Love thy neighbour: Christianity 101

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It was a chilly March Wednesday, as I ran across the parking lot at Sheridan College, my hands tightly gripping my toddler’s stroller handles.  He screamed and laughed with joy, as I bolted towards the main entrance, desperate to get away from the frigid cold air.  Walking in, I felt the immediate comfort of the warm air enveloping my whole body.

I looked at my cell phone and realized that there were still 20 minutes till my meeting with Reverend Cheryl Gaver.

I plopped on an orange leather couch against a window and unbuckled my restless son from his stroller.  After a few minutes, I realized that I would need a good distraction to keep him occupied while I spoke with the reverend.  Quickly strapping him back in the stroller, I went down to the cafeteria, and purchased a bag of Cheetos for him.  The little guy was too excited and I caved in, opening the bag. I sat back and watched the area around his lips turn orange.

Once the clock read 11 am, my eyes swept the busy lobby, looking to see if I could spot the reverend.  It was a pleasure to finally meet her in person.  There was something about her that made me feel at ease from the very beginning.  Kindness and openness radiated from her very being, and that was all I had prayed for when confirming the interview.  When we’re around kind and loving people, God has a way of transferring some of their goodness on to us.

Once we settled into the quiet staff lounge, and my restless toddler had a few toys to play with, I commenced the interview.

How does Christianity define or explain God?

We tend to see a gap between us and God. So any words we have to describe God fall short.  So we’ll say He’s almighty, All Knowing, or All Merciful. But we know He’s more than that because there’s limitations to our language and to our ability to understand. So we’ll have ways of describing what God is and what He’s not.  But no matter how hard we try to reach God, we can’t on our own. So what God does is He comes to us and He’ll reach us and He shows us ways to connect with him through scripture, worship, prayer, all that stuff.  But on our own, we can’t do it. He meets us.  Fackenheim says, “God breaks into history.” For the three faiths, He’s very much a God who is involved in the world.  As Christians we believe we have His spirit within us and that’s how He guides us.

What is the essence or goal of Christianity?

That is a little harder because we start having divisions in Christianity.  You will have differences come up between the fundamentalists and the moderates.  As Christians, it’s developing a personal relationship with God and with others.  So everything is about relationships.  If you’re more on the fundamentalist side, relationship with God is important, but it will be through scripture and teachings, so a lot of emphasis on the legal side.  If you’re more on the moderate side, the relationship is through the context of prayer or spiritual guidance; there is more willingness to adapt to situations.  Conversion is more important in the fundamentalist side, and not as important on the moderate side.  In part, because we’re more accepting of how often we’ve messed up. So there’s a bit more humility due to the Crusades, Spanish inquisition, Canadian residential schools, and the Holocaust.  The Holocaust is very big, especially in liberal Christianity: we’ve had 2000 years of teaching; look what happened. Where did we go wrong? So we accept our own humility.

How does Christianity/Bible view non christians?

Again on the fundamentalist side is Matthew 28, 14: to baptize and make disciples of all nations.  That is very important. The feeling that we have to spread the story. For liberals/moderates, it becomes a way of sharing the story.  We don’t try to convert as much as share.  It’s much more: let our lives be the witness, so people are interested. You have other passages that say, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life and no one comes to the Father but by me.”  So to fundamentalists it means you have to be Christian or you go to hell. Some Christians focus on the part “no one comes to the Father but by Jesus” – and emphasize that Christianity offers a Father-child relationship with God but other religions offer other types of relationships. That’s sort of where I stand, that we won’t see God the same way.

Other passages are found in the Bible where Jesus says there are sheep not of this pasture, which could mean, “Yes,there are followers who are not of the Christian covenant and there’s room in God’s house.” So there is a recognition that some non-Christians are so holy – God has to be working in them, and then we’re left with: this is our experience, so how do we remain true to our faith and acknowledge this? That’s where moderate Christianity is struggling today. But that’s sort of the trends: recognizing there is truth out there and there’s truth in many religions.

What do you feel are some major misconceptions non-Christians have about Christianity or Christians?

One of the big things is that Christians turn man into God. That’s not true. It’s always that it begins with God to reach us in a more direct way. It’s God in human form. Another one is that Christianity requires blind faith. It’s not, but often even Christians think you should believe without questioning. Questioning is so important because it’s through questions that you learn. Another one is that we worship 3 gods instead of one. There’s only 1 God in 3 forms, whatever that means. Some people think we’re all about beliefs and not about actions. That you could go to confession, be absolved, and go back Monday and steal. That’s not what Christianity teaches. It does say that you can be the worst person and if just before dying you suddenly realize how awful you were and are sincerely repentant, then you are forgiven. It doesn’t mean that you now are free to go out and do it again. But there is the recognition that sometimes change comes gradual, but who knows? Who can read anyone’s hearts? So we have to leave it to God. Most people don’t live their Christianity every day, that’s the problem.  Our society is so hectic, it makes it easy not to practice and forget.

Are you happy with how the interfaith dialogue has been so far? In what way do you think interfaith dialogue could be improved?

I’m not involved in interfaith dialogue anymore.  When I was at the University of Toronto, I was but at that time it was strictly Jewish- Christian dialogue.  And I was involved because of the Holocaust.  Because the churches had been actively teaching “Jews killed Jesus”; many still may.   And it wasn’t the Jews, it was the Romans. You can trace the line to Hitler from Christian teachings, and it’s misrepresenting Christianity.  So we have an obligation to fix it. Since then, Jewish-Christian dialogue has expanded to include Islam and other faiths. In newer or small groups, I think a lot of meetings are limited to clergy.  Maybe that’s because they’re just starting, I don’t know. Where I live, you don’t hear much about meetings, but there are interfaith events.  You also find events at university campuses. But in terms of how widely they are advertised, I’m not sure. I think there should be more done. At the campus, there’s a lot of openness to dialogue, not conversion. The big question is: how do you reach the ones who aren’t interested, because they’re the ones who need it, and that’s part of the challenge.

As my questions came to a close, we kept talking.  I asked her for some suggestions on how to expand the reach of my blog.  We talked about mystics and the similarity of their experiences regardless of the faith they identified with.  It was a really enlightening experience, as no Christian had ever before talked so openly about their faith with me.  I was grateful to God for leading me to Reverend Cheryl Gaver so I could learn some basics of Christianity.

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