"I don't mind Jesus. It's His followers that I can't stand. That's why I do not go to Church." How will you respond to this unbeliever? (Dr Yap)
Nietzsche once said that the last Christian died on the Cross. So it seems like the person who posed the above question somehow shared Nietzsche's sentiments (or anguish?). Honestly, I can empathize with him. Their anguish is not misplaced. But the question here is, "Can they empathize with us, Christians?" We too have our own anguish.
We are only human. Christianity doesn't make overnight saints out of us. We will still stumble, disappoint and fail, sometimes big time. I think believing in a religion makes us even more vulnerable. Because, if you think about it, we are more likely as compared to an atheist to be labeled as a hypocrite. We cannot escape from the dreaded sin of double-mindedness. We are like walking “sin” barometer, always being measured against a biblical standard, and always under pressure (pun unintended). Alas, there is a saying, "The great majority of us are required to live a life of constant, systematic duplicity."
Further, we are constantly being judged by a standard made more onerous by the example of Christ and his disciples. They all died for their faith. Some died most exemplary. Imagine the pressure on today's modern churchgoers. The early Christians have thus set a template for Christ-like living and it is unavoidable, at times even unfair, for many to apply that same standard to see whether we consistently measure up.
No doubt we are called to live like Christ. But to expect us to model Christ word for word, deed for deed, and for most part of our conduct, with clockwork consistency, is a tall order this side of heaven. Frederick Buechner once defined a Christian as "one who is on the way, though not necessarily very far along it, and who has at least some dim and half-baked idea of whom to thank. "
Of course, there are great men and women of faith whom many consider as almost flawless in their speech and conduct. But I guess this is of little persuasion for some hardcore atheists. I guess the bar has already been set high for us and we are often given little elbow room to be human and to fall. Often, a misstep is magnified into a giant foot and a molehill of an error into a mountain of mistakes. I know to err is human. But for Christians, it is often an omen.
Then, to compound matters, there are the bad apples of the faith. I can now name half a dozen right off the top of my head. But I think you get the point. Everytime a priest, a pastor or a Christian falls, it won’t be long before you get such reaction like “they are all hypocrites,” “religion is evil,” and “Christians cannot be trusted.” Of course, thankfully, such extreme reaction exists in the minority. But nevertheless, the prejudice is silently pervasive and quite unmistakable; especially with the megachurches’ unintended exclusivity, the creationism vs evolution debates, and the gay marriage divide. The wedge goes deeper.
What’s more, talk to any atheists and they will readily offer you a litany of the ghosts of Christian past disgraces like the Medieval and Spanish Inquisition, the rampant witchhunts and the recent sex abuses. In their minds, quite arbitrarily and without questioning the credibility of such mental calculus, the net result of religion over the centuries always ends up negative instead of positive. This I guess is why the late Christopher Hitchens made this sweeping statement, "Religion poisons everything."
So, I guess, understanding and empathy are required on both sides of the fence. Humanly speaking, and in general, believers differ little from non-believers in words and deeds. As such, we should not discriminate against those who do not share our faith. Neither should the non-believers judge us just because we fail to live up to the teachings of our belief. In the end, focusing on our flaws only widen the differences between us. May I suggest another angle, that is, to seek common ground.
I think there is a common thread that runs through all of us, believers or otherwise, and it is in the words of Martin Luther King, "We must learn to live together as brothers (and sisters) or perish together as fools.” This sentiment is shared by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the title of his book, God is not a Christian. In fact, the great soul Gandhi once said that God has no religion.
Considering that the word “Christian” is only mentioned thrice in the Bible, and that the description did not even exist at the time Jesus was crucified, I think King, Tutu and Gandhi hit the nail right on its head on our shared destiny. This shared destiny should unite us and not divide us. And the bond that unites us is not exclusively drawn from any particular creed or religion. Neither is it from a specific orthodoxy nor a cultural group. But what joins us together is our common heritage, our common hope and our common aspiration as human beings living on this common estate we call earth and bound together in a common fate we call humanity.
At the end of the day, we are social beings and religion does not exist in a vacuum. I guess our humanity is what makes what we believe believable. And our humanity humanizes all of us. No one can therefore boast that subscribing to a religion transforms, ennobles and elevates him beyond those who professes none. For didn't Jesus say, "This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples - when they see the love you have for each other." Love therefore makes the difference and by loving one another, we do away with the differences.
If anything, religion, like a blinding floodlights, exposes the ugliness of our lives, that is, our brokenness, our inmost corrupt desires, and our fallibility. I guess that is what being a follower means. It means that we are always a few steps behind from the ideal, sometimes we even lag way behind, momentarily lost and at times, disoriented. This is why we need a community of people, whether believers or not, to give us room to grow and to always remind us this, "In our infinite ignorance, aren't we all equal?"
So, we need each other; that is an understatement I guess. We need a community of love, understanding and hope to live together. Notwithstanding our differences, it is this common purpose that will close the gap. And as for the metaphorical, maybe if we all look long, hard and deep enough, within each of us, there may exist an illumed desire, a quiet yearning, a silent cry for a connection that reaches beyond the hereafter. Cheerz.