Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Why Faith Matters... or Does It?



Walking Away from God...

The details seem a bit fuzzy these days, but I can tell you what started my walk away from Christianity. Or I suppose I should say, what finished it.

I was nineteen years old, and from the moment I walked through the doors of Faith Tabernacle, the mid-sized Pentecostal church just minutes away from my childhood home, I sensed something bigger than myself at work. People moving towards a place with which I wasn't wholly familiar, a place that looked and felt like hope. It was celebratory and expectant, and I got caught up in the euphoria of it all, lapping it up like a thirsty traveller who'd been on the road for a long time. I determined that I would never go thirsty again, and so I consumed it all. Books. Videos. Services. Music. Anything about this new movement—this new life – that I could get my hands on. The world made promises about peace and happiness and contentment, we were told, but it never delivered.

God always delivered.

Trust him.

Trust us.

Join us.

And I did.

For a while, there was nothing to not like about being this kind of Christian. It was a community of happiness, like a love commune from the sixties but without the drugs or sex or instability. It reminded me of my trip to Cuba a couple of years earlier, my first time experiencing the brilliant white sands of Varadero beach. Looking out from the shore, the water's clear translucence a colour and clarity that could never be coaxed from human undertaking, and like a siren it called with such a whispered grace of its gentle swells that I found myself unable to move at first, until finally I waded in, my feet digging into the silky sand bottom. I'd never been to such a beautiful beach, and the promise of those waters was something to be savoured, as sure a promise of perfection that I would ever experience. Such was the experience of my first few years in church. It too, held great beauty and promise.

Once I had waded out far enough however, the church was no longer beautiful or innocent. It was dark and deep and foreboding, and what looked like little fish from the shore were actually much bigger and far more terrifying, and they circled about the others, waiting to bite and sting. I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was, probably because I believed the illusion. I didn't understand so-called Christian leaders using their influence to enrich themselves. The pettiness in people who had been Christians for twenty or thirty years. People using prayer as a tool for gossip. The disregard for women and minorities. The sense of us against them, that we were all so different from those outside the church. My steps became more cautious. Protecting my reputation became important. No sudden movements that would allow the predators a chance to attack. Before, the water had looked inviting. Now, it was the beach that I longed for again, longed for the time when I'd merely wished for a place of hope and believed that such a place existed. I couldn't help but wonder that if Jesus, if he had ever existed, no longer lived here. It took a few years, but eventually I waded back to shore. Back to the beach, where the water looked as unrelentingly graceful as ever, the gentle waves rolling onto the shore. Only this time I knew better, and no matter how the sand burned my feet now, no matter how the smells or sounds of the waters called to me, I wasn't going back in. I'd learned my lesson well enough the first time.

***

Faith is not easy. I say that because there seem to be a great mass of people who feel that it is. Perhaps it's just the ones with the biggest mouths and highest amount of insecurity, but their voice is still loud and repeated by Christians as if it's a mantra. When I first waded into the waters as a pastor, I would have agreed with them. Jesus is the Son of God. Just believe and things will work out. Okay, let's get to work. It was in the work however – the doing of church, the praying, the morality, the schedule, the interpretations – that it stopped being easy. There was a dichotomy between the concept of faith and the application which I did not understand. At first, I merely blundered down the path believing God would sort it out. That's what faith was, wasn't it? And then I saw how destructive the results could be. How simply "believing" could ruin people's lives with its unintentional consequences, especially when the more selfish individuals used the naivete of some to do what they wanted. After that, the only thing left was to turn to the structures. The rituals. To be conscious and completely rational about every application. To leave nothing to chance or wind. It helped, but it also cut me off from the idea and sense of God's presence. To be a Christian, it seemed, forced one into a decision. Either the spontaneity of a relationship with God, or the careful applications of well thought out morality and religion. Both held consequences, and neither was perfect, but it was all we had.

Through the years, I lived both in sequence. First the spontaneity, and then the careful, religious application.

And then I stopped.

Neither felt right or complete, and I couldn't hear God's voice any more. And for me, it had always been the Voice, the whispers in my heart that despite all, the world was loved, people mattered, and that God had not forgotten us.

When the Voice disappeared, I lost my way, no longer called myself a Christian. Suddenly the world was a very different place. I wasn't sure that I liked it much, but I was out of options, and I'd long since given up the idea of lying to myself. That I eventually returned surprised no one, I think, but it shocked the hell out of me. A few years have passed, and I still find it hard to believe sometimes that I am not only okay with the idea of church, but that I still hold great hopes for her.

***

If you were to ask me what it meant to be a Christian fifteen years ago, my answer would have been automatic. These days, I'm less sure. My faith, such as it is, mostly feels like an echo. As if I have wandered into a large canyon and the voices I hear are not from the heavens, but the reverberations of lives and truths over the centuries around a single Event. I am both heartened and dismayed when I read that the early church made a number of mistakes. I am heartened because they remind me of me, with their misunderstanding and unloving applications of what Jesus said, and I am dismayed because it all feels so impossible. If they couldn't get it right, how can we?

There are a large number of Christians, of course, who will tell you that the early church never made a mistake. That they followed "The Way" perfectly, and that we can too. There's no proof for it, merely the insistence that Scripture is infallible and inerrant and inconceivably and irretrievably absolute. If you dig enough, they'll tell you that it comes down to faith.

Hey, everything comes down to faith. It takes faith to believe in evolution. It takes faith to believe that tomorrow will be a good day. It takes faith to believe that no one will cross the little yellow line in the middle of the road, especially when you're driving a compact and everyone else is driving an SUV. For people like me, the literalist idea of faith is a bit like eating your grandmother's cooking. You remember how good it is until you try to eat it, and realize that it's indigestible pap.

What you won't hear in most sermons is that being a Christian is as much about mystery today as it was two thousand years ago. Or that following Jesus, a crucified Roman criminal, makes about as much sense now as it did then. And the reasons to NOT proclaim Yeshua as the Messiah are just as arresting now as they were then. How do we know Jesus rose from the dead? The story of the twelve disciples has been told in other traditions, what makes this one special? Was he really born of a virgin… or was it a young woman, as the translation indicates? Weren't a lot of his teachings taken from other Jewish rabbis?

The answers to all of those questions are simple enough, aren't they? And without faith, becoming a Christian is a pretty stupid idea. Unfortunately, the literalists/fundamentalists acknowledge this part of it, and believe that somehow being stupid and having faith are the same thing. That's why Christian writers insist on defending their faith as if it's a scientific argument. And why scientists (fundamentalists of a different 'ilk) insist on defending their studies as if their making a theological argument. What separates them is the mystery, and the human tendency to avoid it at all costs. To know is better than to not know. In the case of faith however, we don't know, and we never will. But instead of simply acknowledging our human limitations, we produce books and writings and music and videos to both remind and teach us that faith can be remembered… if only we could remember it more often. The question then, if faith is so important, is why do we keep forgetting?

***

When I was a young pastor, I always worried when I felt like God got away from me. I wondered how I could be a Christian if I wasn't reminded of his presence on a daily basis. I was taught that the "world" hated God, that it was a natural thing, and that I had to fight to keep my faith. It was part of the reason we were encouraged to go to church three or four times a week. In a "godless world", it was necessary to remember why we were here and what God had called us to do. When I read my diary from twenty years ago, I can sense the daily panic when all is suddenly not as it should be, when God seems distant and I suddenly feel merely human. A good deal of my pastoral counseling was aimed towards getting people, both young and old, to getting that "good feeling" back again. In many ways, my idea of faith mirrored our culture's pursuit of happiness. A frantic sort of passion channeled into energetic vows of eternal longing. The culture of godliness and the culture of the "world" might have been opposing forces, but thank God they traveled at the same breakneck speed.

***

I still listen for the Voice. Still long to hear the quiet whispers of something Other to interrupt my daily musings, or remind me that the world is more than my own needs and wants. That the world is more than another commercial or YouTube video waiting to go viral. It seems to be getting tougher to hear these days, and while I'd like to blame it on culture, the truth is that faith is hard, and most of the time it sucks. It asks much, and for long stretches seems to deliver so little in return. It asks me to take risks, asks that I don't shut down when strangers and strange people that I don't like ask me questions. It asks that I accept people I would never hang out with, and worse, asks that I accept my own failings and humanity. But as tough as those things are, the most difficult thing it asks is the acknowledgement of my own humanity, my sameness, on a regular basis. For all that it reassures me that I am loved, it reminds me that I am loved only as much as my loud neighbours next door and the criminals in prison and the gay couple across the street. That God's love is infinite matters little, because most days I want more; I want to be special. What I really want, more than anything, is to be greater.

And that's why I'm a Christian. Because more than any other religion or doctrine or creed, what it means to follow Jesus is to be less than those around me. It contradicts all that we strive for naturally as humans, and the wrestling with it, however much we try to help it by our enforced commoditizing (Jesus bracelets, nic nacs, videos, etc…), never ends.

Surety is fool's gold, especially when it comes to God. Religions try to sell it because the very nature of their humanity almost demands it. They think that you and I are too stupid to know the difference, or that you've never been to a bad sale before, where the actual price was much different than the one advertised. It is however, what faith demands. Faith demands that we never truly know. It tells us that we will never be God, no matter how many charts and books and videos we can produce to prove our theories. Faith stands the test of time because, like time, it is always present and doesn't change to suit our needs. If God was anything less, I would question His existence, the way I question the empty arguments seeking to prove that there is no Creator. But the essence of life is not in what we know, but what we don't understand, and it's something for which the cure is neither willful ignorance nor a Harvard doctorate. The cure, strangely enough, is merely to ask. To ponder. To question. It isn't easy and it is never simple, but the power of faith is one that echoes through the centuries, and if we listen closely, can be heard in our own lives, if only we are willing.

-Steve