Allow me to share with you the gōd-spell. That is Old English (no, no, not that kind) for good news. The Gospel. Whether the word refers to the first four books of the New Testament or the message they contain, in general it conveys the happy news that Jesus has redeemed mankind from sin. This is good news, right?
There is great variation and nuance throughout the Christian sects about how this redemption works. Essentially they are lists of varying lengths that you have to complete. The right baptism, the right membership, the right confession, some requiring works and others seeing works as the fruits of grace received. Some lists are really short and require nothing more than saying something that fits on an index card. But they all assume the same thing: you are bad. Very, very bad. When Eve and Adam bit that fruit you became bad. Either you are on the hook for what they did or you inherited a world where being bad is unavoidable or both. This is why you need saving.
As you sit there reading this do you feel bad about about being, well, bad? You should. It disappoints God. It contributed to the horrible suffering that Jesus had to endure. Also, if you can’t properly check off the list (including not being so bad anymore!) you are in for something unpleasant when you die. You could suffer endlessly in hell. You could be separated from your family. So there is a lot riding on this. In fact, this whole existence is about getting that right. Redemption is worth having, right?
People take these ideas pretty seriously and do all kinds of things to relieve themselves of the guilt and effects of being so damn bad. Some whip their backs raw or literally allow themselves to be ritually crucified. Others cloister themselves in monasteries and deny themselves intimacy or families. Still others fill their lives with stress and anxiety trying to do each and every thing they believe they are supposed to including endless meetings, activities and rituals. These are the extremes of course, but lots of good regular people carry around a guilty conscience and the pressure of doing all the many things they should (and not doing the ones they should not) because they have internalized the idea that if they don’t they are a bad person. They even consciously or subconsciously judge each other on how well they are checking all the boxes while worrying not just about whether their own are checked but also how others perceive them as well as their loved ones in this regard. Is this beginning to sound exhausting? But there is a benefit here, right? All of this angst really does lead to happier people?
It turns out, no, not at all. Both religious and non-religious people actually tend to be fairly happy when they live around other like-minded people. Community seems to be key. But when you look at just the church going folks, it is the ones who take their faith literally who are the most unhappy of all. For those of you who are church going, this is intuitive, right? The people who are killing themselves to do it all because they think they have to and/or who are constantly casting a judgmental eye are not happy are they? All that box checking doesn’t seem to bring them joy, does it? It is the people who have found a way to not feel bad about not doing all they are supposed to who feel good. The people who have decided that not doing that stuff doesn’t make them bad. Often we call that “balance.” I call it the realization that maybe you just weren’t bad in the first place.
What if they are wrong about you being so very naughty? You don’t seem bad to me. You are nice to people, you love your family and you work hard and contribute to society. Maybe you even recycle your Diet Coke cans. What if it was okay to just let all that other stuff go, or as much of it as you wanted to let go of, and you could just do those things that feel good to you and fulfill you? What if what other people expect doesn’t really matter? What if you had some space to just be, free from someone else’s check list? To suck a little marrow out of life? Would that make you a better or worse person? More or less likely to actually do good because you choose it? If it turns out that you were actually good along…then what?