God the Father and Mother

MotherFather

Images of God as Father permeate both Old and New Testaments. God’s fatherhood is baked into Christian theology (in the Trinity) and the language of worship (the Lord’s Prayer ain’t called the “Our Father” for nothin’). This language is so omnipresent that it’s easy to forget that it’s primarily metaphorical; it’s a way of bringing a part of the enormity of God into focus. An infinite God is so incomprehensible that we need ways of anchoring the divine in our human experience.

And so we use language to grasp one aspect of God, and we shift language to take hold of some other characteristic of God. Language is a useful simplification; it allows us to see the many faces of God one after the other. Language doesn’t define or limit God as much as it allows us to interact with God in more familiar ways. (One of Jesus’ crucial and controversial interventions was a tendency to call the God of the universe “Daddy.”) Thinking of God as parent is both useful and comforting, but obviously God does not have a gender.

Referring to God as Father gives me a certain earth-grounded specificity for conversation. Yet I worry about language that makes the face of God masculine. On this Father’s Day weekend, I think about all the sermons being preached about fatherhood. I’ve heard a number of them over the years, and they almost always foreground a normative understanding of what a father is.

I sit in these sermons, and I think about all the people around me whose fathers provided poor examples of parenting. What about children of abusive parents? What good is this father imagery to them? In spite of my family attending church whenever the doors opened, my father (who was the child of an emotionally unavailable father) duplicated the emotional abuse of his upbringing when it came to my older brother. To his great credit, my father changed and became a loving and supportive father to me. To my brother’s great credit, he has made peace with the father who raised him.

All of us now know how much more widespread family abuse was and is (sexual, physical, emotional, substance-related). How many of us have experienced the idealized version of a father who appears in Father’s Day sermons? Or rather, if we are supposed to use our earthly father as a rough draft of a heavenly father, for how many people is that an obstacle rather than an aid? And why don’t we say that out loud in church instead of pretending that fatherhood is a natural good?

I also think about the number of family configurations that do not include a father (single parent families, children of two mothers, children raised by a grandmother, and so on). How is all this talk of God the Father helpful if you don’t have a physically present father to begin with? In such instances, children learn about fathering from popular media. Each generation finds its preferred versions of pop culture fathers: Ward Cleaver, Bill Cosby, Gandalf, Dumbledore. But I worry about a fictionalized depiction of a father being the primary image of God the Father.

Let me be clear: we are all composed of factual and fictional experiences blended together. And fatherhood is both conferred and chosen. You may or may not be given a physically present father; along the way you may find a father (and a family) of choice), and a fictional father of choice has much to recommend him. He often has advantages over a piece-of-crap biological father. But a fictional character is necessarily simpler than a warts-and-all human being, and the changing relationship with a flesh-and-blood parent has advantages in modeling the evolving relationship with God. Just as your view of a parent changes as you age, our understanding of God needs to be reevaluated. Parents are not as frightening or powerful as they may seem when we are young. Similarly, God may present a different face to us as adults (rather than the combination of Santa Claus and traffic cop that can inhabit childhood imagery) if we allow that relationship to grow.

I also worry about putting up unnecessary barriers for people to engage with religion. Why do we expect that women will respond to the idea of a masculine Godhead? Because we have always expected women to accommodate, to perform the mental gymnastics of interpreting a generalized masculine word (as in “all men are created equal”) as really meaning “men or women.” And yet we know now that people don’t hear “he or she” when someone simply says “he.” The actual words are important. What is to be gained (other than linguistic simplicity) by referring to God as “he?”

Referring to God as something other than “Father” is awkward at first to practiced Christians, but that awkwardness is part of the point. It makes you stop and think: why should we automatically think of God as masculine? What new parts of God could we discover by thinking outside of old linguistic patterns? Thinking of God as something other than masculine is a useful exercise in making God new again.

Established Christians are often the ones who oppose such change. The “I like things the old way” attitude is contributing enormously to the decline of mainstream Christian churches. On the contrary, I believe that older Christians should be leading the charge to remake Christianity in ways that open up the faith. After all, well-established Christians aren’t likely to abandon the church after a life of service; we’ll still be there if and when the church changes. We who are committed to the church need to see how the familiar, comforting language and rituals we use can be a hindrance to establishing a relationship with God. Rather than requiring others to change in order to feel comfortable in our religious community, maybe we should change the community interaction to remove unnecessary barriers.

Why shouldn’t we make it easier for women to see themselves in God and to see God in themselves? Many churches have seen have experienced how transformative it is for a woman to be a priest or a pastor. It’s one thing to say that God works through men and women; it’s another thing to see and work with women in positions of spiritual leadership (particularly given the church’s long patriarchal history). And maybe men need to see feminine spiritual authority just as much as women do.

In this blog post I’m advocating for thinking of God as Mother. There’s nothing particularly new in Christianity about a feminine aspect of God. Catholics early on recognized the power of being able to pray to a figure of a woman, and so Mary rose from a relative bit player in the New Testament to a central figure of devotion, earthly comfort, and heavenly advocacy. Ditto with saints, who multiplied the image of the divine. When those early fundamentalists called Protestants decided to throw out the church’s accumulated baggage, Mary and the saints (men and women) were sidelined along with indulgences, incense, and gory crucifixes. But we Protestants lost something along the way: the ability to approach the throne of God with a woman in our minds and hearts.

And so I pray to my Heavenly Father and Mother, and I encourage other followers of Christ to give this a try as well. Seeing God as both mother and father allows me to see the divine as powerful, comforting, authoritative, understanding, demanding, forgiving, and righteous all at the same time. (It’s certainly no more difficult than conceptualizing of God as a Trinity.)

If you need scriptural justification for this, I will point you to Matthew 23:37 where Jesus compares his desire to love people to that of a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings. Is this cherry-picking the Scriptures? Oh yeah! There’s certainly an overwhelming reliance on masculine imagery throughout the Bible. But I’m not going to let the fact that the Bible was written in a patriarchal culture spoil the opportunity for me to know God more broadly and widely.

There’s a temptation to assign qualities to God the Mother and Father along standard gender lines. God the Father becomes the judge, the all-powerful, the keeper of strict standards, while God the Mother comforts and understands us. It’s easier to think of the creating, life-giving aspect of God as feminine. There’s usefulness (always my standard for good spiritual practice) in splitting God along these lines. But yet I’ve grown to blur those lines over the years.

By thinking of God as mother and father at the same time, the boundaries around masculine and feminine have eroded. You can think of God the comforting Father and God the powerful Mother. Again, real life fathers and mothers (of origin and of choice) are useful stand-ins here. Real life parents have different qualities to share with their children, and they rarely adhere so rigidly to our standard gendered assumptions. Thinking of God as both Father and Mother helps me pray. It allows me to access the full range of fathers and mothers I have had in my life. It also gives me a way to rethink what masculinity and femininity are.

If you have liberal-leaning theology, you’ve probably already worked through most of this. Good for you. The next frontier may be to contemplate whether we really need to use a gender lens for God. As we revisit and rework both the legacies and the shortcomings of masculinity and femininity in our society, maybe it becomes useful to think of God as queer.

God is, after all, the queerest imaginable being, the ultimate defier of categories (whether gendered or otherwise). I’ve spent this whole blog entry arguing that God is nonbinary. On the face of it, it makes more sense to think of God as being without gender than it does to assign God a masculine or feminine name.

Maybe. Could be. I leave you with this idea in case it’s useful to you. I’m not there yet, however. As I work on my own understanding of gender, I recognize that those categories of masculine and feminine are still emotionally important to me. Gender is the sea that we all swim in; it’s difficult for me (a cisgendered man) to navigate those waters without some version of masculine and feminine. Addressing God as Father and Mother works for me in ways that gender-neutral terms like “divine Parent” simply don’t.

In a time when we are engaged in a large conversation about gender, it’s certainly fair game to include our language about God in that discussion. I believe that queerness has much to teach us about following Christ; Christianity has been far too “straight” (in every sense) for far too long. Again, I think we need to shut up and listen, to be open to seeing God’s many faces, to find the images of God that connect to our lives and that show us the world afresh.

A New Commandment: Listen and Empathize

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 As part of the continuing drive to expand the Gospel, I propose a new commandment: that we listen to and empathize with each other.

Jesus gave a pithy summary of Jewish law in Matthew 7:12: “Do to others what you want them to do to you.” This “Golden Rule” is a foundational moral principle for multiple ethics systems. It guides you to think beyond your narrow self-interest, to envision what it would be like if you were on the receiving end of your own behavior.

The wrinkle in this commandment is that it still places you at the center. You are the measure of things. You are to imagine how you might feel in someone else’s shoes, which might be fine in a society where everyone wears sandals. But what if some people feel very differently from how you think you’d feel in their place? Your life experience has shaped who you are; what if their life experience has given them a perspective that is difficult for you to imagine? The Golden Rule makes it all too easy for us to substitute a version of ourselves for the raw fact of another person’s life. If other people react differently than we would in a situation, then they are alien, wrong, and in need of correction.

This has all kinds of ramifications for do-gooding. This encourages us to substitute our obviously superior understanding for the perspectives expressed by others. We can feel compassion for others without ever really hearing them. We can provide charity with a parental hand, trusting that we know their needs better than they do themselves. We can feel sympathy for them without feeling empathy with them.

The first part of that new commandment is to listen. Through my involvement in an organization called Stephen Ministry, I have grown to understand both how healing it is to be heard and how rare. The preponderance of the training for lay Stephen Ministers involves simply learning how to listen. The training lasts for forty hours, which underlines just how difficult listening is for most of us. Although we are told that we shouldn’t judge, it’s all too easy for us to look at another person’s situation, recognize what we think they should do, and give advice. That feels like we’re helping, but often we’re simply overriding their perspective with ours.

True listening is inefficient (in our speeded up, quick fix society). It takes a long time, but it shows true caring. I have discovered how hungry people are to be heard (rather than being told what to do). There’s no shortage of advice (religious or otherwise) in our society; there’s a shortage of the time-consuming commitment to listen. When we give quick, easy, unasked-for advice, we are belittling the other person’s capacity and effort to deal with their own problems. “Judge not” is the negative version of this commandment; I suggest that the positive version begins with listening.

(You may have noticed that my recommendation to followers of Christ about interacting with others is remarkably similar to my main suggestion about praying: “first, shut up!”  And yes, I recognize that I’m giving advice here, but I think that the suggestion to listen is different. It’s advice to stop advising so quickly.)

The second part of the commandment is to empathize. This is a step beyond the liberal emphasis on “tolerance.” I understand why we liberals no longer talk so much about tolerance. It’s a namby-pamby goal; it’s hard to muster much passion for mere tolerance (I am reminded of Sean Penn’s award acceptance speech: “You tolerate me! You really tolerate me!”). Part of me says that I’d be happy with more tolerance in these divisive times, but another part believes we need a higher goal. And so even though tolerance is in short supply these days, I advocate for empathy.

As a film and television scholar, I have thought a good deal about empathy, since film and television are basically empathy machines. Part of the reason I was attracted to the field was the belief that film and television are ways for us to vividly, powerfully put on someone else’s perspective. I still believe that is true; I also see the both the power and the limitations of that idea. I see how perspective can be commodified and packaged in ways that alter it by making it more palatable, and I understand we can flatter ourselves for how tolerant we are by accepting a commercialized Other in film/TV.

The well-established rules of screenwriting tell us that to make us care about a character, it’s best to establish that the character is a “person like us,” that even though they may appear to be different, we share some basic characteristics “under the skin.” There are many, many cultural assumptions about what qualities are potentially sharable qualities and which aren’t. We are engaging in many interesting narrative experiments today about empathy with characters, and that is doing undeniably important cultural work. However, empathy with characters isn’t quite the same as empathy with real people who haven’t been shaped for public consumption. As important as media are for broadening our understanding of others, they aren’t a substitute for interactions with the raw humanity of someone different from yourself.

Media are empathy technologies, yes; but I neglected to realize that they are also judgment machines. By watching so many films and so much television over the years, we have become expert at calibrating degrees of empathy with characters; we have also become quite good at the judgments required by storytelling.

Toht

One of my favorite examples is the first time that Raiders of the Lost Ark shows us Toht, the Nazi. We don’t know anything about the character, but before he even speaks we are immediately expected to read him as a villain based on his beady eyes behind his reflective wire-rim glasses, his thin lips, and his overall smarmy appearance. To get the full rollercoaster pleasure of Raiders, we need to know how to judge bad hombres by their appearances in an instant. We are now very practiced at doing this, and we do it in film, television, social media, politics, walking down the street.

I entered the field of film/television studies with hopes about how media could enlarge our perspectives, and I still believe in that. I also now recognize how good we have become at the counter-tendency: snap judgments. I remain hopeful about empathy, though I wonder if we need a better basis for empathy than discovering that we’re “all the same underneath.” That feels to me a lot like substituting my own experience for others.

If you’re a follower of Christ, maybe the right basis for empathy is the same unearned basis we all have to lay claim to God: that we are all God’s children, not because of our actions or values or experiences. We don’t have to find ways that the other person is like us before we extend our empathy to God’s children. This empathy looks for the God within, even when the person makes choices or says things that are inexplicable to us. God is the measure for empathy, not our limited human experience.

One might say that empathizing with others (the disenfranchised and disempowered) would be a bad idea for anyone trying to create policy for those people. Policymaking requires the ability to make tough decisions, after all. I would assert that listening and empathy are vital to good policy. One may make tough pragmatic decisions, but you have done so after truly hearing other people’s perspective, not mansplaining or Christiansplaining their experiences for them. Empathy may make it more difficult to make policy decisions, but those decisions will be grounded in people’s lives, not simply in narratives of our own choosing.

Empathy is not weakness; it requires bravery and effort, particularly for those in positions of power or authority. This blog post is not focusing on the political side of things, but if I were to give advice to Republicans (yes, unsolicited advice! It is a difficult habit to give up!), I would say that the public perception of your decisionmaking is remarkably lacking in empathy. Empathy is not at odds with “toughness” and “pragmatism.”

As I discuss ways to expand the Gospel today, many of these expansions (such as Nadia Bolz-Weber’s revised Beatitudes) have to do with how to follow Christ in a diverse world. This goes far beyond not judging others (which is difficult enough!) for being different. It goes beyond assuming that others are like you (allowing you to bypass the tedious, frustrating, inefficient task of listening to them). It recognizes that other people’s lives may be so different from your own that it never occurs to you that there can be another way of being-in-the-world. If we need a miracle today, we need God to cure us of our own blindness and deafness to the experiences of those unlike us.

An Affirmation for God’s Children

AffirmationChildren2

“I am a child of God.” The first words of this affirmation have their origin in a former minister’s baptism ritual. When Nibs Stroupe baptized an infant at Oakhurst Presbyterian Church, he (like many pastors) would introduce the baby to the congregation by walking through the sanctuary. He might say “This girl will be told that she is valuable when she is attractive to men;” or “This boy will be told that he needs to dominate others in order to feel good about himself;” or “This is a middle class child who will be told that he/she is entitled above others,” and so on. He would conclude: “Our job as the church is to remind her/him of her/his true identity: a child of God.” It was a powerful ritual.

Like any good ritual, this one has variations that reinforce an underlying theme. The world is full of identities that are pre-made for us to occupy, but our status as God’s children is a foundational spiritual birthright. Before we were anything else, before we became linked to our job success or failure, our gender, or our race, we were the recipient of God’s radical grace. We didn’t do anything to deserve being a child of God; no child gets to choose her/his family of birth. And so that unearned identity is unshakable; nothing can separate us from God’s love (just as nothing can truly break the link between parent and child). We need a ritual reminder of that central identity.

We also need to recommit ourselves to the activity of following Christ. As I have noted in the previous blog entry, following Christ is less about what we believe and more about what we do.

And so I offer this affirmation of identity and activity as an alternative to traditional creeds of Christian belief. You may not do all of these things this affirmation says; you may not yet be the person these words describe. But these aspirational words are my gift to you, a reminder of the habits of mind and body that lead us to understand who we truly are: a child of God.

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

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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.