go beyond this thing called fear, for the good of all.
In the best of all possible worlds, I’d have both the understanding and the support of my family in this endeavor.
You see, the voice inside me is not totally mute. When looking off of a particularly intimidating cliff, I can still hear in my head, “But who will catch you?”
Still, I am committed to this with or without you, my father, or anyone. This is a pact that I’ve made with our bearded friend in the sky.
David Kay has dedicated his life to the technological progress of the species. He writes on entrepreneurship, health, and technology. If you found this article helpful, join his newsletter.