This week features both: 1) A change in blog theme, if you haven’t already noticed, and 2) Returning to posts inspired by A New Kind of Christianity by Brian McLaren. Almost too much awesomeness to handle all at once, I know. Take deep breaths if you get dizzy.
There, there. Everything’s going to be fine.
Actually, my line of thinking for this post originates from a conversation I had with a youth at our church last week about his faith, and the nature of faith in general. He had some amazing spiritual insight for his age (16), and drew from a variety of religious sources to get there, including a bit of sensationalized religious “wisdom” passed on from peers. In other words, as research would tell us, he is your typical American teenager [although I’ll give him higher than average marks for spiritual awareness and humility, imo].
It brought my memory back to a familiar question that I faced regularly in college, as I confronted religious diversity for the first time: “What are the essentials of my belief system?”…. [which is followed by the important corollary: “Why are they so essential, and what’s actually at risk if those essentials are muddied or disregarded?”]
It’s a common (cliché) question, one that, in many ways, defines modernity. The search for ultimate, universal truth. The quest for absolute certainty. Modern religion, politics, system of law, and physical and social sciences are all based from this question, or some derivative, in one way or another.
It’s a question that stems from fear of the unknown and uncontrollable…and removes the necessity for faith for there to be knowledge. And as history has shown us, it ultimately finds us wanting, every time.
At the same time…saying there are no essentials, no foolproof over-arching system of interpretations, leads many to say that what you believe doesn’t matter. Or, as in the case of the average American, we pick and choose aspects from various philosophies and religions that are most palatable or serve our personal needs (as the cartoon illustrates):
Personally, when I felt caught between these two choices in college— between the knowledge and defense of essential principles of the Christian faith…. and saying “everything goes,” I repeatedly chose the former [though I never felt very good about it, to be honest. I often found myself experiencing “theological buyers’ remorse” ].
After reading some of the second question in A New Kind of Christianity re: the way we read and interpret the Bible [using some compelling examples of how being “literal” and “Word-centered” in the early 1800’s led to a defense of slavery by many intelligent people, despite virtually all Christians today finding slavery morally reprehensible, demonstrating the inevitability of using experience in interpretation] I was reminded of this “need for truth vs. the inability to account for every nuance” struggle of mine in college, as well as the reasons that I would give in response to convince/encourage myself that I had chosen the best faith, the most true faith.
That no one could disprove the resurrection.
That the Christian God was more relational than other “gods.”
That only Christianity accounted for sin….etc.
I spent a LOT of time, reading this guy… b/c he promised me he could prove God beyond doubt.
Of course, all of these assertions broke down at some point, I found. And what’s worse, my conception of faith actually didn’t deal with other things, which I had come to value, very well at all (caring for the poor and the environment, or a lack of hypocritical living, for example), even though my faith itself claimed that these things were important. It just couldn’t explain why.
The harder you try to hold on, the sooner you find it slipping away.
Now after seminary and study, spending immense amount of time plumbing the depths of those original questions [with all the resulting agony and ecstasy] I have come to conclude that universal agreement, perfect coherence, the extraction of essential principles, etc., are all fabrications of the modern world, preoccupations that were simply not a part of the broader human experience prior to 1600. Yet, I also believe that there are differences in belief systems, that some systems are better than others, and that flattening distinctions leads to as much reductionism as fundamentalism does.
I believe that there’s actually a third way to proceed, and it begins with dropping the modern preoccupation with (read: the idolatry of) truth. The concept of faith, in itself, confronts that notion (as I have argued in previous posts). This is why I say that postmodernity actually paves the way for the church to reclaim the true nature of “faith” itself.
So my question has changed… and quite predictably, so have my answers.
I am no longer interested in the question “What are the essentials of my faith?” Rather, I am interested in questions regarding the Christian story:
“What are the components of the Christian narrative that are the most compelling?”
“How do we balance internal consistency of narrative-interpretation with the need to remain open to continual renewal and challenge from other conceptions of the central narrative?”
“How does such an approach to faith actually compel discipleship and a missional church-life in the real world?”
I’m not going to tackle the second and third questions right now— since the first question was the one that resurfaced to my head this past week during my conversation with the youth and when I read McLaren. How would I answer someone who asked me “Why are you a Christian, and not another faith?”
Here are some responses that I thought up; it’s not meant to be a comprehensive list, of course:
1) I am compelled by the Christian story because I as draw deeper and deeper into it, it gives me, what I believe, to be a deeper understanding of why things are the way that they are. For example, I think it points us to a comprehensive understanding as to why there is suffering and evil (the whole of creation has become disconnected from the Spirit of God and its stewards, i.e. humans, have falsely claimed rule over it in His stead), and what the purpose of life is (to be re-joined to God through the Spirit and participate in His Renewing work upon the earth). Again, the REDUCED version of the story that is often taught actually gives less-than-satisfactory answers about the world… but looking at the story through a wider-angle lens provides a much more complete picture.
2) I am compelled by the Christian story because it is an expansive story; rather than be a tool of oppression and manipulation of other people groups (as it often became), it was originally intended to be a faith that transcended cultural boundaries like no other in history, with the clarion message that The God of Israel is for ALL people, not just one tribe.
3) I am compelled by the Christian story because of its emphasis on relationship—a derivative of one of my original “evidences” for Christianity back in college, but the relational component of God with humanity is, I think, incredibly compelling. [Critics can fault the concept of the Trinity all they want, but the reason for it is to explain that God is amazingly both monotheistic, AND incarnational… that God is universal, and local. That Christ came at a particular point and time in history as a human, and is yet also present to all people. ] That doesn’t mean that achieving my “personal relationship with God” is the goal of Christianity; it means that I have the opportunity to be drawn deeper and deeper into the mysterious love of God throughout my life.
4) Speaking of love, I am compelled by the Christian story because of it’s emphasis on love—particularly love’s “self-giving” quality… and that such a love is actually the means by which the world is changed, as evidenced by the cross, but also by the lives of those who followed the example of Christ, standing up for love and justice in the face of persecution. The cross shows us that love does not simply lead us to mere non-violence; it actually compels Christ-followers to enact a “violence,” of sorts, against violence itself.
5) And finally, as someone who is no stranger to Christian culture in my life, I have to admit: I am compelled by the Christian story because I have spent the most time with it and was “born into it,” in an important sense. We just need to admit that that is the reason that many of us are the faith that we are—even if our faith has changed over time, we each had a “starting point” through no action of our own accord that helped determine what faith tradition we presently are. So if I spend my life living in and teaching according to this tradition, believing that it gives others hope and meaning…. I must unashamedly do so, while still being humble when it comes to others’ spiritual journeys, and willing to truly dialogue with other perspectives.
Of course, all of these reasons eventually force us back to faith… deeper than knowledge, intellect, abilities to conceive, or (especially) control…
There are more responses now coming to mind, but I’ll stop here to ask:
What are the aspects about your faith-tradition (whether it be Christianity or another) that are most compelling to you?