Sunday, August 08, 2010

On Being a Christian (HT to Kung and Bonhoeffer)

I've spent many years pondering what it means to live a Christian commitment. Does it mean that Christians will be better, happier, stronger, purer, healthier, wealthier, less sinful and wiser than everyone else? (I used to think so; I was taught so.) "Should" Christians be happier, wiser, more joyful, more peaceful, more successful in their relationships than other people? (In other words, are these the marks of true faith and practice?)

My honest answer for today is: No. In fact, in order to seem as though a relationship with Jesus Christ creates those superior qualities, many of us have had to cultivate a shadow self: protecting secrets, massaging the truth, pretending an appearance into being, minimizing real tragedy, hiding painful truths. Moreover, non-Christians aren't fooled. They don't trust the shiny image.

I lived in a neighborhood years ago where the wild post-high-school grown-ups threw drunken parties with toddlers running around every weekend. One of my Christian neighbors, in a fit of sisterly love, made a pie for the wife in one of these beer-guzzling couples. The loud-mouthed gal told my friend where she could shove that pie! It devastated my friend, who thought she was showing neighborliness (but apparently her "I'll be nice to you so you'll want Christ" agenda seeped through).

A few months later, a Mormon neighbor made a cake for my friend (the pie-giver) and we were both immediately put on guard. We didn't want to "owe" anything to the Mormon. We wondered what her true motivations were—like a cake would make us want to be Mormon? We felt manipulated. And that's because we were being manipulated. Just as we had manipulated others in our turn.

I had to ask myself: why do we work so hard to seem like our lives are better and have more to offer than the rest of humanity? Is that really what today's Christianity means to "sell"? That you get a better life if you follow Christ? That you'll be a superior human being, therefore come to my church where you can opt out of life's hazards?

I question the idea that Christians ought to have better lives than non-Christians. I know there are verses in the Bible about the peace, love, fruits of the Spirit and joy that come from an active faith. But circumstantially, every one of us (with or without Christ, with or without friends, with or without money, with or without jobs, with or without higher education) is subject to the ravages of living on this planet. In our time, in our place (America), even the poorest have water, electricity, access to education, some kind of medical treatment and the right to vote. Yet even we in the wealthiest nation can't avoid the truly awful stuff!

Car accidents, hurricanes, tornadoes, war, earthquakes, cancer, arson, rape, bankruptcy, divorce, unwanted pregnancy, betrayal, affairs, heart attacks, addictions, job loss, disease, failure, kids who do what we don't want them to do—visit all kinds of people, including ardent Christians. There is no divine intervention against life.

God does not answer prayers for your protection any more than you can stop the wind from blowing during a lightening storm by praying. (I hope that if you are the kind of Christian who believes God will do these things for you, please consider spending less time seeking the miraculous and more time living in the real world where your valuable talents and skills are much needed!)

If someone tells you Christians "should" (fill in the blank: love more, share their faith more, be happier than everyone else, find more fulfillment in their families, have better marriages, be debt free, give more, care more, have more peace, exude more joy, raise better children, see miracles, have better sex, make better communities and neighborhoods, feel more assured of the future...), my reaction is: run. The purpose of your faith is to sustain you during the ordinary conditions of life. Sometimes other people want to draw on those same resources; sometimes they don't. But it's false advertising to entice people with the hope of either miraculous intervention when faced with genuine danger, or the assurance of successful outcomes (marriages, kids, finances, health, happiness) because of the choice to follow Christ.

Bonhoeffer says that the "God who is with us is the God who forsakes us."
"God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross," Bonhoeffer wrote. "He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. [The Bible] … makes quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering. … The Bible directs man to God's powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help." (emphasis mine)
This is a hard saying and one that deserves time and contemplation. As I've turned it over in my mind over the last eight years, a dawning sense of truth has bubbled to the surface for me. How I understand this hard saying written for our time, in our world and culture is this:

The novel understanding we bring to following Christ today is an admission that life can't be beat. No formula, practice, belief system, or church affiliation protects us. Life's demands are unceasing until we meet our end. Rather than going out swinging, with prayer, affirmations, insisting that tragedy is not tragic or that sickness is health or that sadness is joy or that suffering comes from faithlessness, Christians can embrace in a radical way the transitory nature of life—its unique joys, but also the genuine suffering all of us go through just by virtue of sharing this planet. We can do this because we are unafraid, not because we are safe.

As I've looked at it now for nearly 30 years, it seems to me that Christianity is an emptying, not a filling up. It's a divesting, not an acquiring. It's a trusting, not an insuring. It's a faith in a redemptive purpose, not a triumph over tragedy or suffering.

God abandons us to life, is another way I translate Bonhoeffer's insight. Life is to be lived on its terms—we are meant to be fully grounded in and unafraid of the real, all while drawing on the resources of faith to live hopefully, optimistically, empathetically, and redemptively, in spite of life, in reverence for life. Christianity is an affirmation of this life—life worth living.

The joy and peace of faith are not something "put on" to showcase how much better it is to be a Christian than not (like a Mini Cooper is better than a van). The joy and peace of faith come from knowing that in a shakeable life where nothing is certain (where we Christians are just as likely to be kidnapped, raped and shot execution style as the next non-Christian shopping in a mall—yes, this happened to a missionary friend of mine), we still have a resource to draw on. That resource is cultivated in a deep private place, though shared in community. It's not theoretical and it isn't magical. It's not like having access to the president's secret service detail, either. 

And please don't say it's a relationship. That tired expression has lost its meaning, for me anyway. Its value had to do with moving people from rote religious practices to pondering God and how daily devotion could make a difference in our experience of faith. But now with so many evangelical churches touting "relationship" through "Jesus is my boyfriend" music and Bible studies where we're trained to read the Scriptures at the level of "how it speaks to me," all while we reinforce "My God is better than your God" kind of spirituality, relationship-language has gone too far. The theology descended from it often requires well-educated adults to abandon reason and intellect in service of simplistic theology and communal connection. We're trained to think we are better than others because we have the right God and the right beliefs.

As I read it, salvation is not about who "gets to go" to heaven after all. It's a saving from self-righteousness and false self-confidence. Sometimes it seems to me that Christians need to be saved more than anyone else.

The resource of faith comes from within (the Bible calls it "The Holy Spirit"). Our spiritual legacy in Christianity is guided self-examination (guidance coming from our rich theological traditions, the Bible and our faith communities) counter balanced by (forgive my French) mind-fucking trust in the unseen.

In our age where scientific materialism is the chief authority, to assert that something transcendent may exist, to yield to the possibility that there is something to this God through Jesus—that grace (relief, hope, uplift, optimism, pardon, calm, solidarity, amnesty, compassion, promise, even awe-inspired tingles) is mediated somehow through contemplation, communion, community, worship, alignment with those who suffer, reflection, prayer, even stained glass windows or kneelers or guitar music or bear hugs during the kiss of peace or the reading of poetry—is a radical departure from the rest of our fact-soaked, empirical existences. Our faith opens us to encounter (that direct hit to the solar plexus that defies explanation), rather than mere accumulation of information. 

Joy, peace and hope are cultivated when we love other human beings. Let me put it another way. We have joy when we enjoy people. We have peace when we are empathetic to others and work to relieve the struggle in their ordinary hard lives (like our ordinary hard lives). We have hope when we receive care and help from others, indiscriminately, from whoever offers it; we experience hope when we are willing to learn and receive from other people, other communities. That's what Jesus showed the Jews of his time—hope from a suspicious character, openness to the new, redemption from an unlikely source.

The humility of faith is to recognize that God isn't looking for leaders after all. Faith is letting go of all that stuff. It's the way... a way. It's how we live and love.

James Cone once said that the reason the white church had no experience of God (1960s) is that they weren't hanging out where God lives. Find the oppressed, find God. Share in the suffering, experience God.

In 2010, I think of it this way. While it would be easier to jettison the whole project of figuring out how to have a meaningful faith in this culture where Christianity has become a brand more than a basis for a spiritual life, where Christians defend the indefensible in the name of a religion that was developed in the pre-scientific, magical world of antiquity, I've decided to offend my mind and trust anyway.

Somehow in all that language that drives my brain crazy (bodily ascensions, male God, original sin, virgin births, inerrant Scriptures, devils and angels), I still find fragments of transcendence which tether me to love (1 Corinthians 13 is still the best description of love I've ever aspired to live). In plain English: there's something about the redemptive narrative of Jesus and the self-examination I've adopted through Christian faith that gives me a powerful emotional meaningful connection to life, people and hope that I find too precious to throw over.

The wide variety of wonderfully diverse people remains my main connection to transcendence. Jesus seemed to feel that way, too. In all our messy glory, human beings still give me the greatest chance to see the face of God and to practice the faith of love. And while I typed this, I couldn't help but see the sweet face of the matriarch of faith at my church who embraces me with such fierceness each week. Love like that is Christianity to me.


WordyKaren said...

Thank you for writing from your heart and for inspiring me in the process. I get what you said and I relate to it though I may not have been able to articulate it as you did. I love you.

Leonie said...

I think it is so true re the manipulation, while trying to "be nice." One of my kids and I talked about this on the weekend. How someone was jealous of another in our church, of one who has done a lot for the parish and for others and who seems to be generally liked. The other woman is insecure and wants the same "position" in the church. So, she does things for others - but only the visible things, the things she sees the other woman do, the things others will see. And she does them to be seen to be nice; and doesn't see what the other woman does, all the unseen stuff, the ache, the going the extra mile, the giving without manipulaton. That giving is true love, I guess.

Dalissa said...

As usual, you are able to put into clear thoughts how I feel. The past 18 months have been a crazy ride for me and through it, being able to depend on God for hope, has sustained me. And, truly like you said, God doesn't save us from life. If I didn't have my faith to lean on, I am quite unsure how I'd make it through the tediousness of everyday life, as well as the major catastrophes. And, that mind-fucking trust in the unseen is what faith is truly all about.

Watchman said...

Julie, when I realized that God did not need a PR agent, or a sales staff, this freed me from a faith that had more roots in a business model than a transcendent one. Nice summary that mirrors my recent conclusions about faith as a forty-something-post-professional-ministry-guy

julieunplugged said...

Watchman! I am very happy to see you here. I thought of you frequently when I was going through all the challenges of separation and divorce. You had asked me once if I would blog through it, if I could, because we rarely get to see the process as it unfolds. I realized why no one does that. The journey is personal and risky - with lawyers and children and onlooking family and friends.

Now that I'm on the other side with some space to be myself again, I can reflect on the journey more easily than I could write about it then in public.

One thing that has become abundantly clear in both the deconstruction and reassembling of my faith as well as my married state: the way it feels on the inside to live it is private and personally experienced—I'm much less judgmental of anyone's process now that I know how multi-faceted decisions, choices and pains are... never what I can surmise from the surface.

Great to see you and glad to think we share some common ground here. :)

Dejah said...

Two things:

1) Holy-fucking-wow. That was amazing. I am going to share it with my FB friends.

2) When is a pie, just a pie?

I don't, at present, count myself a "Christian." I used to be a very devout Catholic Christian. Then, I was an atheist. Now, I am... conflicted. My heart demands one thing, my spirit another, my reason a third. None of it makes any sense. When I THINK, I have to think that there is no holy gum-ball machine in the sky. I have to think that the idea that there is something transcendent is just bunk. But then I need more meaning than that and I reach for something that I THINK doesn't exist and I get conflicted. It sucks.

For many years, even before my current state, I had really disliked the people who did nice things for me in an effort to convert me (having had extensive and painful experience of the same). I can't be converted, sorry. I REALLY dislike how, once these people figure out that I CAN'T be converted, that they don't want anything to do with me. They only wanted to convert me. They didn't care about me for me. They cared about me for showing what great Christians they are. My thought: they ain't such farking great Christians and this is not what being a Christian is about.

On the flip side, sometimes, I makes people pies just b/c I like making pies and b/c I hope they enjoy eating pies And yeah, maybe they will like me b/c I made them a nice pie... maybe it's a peace offering, maybe it's just being neighborly. And as a result, I don't tend to get suspicious of freely given pies unless there's already a reason to be suspicious. Because as a non-Christian, I don't do 'those things." I don't care if people see me being a "Good Christian." I don't have an image to uphold and I assume other people don't either. They do nice things b/c they are nice people who want to be nice to me. Until proven otherwise... that's the problem with depending on your reason to decide what you believe: you need proof.

So, I'm left asking, when is a pie, just a pie?

julieunplugged said...

Please add me on FB, Dejah! Loved your comment.

In answer to your question:

A pie is a pie when it is a pie, not an ad.

I had to give up doing nice things for people for quite a long time to get back to doing them because I wanted to do them. I lost a lot of time that I could have been a good person. I had lost touch with being genuine, I had to stop doing nice things.

It's easier now. :D

jgeorge444 said...

Once upon a time a lovely lady visited me in my home. She labored an entire day shopping for fresh dinner ingredients, making from scratch hot buttered yeast rolls, a huge lasagna with a cold, crunchy fresh vegetable salad, and yes, not one, but two beautiful lattice-top apple pies. I knew this was a gift of self that came from a lovely, loving heart.

My search for truth has spanned a lifetime of 65 years. Yes, I was searching even as a small child. I presently perceive that, trite as it may sound from overuse in our culture, love is the key to meaning in our lives -- divine, unconditional love. The love that we carry in our hearts requires no label denoting religion, political affiliation, or any form of worldview. Love is universal, not to be diminished or limited by a name. Love encompasses all that is.

It is as simple as that. We each reflect the love in our hearts to one another in relationship, whether long-term or fleeting. That love-ly lady who so generously shared her Self and her Love with me so many years ago was, and is, my daughter-in-law! My heart bursts with love and gratitude for her!

Those were no ordinary pies -- they were served up with love -- the glue that holds our universe together!!

julieunplugged said...

Love... it takes writing thousands of words about it, experiencing the myriad ways we can support each other to encounter it directly. A solar plexus moment to be sure!

Kacie said...

This post reminded me of what I just read last night about suffering in M. Scott Peck's book The Road Less Traveled. He might have been a little crazy, but that book is incredibly profound.

Steve said...


It is moving and reassuring to see that your remarkable life, with all of its peaks and valleys, joys and pain, has lead you to this place of reflection on faith - how refreshing, how real. Thank you.

You have touched on a number of points that completely resonate with me. American Christianity is disappointing in so many ways, as you have noted. But you have added a wonderful note of hope. And that is all we have, is it not? Empty hands, outstretched arms, and Hope?

Over the past decade I have felt my own faith transform, from a place of wanting to belong and have an "ordered life" (doing the right things, looking the right way), to a place of well, mysterious wonder and acceptance of the stuff I cannot divine. Not a lot of neat answers anymore. Weak and broken, yet so much better understanding joy.

I shall have to unpack your thoughts, and my own reflections on them on my blog. Stay tuned.

Blessing, Good Woman!

Dalissa said...


debbie p said...
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debbie p said...

As soon as I read this, something I haven't thought about in a while popped into my mind. One of my neighbors had a baby and was having a hard time coping for a number of reasons. I didn't know her well, but thought I'd make dinner for her and her kids. I did and took it down to her. I could tell she wasn't feeling happy about this but I didn't know what to do. She was nursing the baby and I fixed plates for the kids and tried to chat with her. Suddenly she looked up at me and said, "Did my kids tell you I'm not feeding them enough?" I was horrified that my attempt at helping her actually made her feel some kind of fear or shame. I'm very careful about doing things like this now. I love people and enjoy doing things for and with them but there is a wisdom in knowing when and how much you can do because even when your motives are not an advertisement, they can still come across that way.

Kansas Bob said...

Great stuff Julie! I resonate with so much of what you wrote. I struggle with some of it though because it seems like a Deist view. I may be reading too much into some of this though. How do you see the role of prayer in a person's life?

Anonymous said...


Kathleen808 said...

Julie - Beautifully written and so well thought out. I especially like "Christians can embrace in a radical way the transitory nature of life—its unique joys, but also the genuine suffering all of us go through just by virtue of sharing this planet. We can do this because we are unafraid, not because we are safe." thanks Kathleen