Unit 1: INTRODUCTION AND HUMAN NATURE
Many people have a variety of questions about the beliefs of the Christian Church. They may be preparing for Baptism, for Confirmation, or they may just be curious about some of the religion's teachings.
This material will hopefully provide a way for readers to arrive at a basic understanding of Christianity as expressed in "An Outline of the Faith" of The Book of Common Prayer, found beginning on page 845, and reproduced at the conclusion of each unit (see below).
For many years, Christians were taught to believe, and many are still taught to believe, that from the moment a baby emerges from its mother's womb, it has a natural, in-born tendency toward sinfulness, that is, toward being self-centered, unloving, and idolatrous. Sometimes this belief is called "Original Sin."
Today, while many Christians still hold to this, or some other, understanding of Original Sin, others have a more positive view of human nature. As an alternative to Original Sin, the Prayer Book "Outline" proposes that human beings are born "in the image of God." Born basically good, human beings possess innate capacities to love, to create, to make many kinds of choices, and to live in harmony with God and nature. Some would say further that Gods grace (spiritual assistance) is needed for these capacities to be lived out in this idolatrous world that continually shackles its human residents.
When Christians declare "in the image of God," they are not proposing that human beings are exactly like God! They are not claiming that God has a mortal body, is male or female, or has other human limitations! Instead, Christians are proclaiming basic human goodness and the capacities to act personally rather than like a mindless, heartless robot.
However, from the earliest times, human beings have misused their native abilities. We have failed to love by destroying, by being thoughtless, by abusing nature, and by misdirecting our good physical and emotional energies. This realism is embodied in the very beautiful Adam and Eve story.
(When later we discuss the Bible, we'll talk about this type of story; but I think you should know right now that many, perhaps most, Christian churches, realize that in the Bible there are all kinds of literature, and among them are folktales. One can be a Christian and regard the whole Creation story in the Book of Genesis as a beautiful myth containing fundamental truths, but not to be taken literally.)
In part, the Adam and Eve story tells us that though they were created good, humans from their beginnings have misused their God-given capacities and have failed to love as taught by God; they rebelled against their Creator! This is a marvelous story by which we can come to an understanding of inborn human goodness, but that individually and as a whole, human beings have made and continue to make unloving choices; in doing so, the human community is prevented from the full blossoming of love intended by God.
Is there any hope for humanity? Yes, proposes Christianity, with strength from God and each other, people can live in harmony with God's intentions and purposes for mankind. If the entire human race would choose to accept with heart and mind God's purposes for humanity, interpersonal relationships, the very quality of people's lives, would be transfigured.
When can the Creator's purposes and intentions be discovered? Christians believe that the Creator of the universe has communicated the Divine will for human beings through nature and through historical events, especially the lives of the Hebrew prophets and Jesus. Without such communication, indirect and direct, humanity would be left to flounder with regard to the meaning and significance of human life.
What is meant by "communicated his Will through nature?" More and more psychologists speak of the human need, a built-in need to love and be loved. These psychological observations, separate from biblical and theological assertions, are consistent with Christianity. It is as though humanity is receiving an indirect message from the Creator, when social scientists conclude from observations in nature, that all persons are meant to love and be loved!
How are God's purposes and intentions, that is, his Will, learned through historical events? We must admit that every event can be interpreted in more than one way; this is true of an auto accident, a war, or any other occasion. It is possible to view all historical events without any reference to God. It is impossible to observe or report events without some kind of a point of view, perspective, or context!
One valid way of viewing and understanding some historical events is to perceive them as communicating directly to humanity something further about God's Will. For example, when we read of the Hebrew prophets, when we read of Jesus and the quality of his life and teachings, we read of historical people through whom, Christians believe, humanity receives a clearer vision of what the Creator intends for all of us. Their wisdom and their examples provide us with clues (not detailed blueprints or computer programs) to what life is all about. These events are called "revelations" or communications from God.
Some human beings who do not accept these revelations arrive at different conclusions about life. One such interpretation is that life has no meaning; it is absurd; we're trapped on this stupid little planet going around an insignificant little sun journeying around a meaningless universe. To be sure, this is one of many alternative ways of understanding life.
Christians, on the other hand, along with Jews and Muslims (the three religions united by the Hebrew Bible, which we call "The Old Testament"), conclude that life has meaning. Life is personal: a sovereign Creator-who-cares searches for humanity's loving loyalty; the clue to human life is in loving and being loved. This meaning is evident in nature and in certain events.
To conclude this unit, please read the section below on human nature in "An Outline of the Faith."
Text from The Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church page 845
Q. What are we by nature?
A. We are part of God's creation, made in the image of God.
Q. What does it mean to be created in the image of God?
A. It means that we are free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation and with God.
Q. Why then do we live apart from God and out of harmony with creation?
A. From the beginning, human beings have misused their freedom and made wrong choices.
Q. Why do we not use our freedom as we should?
A. Because we rebel against God, and we put ourselves in the place of God.
Q. What help is there for us?
A. Our help is in God.
Q. How did God first help us?
A. God first helped us by revealing himself and his will, through nature and history, through many seers and saints, and especially the prophets of Israel.