Have you lost count? We have been counting down the days after Easter, remembering the blessings that God has given us through His church and through those who serve as their ministers. When we get to 50 we will celebrate the Day of Pentecost, the traditional beginning of Christianity as recorded in the second chapter of Acts. The Jewish background for this counts the 50 days after Passover to the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, remembering the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai.
Pentecost always occurs seven weeks after Easter, on the eighth Sunday (counting Easter). This year the date is June 9. Traditions vary between denominations with some celebrating the holiday with more splendor than others. Some churches decorate their churches with the color red to represent the power and fire of the Holy Spirit. Some churches welcome or confirm new members on that Sunday, while others use the Sunday to have baptisms, processions and ordinations.
The first Pentecost was held 50 weeks after Easter. The Jewish community in Jerusalem was anticipating the “feast of weeks” following the Passover. The forming community of followers of Christ were still reeling from His crucifixion and resurrection. Peter and the other disciples stood in the Temple courts reminding people of their heritage and the prophecies that were fulfilled in the life of Jesus.
Peter reminded his listeners about the events that took place surrounding the death of Jesus. He drew the pertinent conclusion for the people: So what do you believe about this Jesus? Has God ever blessed a life like He did this one? Does that mean that Jesus was the Messiah that we have been waiting for? Was He in fact God’s son? If you believe that, what are you going to do? The implications were clear. Their beliefs mattered.
Two thousand years later it isn’t so easy to see that, is it? Things that were important years ago seem less important today because different things are emphasized in different ways. Essentially America was founded to give people a chance to have religious freedom, to not be told how to worship by the King of England. (I understand, they also didn’t like taxation without representation but that comes later.) The religion of the overwhelming majority in England at the time was Christianity. People basically believed the same thing, but they differed in how to act on those beliefs.
That is not the world of the United States today. We are made up of people from almost everywhere, not just England. As such we have many religions represented, not just Christianity. Such a diverse group of people can exist together only if differing beliefs and choices are valued. It is easy to conclude that beliefs don’t really matter.
A contributing factor to that conclusion are the different traditions and standards each religion brings to the culture’s table. Two hundred years ago the standard for Christians was the Bible. At the time, there was for all practical purposes only one English translation of the Scriptures, the King James Bible.
Things have changed in 200 years. According to the American Bible Society, it is impossible to give an exact number of English translations and paraphrases today. Part of the reason is that for all they know I may have made my own translation and the Society just doesn’t know about it because I haven’t chosen to publish it. The most comprehensive English bibliography on the subject was compiled by William Chamberlin and published in 1991 as the “Catalogue of English Bible Translations.” The section on canonical books had 806 pages and listed over 900 English translations. Several translations have been published since then.
Add to the confusion the sacred writings of every other religion and an agreed upon standard for truth and belief becomes virtually impossible. The result is what philosophers and theologians call relativism. David Elton Trueblood, in his classis book, “Philosophy of Religion,” writes, “There is no objective standard by which truth may be determined, so that truth varies with individuals and circumstances.”
Does it really matter, then, what I believe?
Even the website for Psychology Today seems to think so. An article by Michael Austin, then professor of philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University, was titled “Why Beliefs Matter.” He argues that “what we believe as individuals and communities is significant.” After his reasoning, he concludes that “if we give more focused care and attention to our beliefs about values, then our lives, the lives close to us, and perhaps others beyond our immediate circle will be better for it.”
On the website, yourbeliefsmatter.com, an author writes, “It is becoming more accepted in the world of psychology, biology and spiritual practices that your beliefs create the foundation of who you are and the life you live.” Your life is almost like printing out your beliefs.
So in the Christian faith, what are the essential truths and doctrines that we need to hold? Are these truths unique to Christianity, or are some of the truths universal – that really anyone could cling to them and strengthen their lives? How can these truths be communicated in such a diverse community as today’s United States?
The apostle Paul traveled to Athens, Greece in the first century. In his day, Athens was the cultural center for spiritual and physical diversity, intellectual research and development, and educational philosophy and training. The account is found in the 17th chapter of Acts.
Instead of alienating the Athenians with “I am right, you are wrong” during his speech, he came to them knowledgeable about their beliefs and practices. He commended them for their interest in religion, intellectualism and the pursuit of truth. In the midst of dozens, perhaps a hundred, statues and altars representing their gods and goddesses, Paul pointed out the one dedicated to “The Unknown God.”
Let me tell you about this God.
— Tom May is a freelance writer. Reach him at email@example.com.