“I believe in one god, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.
I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy; and endeavouring (sic) to make our fellow-creatures happy.
But . . . I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish Church, by the Roman Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own Church.”
John Payne, American Founding Father
I have always had trouble with the question, “are you a Christian?” In California, if anyone were to ask it of you, they would probably mean “have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?” or “have you been born again?” These are “Evangelical Christians,” as opposed to members of the Catholic Church or one of the mainline Protestant religions, like Methodists, or Presbyterians, or, my favorites, the Episcopalians. In California, I always answer “yes” to the question, although really I am in complete agreement with the statement of John Payne at the head of this chapter. I answer, “yes” because I am certain that at least in the cultural-historical sense I am indeed a Christian.
Religion is all levels of metaphor, and I simply answer truthfully and let the metaphors fall where they may. “Is Jesus Christ your personal savior?” Sure, he is. The historical Jesus is the great teacher with whom I have the greatest cultural affinity. “Do you believe that almighty god created the universe?” Sure, who else? Some mysterious something set in motion the great happenstantial continuum that became life-as-we-know-it. Once you get past all hope of understanding what actually happened, “god” is as good a name as any for the residual mystery.
That’s what god is to me: a mystery, the big mystery, the mystery with no name, the mystery whose plans and schemes are so remote from mere men that in comparison men become like ants attempting mathematics. God is a very personal concept. We all perceive our own universe in our own heads and our own god is in charge. It is shameless pride to think that you understand the ways and means of god. Did god create the universe? Well I suppose so since god is the wall beyond which there is no breaking through, the mystery where all lines of questioning must be abandoned. To argue over how or when god created the universe is not only pretentious and stupid, but also is an affront to god. Leave god’s business to god.
So it really puts me in a quandary when Thais ask me, “are you a Christian?” I’m never sure if it’s a serious god question or whether they’ve just had dubious experiences with prostilatzing Farang. Are they afraid that I’ll start bothering them, you know, you ought to dump that Buddha stuff and find Christ? I usually respond to the question by lowering my head a little and making a serious face, saying something like, “well, I just try to be a good man.” Almost always, the Thai is thrilled with this answer.
Thais have the most wonderful understanding of the essential nature of religion. All religions, all religions worth their salt anyway, have the same goals: to make their adherents better people, to provide a framework for community, to calm people’s fears about the unknown. As Payne put it, love mercy, do justice, make things better.
I'm with Payne on this one. Oh, and on the America thing too.