Monday, May 16, 2011

Charity: Atheists can go to heaven?

I recently was talking to someone about the 12-step recovery program. They mentioned that the Mormon church now offers a 12-step program specifically designed for its members. I'm glad for that. The 12-step program has adapted over time to try and accomodate people from a variety of backgrounds. While I'm glad it's so inclusive, sometimes it's better to get help within a setting which is better catered or customized to you. I mentioned that I had a good friend, Thom, who is an atheist who was seeking a good recovery program. The 12-step program doesn't work for an atheist given that the core idea is relying on God/gods/higher-power to aid you in your recovery. He has found a group (SMART) which offers such aid. It's a recovery program built on science-based, proven methods and is open to everyone (believers and non-believers). The person I was talking to about this then immediately proceeded to tell a stupid joke about atheists. It really annoyed me and reminded me of a lesson I recently taught in church about Charity and I thought I'd toss out some thoughts and insights I had while preparing for it. While the lesson was primarily drawing from the teachings of Christ, I hope that in sharing I can find areas which everyone from Mormons to Buddhists, Muslims to Evangelicals, Jews to Secular Humanists can find as common ground.

First in discussing the lesson I need to clarify what I mean by Charity. In Mormonism, we really almost speak a different language (to see a sample of what I mean, check out this site) and it holds true for Charity. For most English speakers Charity is: "The voluntary giving of help, typically money, to those in need." The King James version of the Bible translates αγαπε as love or charity. Because charity is now so associated with helping those in need, most modern translations simply use love. But Christianity often uses Charity as a word to denote a special kind of love. You'll notice on the google dictionary, the 6th definition is: "Love of humankind, typically in a Christian context." Mormons similarly use Charity to denote a special kind of love: "the pure love of Christ."

This idea of a pure love for all people was the main message of Christ. This is well illustrated in the account found in Matthew, Mark and Luke in which Jesus answered the question "which is the greatest commandment?" It is interesting to see what followed Christ's statement "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" in the 3 different accounts.

In Matthew, Jesus continues with "On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." Meaning that without the 'golden rule' the law and prophets fall. Could this apply to individuals as well? If we do not show love to all people does the rest of our religious structure fail in its purpose? Paul speaks to this, which I'll discuss more later.

In Mark, the scribe who asked the question responds by indicating that loving God and all men is "more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices." 'All burnt offerings and sacrifices' is a way of saying all religious rituals. In Mormonism there are many rituals (in Mormon parlance we'd say ordinances) some of which are known as saving ordinances and are "a requirement for exaltation." What implications does this verse in Mark have for modern Mormonism?

In Luke, the lawyer who had asked the question, asks "and who is my neighbor?" Jesus then gives the parable of the Good Samaritan. To summarize, a man is mugged, beaten, and left for dead on a dangerous path. A priest and a Levite (2 very religious people) each see him and yet pass by without giving him aid. Then a Samaritan comes by. Samaritans and Jews hated each other. If Jesus were giving this parable today to liberals he might say a tea-partier came by, or if speaking to the tea-party he might say a socialist helped the man. Just think of someone in a group that you despise (perhaps some Christians might think of an atheist or vice versa). This Samaritan dresses the man's wounds, feeds him, takes him to an inn, stays and cares for him, pays for him and leaves extra money to cover any additional expenses. Jesus specifically chose to have 2 religious people who participate regularly in religious rituals be the ones to ignore their fellow man, and have someone hated by the religious group be the one to show kindness. Who will be saved: those who participate in religious ordinances/rituals or those who have charity? Perhaps the question could be better phrased given that those two categories are certainly not mutually exclusive: Which is of greater importance; participation in religious ordinances/rituals or having charity for all?

Jesus gave some other parables which give more insight into the role of charity and entering into heaven. Often in the New Testament, the authors of the gospels gathered parables into groups which were all riffing on a theme (for example Matthew 13 has 7 parables, 6 of which explicitly state they're about the kingdom of heaven). It's a great teaching technique. Any analogy has its strengths and weaknesses. Thus by giving several different analogies on the same topic, the message is more likely to come through and avoid the weakness of any one analogy. In Matthew 25 we get 3 parables about the kingdom of heaven. I'd say they're particularly about what one must do to be in the kingdom of heaven.

The first parable is about the 5 wise and 5 foolish virgins attending a wedding. If we assume the oil represents their charitable works and service, or love for others, it shows why the oil can't be given from one to another and the importance of constantly loving and serving others.

The second parable is about the servants who are given various amounts of money. If we assume that the money represents charity or love, the parable seems to make more sense and fit in well with the other 2 parables in this group. Just think of the children's song Love is Something if you Give it Away. (The cutest thing in the world is when my 3-year-old daughter sings this song).

The third parable drives the point home. It's about the judgement and is metaphorically like a shepherd dividing sheep from goats. Those going to heaven are going because they love and serve others (they fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, gave shelter and clothes to the homeless, and visited those in prison). Those going to hell are going because they didn't help others.

I insinuated earlier that Paul mentioned the futility of religious fervor without charity or love for all. He says that even if he had the gift of tongues or prophecy and knew all things, it's pointless without charity. Even if he had all faith, without charity he's nothing. He even takes it further, he says even if he serves others and does good works, if he lacks that pure love for them then it does him no good. Here's Paul's definition of Charity:

Charity is patient, charity is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Charity does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Regardless of our individual beliefs and practices, surely we can look for the good in each other. I have atheist friends who live their lives much closer to the teachings of Jesus than many Christians. I have muslim friends who show greater patience and love to those who do and say hateful things to them than many in my own faith in similar situations. I hope we can all strive to cultivate charity and just be good to our fellow homo sapiens.


Aunt Michelle said...

Thank you for this post. I agreen wholeheartedly. It seems to me in LDS world, obedience is more stressed. Unfortunately.

Redspect said...

"If you haven't any charity in your heart you have the worst kind of heart trouble" to cure it help people, let's unite for one good cause, be a volunteer"save lives"!