One of the chief difficulties people (skeptics, seekers, and believers) have with Christianity is the idea that it doesn’t belong to this world, that religion and reality don’t intersect. It’s assumed that religion is a kind of fantasy world that some people choose to frequent, and a few get lost in it, like Trekkies at Comic-Con. Most, though, get into it on Sundays but get back to real life on Monday morning. Sensible people avoid it altogether.
For many people, the word “spiritual” is a synonym for “unreal.” To speak of “spiritual realities” is to be guilty of using an oxymoron.
It would be a great help (to skeptics, seekers, and believers alike) to see that the Christian story is part of the real world – a part of their world. It is not something you turn to when real life is too hard to bear. Christianity and reality intersect. Not only do they intersect, they run together.
The mystery writer and Dante scholar (what a combination!) Dorothy Sayers kept history and religion in “watertight compartments” until she realized that the Persian King Cyrus, whose famous exploits she’d read about in the Greek historian Herodotus, was the same King who makes an appearance in the biblical book of Daniel. The realization that the Bible was about real people was nothing short of a revelation.
The fact is, the Bible intersects with history all over the place. Biblical Archeology Today lists fifty people mentioned in the Bible whose existence (and sometimes histories) are authenticated by sources outside the Bible. The Bible, unlike the sacred writings of many other major religions, is grounded in history. The birth of Jesus, for example, is dated by St. Luke during the reign of King Herod (who figures into the story of Julius Caesar, Marc Antony and Cleopatra) and the tenure of the Roman tetrarch Publius Sulpicius Quirinius.
The dividing wall between religion and reality, between the sacred and the secular – indeed, between faith and fact – is not natural but artificial. If one is to make progress in understanding (and especially in living) the Christian faith, that wall must come down.
That will require detailed historical work. The more we know about history the better we can understand the biblical story. How does St. Paul fit into the philosophical world of his day? What were the competing religious views of Jews in the first century? How did they interact with people of other religions? How did political tensions impact spiritual longings?
But if we must pay attention to detail, we must also pay attention to the big picture. What do the biblical writers tells us about God’s big plan for creation? How does history fit into it? How does science? Psychology? The humanities?
For example, the Bible makes a big deal of the coming of the Spirit, which the Church celebrates at the Feast of Pentecost. Too often this is viewed in exclusively individualistic terms: the Spirit of God lives in me (with an emphasis on “me”). While that is true, and something to be celebrated, this extreme individualism reinforces the wall between religion and reality. The coming of the Spirit, like all great biblical truths, is about more than me.
In the big picture, God is creating (or re-creating) a new humanity. To make its emergence possible, something of God’s own life has to be incorporated into people. Previously, this had been accomplished only in temporary cases, but was introduced on a permanent basis at Pentecost. No wonder the Bible speaks about people of faith the way it does: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”
Whether big picture (humanity changing – some might say evolving – into something it has never been before) or small picture (the fine details of history), faith is about real life in a real world. No one will understand Christianity who doesn’t understand that.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 10/17/2015