"Why are you a Christian?"You can imagine the kind of answers given by the students in this fundamentalist Christian school:
- "Because I love Jesus and he has done so much for me!"
- "Because God is the creator of the universe."
- "Because I owe God so much."
- "Because it glorifies God, which is why he created us."
I’ll never forget one guy, a senior, who answered this way:
"'Cause I don’t wanna burn!"The pious director frowned. Everyone harrumphed. That was NOT one of the acceptable answers. But holy shit: if we were being honest, that WAS the answer!!
Even though, today, I do not believe such a hell exists, the fear of eternal hell still lingers. Recently, I’ve been struggling with that question: why am I a Christian? Is it only because of this lingering hell-fear? The answer is complicated, and it also depends on what one means by "Christian"! The truth is: I have anxiety around being a Christian and around not being a Christian.
Let me first explain why I have anxiety around being a Christian. First and foremost, the language, culture, theology, and politics of the Christianity I grew up with brought me nothing but shame and fear. Even though today I belong to a church that doesn’t buy into these concepts, I still tend to associate church with the past. Simply sitting in church can trigger those familiar, negative feelings.
The “Christian life” to me meant dogged obedience to vague commands, appeasing a hyper-sensitive and angry God (who, alternatively, would be heart-broken or wrathful at sin), and constant fear of “losing fellowship with God.” (What did that mean exactly? Hell? If I had unconfessed sin during communion, would that negate my fire insurance? They were never clear on this part of theology, which was convenient for those in authority wanting more control over their flock!).
Secondly, try as I might, I just cannot wrap my head around some of the basic tenants of Christianity. Jesus’ teachings make sense to me, as does the Bible when taken as myth and metaphor. But many, MANY of the things that are primary to the theology of the New Testament, including the literal resurrection of Christ, do not make sense to me.
Looking at history from a bird-eye’s view, what outcomes can be seen by the spread of Christianity? To name a few: The Crusades, torture, violence, horror, oppression, and corruption. It can be argued that these things are realities because of sin nature and because human beings have used the Bible for their own evil devises. But today I had a blasphemous thought: what if the writers of New Testament, having gotten further from Jesus’ main teachings, themselves missed the point of Jesus? How much written about Jesus himself was contrived in order to match Old Testament prophesy and the political and conventional wisdom of the day? At least his messages of love and the “Kingdom of God” were captured. But then again, was that what he really taught? Could Jesus be a Shakespeare-like conspiracy? Was Jesus a good man, yet his teachings and deeds blown way out of proportion to match the myth that was slowly (and perhaps unintentionally) being developed? These are the questions we are taught to never ask, let alone allow ourselves to think. But these are the questions I have. These are the questions that make it hard for me to call myself a Christian.
There is a third reason: the problem of evil, which is similar to the hell problem. If God is omnipotent and loving, why the constant pain and horror on earth? Why are some of us born into comfortable and loving homes, and others born into poverty and violence? The reality of the state of the world must be a part of my own understanding of Christianity. And currently, I don't know how to integrate it.
Even so, while it is hard for me to call myself a Christian, it is just as hard for me to reject Christianity entirely. I don’t want to turn my back on it because I could be missing out on something very profound and meaningful. My partner puts it this way (I'm paraphrasing): it is remarkable how religions over history have picked up on common themes, leading one to believe that there are some universal truths that these religions are uncovering. Another wise person (an Episcopal minister) told me that she is a Christian because that is the most culturally relevant way to try to relate to God, whoever God may be. If she were born in India, she would probably be a Hindu. If born in Saudi Arabia, a Muslim. As an American and one who studied Christian theology in seminary, she felt that the Christian identity was so ingrained in her DNA that it would be too difficult to follow another religious path. (She came to this belief after many years in the ministry.)
Taking other religions and universal truth out of the equation, I don’t want to miss out of the relationships I’ve made with other people who are also struggling with the concept of Christianity, the person of Christ, and the identity of God. I don’t want to miss out on trying to learn and live the Jesus way and the Kingdom life. I actually WOULD like the Kingdom of God (as the book of Matthew describes it) to be a reality in me. What I DON’T want is to become is a robot programmed in the language of fear and shame: lacking humor, true emotions, and my own humanity.
Writing all this down, I still have those voices in my head telling me that the path I’m on is dangerous. The voices say things like this:
- "Jesus is the ONLY way, and you are now merely a worldly Universalist."
- "Hell is REAL. What you believe now is NOT what the Bible says."
- "God is going to spew you out of his mouth because you are so lukewarm." (Um, gross.)
- "Paul predicted that in the end times people would take some parts of the true gospel but deny other parts. You are fashioning such a view of Christianity and that is extremely dangerous."
- "Other religions are a deception of Satan."
- "Unless you admit your acts of homosexuality are sin, you are going to hell."
These are the voices I do battle with every day.
I think Christianity has merit. I think Christ provides an excellent example to follow. The only Christianity I can hold onto, however, is one that discounts the dogma that is taught in most Christian churches today. Which means that most people who label themselves Christians do not think I’m a Christian at all, but a heretic. At least that doesn’t cause me any anxiety!
What are your thoughts on all this? Do you call yourself a Christian?