10/12/2012 08:53 am ET Updated Dec 12, 2012

The Monkey-See-Monkey-Do Path to God, Love and Life

In the world of wishful delusion, prayer "changes" us. In reality we're stuck on this blue flyspeck in space on the edge of a cyclical multi-universe no one understands. In the context of the fraction of the cosmos we can observe sometimes it seems like we are less significant than the parasites inhabiting our intestinal tracts. That notwithstanding I love my wife, children and grandchildren so intensely that I feel compelled to lay my love for them--and the fear of loss that is the dark side of love--at the feet of someone more powerful than me. So I try to protect them by praying "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner."

This ancient "Jesus Prayer" springs from the heart of Eastern Orthodox spiritual mysticism. Yet my compulsion to pray -- irrespective of the "form" my prayer takes these days -- has survived my flight from the netherworld of evangelical striving and survived my abandoning what I now think were many false certainties.

These days my prayer addiction exists in an inherited shadow land that's rooted in glimmers of sweet pre-conscious memories of my loving mother praying with me. My fiercely Protestant missionary mother -- circa the 1950s-60s when as a young child I was being comforted by her bedtime prayers -- wouldn't have approved my repetitions of the "Jesus Prayer." To her mumbling this prayer again and again would have sounded "too Catholic" to be right. Her disapproval of written formal "non-spontaneous" prayers notwithstanding, memories of my spiritual awakening at her knee hover in a kindly twilight realm between sleep and waking. I sense love in the place memory takes me, a "place" where the comfort and certainties of childhood are now forever out of reach.

Whatever its source, my "Jesus Prayer" reflex has nothing to do with my religious beliefs any more than my believing in the need to breathe keeps me breathing. For me prayer is a lower brain medulla-controlled state of being, not a theological proposition. And praying has nothing to do with the fact that I choose to label myself as a Christian.

We may label ourselves "Agnostics," "Atheists," "Jews," "Buddhists," "Christians," "Muslims," "Hindus." We may even sincerely think such words define us. But these belief labels are designed to hide what we actually are: vicious primates.

In the late 1980s when I was living in South Africa and Namibia for a year while directing two forgettable, low budget Hollywood action movies, I became well acquainted with a group of baboons that lived on the rocky cliffs next to one Namibian location. My wife Genie, my children and I were constantly amazed by just how vicious these creatures were to each other, how the dominant males bullied the lesser males and beat and raped their females. Primates are mean, violent and petty. It was strictly "R-Rated" stuff.

"But Daddy, what is that baboon doing?"

"It's nothing, just some sort of grooming! Pay no attention!"

An article, "Experts Not Surprised by Chimp's Vicious Attack," aptly describes primate "moral" conditions:


"[When] Frans de Waal, a renowned primatologist and author... heard of the vicious chimpanzee attack in Stamford last week that left a 55-year-old woman disfigured and possibly in need of a face transplant, [he said] 'It's typical of the attack on a stranger... They go for the face, hands and genitals. They do all sorts of nasty things. They sometimes kill neighboring males... One day he was going to explode... a male chimp of that age was going to do something drastic anyway."

DNA evidence confirms there is only a 1.2 percent genetic difference between us and chimpanzees. And our human primate history is full of people just like us of whom it can be said, "They do all sorts of nasty things." Primates are into dominance and hierarchies. Aggression is the norm to increase status. And dominance is necessary. It helps to reduce the amount of actual violence, because someone's "in charge."

Our chosen or inherited labels neither change nor protect us and they certainly offer no protection of the people we love from our primate viciousness. So when I reflexively find myself praying for the protection of my family by repeating the "Jesus Prayer" I find I'm really begging Jesus to protect them from me.

My prayer compulsion is unconscious but my love for my family is not. At this stage of life I know that whatever the mystery of prayer is or isn't that if I want my loved ones protected from my dark side I'll have to answer my prayers myself.

Playacting at virtue is all I can do to "answer" my prayers because human truth is biology not wishful thinking. Biology is biology, not words about biology. And our biology has made us mean. Faith doesn't fix meanness. The same goes for the word "God." It fixes nothing nor does theology.

Theology resides in the world of language and language is mere metaphor even when describing the mundane reality of day-to-day existence, let alone when it comes to using words to spin out ideas about invisible "truths" that are supposed to change one's life. We long for some sort of "revealed" transcendent truth to "explain everything" though deep down some of us suspect that we're courting delusion.

Even if we aren't entirely deluded and there really is some meaning "out there" as we seek this "outside-of-us" meaning our only conduit for such "revelation" is ourselves and other primates. And that's a big problem because primates are real bastards.

Looking back, I realize my crew and I weren't much different than the baboons that romped, stole, raped and killed nearby. Our white South African grip stole his own equipment for insurance purposes and then blamed his black workers and got them arrested. (Charges were dropped when we learned what he'd done.) One drunken special effects coordinator - ironically our "weapons safety officer" - brought a loaded shotgun to the set and carelessly let off a blast that nearly killed my young son. It missed him by millimeters while blowing a hole in our car door. One of our motorcycle chase stunts was designed wrong and we put a stuntman in the hospital for 6 months with a crushed pelvis. And then the South African production manager lied about how it happened to avoid problems with our "completion bond" insurers.

Unlike the lower primates, who seem to revel in their viciousness, we deny the truth about who we are and/or look for a quick fix. Enter the theologians, Bible teachers, imams, rabbis, pastors and evangelists with their "explanations" and "remedies." But their words ring hollow because all of their arguments are entirely circular. They quote their Old and New Testaments, the Torah, the Koran etc., as "proof" of the life-changing "truth" of their texts, never answering the only real question: What makes them think anything in their particular "sacred" text is true?

They use words full of bluster like "God says" or "Jesus says" or "the Prophet says." But when they say, "The Bible says," what they really mean is, "I say the Bible says." If they were honest, they'd lace their sermons with statements like this: "When I say 'God says' what I really mean is whoever wrote this passage in the Bible (or Koran or Torah) said this and there is no way to know if this represents what any creator real or imagined may or may not want. Nor can I say for sure what the human author of this text even meant let alone who actually wrote this or why we take this writing any more seriously than what's on the back of a breakfast cereal box."

Worse, the God merchants tell us that their "holy books" are inspired. They "prove" this by referring to their particular holy book and what it "says" about itself.

This is a neat trick that, as an author I wish I could borrow: "Hey, my books are all perfect because my books say they are perfect! See? It's so clear! Look it says so right here in Chapter 6, verse 3, 'This book is perfect!' And by the way they are all at the top of the bestseller lists too, no matter what you think those lists say! And if you read the bestseller lists and don't see my books listed there, it's only because you lack the faith to discern the hidden truths only revealed to people who read my books! You see you need special spiritual eyes to read what's really on the bestseller list no matter what it says! And the way to get spiritual eyes to discern truth is to read my books with the perfect understanding open only to those who read my books!"

In a backhanded way, the fact religious snake oil salesmen can dupe us with their entirely circular "arguments" is a hopeful sign. It seems we care enough about wanting to change who we are for the sake of those we love that we long for shortcuts to eradicate our true primal nature. And one of the biggest lies we gratefully accept from religious leaders is that we can change what we are through "correct" beliefs that will lead us to experience divine interventions. We gratefully buy into such "life-changing" theologically "correct" belief-based events, such a born-again experience or a trip to get the Pope to bless us or by making a pilgrimage to Mecca, in order to avoid the hard truth best expressed in the words of the inimitable Pogo, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

The essence of the religion lie is that correct belief (religious or otherwise) can save us from ourselves and, in the case of religion, from the wrath of some "god." There's a problem with this idea: life is too short to know anything for certain. And there is another problem: this religious one stop "solution" is like some of the wackier cancer "cures" offered to desperately ill men and women when conventional treatments fail.

When otherwise sensible people are scared stiff of the way their own bodies have betrayed them they will pay to be fooled. And they don't ask hard questions like the one I posed a well meaning friend who kept calling when my father was dying of lymphoma with her "great ideas" about Mexican herbal folk cures. She wanted Dad to leave the Mayo Clinic and head for some herbalist in Mexico City. She ranted against western medicine and extolled peasant cures using "nature" and "what is in our rain forests." I finally snapped, "If these alternative folk cures are so great why don't the actuarial epidemiology public health tables demonstrate that peasants in Central America live longer than middle class North Americans?"

Then there is the wrath-of-God concept. It turns out that this selling point for religion demands of us that we believe that our creator is meaner and dumber than us and is hooked on a cycle of scapegoat sacrifice, sacred violence and retribution-- forever. And even if you buy the need to pacify this angry "god" through right belief this "faith" still begs the question of sincerity. How do we achieve enough sincerity to be saved even if we want to believe correctly?

All this notwithstanding we still look for a quick, magical fix because our primal capacity for cruelty is hard to own up to. For instance I'm not proud that in the late 1980s I broke the entertainment industry anti-apartheid boycott and worked in South Africa and South African-controlled Namibia directing movies, because I needed the money. I had just fled my financially secure high paying life in big time American evangelical religion, where I was a minor celebrity and nepotistic sidekick to my famous evangelical leader father. When I walked away, my family was broke. (I've explained and/or rationalized this exit in my books Crazy For God and Sex, Mom and God .) Excuses notwithstanding, in my own way I was as exploitative of the apartheid system for my own ends as was that criminal grip.

But I'm not just talking about the "big evils" like doing a small part to enable apartheid. I'm talking about who we are in daily life.

Our primate nature is on display when we slap a child, bully others in school, or spew anger at our lover, partner or spouse. What I regret most deeply when looking back in sorrow isn't my "big mistakes" (say working in South Africa or spreading the fear-filled mythology of the Religious Right) but the many times I've been unkind to my children and cruel to my wife when kindness and good sense would have cost me nothing. So: How to change our primate brains' biology so the change becomes real?

It's tempting to rationalize my bad behavior as "caused" by wrong ideas. But blaming wrong beliefs for our true biological natures is as crazy as thinking that right ideas will save us. So when atheists blame religion for war, they are being as silly as Christians who blame atheism for the Gulag. And thinking you can make some "god" forgive you by believing "the" correct doctrine about him is absurd. Any god that petty isn't worth serving--not to mention hard to credit with the creation of the universe. How could the creator be even meaner and dumber than his creatures?

And even if belief in a petty Janus-faced "biblical god" - modeled on pagan gods that were as capricious as they were vengeful - is the correct path to salvation, then this "right belief" will always fall short. Like everything else, it will be sabotaged by our flawed understanding and our lack of perfect sincerity.

As for our labels saving us - Christian, Jew, agnostic etc. - we could all change places and swap labels and we'd still be what we are: potential members of a lynch mob. If our primate tribe happens to be chasing naked and bleeding Jews through Polish streets for deportation to the camps, we join in. If our tribe decides to chase the former chasers of Jews around the globe and prosecute them for war crimes, we join in and feel as good about righting the wrongs of the past as they did about their ethnic cleansing. But a few decades later our newly "benevolent" and "ethical" tribe--given the right mix of fear and circumstances--will aid and abet murder, torture and the stealing of land from the Palestinian people. And those new victims will, in turn, murder their enemies and each other and/or take sides in the global civil war pitting Shia against Sunni.

Who are the good guys? There are none. Just ask our suffering and inexorably warming planet about human "goodness" or even basic intelligence. Just ask those closest to you about your goodness. Admitting this truth is what we avoid. Better to rant and rave about "evil secularists," or "evil right wing evangelicals" than look within.

This is why the New Atheists' books are bestsellers. They "explain" to atheists why it's all someone else's fault. It's why religious books also become bestsellers, because they explain to believers why they are superior. The God Delusion and The Purpose-Driven Life share the same delusional message: The world can be fixed by belief in correct ideas.

Both religious how-to books and atheist how-to books lead the readers to the same preening conclusion: "Thank God I am so much more enlightened than other people!" So let's be honest: Enforcing "correct ideas" is just another manifestation of biting and scratching, primate behavior dressed up to look like something it's not.

Speaking of enforcing correctness, a friend of mine who taught at Westminster Theological Seminary told me what he feared most were his ultra-conservative students who eagerly ratted out professors who "deviated" from Reformed Calvinist orthodoxy. And major Southern Baptist seminaries have recently endured ideological purges of people deemed to have insufficient loyalty to the so-called inerrancy of the Bible, "purges" worthy of the Red Guards. The Vatican too has been on a crusade to curb the voice of "dissident" Catholics most recently of American nuns. Fear of honest questions is all (small "o") orthodoxy is. And if I've received one email from a pastor that starts with the line, "I wish I could publically say what you're saying in your book Crazy For God but it would cost me my job," I've received a hundred.

So forget changing for the better via correct ideas. The truth is simple and a bit chilling: If our biology changes, we'll change. If it doesn't, we won't.

Changing our biology is not as farfetched as it sounds. At a microcellular level, the complex network of nerve cells that make up the brain actually changes in response to certain experiences. The brain is malleable. If it wasn't, no one could ever learn to play the piano. The issue isn't correct belief about pianos but whom we choose to imitate (a good piano teacher) and what we do repeatedly (practice) until we begin to carve out new pathways within our malleable brains.

That's why I'll be in church next Sunday with my grandchildren. (We happen to go to a Greek Orthodox Church as my wife and I have for the last 23 years.) Church happens to be one of the places where my grandchildren can be lovingly swooped up. "Swooping up" covers everything from being waved to by choir members, picked up and/or patted by a multitude of "little old ladies," offered snacks during the service when we wander to the church hall where coffee hour is being set up and start munching early, and of course going to our eccentric Sunday school where a friendly chaos reigns that - thankfully -- precludes most teaching.

This loving "swooping up" also changes brains by producing a sense of tribal belonging, in this case to a non-lynch-mob mostly benevolent tribe. It isn't about correct belief, let alone if the Bible is "true" (whatever that means) but about the brain-changing effect of community and the humbling mystery of unconditional love experienced in the "ordinary."

This isn't a theological concept to which you must assent. It's as practical and measurable as doing dishes for 10 hours after the annual food festival fund raising event.

That's where a "stranger" I'd seen around church but didn't know became a friend as we worked together in 90-degree heat over a slop-filled sink. By the end of the evening, I'd told her more about myself and she'd told me more about herself than I would have thought possible, such as how embarrassed I was as a child victim of polio by having to wear an iron leg brace and how chagrinned she was at having had 3 divorces. Somehow the context of working together for something bigger than either of us - sustaining our community - provided a free pass to sharing our inner selves. We did dishes and exchanged stories.

I'm not really as nice as my fellow dishwasher probably thinks I am, but since I'm a pretty good listener she never knew that I started out our time together not very interested in our conversation and inwardly cursing myself for volunteering for the cleanup crew. But I acted the part and she bought the act. Then somewhere along the way, I stopped acting and became the part.

That's been a pattern for me: act right then get into the habit of actually being what you're pretending to be. As a result of these "acting lessons" I'm a much better grandfather than I was a father. I am not patient by nature, but acting as if I am has made me more patient than I once was.

Play-acting (call this blessed hypocrisy method acting) is my only road to virtue, because at first nothing comes "naturally" but the primate biting and scratching. Feeling sincere isn't the point. Acting the part is, until I become what I'm imitating. The how-to of improving a free throw shot, playing the piano, scrubbing the filthy pots and pans at midnight or learning parenting is all one and the same: find someone to show you how and copy them again and again and again.

Monkey-see-monkey-do can be the road to either damnation or salvation. It all depends on whom we imitate. I've found that when I imitate Jesus' life and teaching - forgive my enemies or at least forgive my wife after a fight - I can gradually change my brain, just as long as I keep repeating the action.

Instead of revenge, Jesus begged God to forgive his murderers. Now that is something new on this little planet.

So what? The biblical account of Jesus is all very nice, but how does "imitating Jesus" translate to me? I wasn't there and I don't even know if the gospel accounts happened. And "inspirational" Bible verses about Jesus are often dead to me, because they are just too familiar and polluted. I've heard them read (and "explained") by people who told lies about things I could check out - say the money they stole from their ministry, the people they slept with and hurt, the pompous asses they became - and who used "faith" as just another method by which to bully and dominate others.

So how to "meet" a teacher I trust outside of trying to force myself to believe a farfetched text about things that no one can agree on and that's been pushed on me by people as imperfect as me? Sometimes we can find an intermediary. And she's not always the Virgin Mary. I'm talking about my wife and daughter...

My wife Genie has been my "Jesus tutor." She's very much like the Virgin Mary, not counting the virgin part. Like Mary, Genie got pregnant when she was a teen--by me not by the Holy Spirit. And it was unplanned like Mary's pregnancy and also "out of wedlock." Genie is a primate (Mary was too) but like Mary, Genie does not bite and scratch (very often). And Genie taught me how to forgive others and myself by forgiving me for behaving like a grade-A asshole.

Genie has copied Jesus over our 42-year marriage. And my daughter Jessica, who bore the brunt of my stupidity, youth and anger when I was a teen father sliding into my insecure selfish 20s, has copied Genie too. Jessica grew up and then forgave me for being a sometimes mean and always impatient young father. And I copied Genie and Jessica.

That's the "how" of my changing some of the neural pathways in my brain for the better. I was set a good example and decided that theirs was the better way. That's the "how" of my second chance to be a very different person than I once was--at least in the eyes of my youngest grandchildren.

My granddaughter Lucy (presently a four-year-old) and my grandson Jack (presently two-years-old) came into my life after my decades-long steep learning curve. Thankfully, they didn't have to endure it. Others paid that price. That means Lucy and Jack mostly know me as the guarantor of unconditional love. (They are my former-Marine son John's kids and live next door, and I see them for many hours each day, so to say we're "close" hardly covers it.) I just wish I could roll back the clock and be the person they know today especially to my firstborn, back when Jessica was very young.

So who is this Jesus we can copy through others who copy him? No one will ever know. But here are some possibilities. If the fundamentalists are correct (and why shouldn't they be, because no one knows anything about God or the Bible) and every word of the Bible is "literally true" (whatever that means), when Jesus was nailed to a cross and asked God to unconditionally "forgive them for they know not what they do," he was asking God to renounce vengeance--forever. He was asking for God to forgive everyone involved in his murder, and that included the Romans and Jews of his day who would never "become Christians" let alone pray the "sinner's prayer." Forgive them all unconditionally, Jesus asked. In other words, the idea of hell was abolished.

If the theologically liberal "side" is correct (and why shouldn't they be because no one knows anything about God or the Bible) and the Bible is mostly myth (whatever that means) combined with garbled oral history screwed up by St. Paul and further deformed by hell-loving vengeful St. Augustine, and all the other power-hungry retributive abusers of the Jesus Story from Augustine to Calvin, then Jesus-The-Mysterious-Myth holds out just as much hope of salvation as a literal Jesus does. Because either way, if you imitate Jesus (or copy your version of Genie and Jessica copying him) you can change your brain and be saved from the only person with the capacity to punish you forever: yourself.

That change comes not because of magic or even God but because Jesus (or whoever wrote about him) actually had one great idea: Forgive! So who is this Jesus? Is he God or man, divine or "merely" wise? And where do we "learn" about him, from the Bible, from clever teachers in seminaries, from inspired pastors and/or from the traditions of the ancient church?

The good news is it doesn't matter. The Jesus idea is powerful and true in that it "works" so where we learn about it doesn't matter. We don't even know those we live with, so how very silly to claim we know who anyone else really is or was. Our knowledge of those even closest to us is woefully incomplete and yet we muddle along. I can't definitively tell you who Genie and my children are either. I'm not them. But that doesn't stop me communicating with them any more than my incomplete or even wrong knowledge about who Jesus is stops me from learning the great idea - forgive - that is at the heart of the Jesus Story.

I don't just "meet" Jesus in the Bible. I meet Jesus at midnight through a tired, thrice-divorced, seen-it-all nurse who gave up her day and night to do the dishes with me for our church but who will still be on night duty a few hours later. I meet Jesus through people who are atheists, agnostics, Muslims or nothing at all, except imitators of Jesus-- no matter who they credit for their non-primate like loving behavior. In other words, they are forgivers. They might not have ever heard of Jesus, let alone "believe in him," but often they are much more like him than some folks running churches.

This seems to be the "message" of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus said (okay, the person writing the story about him said that he said) that the only character in his story serving God wasn't even a believer. The Samaritan was an enemy of the chosen people, someone who was outside of the holy tradition into which Jesus was born. And this despised "other" (in today's American context say a gay atheist) was the only person doing the will of God--ergo "saved."And the religious people with the "right" beliefs in the story were lost.

I have seen the power of forgiveness work to heal my former religious "certainties." (I wrote about this journey in what my publishers call "The God Trilogy" -- Crazy For God, Patience With God and Sex, Mom and God.) Those certainties gave my primate nastiness  a patriarchal theological boost of self-justification. So before I could change I first had to come to see myself as a persecutor. I had to forget the "biblical example" I'd been set by my evangelist preacher father as he sometimes abused my mother and instead copy the example of forgiveness and mercy my wife Genie and my daughter Jessica offered me.

Forgive as you would be forgiven is not a prescriptive command but a factual description of what heals human relationships. If I've learned anything over my 60 year journey it's that forgiveness as a way of life is open to anyone of any faith or no faith. Brains change based on our behaviors not because of what we say we believe. Belief is only meaningful in that it can either lead us to reconsider who we are imitating or confirm us as being "right" and therefore in no need of healing. So the "act" (in both senses of the word) of forgiving others works for the forgiver as well as the forgiven. It connects us with the empathy we have within us that competes with our primate prime directive to be controlling bastards.

Following her mother's example my first child Jessica returned love for my clumsy-to-bad-to-mean "fathering." She was born when I was 18 but I eventually grew up. When she was a young adult I asked her to forgive me for the times I'd pulled her hair, for the slaps and unkind yelling she endured as a young child.

It was no coincidence that the farther I traveled away from my fundamentalist evangelical Calvinist background the more open I became to imitating forgiving behavior. In my mind my dominating and controlling actions -- that were really just primate lashing out -- had been "justified" by my "call" to "lead" a family as a  patriarchal practitioner of the biblical misogyny that all-too conveniently fit my selfish primate desire to control those around me. I'd been told that "God's plan" included a directive for men to dominate "their" women and children. Calvinism -- and all other forms of patriarchal religion -- is tailor made by male primates for other male primates who are assholes anyway. It gives them guilt-free a pat on the head to do what comes most naturally.

According to brain chemistry studies, taking revenge and nurturing resentment is a major source of life-destroying stress. For a profound exploration of the madness caused by embracing the "justice" of "godly" revenge and retribution watch the film "Hellbound?" directed by Kevin Miller. It is about our different views of retribution as expressed through belief in hell. But through this look at "hell" Miller also brilliantly chronicles the unhinging of some people's brains through their denial of human empathy that leads them to relish the violent future of suffering that they predict awaits the "lost" in hell. Yet we need not follow the sort of raving fundamentalists Miller exposes in "Hellbound?" to the earthly hell of their making. I should know. I used to be a Calvinist fundamentalist much like some interviewed by Miller. Love through reawakened empathy changed my brain un-snapped it so to speak.

Jessica grew up into a beautiful person with no trace of bitterness and she forgave me. By forgiving me, she healed us both. And if I may indulge a proud father moment, Jessica blossomed into a happy lovely mother of two and my best friend who I talk to almost more than to anyone else. She is a successful energy consultant to the European Union and runs a foundation linking alternative energy companies with the major power companies all over the world. I have no idea what Jessica believes theologically nor do I care. I only know who she is-- a forgiver. She was my Good Samaritan but with a twist: she was the wounded person who then rescued her persecutor with these simple words: "I forgive you Dad."

Jesus' truthfulness regarding the power of forgiveness changes people's brains and therefore it works. So if Jesus is the second person of the Trinity (whatever that means) or an enlightened rabbi, a literary invention or a blend of all of the above, following his (or his chronicler's) prescription changes us. And since that change from persecutor to forgiver is what Jesus "said" he'd demand as proof of "salvation," however we get there isn't the point. Forgiveness rather than retribution, binding the wounds rather than passing by; this is a miraculous departure from the primate biting and scratching norm.

A Disclaimer Time Out Humble Pie: Am I not essentially contradicting myself by saying that correct belief about how behavior actually changes us is required to change behavior? Yes, for the same reason that deconstructionist post-modern philosophers still write books about how language has no fixed meaning... using language to make their case. Welcome to being finite and stuck in a paradox. So forget what I say, words are mere metaphors anyway, just do the dishes, listen to the person stuck with you over that sink and learn from her stories, and be nice to your version of Genie and Jessica-- while there is still time to say sorry.

One other distinction you may want to take away from my paradoxical inconsistency is that my "view" somewhat "redefines" salvation from holding the right beliefs (in order to appease a wrathful "god") to holding beliefs that heal people in order to secure our imminent and humanity's long-term, survival. It's not a matter of passing some theological test after you die. It's about not destroying yourself and others in this life. (End of disclaimer)

My two youngest grandchildren Lucy and Jack don't know how I went from angry primate bullying teen father to 60-year-old benign grandfather. (Jessica's children Amanda and Ben are teens now and Genie's and my relationship with them is that of friends, family and equals not care givers to little children as it is with Jack and Lucy.) Lucy and Jack race around my home, paint, draw, scribble, listen to music -"Bach and crackers" as Jack calls it when asking for his favorite snack and music - bathe and poop, all the while experiencing and trusting in that change.

If I hadn't actually changed but could talk a good theological game, what good would that do my grandchildren? What drew them into a world of my love wasn't my ideas let alone dominant "leadership" but the fact that I genuinely don't care how much paint they spill on my porch floor. I know that if anything ever happened to them that their grubby little paint footprints marking the spot where we worked on our art projects together would become iconic treasures and the most precious things in my house.

If Jesus really "takes away the sins of the world" it isn't through some sacrifice to satisfy a jealous "god" but because he set an example by refusing to allow revenge to have the last word. He did not fulfill a cycle of retributive sacrifice, he broke it. As one 7th century Eastern Orthodox Father put it: "Be persecuted, rather than be a persecutor. Be crucified, rather than be a crucifier. Be treated unjustly, rather than treat anyone unjustly. Be oppressed, rather than zealous. Lay hold of goodness, rather than justice." (Abba Isaac of Nineveh - "The Syrian")

Primates don't naturally "Lay hold of goodness, rather than justice." But we can make our brains change by imitating the few who do. Sometimes we receive a reward for that change from a friend, child or grandchild as I did when Lucy, then three, set a table napkin on fire when she experimented with a candle. (I'd briefly left the room and our candlelit table to clear the dishes.) She had no fear in her startled eyes when she looked to see how I'd "react" after she called me back. As a blue sheet of flame curled up to the ceiling she was curious about it but not afraid of me. She has never been slapped by the hands that gently took the burning napkin away. And the voice that said, "That might not be a good idea Lucy," spoke conversationally without a hint of yelling.

Lucy was fear-less in that moment, because (unknown to her) her grandfather has been playacting at being her "Jesus." As I conveyed the flaming napkin to the kitchen sink - and explained about fire and what it does - I was passing on my gratitude for having been forgiven so many times.

In other words I have been reached by the actual brain-changing power of the living gospel. Jesus -- be he God or man or teacher or merely a fictional character -- went far past mere niceness and answered our primal violence not with a terrified snarl but with "Forgive them." And that very un-primate-like example has left the door to heaven wide open for you and me and those we love in the here and now, no matter what we call ourselves or what we believe.

Frank Schaeffer is a writer and author of the New York Times bestseller Keeping Faith: A Father-Son Story About Love and the United States Marine Corps and Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back .