On religious belief

belief

A few times in this blog, I have mentioned that I think Christianity focuses far too much on what you believe. Theological differences in our beliefs have served primarily to divide us into separate denominational tribes. The central activities of following Christ, on the other hand, tend to be a broadly shared heritage that unites. What we do to follow Christ matters more than most theological beliefs.

(Before I get too far into this, I’ll anticipate an objection from readers of the Book of Ephesians, who would remind me that salvation comes from God’s grace and not through any work that we do. (2: 8-9) The activities I’ve been discussing so far in this blog aren’t the kinds of moral “good deeds” that we typically mean when talking about Christian “works.” We are called to love God, to pray, to be grateful, and to engage in Scripturally-connected study. If we don’t do these fundamental activities, then we lose our vital connection to God, and so I argue that these are more life-supporting and spirit-sustaining than many theological “beliefs.”)

In my previous blog entry about what the word of God is and how it works, I left out a pat statement many Christians profess about Scripture:  “I believe the whole Bible.” Frankly, I don’t think anyone does, at least not in any deep form of “belief.” The Bible is too big, too varied, too complex to keep fully in our minds at any given time. For me, if the word “belief” has any spiritual meaning whatsoever, it has to mean more than “I can accept this idea mentally.” Spiritual belief has to mean something more than cognition; it must mean “this idea is so important that I am living by its precepts.” I am unable to do that with the whole Bible; at best I can hold only a subset of its teachings in my little mind. That’s one reason I go to listen to a sermon; I am looking to be reminded of the parts of Scripture I’ve been personally neglecting lately.

All followers of Christ carry with us our own personal version of the word of God, the parts of Scripture that have been most present and important in our lives. If you’ve been paying attention to the tags on my blogs (and I’m sure you have!), you’ll note that the religious blog entries are tagged “the Gospel according to Greg.” That’s not (purely) hubris. I think that all followers of Christ actualize a portion of the word of God and that part of “evangelism” is to share that version with others. Each follower of Christ has put certain personally resonant parts of the Bible into action. That is your “gospel.” Those are your lived spiritual “beliefs.” It’s not simply a matter of being convinced that a belief is right or wrong. It’s not about what beliefs you hold; it’s about what beliefs take hold of you. It’s about revelation, not argumentation.

The process of gaining such deep beliefs cannot be rushed. Let me give an example of someone who modeled the slow careful growth of spiritual beliefs for me. Many years ago I did a months-long group study of the whole Bible entitled Kerygma. One of the members of that group didn’t speak much during the class sessions, but when he did, his participation was always showed deep insight, so I grew to respect him greatly. At the end of the class, the leader asked us what we had learned, and various people (including me) blathered on about all we had discovered. When it came time for this man to speak, he said, “I have learned two things. One: God is.  And two: God is powerful.” That’s it; months of study, and those two short sentences of belief were the only result. But those sentences were spoken with strong conviction; he believed those things in the deepest sense of the word. I respect how careful he was with his mind and heart. Unlike the rest of us loudmouths in the class, he wasn’t about to go further in his words than his convictions.

The church often calls for us to do just that. I attend a creedal church where we regularly recite the Apostles’ Creed, and I start off like everyone else: “I believe in God the Father, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord.” I do believe that. But then my voice trails off from there. There are just too many things in those words that I don’t believe with my whole being, that aren’t central to who I am as a follower of Christ, at least not at this moment. I understand why “born of a virgin” is in the creed, but the Virgin birth just isn’t a vital part of how I practice Christianity (this might be different if I were Catholic, not Protestant). And there are just weird choices made in the Apostles’ Creed. Jesus descending into hell only appears in one gospel account; why is it front and center here? Whose spiritual practice has this as a vital belief?

And so rather than awkwardly blurt out only the phrases that I do believe in (“the forgiveness of sins!”), I keep quiet thereafter. There may come a time when those other ideas (including the Virgin birth) become important to how I follow Christ. Then I will expand the “gospel according to Greg.” In the meantime, I just can’t see how saying things I don’t deeply believe out loud on a regular basis can be good for my soul. I am protective of my soul. You can get by on very few beliefs (for example, “God is” and “God is powerful”). I’d much rather say aloud an aspirational list of what we should do rather than a list of what we should believe. (More on that next time)

You won’t be surprised to hear that my favorite Bible verse comes from the story in Mark about the father who asked Jesus to heal his convulsive son if Jesus could do so. “What do you mean, ‘If I can?’ All things are possible for one who believes.” “Lord, I believe,” the father replied. “Help my unbelief.” (9:24) (That couplet makes a great mantra for meditative prayer when you’re struggling with your faith.) Jesus lowered the bar for those of us who find belief difficult, accepting those whose faith fit the smallest imaginable measure in his day (the size of a mustard seed). Mature faith is capable of admitting its limits as we work to enlarge that faith. Like my friend and the father in Mark’s gospel, we can be confident about the beliefs we truly hold central to our practice, and we can ask for divine help to see a larger vision of God’s kingdom.

The practice of Christianity often involves a complicated cocktail of beliefs and experiences mixed with community and identity. You go to church because that’s part of how you define yourself; you see your friends there, and you mentally agree with the church’s statements on what God is. But I have seen such intellectual beliefs shattered by hard times. “Why are bad things happening to me?” All too often, Christian church communities provide only token support for such struggling people. (Churches can make the mistake of assuming they are naturally warm places. If it’s no one’s job in particular to help those who suffer, then that help usually doesn’t happen.) And when the suffering believer misses church services and no one notices, that sense of community and identity can unravel, and intellectual beliefs about God provide cold comfort.

In this blog I have argued that the habits of regular thanksgiving, prayer, charity, and Scripturally-connected study build a better foundation that is far less vulnerable than any system of theological beliefs, and so I think we should concentrate our efforts there. The Psalms are full of cries to God about how people desert you when the going gets tough. That’s the point; if you have developed habits of intimacy with God, you can reach out to God’s comfort when human structures disappoint. Building that oh-so-peculiar relationship with an infinite, invisible, loving God is the best preparation for hard times. Beliefs that become disconnected to the living presence of the divine can crumble quickly.

How did Christian communities get so focused on what we should believe? I blame the professionals: the theologians and ministers. At the same time, I understand their temptations. In many ways, ministers are like my home tribe: academics. (I am reminded that the university is a direct descendant of the church whenever I don my priestly robes for graduation ceremonies.) Everyone goes to school, but those who choose the teaching profession are the freaky students who become captivated by the subject matter and want to devote their lives to knowing more.

A similar obsession/calling creates ministers and theologians. Just as we academics can become fixated on ever more arcane aspects of our chosen subjects, there’s a natural tendency for those professional Christians to delve into the details of theology, about the Christological differences among the terms “Son of God,” “Son of Man,” and “Messiah,” or about grace versus works (whether someone who undergoes a conversion experience and then continues to lead a deeply sinful life will go to heaven). These make for some fun late-night-undergrad-bull-session debates, but no one thinks that it’s a good idea for a Christian follower to do evil deeds. We all believe that grace is necessary and that righteous action is the correct response to that grace. On a practical level these intellectual distinctions don’t make much difference on the way we follow Christ.

In my own field I have seen academics battle bitterly over tiny issues that couldn’t possibly concern any ordinary person, and theologians are susceptible to the same temptation. (Preachers do have a distinct advantage over academics in airing their arguments, however. When I’m lecturing about film, no one is worried that my positions might affect their mortal soul. I only wish I had that kind of motivating factor to encourage my students to listen!).

A congregation is like a blog; you need to keep feeding it if you want people to come back. When a preacher is expected to say something significant every Sunday, it’s tempting to use your authority to weigh in on a theological debate (about whether God’s infinite knowledge is at odds with the notion of human free will, for instance, or about the existence of a literal hell). Such theological pronouncements have been at the heart of many church splits, with the result that even small communities find themselves with a different church on every other corner.

As I noted in a previous blog entry, my father led a church split in my small town over the issue of whether the church should elect deacons. He believed in a strongly egalitarian version of the “priesthood of the believer” in which no one should be placed in a position of spiritual authority over another, and that belief was enough to divide the church (if there’s anything we know how to do in the South, we know how to secede!). Looking back on this, I think about what a waste of spiritual energy that was.

The history of the Christian church (large and small) is the history of division. Sometimes principles of structural organization/authority are at issue, but usually the schisms are about theological beliefs. A certain minimal amount of belief is necessary for Christianity, but we need to recognize how an overemphasis on beliefs can rip Christian communities apart.

(In the next blog entry, I’ll suggest an action-oriented alternative to Christian creeds about beliefs.)

On Scriptural Study; or Christianity Is Dangerous

scripture

The two basic disciplines of the Christian life are prayer and Scripturally-connected study.

For anyone who’s spent any time in church, this is a pretty unsurprising statement, but bear with me: I hope to take this in a more interesting direction. First let me phrase this a bit more aggressively: if you’re not doing both of these disciplines on a fairly regular basis, you’re at incredible risk of not following Christ.

A bit of ground-clearing here so you’ll know where I’m coming from regarding Scripture (ok, a LOT of ground-clearing. My apologies in advance). Do I believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible? No. I greatly prefer the words that the Bible uses to describe itself: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.” (2 Tim. 3:16) The whole notion of “literal truth” developed much later than when the Bible was written (Bart Ehrman has made an interesting argument that fundamentalist Christianity is an outgrowth of the Enlightenment and its emphasis on objective truth). To ask the Bible to adhere to the standard of “literalness” is to impose a set of values that are external to Scripture. I’d rather stick to what the Bible says about itself.

To be honest, I’ve never quite understood what it means to believe the Bible literally. What would a literal understanding of the poetry of Song of Solomon look like? The Scriptures are full of metaphor, and no one is tempted to take those literally. Does anyone believe that the streets of heaven are paved with element number 79 on the earthly period table? Does anyone expect that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse will actually ride horses? “Literalness” applied to poetry and metaphor would fundamentally misunderstand those words.

And what would a “literal” reading of a parable be? Parables are explicitly stories for our edification; no one literally believes there was an actual Prodigal Son. It’s a bit of fabrication that’s meant to yield a deeper truth. (Yes, I guess I did just call Jesus a liar. Another word for that is “storyteller.”) Those stories are designed to prompt our interpretation. Their power is not in their literalness; it’s in the call for us to participate in making sense of them for our lives.

What “literal” means is that you treat parts of the Bible literally; not the metaphor and poetry but the events depicted. But then you’re picking and choosing which portions of the Bible should be understood “literally” (the Creation, the Flood, the Exodus, Satan, and the miracles, not the parables), and so we’re back in the world of interpretation and choosing which portions of Scripture should be our focus and which should not.

We do this all the time in Christianity. We expand the significance of certain scriptures by making them prominent (there’s a lot less about original sin in the Bible than you would expect, given its prominence in doctrine). We ignore virtually all of the behavioral prescriptions in the Old Testament Pentateuch (except for the Ten Commandments, of course) because Jesus has done away the old law.

More pertinent to modern Christians is the way we bypass the Apostle Paul’s anti-women rhetoric, particularly his very explicit statement that women should be silent in church (I Corinthians 14:34). How many churches observe this today? Hopefully not many. Hopefully we use our interpretive powers to see how individual prescriptions in the Bible can be counter to the overall message. Those individual words should be weighed within the whole and interpreted in light of God’s Spirit, not weaponized to silence and harm others.

So there is no alternative to “interpretation;” it’s built into our experience of the Bible at the most basic structural level (and to the process of all reading. If you want my secular thoughts about “reading into” a text, I’ll point you to something I wrote for introductory film/media classes called “It’s Just a Movie”). There aren’t vowels actually written in the Torah; they have to be added by the reader. The familiar structure of chapters and verses was as added later by not-particularly inspired scribes trying to break the text up into more manageable and quotable chunks.

Rabbis interrogate and interpret the Scriptures; the idea of nailing down the “literal” meaning of Scriptures would be utterly foreign to the enterprise that Jesus himself participated in. And of course the Bible is written in Hebrew and Greek, and so translation into another language is necessarily a process of interpretation. Reading Scripture is participatory.

Because of this participation, I believe that the Word of God is a living, breathing process, and that process expands Scripture. Jesus himself magnified a part of the existing Jewish law (on love, on thought/motivation, and against materialism), opened up more intimate access to God, and increased the reach of the gospel outside of sanctimonious people in Israel and Judea (to prostitutes, ethically compromised officials in imperialist governments, and Samaritans).

I believe it is significant that the first major theological struggle documented for early believers is the question of whether Christianity would be a Jewish sect or a religion that extends to Gentiles. The Book of Acts details a conversion story in which Peter has to be convinced that non-Jews can be followers of Christ. That conversion happens (in part) by face-to-face encounters between Peter and Gentile believers. When he is confronted with real human beings who undeniably love and serve Christ, he alters his theology. He discovers that the chosen people of God are no longer a tribal few, even though the vast majority of the written Scriptures say that it is. In the ministry of Jesus and in the earliest interactions of the church, we see the Kingdom of God grow past our narrow Scriptural confines. I do not think this is coincidence; I think this is a demonstration of how we should all interact with Scripture.

I don’t see why the process of revelation should stop with the Book of Revelations (growing up in fundamentalist religion, I was taught that the period of such prophecy was over, though it was never clear to me why that was). Partly I blame mainstream Christian education for this, particularly its Protestant version. We somehow pretend that our church began with Martin Luther’s revolutionary reinterpretation (opening up the doors to the Kingdom further by enlarging the “priesthood” to include all believers), managing to ignore all that Catholic church history beforehand.

We don’t hear much about a series of councils throughout Christianity’s early centuries in which our theology moved from open, contested questions to settled doctrine. The concept of the Trinity and the idea that Jesus was fully human and fully divine at the same time became official church theology through a combination of argumentation and assertion of authority. These core Christian tenets are far from being clear, obvious parts of the faith; believers managed to follow Christ without having these things settled for centuries.

Far from a “the Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it” mentality, it took many generations of Christians to arrive at what we now think the Bible “says.” We do a disservice to those generations of followers of Christ to ignore the struggle to make sense out of such a complex book and to pretend that now such questioning is somehow settled. The history of following Christ is a history of struggling to understand and to continue the work of expanding the Kingdom of God.

And so it makes perfect sense to me to expand our understanding of God’s kingdom to include gays and lesbians. The key to expanding our theology is people, not doctrine (just as it was for Peter). When I attended a Methodist church in the Nineties, my minister had what he described as a “conversion experience.” A long-established pillar of the church came out to him as lesbian, and through a series of interactions with her, he altered his understanding of the Kingdom. When confronted by the raw fact of an incontrovertible follower of Christ, he (like Peter) enlarged his theology.

In similar fashion, I am open to the idea that the Kingdom of God includes those who don’t use the J-word or the C-word when they pray. I have met people of undeniable spiritual maturity from faiths other than Christianity. I have no problem seeing God working through them. If we take the world-expanding experiences of Jesus and the early church seriously, then we too need to be open to the call to grow the Kingdom. What if “evangelical” came to mean “opening up our own understanding of the Kingdom to incorporate a wider range of people to participate with us in religion?” (instead of forcing them to “convert” their thinking to ours)

Encounters with other religious traditions can enrich a follower of Christ. If your reading stays entirely within the Christian sphere, you also inherit certain time-honored traditions about what you believe and what you practice. Learning something about other religious practices can help shake the cobwebs off your theology and your spiritual discipline. Buddhism, to my mind, has a much better articulation of what “holiness” is; in Christianity, it’s a word we toss around without really thinking much about what it means. After learning about meditation, my prayer life has changed dramatically from the all-words-all-the-time tradition in which I was raised to a much more quiet, contemplative experience. I’m intrigued by the greater involvement of the body in Buddhist and Muslim prayer; our Christian heritage has given us a fraught relationship with our bodies.

Judeo-Christianity has never stood alone. From its earliest days, it has cross-fertilized and been influenced by Zoroastrianism, wisdom traditions, and Greek philosophy. We do ourselves a disservice by trying to set Christianity entirely apart from other religious traditions. Learning about other religious practices has strengthened my own Christian path. Other religions emphasize other parts of the enormity of God. The altered perspective they provide allow me to see familiar Christian teachings with new eyes. A new perspective is a gift; I welcome it wherever it comes from.

And so you’ll note that I say that one of the central disciplines of following Christ is “Scripturally-connected study” and not simply “reading the Bible.” By the former phrase I mean “engaging in reading and study that enlarges your understanding of the Bible.” Sometimes that means reading the Bible. But as I noted, it’s easy for the cobwebs of Christian tradition to accumulate in our minds; it’s hard to find new perspectives if you’ve been in the church for awhile. Sometimes it’s better to read works that elaborate on Scripture. Sometimes it’s good to study religious perspectives that are foreign and to use those traditions to illuminate the Bible. Such “foreign travel” can help you see your religious “homeland” in a larger way.

For many Christians, the answer to problems is “read your Bible.” (Some people prescribe the Bible like medicine: “read some and you’ll be all better.”) But we also should recognize what a frustrating, confusing, and at times boring book the Bible is.

Let me be clear: the Bible is at the center of Christianity. We (like generations before us) need to keep coming back to that book. I believe that reading works of Buddhism or Islam can enliven your Christian understanding, but if those works become truly central for you, then you’re probably no longer doing something called “Christianity.” One thing that connects millennia of Christ’s followers is that we are all doing the same thing: trying to figure out what purposes can this first century book can serve in our contemporary world. Connecting your study and your life to this annoying, beguiling, and undeniably central book is a key discipline.

As you might guess, I think the two disciplines of prayer and Scriptural study begin to bleed into each other. The Word of God is not just a book; it is a living thing that grows, that exists not only between the covers of the Holy Bible but also in words spoken and written and actions done today. Some may be uncomfortable with how porous the Word of God is for me. Doesn’t this loosey-goosey “expanding the Word of God” stuff make it pretty easy for me to invoke “God’s will” and substitute my own? Isn’t it easy to remake the Bible into your own image, for your own purposes?

Hell yes. That’s a danger.

Let me first note the other danger: using the Bible without prayerful meditation about how God wants you to put those words into action. If your focus is entirely on the Bible, then you are making the Bible into your God. It is possible to violate the “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” commandment by putting a legalistic version of the Bible first. God is larger than the Bible. Biblical study without prayer can become rigid and judgmental.

The opposite danger is prayer/meditation without checking in with the Scriptures. It is easy for such practice to become solipsistic, for you and your own ideas to become your God. As I’ve said, I need to regularly experience voices (in sermons and in reading) that remind me how inadequate my own understanding of God is. We need both disciplines: prayer and Scripturally-centered study. One without the other is deadly.

I’ll go further: if you study and contemplate the Scriptures as a whole and if you regularly listen to the still small voice of God that you hear in prayer/meditation, you should do what that voice says. Over and over again in the Judeo-Christian faith, we have examples of people acting through faith on their revelations of what God wants them to do in the world. We believe that if you’re doing both of the central disciplines, you should act boldly on what you are called to do.

I’ll admit this is scary stuff. This is terrorist stuff, potentially. What if you believe God is calling you to smite your enemies? (There’s an awful lot of smiting that goes on in the Bible, so you can definitely find precedent) How does this faith differ from the justifications that terrorists give?

Let me add to the discussion earlier blog posts in which I argued that the primary job of a follower of Christ is to love God and then to engage in charity and justice. Those are the central calling/activities for following Christ, as I see it. If you love God and work for charity and justice while you pray and study Scripture, then I cannot believe that the still small voice of God will tell you to commit violence. That is not the God I know. I recognize the danger of getting this wrong. Christians have gotten this wrong for centuries (witness the Crusades and the support of slavery). But that is the faith I have in those central beliefs and disciplines.

Christianity is dangerous. Or it should be.

(More on prayer, that other dangerous discipline, next time.)

Christianity’s Two Outward Faces: Charity and Justice

twofaces

After loving God (see previous blog post), the second job for a follower of Christ is to love others. “Others” covers a lot of ground, but this post focuses on the outward looking face that Christianity is called to present. I believe that outward orientation has two aspects: charity and justice.

In this post I won’t be talking much about caring for those who are within the Christian community. That care is important: in fact, Christ warns about becoming overly focused on the poor and neglecting each other. The church’s mission to the poor is so central that it can be easy to mistake the church for a poverty activism group (which was the disciples’ error in rebuking the woman who anointed Jesus (Matt. 26:6-13)). Followers of Christ are called to be loving to all, including your fellow followers, and that in-network support is crucial for maintaining a strong community. But I recognize that it’s usually easier to take care of those who are “in the club.” There’s nothing distinctively Christian about caring for family and friends. As Jesus said, even Hitler was nice to his family. (wink)

When I was growing up, my family was embedded in just such a Christian community, and my mother was a strong participant in the caring casserole network… at least in one direction. She was glad to extend Christian charity to others, but she did her best not to accept charity from others if at all possible. With all the moral acuity of a smart-ass teenager, I remember pointing this out to Mom, noting that if everyone felt like she did, then there would be no one to accept the charity she offered. (She was not impressed.)

But there is something here about Christians’ inability to admit their own weakness to each other. A strange reverse one-upmanship, a kind of potlatch charity, can arise in a Christian community. It’s one thing to admit that it’s more blessed to give than to receive; it’s another to refuse to receive because it’s a sign of weakness. Receiving charity isn’t an admission that you are weak; it’s a recognition that we all need God’s grace in the form of each other’s caring actions. Philip Yancey says that the church should act more like Alcoholics Anonymous, where people freely admit their powerlessness and their wounds as soon as they walk in the door. As the old saying goes, the church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints. By giving and receiving care, we participate in a spiritual network that recognizes our common humanity and our common need.

But in this post I’m focusing on the outward face of that love. Depending on which version of the Bible you have, the same word may be translated as “love” and “charity.” Love is central to following Christ, and that word “charity” has morphed over time. I will call the outward, face-to-face expression of that love and care “direct charity.”

Here I’m trying to activate a fairly old-fashioned use of the word. “Christian charity” meant doing things for others as a way to serve as God’s hands and feet in this world. What I wish to emphasize is the directness of that touch, modeled on Jesus’s personal actions on earth. Direct charity (as I’m using it) is love in action that is up close, not at a distance. It’s caring for the welfare of others on a one-to-one basis fueled by a higher purpose. It’s a personal interaction between one child of God and another.

By the time we got to the 19th century, people began to doubt the effectiveness of direct charity, particularly to those outside the Christian community. Giving money to a poor immigrant on the streets of America’s growing cities might result in that beggar spending that money in a tavern. Once the population grew past the size that could be monitored, it became clear that direct charity might actually contribute to a life of dissolution. There’s an undeniable racial/ethnic aspect to this moment as immigrants come to America in huge numbers, and those who are different from you seem more innately untrustworthy, more in need of a parental guiding hand.

Also part of the moment is the rise of the modern corporation, which taught us to address social problems in the same way that we organized industrial production: through rational management and large scale. “Charity” began to take on its more modern meaning: an organization that pools financial donations and leverages them in instrumental ways across a large group. I’ll call this form “corporate charity.” And so the two forms of management intermingled: Henry Ford offered a dollar a day to his factory workers, but their lives had to be inspected by managers who insured that the money was spent on morally approved “uplifting” pursuits.

And so foundations emerged as a way to spread the wealth and manage it for good, and this remains the typical understanding of the word “charity” today, with the older, more direct form feeling a bit outdated. And I do believe that the more modern corporate charity has a lot going for it. The liquidity of capital has many advantages; we can now quickly move wealth from where it is to where it’s needed. But I also believe there’s something crucial about the direct form of charity.

Luke’s gospel says in the Sermon on the Plain, “Give to everyone who asks you.” (6:30) Full stop. No qualms. Now certainly there were beggars in Jesus’ era who would take the money and spend it on wine (our modern era didn’t invent addiction), but there’s no mention of that here. There are no added conditions to make the commandment more rational (“give to everyone that you can reasonably expect might not misuse the funds”). Such giving is an act of participation in a radical alternative economy, one where we are accountable for our own generosity and not for what happens after the giving. This economy operates by faith that a very different Invisible Hand is at work to multiply and manage the value of a single act.

Both parties benefit from such exchanges. This keeps your love grounded in reality, because sometimes those in need may not be particularly Christ-like in the way they receive your love. This reminds us that none of us are particularly deserving, that we share with the poor and needy not because of what they do or say but because we recognize the image of God within them. That image can be hard to see sometimes, so extending a physical act of charity can be a terrific reminder that we need not be noble or good in order to receive grace.

I’m articulating these two forms of charity because I think it’s easy to believe that the second form (corporate charity) can take the place of direct charity (or to believe that corporate charity is better because it’s better managed). The second, modern form is certainly easier and cleaner. And yet I cannot find a loophole in the straightforward commandment to give to everyone who asks, a commandment from one of Jesus’ most central sermons (he also says, “If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them.” (Luke 6:29) I’m glad no one has tested me on this one.) I’m very aware that I’m writing this as a man and that operating as a woman in an urban environment is a very different thing with different fears. I don’t know what to say about that. I do think that followers of Christ are called to do some form of direct charity (I’m preaching to myself as much as to anyone). I believe that If Christianity operates only at a distance, it loses a crucial personal touch. The call to charity is corporeal first and corporate second.

The other Christian call in dealing with others is justice. If direct charity seeks to repair the body in need, justice intervenes in the body politic to try to prevent harm from happening to more people.

Admittedly, there’s not a lot of language that’s explicitly about political justice in the New Testament. Most of that is in the Old Testament prophets. We tend to think of the word “prophet” as meaning “one who foretells the future,” and Old Testament prophets do that, no doubt. But they spend more time doing the other activity of prophets, which is speaking truth to power. Numerous prophets call on Israel to repent. Nathan confronts King David with charges of infidelity and murder. Continuing that tradition in the New Testament, John the Baptist both foretells the coming Messiah and criticizes King Herod, leading to his imprisonment and death. “Prophecy” isn’t always about seeing the future; it’s about seeing the present clearly and speaking out to those who can make a difference.

One could make the case that Jesus’ ministry explicitly stayed away from explicit political activism/criticism, being careful not to criticize the Roman Empire, certainly a government that didn’t care so much about the rights of others (“render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” is an extremely cagey response. When Jesus did speak truth to power, he attacked the religious establishment, and that thought should give every denomination pause).

And so while I clearly disagree with the idea that an emphasis on social justice is a misrepresentation of Christ’s message, I can see where this assertion comes from. Strangely enough, the Christians who are bothered by the notion of “social justice” are often the same folks who espouse a “I believe the whole Bible” religion, and speaking truth to power is all over the Old Testament, as I said. Even Martin Luther King had to fairly explicitly connect the dots between Old Testament prophecy and New Testament love for Christ’s followers in his time. MLK talked a lot about loving your enemy; he also talked about letting justice roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream. (Amos 5:24) He understood the limitations of Christian charity, both direct and corporate. One can care for the poor and needy as individuals without changing the social/political conditions that contributed to their plight. Charity has a bias toward the status quo; it is a balm that treats symptoms, not causes.

Mainstream religion is full of middle class citizens who have access to local power through civic organizations (or through the basic familiarity with operating in a bureaucracy that comes with middle class life), and accordingly I believe we have a special responsibility to work for justice. (Again, preaching to myself as much as to anyone) Direct charity is important both for the giver and the receiver; social justice is its Judeo-Christian partner. (Click here for a powerful articulation of social justice in the gospel)

Following Christ is an enormous challenge. It’s humanly impossible to do all that Christianity asks, and so we share the load. One always falls short in some aspect of following Christ, whether it’s the call to individual holiness or the command to care for others. Christianity is an aspiration, a higher calling. Most followers of Christ have a preference in their service, leaning toward serving within the church or reaching out to the unchurched, orienting themselves either toward the healing labor of charity or the activist work of justice. We all naturally gravitate toward some part of the mission, often toward the work that seems easiest to us. This post is a reminder (to myself as much as anyone) that the love of Christ faces outward (often uncomfortably so) toward individuals and structures alike.

On Loving God

love                In the gospels we get a couple of versions of a rabbinical discussion about what the greatest commandment is. In Luke, Jesus asks the questions and confirms the answer. In Matthew, it’s Jesus himself who provides the two-for-the-price-of-one answer: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest commandment. And the second is like it: love your neighbor as yourself.”

A couple of observations to make right at the start: we followers of Christ tend to react to everything Jesus does by saying, “Oh, that Jesus… he’s so smart!” I can sense my Jewish friends rolling their eyes. After all, the “loving God” commandment is part of the Shema, the ritual prayer said each day. This is an answer that any observant Jewish child should be able to come up with (though I’ll admit that the “loving your neighbor” addition is a nice touch). The Luke version launches directly into the parable of the Good Samaritan as an elaboration on the follow-up question about who your “neighbor” is, and my experience in church is that we get a lot more attention to the Good Samaritan story than we get to the first part of that discussion, about loving God.

This emphasis on loving other people makes intuitive sense to me, since “loving your neighbor” is a human-to-human act. We can imagine what this looks like pretty easily, although it’s difficult to do. It’s much more difficult to picture what it would look like to love an invisible, all-powerful, all-knowing god. That’s so different from our human experience of loving family and partners. And yet we frequently skip past that “love God” commandment as if it’s obvious how to do that. When’s the last time you heard a sermon on how to love God? We are told that we should, but how? And yet it’s clear from both Old and New Testaments that this is Job One for those in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

The standard Christian explanation is that we love God because God first loved us. The more elaborated version goes something like this: God exists, and God loves us. As an act of love, a part of God came to earth and took on human form (Jesus). Although Jesus lived a sinless life, he gave himself as a sacrifice so that we might be reconciled to God. Jesus loved us so much that he died on the cross to take our sins upon himself.

As I’ve said before in this blog, this is not the simplest scenario to understand theologically. You have to recognize that your own sins were significant enough to require such a sacrifice, which is difficult for those who look at their life and think that their actions are not that immoral, comparatively speaking. You have to accept that the shedding of blood was the only way that omnipotent God could figure out how to atone for those sins. I can connect those theological dots, and I do so in a way that makes this theology emotionally and spiritually resonant for me, but if I step back outside of my Christian comfort zone, I recognize that this is thorny, complicated stuff.

It’s also a weird way to justify the commandment to love God. First of all, who loves because they are commanded to do so? Who has that kind of control over their heart? And who loves someone just because they give us something that we didn’t ask for and didn’t necessarily know we needed? This makes God sound like some sort of divorcee parent or stepparent trying to buy a child’s love. That typically doesn’t go so well.

I’m phrasing this blog post pretty aggressively so that those who are used to this kind of easy Christian gloss on “loving God” can see that it’s not so easy. Loving God is unlike any other kind of loving relationship. We spend very little time talking about how to do that, and I think we do so at our peril. If we spend too much time discussing our “beliefs” and not enough time establishing a living bond of love with God, then it’s all too easy for those beliefs to fall apart in spiritually challenging circumstances. If “loving God” is not a regular part of your life, if it remains an abstraction, then you remain spiritually vulnerable. Beliefs don’t sustain us, but love can if that love is real. Loving God is the primary call of following Christ; it also can be one of the most foreign aspects of religious experience.

So how does one learn to love God? I’ve been emphasizing the many ways that loving God is different from loving anyone else on earth, but there are some similarities. When you love someone, you want to share what’s going on in your life with them. When good things happen, you want to pick up the phone and tell them the news. During rough patches, it’s helpful to complain or bitch or get angry in unattractive ways that only a loved one can accept. The goal is to get into that kind of relationship with God, not an obligation to pray but a desire to share your thoughts and feelings about your daily experiences. That takes time and repetition, developing the habit of telling God the kinds of things you’d tell an intimate partner when you come home.

Little by little you build God into the structure of your everyday life. Eventually it can become just as unthinkable to withhold your anger and joy from God as it would be to keep information from your human life partner. Although the idea of a “relationship” with God is so overused that it’s hard to hear it with new ears, “relationship” is probably the best word. Relations are built through a thousand little interactions. Such intimate relations are resilient because they are emotionally real. They are not built on “belief” (that language feels entirely wrong — I never think about whether I “believe” in my wife). These shared experiences become part of who you are.

So my advice is to get into the habit of telling God what’s going on in your life, just as you do with a life partner. Like any habit, this takes some conscious effort up front. I suggest that this activity dovetails nicely with my previous suggestion about gratitude. As I said about gratitude, this takes fairly minimal “belief.” You can call this “prayer” if you like, or simply “talking.” (You can get awfully hung up on whether you’re doing “prayer” the right way) Such talk builds intimacy (though it’s admittedly weird to think about intimacy with an inanimate being). Although we don’t talk in much detail about how to love God, it’s Job One for a reason: loving God is life-sustaining.

About the label “Christian”

From time to time in my blog, I’ll make a suggestion to those who practice Christianity about how to transform themselves by the renewing of their mind. This is one of those suggestions.

I’m taking a break from using the label “Christian” to refer to myself. I recommend “follower of Christ.”

“Are you ashamed of being a Christian?” some may ask. Nope (or, rather, no more than normal, given Christianity’s checkered history). After all, I am writing a public blog that focuses on my approach to Christianity. The statement “I am a Christian” encourages you to think of your religion as something you are, something you have as a characteristic of your being. I think it’s more useful to think of Christianity as something you do.

I can anticipate the standard theological reaction to that statement. “Wait a minute, bub. Salvation isn’t earned. You don’t get to heaven based on your own good work. Salvation is through grace by faith, not by works. Once saved, always saved.” Amen and thanks be to God, brothers and sisters. But I’m less concerned with the theology than I am with the all-too-human habits that this theology encourages. Treating Christianity as something you are doesn’t emphasize how important it is for you to pull up your big person pants in the morning (or take up your cross daily, depending on which metaphor you prefer) and do Christianity.

What I mean by “doing Christianity” is not necessarily or exclusively “doing good works.” As I noted in a previous blog entry, you don’t need religion to do good in the world.  In the everyday mundane/sacred world, Christianity is less theology and more practice. It’s a conscious reorientation of your place within your surroundings. It involves linking what you do with other followers of Christ in a mystic community for a higher purpose. The things you do to follow Christ are (at baseline) prayer, meditation, contemplation of sacred writings, reconnection to God.

And so I think “follower of Christ” has its definite advantages because it emphasizes that this is something you choose on a regular basis, not something that is a legacy of a past moment where you were “saved” (I prefer to think that God is still saving me) or something I own (even if it is unearned). Because I believe in grace and forgiveness, I can say “I’m a Christian” every day. It’s a different thing to say “I am following Christ” today. Some days I do that; some days I clearly am pursuing my own agenda. Following Christ (or not) is a conscious choice, not a property of who I am. On any given day, I can lose my status as a “follower of Christ” without losing my status as “Christian.” Re-committing myself to following Christ helps keep me from taking my spiritual birthright as a child of God for granted. It reminds me that Christianity is a discipline.

You may think this is just another example of an academic making a big deal out of words. But one of the central claims of this blog is that words matter (it’s also a central tenet of fundamentalist religion, by the way, which pours over the meanings of particular words). Your choice of words influences your habits of heart and mind. Choosing different words can be an important part of renewing your mind, of seeing the world in a new way.

So I recommend substituting “follower of Christ” for “Christian” as a devotional practice, as a way of reminding yourself how it is incumbent on all of us reconnect with our spiritual source. But I am increasingly aware of the dangers of treating “Christian” as another identity in a world that’s wrangling over competing identities. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about identity politics, and I wonder if Christianity has become first and foremost an identity in today’s society. I’ve seen a lot of Facebook postings along the lines of “I’m a Christian/Liberal/Conservative/Republican/Democrat, and I can’t wait to see who’s brave enough to share this,” and I’m struck by how similarly those identity proclamations function. “Are you or aren’t you? Which team are you on? If you’re not with me, you’re against me.”

Once your religion becomes a badge you wear more than it is a thing you do, bad things tend to happen. Lines get drawn around “my people,” and once those lines are drawn, the tendency is to switch into battle metaphors, to protect your camp against “attacks” from “secular humanists/atheists/Muslims.” And so we need to fight back just like everyone else who is defending their turf these days to preserve “our way of life” from “them.”

Of course the history of Christianity is a history of divisions into “thems” and “us-es.” The Catholic Church broke into East and West; Protestants split off from Catholicism; the Protestant Reformation led to the splintering of denominations (Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists), and those split into separate denominational bodies (in the US, often around the issue of slavery or along liberal/conservative theological lines). At the local level, congregations can split over innumerable issues (my father helped start a new church when a group disagreed about deacon ordination, of all things). Fundamentalism actually depends on schisms, as one group seeks to return to their vision of what the “fundamentals” of their religion are, a vision that has seemingly been lost in the mainline religious community.

Face it: we are much better at dividing than we are at uniting. We are much better at holding onto our labels than we are recognizing the humanity and spirituality of those who worship differently than we do (or those who don’t worship at all). I’ve always been impressed with the Catholic Church’s ability to house liberation theology and charismatic Catholics under the same theological roof. I suspect that this has a lot to do with the centrality of ritual in Catholicism; regardless of whether your beliefs lean toward the progressive or the conservative, Catholics can still share the same mass together. Although there are many, many, many problems with Catholicism, Catholics do take their name seriously, attempting to provide a “universal” road to Christian experience through shared practice.

And so I believe an emphasis on the discipline of Christianity – on following Christ – can help us overcome the tendency to treat Christianity as an identity that needs to be protected. Christianity has simply fallen prey to this too many times. Whether it’s Protestants against Catholics in Ireland or in the U.S. Ku Klux Klan, Christians vs. Islam in medieval and contemporary times, or Christianity against modern secularism, we should loft fewer holy hand grenades at the other side, or rather stop identifying sides in favor of following Christ’s example. Any defense (or – heaven forbid – an offense) that might be necessary for “Christianity” needs to operate in a different way than other turf protections. It needs to look and feel counter to the defensive ways of the world, where identities need shielding often because they feel so vulnerable. Within Christianity, we aspire to hold to an unshakable (and unearned) sense of who we are; we are children of God. We need to reconnect to that mystic truth without using it as a justification for hostility and judgment that seem so much a part of today’s world.

In my blog I’ll try to avoid using “Christian” as a noun, though I may slip into that from time to time simply for linguistic ease. (I will admit that “follower of Christ” can get a little clunky, but that clunkiness is part of the point, encouraging us to think about how we describe ourselves.) Since I’m thinking more about identity, my next blog entry will deal with that from a political standpoint. In the meantime, try taking a break from “Christian” as an identity. Focus instead on recommitting regularly to the discipline of following Christ’s example.

Gratitude is the gateway emotion for spirituality

gratitude

If you want to move along a spiritual path, where do you start? Or where do you re-start if you’ve become disconnected from religious practice? Or where do you begin your day when you’re on your path? My advice is to begin with thanksgiving. Gratitude is the gateway emotion for spirituality. And for me, giving thanks begins with noticing the world around you.

Religion is often criticized for doing the opposite, for overemphasizing the promise of “pie in the sky bye and bye” rather than paying attention to the world that we are merely “passing through.” Religion for me is actually fed by attention to the world around me, and that is an endless source of fuel for the religious fire. My glimpses of heaven can wax and wane; my access to the miraculous and beautiful of the material world, however, is only limited by my perception. Religion for me is an encouragement to engage with the world and its splendors.

It’s all too easy to think of ourselves today as the provider of our own world and to think of that world as made up of functional objects for us to use and consume. After all, I earned my place in life; I worked hard and pulled myself up by my own bootstraps. I raised my kids to be good people. I bought and paid for stuff, and I own that stuff.  I, I, I, or as two-year-olds say, “Mine! Mine! Mine!” This way of being-in-the-world encourages you to think of yourself as fully deserving of what you have and to take the world for granted. Today you can sculpt a world in your own image.

As I said in my previous post, religion for me is an awareness of and a participation in the workings of a larger, transcendent universe. Religion involves seeing the world as a gift, not simply something you earned because of our own efforts. Yes, I did buy and pay for my house, but that way of thinking doesn’t acknowledge the limits of my actions and my knowledge. I have so little real knowledge about how electricity or internet signals come into my house or about where sewage goes or the physics of how joists support the frame of my house. I paid for those things, but that doesn’t negate their wondrousness. Owning something and having it in your everyday world doesn’t necessarily domesticate its marvelous qualities.

A religious perspective involves acknowledging your own limits. Sure, I’ve worked hard, but many of the opportunities I have been given have depended on others. I am not a totally self-made man. So many of the universe’s gifts come to me through forces that are beyond my own efforts and knowledge.  Religion involves altering your perspective toward a continuing awareness of the beauties and blessings that surround us. It asks us to repeatedly perform a mental transformation of the mundane into the transcendent.

When people talk about such reenchantment of the world around you, they usually focus on seeing God’s hand in nature: clouds, starlight, the smell of honeysuckle. Such talk typically has a “the best things in life are free” bent to it. But as a film and television scholar, the best things in my life include streaming video and downloadable music (as well as hot showers, good coffee, and, oh yes, clouds, starlight, and the smell of honeysuckle).

I cultivate an attitude that these things made by human hands are miraculous and beautiful and that I can see God’s hand in them as well. These well-made objects are part of my material existence in this world. Yes, I have spent rapturous moments hiking, but religion for me is not a call to see the sacred in nature and to ignore it in the rest of my world. It is a call to transform my whole world (human-made and natural) by a renewing of the habits of my perception. We can talk another time about Christianity’s radical preference for the poor and what that may mean about our place in the material world. For now, I’ll just note that this shift in outlook and response is available to all.

Once you begin to be aware of the miraculousness of the world and to consider how little you have done to deserve it, I believe that prompts an obvious, honest, emotional response: gratitude. I like to begin with gratitude for things I can see, touch, smell; that keeps me grounded in the world. Christianity has a tendency to get fuzzy, to move toward abstractions such as “grace” and “salvation.” Those are enormously important aspects to the practice of Christianity, but it’s hard to start there, particularly if you don’t have that firm a grasp on these theological concepts.

There’s an awful lot of stuff that you have to believe before you can get to a statement like “Christ died for my sins.” I prefer to start small and work my way up toward expressing gratitude for the big theological gifts. Otherwise, it’s very tempting to construct your faith out of churchy language, and I don’t believe that tends to hold up well in trying circumstances.

So you start your day (or your path) by being grateful for the blessings (physical and spiritual) around you. This raises an obvious question: thankful to whom? You have admitted that you are not the measure and source of all things. Where do these gifts come from? One could say “natural science” or “the economy,” and religion doesn’t deny those explanations, but it says that they lack something. Different religions propose different versions of the divine, but they all point to a numinous world that exists beyond what you can see.

Gratitude is a grounded entrance toward experience of the spiritual. It connects what you perceive to the forces that provide these gifts, whether you call that “God,” a “higher power,” whatever. It is a source of connection that never ends, regardless of your life circumstances. You can always transform some aspect of your day into a consolation. Developing this habit builds a firm relationship between you and the source of the miraculous, much firmer than abstract theological beliefs. The connection you forge between what you experience and the transcendent becomes a real part of your everyday life.

(For those of you who are in particularly contemporary Christian churches, you may want to put forward “praise” as the best starting place for connecting to God. Praising God certainly does a lot of what I’m saying: it acknowledges your rightful place in the universe in relation to an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent divinity. And as a church musician, I am very aware of the power of corporate praise. Praise is definitely a better way to start a communal worship experience than how most traditional churches services begin: listing announcements for the community. Beginning with praise makes the right statement about a church (God comes first here), and it can be a powerful way to link your life with the life experiences of others. My problem with starting with praise is because there’s so much belief that is implicitly folded into praise. Singing the praises of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God is in many ways stepping to the head of the theological line (doing so in emotionally powerful ways, I’ll admit). Gratitude involves many fewer steps: I acknowledge the beauty of the world around me; I recognize the limits of my contribution to those wonders; and I am thankful for the forces that provide them. And so for me thanksgiving has advantages in renewing your spiritual perspective.)

In the modern world, slowing down is a vital part of finding this perspective (called by some an “attitude of gratitude”). Whether through meditation, walking, or other practices, slowing down helps us focus our attention; it alters our perception so that we can cultivate wonder (one of the great purposes of religion. See my previous post). At some point I’ll pass along tips for the discipline of focused, contemplative prayer, but in the meantime I’ll leave you with the possibility that the simple repeated act of thanksgiving can open up a gateway between the world around you and a larger world where you can experience the presence of God.

Why Religion?

cross-question

Let’s start with what should be an obvious point: you can lead a good, moral life and make the world a better place without having any connection to religion whatsoever (there are plenty of examples). One can certainly argue that organized religion…well… ORGANIZES people pretty well to do good, but so do lots of secular groups. If that’s all you need religion to do, you can join one of those groups and still sleep in on Sunday morning. If you don’t have a need that religion can fill (and lots of people seem to get along fairly well without religious experience), then I suggest you move on to the other parts of my blog. I’m not going to try to convince you.

I’ll avoid some of the standard discussions about why you need religion — forgiveness of sins, admission into the afterlife. If those are resonant for you, there are lots of other places to look for those appeals. I’m also not going to try to argue logically for religion. There is precedent for that being successful (C.S. Lewis being the most prominent case), but that’s rare. Pascal argued that you might as well wager on the existence of God, but I think that’s not a particularly compelling motivation to stick to religion, which is damn hard work.

Religion is not necessarily illogical, but it is grounded in experience, not pure rationality. And so I will talk in this post about needs (not arguments) that religion is particularly well suited to address. Why religion? Because it can fill certain basic needs in ways that are difficult (but not impossible) to do in the modern era.

One thing to get out of the way first: “religion” to me means “an awareness of and a connection to a world that exists outside the direct perception of our senses.” You’ll notice that I didn’t put the word “belief” in that definition. I’ll return to this a good bit in this blog, but I think that Christianity in particular gets way too caught up in what you “believe” (a fraught and complicated word. More about that another time). And so my definition emphasizes an awareness (ongoing, renewed) that there are forces that exist beyond what we can see.

Mere acknowledgment that there is a God doesn’t quite meet my definition, either. There needs to be (ongoing, renewed) access to or connection with this (literally) super-natural world or else you’re not actively practicing that religion (then it’s more of a passive “belief”). That practice can take multiple forms, depending on your religion: prayer, ritual sacrifice, meditating on sacred texts, devotional music, building a shrine to ancestors, sacred dance, creating iconography, and so on. (“Morality,” if you’re looking for definitions, involves conduct guided by principles. You can have that without a recognition of the divine, as in Confucianism, conservatism, or liberalism.)

Religion can provide a sense of awe and wonder. That may not sound like a particularly strong need, but I think it actually is. We are creatures of habit. Habit helps us be efficient, but it also necessarily dampens our engagement with the world. Phenomena that are pretty astonishing when you think about them (thunderstorms! Highway tunnels under bodies of water! GPS navigation!) become mundane, and then they either become part of the background or they become tiresome sources of frustration. Why do people always have to slow down when they drive through this tunnel? Why does my map app get confused when I’m driving on an overpass where one interstate crosses another? Why doesn’t this software (or hardware or interaction with a service worker) proceed more efficiently? We grind the world more finely, becoming more and more critical, increasingly aware of how less than optimal our existence is. It’s easy for the modern world to become populated with such annoyances; such a world quickly can turn angry, dark, and cynical.

Not everyone needs religion as an antidote to the soul-killing tendencies of modern life. Some scientists, for instance, can get this sense of wonder from their work by understanding in detail the marvelous interworkings of the world. Most of the rest of us have to accept that someone knows the physics to keep a bridge erect or that someone understands the specifics of how cell division and evolution work. For us, the universe can look like an arrangement of poorly understood but (thankfully) dependable, mechanistic processes. Religion for me is not a denial of science, but it is a reframing of the world. Because I don’t have the scientific training necessary to have a deep sense of wonder produced by my knowledge of the universe’s intricacies, religion helps.

Religion encourages me to see the world as a miraculous set of consolations when times are difficult.  One of my favorite quotes says, “There is no life so hard that is without consolation.” On difficult days, the consolation may be as impersonal and clichéd and brief as a sunset, but that doesn’t mean that these consolations aren’t real. You just have to look for them (as Alice Walker said, the color purple demands our attention and reverence); to remove the filters that prevent you from experiencing wonder (the thought that sunsets are clichés, for instance); and to connect what you see to forces bigger than yourself. If you’re a scientist, you probably don’t need religion to give you a sense of awe. For the rest of us, religion helps to rekindle wonder, which is a marvelous inoculation against anger, cynicism, and despair. If any of these are a problem for you, may I suggest that religion might help.

Religion can also provide purpose (I promise I’ll be less longwinded about this one). Through religion we find a continuing motivation to participate in the great good work of repairing the world through prayer, education, helping the poor and oppressed, working for social justice, and providing solace. As I said at the beginning of this post, many secular organizations do similar work, but I do think that religious purpose does provide some advantages.

Religion allows us to connect our individual efforts through the larger network of forces that operate behind the visible world; this magnifies and sustains our labor. It provides crucial encouragement when we inevitably encounter frustrations and obstacles in trying to change the world around you for the better (particularly when working within volunteer organizations of other humans). Religious purpose expands what you do, putting it in context of something larger than yourself. Again, if you have a strong sense of mission (through your vocation, your political action, whatever), then this may not be a compelling need for you. But if your life lacks purpose and meaning, religion can provide this.

Religion can be an enormous source of comfort. We all need comfort at some point in our lives (maybe the opposite of the quote above might be “There is no life so easy that it is without suffering”). If you have built a network of supportive friends, family, and/or mental health professionals that can sustain you through hard times, good for you. You may not need religion to serve that role. If you haven’t developed that support, religion can help.

It can bring your individual suffering into a larger context, and conversations with God can provide consolation in the quiet moments when no one is around. (And just to be clear, by “conversation” I also include bitching, moaning, complaining, and other unattractive but all too human forms of communication) There’s a danger of thinking of religion as something you activate only in moments of crisis, and there it can fail badly if you haven’t previously built a strong foundation of interaction with God. In fact, one powerful justification for continuing to work on your relationship with God during good times is that it prepares that bond to sustain you during tragedy. Again, religion is more about experience than belief for me, and people have found sustenance in religion for millennia. You might try that, too.

Lastly, religion can provide community. Yes, I do believe that you can practice religion on your own without connection to an organized body (there is a tradition of the hermit monastic, after all). Yes, I do recognize that much violence and oppression has been done in the name of organized religion. But I do believe that the solo practice of religion is difficult. It’s all too easy for religion to warp into a justification of your own preferences and interests if you don’t weigh it against the experiences and revelations of others. I am enormously grateful for the way that worshiping with others provides a regular challenge to my understanding of God. Plus the communal worship magnifies your experience in a way that individual meditation simply can’t duplicate.

I’ve always liked the comparison between a church and a gym. You can develop your body by working out on your home exercise equipment, but many of the most devoted athletes haul their butts to the gym. You participate in a community that way; the community supports you when you don’t feel like exercising, they spur you on toward better discipline. If you’re interested in physical development, the gym is an obvious place to find others who are interested in similar pursuits. You’ll find people who are further along the path, and you can learn from them. You’ll also find people who you can mentor through some of the struggle you have overcome. Throughout this blog I will come back to the notion that I think Christianity is a practice, a discipline. A good spiritual gym is a good place to work on that.

(You’ll note that a lot of the needs I talk about in this post are interrelated. Comfort frequently comes from community, which also can provide purpose, and so on. )

So: if you experience wonder on a regular basis; if you have strong purpose in life; if you’ve got comfort and consolation taken care of; and if you have a community, then I really don’t have much to say to you about the advantages of religion. If any of those are missing, then may I humbly suggest that religion can help. In this blog I’ll lay out what I see as fundamental principles of Christianity (my own religion). I hope that this discussion will usefully clarify certain ways toward experiencing the divine.

Next time: where do you start on a religious/spiritual path?

On politics, on Christianity

The obvious question for someone starting a new blog is: why?  What do you have to contribute that is of value?  What perspective can you add to the mix of voices out there?

I think there are two poles that my blog is likely to circle. One involves politics.  We mourn the lack of dialogue between right and left, but I see very few people who trying to bridge that gap (if you’re one of them, let’s talk!).  Mostly I see people sniping at each other from their respective positions with very little effort to phrase their arguments in ways that can be heard by the other side.

I believe that finding common political ground is a valuable pursuit.  I continue to believe that dialogue is possible. I am a lifelong liberal, and in this blog I will try to weigh liberal principles against my understanding of conservative fundamentals as a way to promote/model an open conversation about both. I hope you’ll listen with an open mind and help me understand where I’m wrong.

This part of my blog is an outgrowth of an email discussion I had with my late father-in-law Bob Catale. Like many relatives nowadays, we occupied different ends of the political spectrum. Unlike many relatives, we maintained a friendship and an intellectual respect for each other, as well as a certain amount of good humor. (As Bob lay dying in his hospital bed, I told him, “In your heart, you know I’m right.” That little riff on Goldwater by a liberal made him laugh.) Bob was incredibly well versed, with graduate training in English literature, history, and criminal justice. He could run laps around me in history (in particular), and so I am grateful for his tolerance of my relative lack of knowledge (I’m a spotty 20th century guy at best). Mostly I think Bob appreciated and enjoyed having a debate with someone who could marshal counter-evidence instead of simply letting him steamroll over their opinions.

After several late-night bull sessions, I decided to instigate an email version of our wide-ranging discussions, seeking to do exactly what I want to do in this blog: boost my understanding and find common ground. We never quite reached consensus in that discussion (which he generously participated in with two-finger typing!), but it helped me think about how such a conversation might proceed. The political portion of this blog is dedicated to the memory of my late father-in-law and his powerful, passionate intelligence.

The other likely focus of my blog is on Christianity. I don’t particularly have anything new to say about following Christ. What I do have (at least according to my wife) is an ability to talk about following Christ without using too much “churchy” language. My wife likes “the gospel according to Greg” as a way to help a relative newcomer find the way toward faith and Christian practice, and so I plan to share my perspective on following Christ in hopes that others might find it useful.  The religious portions of my blog are dedicated to my wife Vivian.

I’ll also probably drop in sundry content along the way (I’m planning a “Three Great Novels about Sex!” post), but I will circle back to those two main topics (on political common ground, on Christianity) repeatedly, so if either of those are of interest to you, I encourage you to join in. (By the way, this is probably not going to be a blog that deals much with the relationship BETWEEN politics AND Christianity, a topic I don’t have a lot to say about)

I want to highlight a couple of words I used above. One is the word “weigh.” I hope to weigh political and religious practices so that we can better see their advantages and shortcomings. I will be critical not only of other positions but also of my own home teams (liberalism, Christianity). We should all take a hard look at our own tribe, I believe, if we are to move forward. And so it is necessary to weigh or “assay,” to use an old verb, one that is at the origin of my favorite written form, the “essay.”

The essay is a time-honored form that feels a bit out of step with the current media landscape. I also feel increasingly out of synch with the timing of communication today. Unlike many people, I seem to be unable to say something interesting in a timely fashion in 120 characters. I also am increasingly aware of my own introversion. While others feel the ability to speak their minds about politics or other topics in real-time conversation, my tongue tends to seize up, unable to convey orally the complexity I see before the conversation moves on. And so I have found myself sitting on the sidelines without “putting myself out there,” and that feels both cowardly and selfish to me. The essay allows me the time to weigh what I have to say, to explore what I really believe through the process of writing. I hope you will take the time to read these meanderings (another time-honored tradition of the essay). I hope that my serpentine pursuit of a better understanding will be interesting, honest, and useful.

That’s the other word I wish to emphasize: “understanding.” Instead of proclaiming a definitive answer, essays seek to understand. They make tentative pronouncements to assay their worth. By putting my not-quite-formed opinions out into the blogosphere, I hope to improve my understanding. By doing this as a blog (which already feels like an old-fashioned media form), I hope to engage with people in pursuit of common ground.