Q: I am a 70-year-old white male. I was raised a Christian (Methodist) but never was really active in any church. My wife of 14 years left me over two years ago. I now live alone and I am saying aloud what I have thought most of my life: I don’t believe that Jesus was God on earth but I do believe that what he preached is the way to live your life.
I recently said over lunch with friends that I didn’t believe that believing in Jesus was the only way to get to Heaven (if there is such a place), and that over my life I had known non-Christians who were sure to get to Heaven if anyone did. I was immediately pounced upon verbally and now have been somewhat ostracized. I’m sure these people are talking about me in an unfavorable light. Do I try to find new friends, ignore the slights from these or what? Thank you for writing your column. Reading it is as close to going to church as I get. I look forward to reading it every week and it has meant a lot to me over the years. Thank you so much for what you do and I offer my blessings to you as best as I know how. Sincerely, a Jew in the making? – From D
A: Dear D, There are over a billion Christians in the world and somewhere around 12 million Jews, so as a rabbi who knows these statistics I am always open to new Jewish recruits. However, my advice to you comes from the advice I heard the Dalai Lama give to a Jewish spiritual seeker who wanted to convert from Judaism to Buddhism. The 14th incarnation of the Buddha said to him, “First learn to be a better Jew.” That is my advice to you. First learn to be a better Christian.
Christianity is the religion of your roots and even though you are having a crisis of faith now, Christianity is rich enough and tolerant enough and loving enough to embrace you while you continue questioning Jesus’ divinity. Perhaps you could begin to address your doubts by first understanding that being God if you are also a human being is not an easy theological belief to simply swallow whole. The Christian belief is that Jesus is part of a triune God – part of the Trinity that also includes the manifestations of God as the Father and the Holy Spirit. The Father God who made the universe and the Holy spirit who comes to enlighten and comfort Christians are different than the manifestation of God as the Christ.
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The connecting point for believing that Jesus is God is the agony of Paul, who despaired that the traditional belief of Judaism that following God’s commandments was a secure route to salvation. Paul believed that the commandments were too vast and his sins were too great. As he cried out in his conversionary moment when he realized that Jewish law had failed him. In Romans 7:10-11 we read,
“And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me.”
Paul believed that he needed a salvation by faith, not a salvation by works. So if you believe that you are a sinner and if you believe that you cannot achieve salvation without the grace of Jesus’ death and resurrection that has purified you from sin, then there is still a road back for you into Christianity. Give it a try!
Let me also give you some advice about how to talk to your friends. My tradition includes a great bit of relevant wisdom on this matter, “The rabbis taught that just as it is a mitzvah (a commandment) to teach what can be learned, so too it is a mitzvah not to teach what cannot be learned.” By confronting your friends with theological doubts that they cannot resolve and that challenge the deepest convictions of their faith, you put them in a terrible bind. What did you expect them to say? How did you expect them to react? These people are your friends, and dumping them because they could not resolve the central Christian mystery of Jesus’ divinity is not fair to them and not conducive to the continued flourishing of your friendships. Go to them and apologize for burdening them with your own doubts. And then listen to their questions and help them. Perhaps then, over time, you will find that they will come back to you and will reach out to you and will pull you back into the flock of your ancestors and your God.
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