Thursday, August 23, 2012

Is God a Christian? Am I?

“God is not a Christian, God is not a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist. All of those are human systems which human beings have created to try to help us walk into the mystery of God. I honor my tradition, I walk through my tradition, but I don't think my tradition defines God, I think it only points me to God.”
- Bishop John Shelby Spong

I hate that in my past I've limited God by acting as though he can only be experienced by everyone else in the world in the same way that I experience him.  In a way, it seems utterly absurd that anyone would think that, but when you believe for so long that the way you believe is the only way, it takes some doing to shift your paradigms.  The past several years have been quite a spiritual journey for me.  

Granted, it has been a long time since I have acted like I thought that my way was the only way, and even longer since I actually thought it.  The thing about being immersed in a culture from a young age (in my case, the conservative evangelical faith) is that when you start to doubt some of the fundamentals of it, it is difficult to simply make a clean break.  You know you don't believe what everyone around you believes, yet you aren't nearly as sure of what you believe INSTEAD as the others are of what you SHOULD believe.  Blurting out "I think that's poppycock!" in response to an assertion, when you have not yet built the framework for your new beliefs, will alienate you more than it will do anything else.

When you finally do get confident enough to make the break from your old beliefs, it can be difficult to do it gracefully.  When I finally did it, my transition was anything but graceful.  I posted my new thoughts and opinions daily on Facebook.  I got into discussions (read: arguments) with old friends.  I could barely hide my disdain for some of the old ideas and I'm sure that came across to my friends and family (who still held those ideas) as disdain for them. I offended people.  I think that because I felt my new point of view was so right for me, I wanted to help other people see that my old way wasn't the only way. 

I can understand why I felt that way, but I now realize that just as my beliefs are personal and stem from my experience, it is the same way for others.  I learned a lot about how scary it can be when someone starts questioning shared beliefs, because it is comfortable to be surrounded by like-minded people.  But no matter what our beliefs, we should not be scared of questions; We should be scared when everyone pretends they don't or shouldn't exist.  Through my questions I've determined there are so many things I don't know at all.

Here is a passage from a book I just finished reading.  This is where I am right now:
There are a lot of things I don’t know. I don’t know where evil came from or why God allows so much suffering in the world. I don’t know if there is such a thing as a “just war.” I don’t know how God will ultimately judge between good and evil. I don’t know which church tradition best represents truth. I don’t know the degree to which God is present in religious systems, or who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. I don’t know if hell is an eternal state or a temporary one or what it will be like.... I don’t know which Bible stories ought to be treated as historically accurate, scientifically provable accounts of facts and which stories are meant to be metaphorical. I don’t know if it really matters so long as those stories transform my life. I don’t know how to reconcile God’s sovereignty with man’s free will. I don’t know what to do with those Bible verses that seem to condone genocide and the oppression of women. I don’t know why I have so many questions, while other Christians don’t seem to have any....
I am learning to live the questions, to follow the teachings of a radical rabbi, to live in an upside-down kingdom in which kings are humbled and servants exalted, to look for God in the eyes of the orphan and the widow, the homeless and the imprisoned, the poor and the sick. My hope is that if I am patient, the questions themselves will dissolve into meaning, the answers won’t matter so much anymore, and perhaps it will all make sense to me on some distant, ordinary day.

(From:  Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions By Rachel Held Evans.  Buy it.  Read it.  Seriously.  Although it tells her own journey, she does a much better job of explaining the process than I am doing here on this blog.) 

What I'm learning is that, regardless of what some others may think, I haven't lost my faith.  I do experience God through faith in Christ -- not just because that is how I was raised, but because that is what I choose and what speaks to me.  Christianity is my "tradition," as the bishop said, but it is not my dogma.  I can see some of my ideas of God in other religious traditions.  I can see God in people who have no religion.  The way I experience God through Christianity may be very different from the way others do, and that is okay.  There are so many things about God that I freely admit I don't know or understand, and that is okay too.  We all make choices about what we believe, what pieces we have to keep in order to become better people and what we have to discard because it is an albatross to our faith.

Of all the ideas we can discard, I think the belief that we all have to experience God the same way should be the first to go.  God is a mystery and we do not own God.

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