Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
Q: I have been raised Catholic like my whole family, but a few years ago I started going to a Christian church. In the beginning I thought I was doing something wrong, but now I don’t believe so. I don’t understand. If there is one God why are there so many religions? Is there a difference between being Catholic and Christian? I find myself loving going to church and I feel so inspired.
— M, via email
A: I remember well how a Jewish spiritual seeker once asked the Dalai Lama how he could become a Buddhist because Judaism no longer inspired him. The Dalai Lama’s answer surprised and inspired me. He said to the man, “Have you learned all the beauty and wisdom of Judaism?” The man answered, “Well, no not really.” So the Dalai Lama said to him, “Learn your own past and feel your own roots before you decide to take another path up the mountain.” I agree with him. Leaving Catholicism for another Christian denomination is certainly your right and your choice, but first try to find a Catholic teacher and a Catholic community that may well inspire you and give you a renewed love for the faith of your family and your past. If this does not work for you, there is nothing wrong with finding another way to revere Jesus and his luminous salvific teaching.
The differences between Catholicism and Protestantism in its many varieties are subtle but real. Catholicism places more emphasis on the spiritual role of Mary as the mother of Jesus and her nurturing spirituality. Catholicism has a different view of the Eucharist, believing it to be, through transubstantiation, the actual blood and body of Christ while most Protestant denominations believe that the bread and wine are more symbolic of the body and blood of Jesus as the Christ.
Catholicism, of course, also believes in papal infallibility and has a hierarchy of celibate clergy between the Pope and the people. Also, priests are placed in Catholic parishes by the local bishop while Protestant ministers are usually elected to the pulpit by the church members themselves. Catholicism also has a more lenient view of the possibility of non-Catholics reaching heaven while particularly evangelical Christians take a more restrictive view of the need to explicitly profess belief in Jesus as the only way to salvation.
These and other differences are important, but in my view the most important element in selecting a Christian denomination for your life is the warmth and inclusiveness and love you feel when you enter the church and join the community of believers. They must feel like a spiritual family to you and they must embrace you fully. That is how you will know if you are home with God. What determines this is usually the clergyperson and the congregation more than some list of theological beliefs.
Q: In a recent article you spoke of how our blessings nurture gratitude and our burdens nurture courage and forbearance. Why does the need for courage and forbearance exist at all? I don’t mind gratitude, but why put humans through the often sad and tragic events of life? If our life after death could involve an eternity of joy, why do we have to pay for it first? Why not put us straight into Heaven? If it’s because of original sin, original sin was created when the serpent tempted Eve to disobey God’s directive. But God created the serpent. Why introduce such evil even at the very beginning of existence? Was it to test us? God must have known even then that we are faulted. And if we sinned in the Garden of Eden, with all its beauty, how can He be sure that we will not sin again when we’re in Heaven?
— P from Hauppauge, via email
A: A world without any suffering or sin would be wonderful in a way but it would not be our actual world. Yes, God could have created such a world, but that world would not require any effort, growth, maturity, forgiveness, learning or wisdom on our part. Babies in the womb and Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden live and lived in just such a perfect world. However, the life of unborn babies and Adam and Eve is deprived of both freedom of the will and moral consciousness, both of which make us truly human. Your physical muscles do not grow unless they are stressed and challenged and the same is true for our moral muscles. Your question is really why God does not make us all like babies for our entire lives? The answer is clear in the question. God made us to grow to God and to find each other in love. That is the only destiny that a good God would set for us all.