August 17, 2009

Religion: The Ideal Versus the Real

Filed under: Uncategorized — kevinocoin @ 8:47 am


Humankind’s faith systems most often seems to find themselves stretched by the tension between accepting and dealing with the reality of the world around us, and being true to the higher calling to holiness or transcendence.  This problem is as old as the religious instinct inside humankind, and shows no sign of going away any time soon.

For example, we have the Sermon on the Mount.  This is both the most famous and the most demanding of Jesus’ teaching.  Who, for example, would care to turn the other cheek to one’s enemy (Mt. 5:39), or give away not only one’s coat but also one’s shirt to someone who asks for it (v. 40)?  Who really wants to beleive that anger is no better than murder (v. 22), or that lust is akin the very act of adultery itself (v. 28)?  These teachings are too hard to bear, especailly because they require an attention to the internal, unseen world.  Deepak Chopra, in his book The Third Jesus, asks, “Why are Jesus’ teachings [as traditonally understood] impossible to live by?” (1).  The typical Christian answer would be: because of original sin and the unregenerate condition of our souls.  But no, Chopra believes that what “Jesus taught is much more radical and at the same time mystical” (1), and goes on to offer his idea about Jesus’ true teaching being not about sin and salvation, as the Christian tradition has largely understood it, but about being reborn into “God-consciousness.”

And so we reinterpret Jesus teachings, claiming that we are trying to get at what Jesus really meant.  In the interest of finding out what Jesus really meant, some have hypothesized that Jesus is merely exaggerating in order to make his point (and, to be fair, very few people take Jesus literally when he says “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away” [v. 29]), and so we can feel quite comfortable in toning it down a fair bit.  Others, such as Martin Luther, proposed that the teachings of Jesus applied only to the spiritual realm, whereas things like relationships with employers and family members remain in the secular realm and there in these we are bound to compromise Jesus’ lofty ethic.  Those among the dispensationalist school see Jesus’ Sermon as giving us a glimpse into the millennial age in which it will be possible to live accordingly, but for now we must make due.  And then the Catholic Church employs what has been called (perhaps not too flatteringly) the Double Standard View, wherein exact obedience to the Sermon is only for the saintly ones and monks and nuns, while other beleivers can be satisfied to live out the spirit of Jesus is trying to say.*

One the other end, there are those who accept no compromise on any point (except maybe the gouge-your-own-eye-out part).  Such people or groups included the early Anabaptists, Leo Tolstoy, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  For these people, Jesus’ teaching is as plain as day, and, according to some Wesleyan groups, may actually be lived up to in large measure if God should give the believer the extra grace to refrain from all acts of willfully committed sin.

Then there are those who walk a middle road, such as Martin Dibelius and Dostoevsky, who indicate that Jesus does desire us to live up to his teaching, and has given it to us so that we may aspire to become more Christ-like, but due to our polluted human nature, we cannnot become completely obedient.

I speak form a Christian perspective beacause that is what I know, but I have seen hints of this in other faith systems, and the entirely evident human fascination with loopholes would leads me to believe that all people groups and faith systems have experienced the same thing.  For example, I am currently watching a program from the BBC called Around the World in 80 Faiths, in which an Anglican vicar travels the world over the course of a year to see if he can get a pulse on how people from different places and cultures interact with the divine.  In speaking with a Mormon family in one episode, they endorsed plural marriage by indicating that it is not a man’s nature to be monogamous, and so why force it upon him?  I cannot help but think that this merely legitimizes a man’s desire for someone other than his one wife — at least to a certain degree, because sexual contact with someone other than one of your [insert number here] wives is still bad news.

As an idealist myself, and also simply a believer in the power of the divine in the world, I am deeply troubled by this.  Isn’t the very point of religion to challenge us, through the power of the divine, to live a life that is different?  Isn’t the idea of a faith system to make people act and become in their very natures different than they were and different from the typical conception of humanity?  Should it not surprise us when people actually do what the Lord has commanded in the Sermon or elsewhere?  The behaviour of the true devotee should be abnormal and difficult.  But instead, in order to make something more palatable or reasonable, we disembowel it — the take the soul and guts out, making it lifeless, a mere caraciture of what it is supposed to be.  We theoligize away our shortcomings and we lay a divine stamp of approval over our foibles; we engage in grand acts of self-delusion about our own goodness or status before the Lord because we cannot believe that God might desire such sacrifice from us.  “It’s too hard!” we cry.  Yes, it is!  But that is our own human limitations speaking; dare I say the devil trying to keep us back from experiencing the joys of a life of obedience, dedication, and self-controle.  But let us remember that nothing is impossible with God (Lk. 1:37); We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us (Phil. 4:13).  Let’s be willing and courageous to take Jesus’ words at face value and see what will result.

*The above paragraph contains references from



  1. Great blog, Kevin.

    I think you make some awesome points. We do theoligize (great word) away our shortfalls, claiming that “grace covers a multitude of sins.” All too often we forget that freedom in Christ doesn’t give us the liberty to do whatever we want, but it’s the freedom from our past transgressions (although that is certainly over simplifying it). I’ve actually been pondering this lately. When we theoligize away our sin, making excuses for ourselves, we cannot truly experience grace. The beautiful thing about grace is that it’s a life-giving necessity that God offers to all who ask. BUT can you truly experience new life in Christ – with grace and all the trappings – without repentance?

    I’m beginning to think you can’t. Without realizing that you have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, you cannot turn from your sin and embrace God fully. How can you be reconciled if you don’t realize/believe/take responsibility for/accept that there has been a breach in the relationship? Everything is perpetually swept under a rug while the breach grows and festers.

    Paul writes that Godly sorrow leads to repentance, repentance to salvation, and in salvation there is no regret. (2 Corinthians 7:8-11). I think this is the missing pieces. The western church wants to be too comfortable and we do try to package and sell the gospel as palatable, neat little packages. We toss out Godly sorrow along with worldly guilt (which Paul says in the same passage is death), and in doing so I think we place a massive stumbling block in front of ourselves. As Christians we’re not always going to feel good; God wants us to experience a full range of emotions for very good reasons. Sometimes we don’t grow unless we’re uncomfortable – which brings us directly to your point: we need to go out on a limb sometimes and trust God to give us the strength to do the good works to which he has called us.


    Comment by naomiblogs — September 9, 2009 @ 2:26 pm

  2. Naomi:

    Thanks for the reply. I was particularly struck when you wrote: “When we theoligize away our sin, making excuses for ourselves, we cannot truly experience grace. ” I think is so true! Very eloquently stated — it captures my sentiment in a nutshell. If there are no such things as bad actions (as some would have us believe), then there is no need to admit to ourselves there is a problem, repent, and seek forgiveness; and therefore we cheapen his grace, making impotent and unattractive. In our efforts to make the Gospel more palatable, more “warm and fuzzy,” we have eviscerated it.
    On Sunday I spoke about healthy guilt (aka, godly sorrow) versus unhealthy guilt. It seems we in North America have a pre-occupation with unhealthy guilt — we know it all too well; many of us are bound up in our failures and feel beaten down. But in trying to guard ourselves against this kind of guilt and discomfort, we also do away with healthy guilt, which demands of us that we seek repentance and move forward into God’s blessing for us. We have made the mistake of believing that all discomfort is bad, but if we really thought about it, we would have to admit that the pain felt when we put our hand on a hot element is present for a reason, and we are awfully glad for it because it allows us to move our hand away before it gets burnt off. Can guilt/godly sorrow not be our spiritual pain reflex? If so, we can only deny it at the peril of our very souls.

    Comment by kevinocoin — September 9, 2009 @ 2:52 pm

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