Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Origins of Christian Arrogance

    "It isn't that simple-"

    "Faith IS simple, Steve. I asked Jesus to forgive me, and he has, and now I live as a Christian. It's right there in the Bible." She said.

    I looked at Sheila for a second without saying anything. My old Bible College classmate sat across from me in the downtown Starbucks, her red hair held back in a long braid. She was dressed modestly, in a white blouse and long gray skirt. Her daughter slept in the stroller next to the table. We'd bumped into one another the day before – I'd hardly recognized her – and she'd agreed to meet me for a coffee the next day. She told me about her two kids, Brian was nine, and little Rebekkah, in the stroller who was "a pleasant surprise." What was surprising was that she was still married. Yes, she'd separated from her husband, but he had confessed his sins to the Lord, she said, and they were a family again. It'd been five years since I last heard from her. At the time, she was getting counseling to help deal with the abuse, both physical and emotional, her husband had heaped on her their first five years of marriage. Back then, she'd been as fiery as her hair colour indicated. She seemed different now, as if she'd tired of fighting.

    I watched her as she moved the stroller back and forth, the way her gaze loved her child, and the quiet sag in her shoulders.

    "Faith isn't simple, Sheila." I said, as gently as I could. "Faith in God, in a world filled with tragedy, is complicated and difficult. The world is not black and white, and it's for us to figure out that sometimes we don't know what should be done, or to question God's absence from the pain many of us hold so deeply."

    "That kind of gobblegook message keeps people away from the church. " She said, her fire briefly renewed. "Jesus rescues us. With him we are triumphant."

    "Not always." I said quietly. "Not for me, anyway."

    Something flashed across her face – compassion, empathy, understanding – I couldn't tell, but just as quickly it left as she turned to her daughter.

    "I'll pray for you, Steve. You're just making things difficult for yourself."

    We talked for a little while longer, and I complimented her on her daughter, and tried to make her laugh a little. She gave me a quick hug and we promised to be in touch, though we both knew I would never see her again. There was nothing comforting about my presence, and I was unwilling to offer the same, tired clich├ęs about God making everything all right. Too often, it seemed to me, God didn't make things "all right."



    The weather had changed the past week, and I shivered as a cool wind cut my jacket as I stood outside the bookstore, sipping my coffee. The ground was wet with rain, but the air was cold and fresh. People scurried past me, to and from the parking lot. An elderly Asian woman watched helplessly as the strong wind flipped her umbrella inside out, and then hustled to her car holding it like a lance. It'd been months since I spoke to Sheila, and yet today I could not stop thinking about our conversation. It wasn't the first conversation I'd had with old colleagues and friends who'd expressed the idea that faith in God was a simple thing. Men seemed to do it with more bluster and laughter, the women with resigned shrugs and only momentary fierceness. I could not understand why this was so, except that "simple faith" usually marked itself in patriarchy, where women were little more than second-class citizens. This, in many ways, was the unspoken arrangement between the genders, one that long outdated Evangelicalism or Fundamentalism. "Simple faith" had other markers as well, which usually included a clear and narrow path to the Creator marked by 'hard' borders, a strictly imposed morality structure, and the externalization of evil. I'd often heard that a pastor should communicate clearly what was expected of the congregation, that a 'mist in the pulpit was a fog in the pews.' Of course, the idea of 'clear communication' had been around a long time.

    Thousands of years ago, according to the story in Genesis 11, all people spoke the same language. They found a plain in Shinar, and decided that they should build a great Tower to reach the heavens, and in so doing, declare their greatness. God saw this and confused their languages so they could not complete the Tower, and the people scattered over the earth. God said, "If one people speaking the same language have begun to do this, then nothing they plan will be impossible for them." And yet, despite the warning in this story, which need not be taken literally for us to understand the point, people have continued building the Tower where ever they have scattered. It is a human thing, this desire to not only reach God but to be God; this longing to have the steps of our faith clearly mapped in front of us, like stone, so that we can simply walk up the Tower. In every religion there are rules. Rules about how we should live and why we should do certain things. Some of these are good, as they make us strive to develop character, to produce patience and love and compassion. Many of them however, are nothing more than steps up the Stone Tower. They are simple in their understanding of God, and require simplicity in its understanding. That the applications of these simple rules are highly destructive seem not to matter, so long as we can hold on blindly to this thing we call "faith", but which in actuality is the pagan idea of 'Fate.' Faith should be dynamic and active, questing and doubtful and angry, hopeful and frightening. Fate is the antithesis of faith. It is unquestioning and accepting and apathetic.

    A simple faith has rules, which you have seen before, such as:

  1. Men are the spiritual leader in the home and in the church.
  2. We are new creatures in Christ when we ask Jesus to forgive our sins.
  3. Every verse of Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching (we must take the Bible literally)

We could produce a long list of rules, couldn't we? I've chosen these three as examples simply because their acceptance is so widespread in the church. I know, because I used to teach them, and they never caused a stir. Ever.

A simple faith says that men are spiritual leaders, as Paul mentions in his letters in the New Testament. Real faith asks why? Why men? What is the context? Are men a better fit to be the leader? Or is that the hierarchy God intended? Much abuse has been done in the church, some of which has been chronicled on this blog, in what men have done to maintain their patriarchal superiority through the application of this simple rule. It is often done with condescending smiles and patronizing explanations. And jokes, of course. Why so few Christians challenge this rule speaks not to agreement, but to the disharmony in so many lives. Most people will accept any structure, any sense of community when they have none, even if it means subjugating yourself to a demeaning form of 'church'.

We are new creatures in Christ, the old has passed away… so says the New Testament. The simple faith says we are victorious, that we are special, that God has saved us. Real faith says… saved us from what? Real faith exists in a non-utopian world, where the poor die from starvation and people are slaughtered for having the wrong beliefs or being born in the wrong country. Real faith must check itself every day, must tremble in the witness of a life that is the same as it was before they professed to following Christ, and ask why that is so. Why am I still so angry? Why does my son still not listen to me? Why do I still feel like a second class citizen? Real faith has the courage to ask the hard questions.

Every verse of Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, according to one verse in the New Testament. Most of us have used this verse to wring the interpretation we want from other parts of the Bible, and why the fundamentalists and charismatics insist that we must read the Bible literally. Simple faith says that this must be true. It is the reason why the Christian (American)South and many of the British Parliament could defend slavery. It is used to oppress women and minorities. It is used to defend patriarchy. It is used to attack homosexuals. It is used, primarily, as a weapon. Real faith does not accept it, because it knows that not every verse IS useful. (Tell Timothy to fetch my cloak?) Real faith knows that the point is not to align ourselves correctly on one side or another, but to hear the resonance between the story of God and our relationship with Him; to hear it and do our best to apply it to the world around us. How is it, for example, that Christians can defend the Iraq war, when Jesus says to love our enemies? How is it that Christians can engage in all kinds of racist and misogynistic behavior, in the face of the gospels? Is there anything more saddening than to surf the internet at various Christian sites, and read the comments. The hatred and vitriol speak to a suppressed multitude who may, in person, talk about the love of God, but in reality find it necessary to displace their anger they refuse to see in themselves.

Simple faith says that we are always right about God. Real faith asks… what happened?

The birth of Christian arrogance lies in the codification of something that is relational and dynamic. Our faith, like us, must breathe. In and out, inhale and exhale. It should challenge us and push us to re-examine who we are and ask ourselves why we do the things we do. While rewarding, it is never easy and often frustrating. We want so badly to understand, to understand why God allows such terror and tragedy both in the world and in our lives. And when no explanation is forthcoming, it is the natural thing to lean on one another, to form groups that rely on simple rules that have little to do with the Creator or what it means to be human.     

Real faith costs us a great deal. It refuses to offer easy answers. And it does not allow us to live in our own created utopia, because it forces us to see the world as it truly is, with all of her wounds and ugliness, and accept her anyway.

There is much in the Gospels about Jesus healing lepers. About how he touched them and visited them when few would. Leprosy, in the ancient world, was used to denote a wide range of skin disorders and diseases, some more severe than others, and all of them ugly. Yet Jesus reached out to this shunned community. Knowing that gives me hope, because our world is just as ugly. People haven't changed. We are still selfish and arrogant. We kill for power and profit. We turn away from the poor and give reasons for our own uniqueness. When I think of the ugliness in my own heart, the one that wants to build a new Tower of Babel with 'simple faith', I am thankful for God's reminder that faith, like life, isn't easy. That arrogance is antithetical to one who believes in the Incarnation. And that while knowledge is to be respected, real faith is not about having the right answer, but the right heart, one that is willing to both accept our humanity and wrestle with it as well.