Yesterday while waiting for my wife to get in on the 5:55 train, I sat outside Graham’s 318 Coffeehouse on a quiet street in Geneva, Illinois. The air temps were pleasant and the sun was perched behind some trees to the west. So I sat. And I wrote.
I’m working on a book called Sustainable Faith. It takes an unconventional look at the true nature of faith and how to sustain it in the face of all that seems to contradict what a literal interpretation of the bible says. Here’s an excerpt that examines that issue in the context of the earliest chapters of Genesis when the serpent uses God’s own words to trick Adam and Eve into disobedience to God:
The serpent is successful in tempting Adam and Eve by employing what is now the oldest trick in the book: promising people a shortcut to success. It seems the serpent actually invented this age-old temptation and it is quite significant that the serpent uses the literal words of God to introduce evil into the world. This is the source of original sin, not the fact that two weak-willed human beings gave into the deception.
This is not the conventional interpretation of scripture, but it is accurate. The Judeo-Christian tradition has long held that it was the collapse of Adam and Eve into sin that holds the greatest significance in the earliest phases of scriptural history. Without the blame placed on Adam and Eve for original sin, what is there for God to forgive? And absent that sin, for what atonement did Jesus Christ die?
Those are difficult questions because they belie 2000 years of Judeo-Christian tradition. Many Christians base their entire faith on the sacrificial act of Jesus on the cross. But what if Christianity in all its literal adherence to scriptural tradition has it all wrong? What if the real lesson of Genesis is found not in the loss of innocence by Adam and Eve, but in recognizing how to avoid the type of temptation offered up by the serpent?
These are challenging notions to people whose faith is based on hardline, conservative concepts of sin and atonement. But we must recall that it was a Catholic priest named Martin Luther who dragged the faith back toward a realization of its core tenets. When Luther contended that we are saved by grace, not by how much money we give or how righteous we claim to be, the church was challenged to change its ways.
In the face of an evangelical tradition that has clearly lost its way and even lost its mind in lust for political power, it is time to call the whole thing to account. That’s what I’m writing about, to challenge the curmudgeons who through fear and greed have turned over the religious authority of God to political purposes and corruption.
And as I sat there working on the text, I noticed a man who was slightly older than me sitting in a table across the patio. At first, I was not going to engage with him, absorbed as I was in writing the book. But he was dressed in a sharp cycling kit without team names or some inane beer logo on the back, and I admired that. So I asked: “Where you riding today?”
He replied that he was headed up to a steep hill that has a name I don’t recall. But I’ve ridden that hill many times, and it is steep. So this was a man who loves his work. So I smiled, and said “Excellent. I know that hill.” Then he briefly told me that he’s training for a multi-day ride in California. “And it’s hilly,” he informed me. Enough said. I get that.
He was joined by a friend and I overheard their conversation. “I’m not really into rides longer than two or three hours,” he admitted. “Of course, the first day out in California is ninety miles. And I’ll do that. But it’s not what I prefer.”
This was a man with both determination and common sense. His manner was a bit brusque in some sense. He seemed self-assured almost to a fault. But he stopped just short of being a curmudgeon.
Experience has a way of bringing a person to a point where they do not gladly suffer either fools or miles without a purpose. That is a sustainable way to live, for it vexes neither the body or the soul. In that mode, life fits together like a hand in a cycling glove with just enough padding for the job. But not too much.
Then came John the Baptist
There are not that many souls in history that have arrived at such sustainability in their existence. In the introduction to my book, I examine the life of a man called John the Baptist. If taken literally, his tale reads like a cartoon character in some ways. But John was an example for all of us to follow. Whis is what I write about him.
John was a colorful character who wore clothes of camel’s hair tied at the waist with a leather belt. He dined organic on fare such as insects, wild honey and other undomesticated edibles. That’s because John lived out in the wilderness far from the restrictions of traditional culture.
But John was no country bumpkin. He took shrewd note of the happenings back in town. In particular, he called out the calculating ways of the religious authorities of his day, openly criticizing their penchant for creating rules out of scripture that were designed to manipulate and control the populace. More specifically, John accused them of extorting money from believers by demanding paid sacrifices and other practices.
As you can imagine, these criticisms won him no friends. But John did not relent. He hammered home his points by calling the priests and scribes a “brood of vipers” and “hypocrites” for their self-righteous ways. Those weren’t his only enemies. When John was brought before a sectarian king, he called the man to account for his lustful, covetous ways. That accusation ultimately cost him his head. John was certainly no coward. Nor did he lack convictions. He was a liberal with guts, who knew the truth and the price one pays for telling it.
John stopped just short of being a curmudgeon. He advocated a sustainable form of faith that required only repentance to enroll. There is much to be said for people with that kind of perspective and skill. They know how to climb the hills of life at a pace that can be sustained.