Why I am (still) a Christian
August 2, 2011
It’s hard to maintain religious faith in the secular world which I live in. Over time, I let my faith grow weak and began to take it for granted, assuming that it would still be there for me when I needed it. Now, I am learning the hard way that there is nothing in life which we can afford to take for granted; there is nothing we have which we might not lose. I have not yet lost my faith, but I’ve come to realize that if I want to keep it, I’m going to have to put up at least something of a fight.
During the past weeks I’ve offered several posts about the “Ideological Turing Test” which Leah Libresco (of the atheist blog Unequally Yoked) ran in order to give Christians and atheists the opportunity to find out if they could know the other side’s arguments so well as to fool a panel of judges. There are many flaws in this kind of exercise, but Leah herself has a post in which she addresses the ethical issues raised by the project. In any case, I’ll admit that during the atheist round I wasn’t trying too hard to fool the judges. While posing as an atheist, I tried to keep my answers as close as possible to my actual beliefs, even though I certainly did a fair amount of bluffing (for anyone interested, my answers to the atheist questions can be found here). I only managed to convince 35% of readers that I was an atheist (though an additional 25% voted me a “lean atheist,” meaning that more people considered me to be a nonbeliever than a Christian. However, I didn’t even come close to fooling enough people to “win” the round.
More interesting to me were the questions for the “Christian” component of the test. As a member of the control group I did not find it necessary to argue or apologize for my faith, but merely to assert the things that I genuinely believe. I took the exercise as an opportunity to make a profession of faith, to state the credo that I uphold in my heart and try my best to live by. When I wrote my answers, the words flowed out in a stream of passion, a kind of thrill and excitement that I only experience when stating something which I deeply, genuinely believe. Faith is a constant struggle for me, but in the moment of sharing those particular answers, I knew that I was winning:
What is your best reason for being a Christian?
I am a Christian because I believe that God exists – in the complexity of nature, in the beauty of art, and in the human capacity for empathy and compassion. Some people have told me that this belief is irrational. I am not so bothered by this charge.
I am a Christian because I believe that, while there are many ways of seeking knowledge of the divine presence in the world, Jesus Christ’s simple commandment for us to love one another (and his following of that commandment in his own life, through his ministry, suffering and death) is the best model for me to follow.
I am a Christian because I want to be part of the tradition that gave birth to Augustine’s Confessions and John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, to Michelangelo’s “Pieta” and Dvorak’s “Stabat Mater,” to Chartres Cathedral and to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, to Archbishop Oscar Romero and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and, if you believe what Charles Taylor says in Sources of the Self, our entire modern identity. I want to belong to the community that (if it practices what it preaches) is supposed to treat all people with mercy and compassion.
I realize that by identifying as a Christian, I also claim membership in a tradition that is hardly beautiful, one that burned so-called witches at the stake and excommunicated supposed heretics, one that started brutal wars and destroyed entire civilizations in the name of God, one that continues to breed intolerance toward women and anyone who does not identify as straight. However, I do not understand these actions/attitudes as manifestations of Christianity but perversions of it, just as the Gulag was a perversion of Karl Marx’s humanistic philosophy and the Taliban is a perversion of another beautiful religion, Islam.
I don’t claim knowledge of the truth, but for me, Christianity is the best path toward it.
What evidence or experience (if any) would cause you to stop believing in God?
For me, faith is very subjective, and I suspect that what would most likely cause me to lose it would be some sort of drastically traumatic personal experience in which I felt God’s absence very strongly, as it appears to have happened to Elie Weisel in the Holocaust. As for empirical evidence against God…The reality is that (for the moment anyway) there isn’t any. I know that this is a claim which atheists dispute, but for now at least, science has been unable to prove or disprove God’s existence. Also, I do not consider science the only valid approach to human knowledge. It is certainly the best means of explaining to us how the universe works, but it cannot tell us why the universe exists, or what the purpose of life is. For this we turn to other sources: art, philosophy and (for some people) religion. Some Christians concede that a confirmed discovery of the remains of the body of Christ in Jerusalem would force them to abandon Christianity, for its central claim – that Christ rose from the dead – would be proven false. However, I do not think that this would be enough to make me abandon Christianity. The religion would be proven factually false, but I maintain that factual truth is not the only kind of truth. At best, Christ is the God who created the universe and destroyed death; at worst, he’s a very wise man who was just a little bit better than the rest of us, and that alone, for me, is enough of a reason to follow his teachings and seek to emulate his life.
Why do you believe Christianity has a stronger claim to truth than other religions/On what basis do you reject the truth claims of other traditions and denominations but accept your own?
I do not believe that Christianity has a stronger truth claim than other religions. Religion is the creation of fallible human beings who are very limited in our capacity to understand God. Consequently, all religions contain many flaws, and while all can claim to approach the truth, none can claim to have attained it (and, with the exception of the fundamentalists, most religions do not make this claim). No one knows for certain whether or not God exists, or whether or not humans have an immortal soul, or what (if anything) happens to us after death. Religion is a product of the human imagination. While critics of religion would dismiss this imaginative nature of religion as grounds for its falsity, I maintain that imagination is one of our most important human faculties. The ability to tell stories and find beauty and meaning in our experience constitutes a significant part of who we are, and in my view, this drive for myth and narrative is the most important thing that religion offers to humanity.
My decision to be a Christian is a very subjective one, and to be honest, it’s based largely upon aesthetics. Whether or not you believe in Christ’s divinity, it is hard to dispute that this outspoken, passionate man who healed the sick and ate with tax collectors was a beautiful person. The parables which he tells are beautiful stories; the morality which he outlines is a beautiful morality. Of course, one might argue that all religions contain such beauty – and they do. Christianity is just the one that speaks to me most personally.
How do you read the Bible? Do you study the history of its translations? How do you decide which translations/versions/books are the true Bible? How does it guide you if you have a moral or theological dilemma?
I belong to a Christian denomination which is notorious for its lack of biblical knowledge; the majority of us encounter the Bible in a liturgical setting, where various passages are read, but very few actually study it. I must confess that I have not yet compared translations or read the apocryphal books of the Bible (though both of these activities are definitely on my to-do list)! Also, I do not interpret the Bible literally, but as an allegory and an image of one particular human community’s experience of the Divine.
Other than one religion class taken in high school, I have only studied the Bible seriously while preparing to teach it to a group of literature students. In this class we read the New Revised Standard edition of the Bible as a secular literary text. Interestingly, reading the Bible in this nonreligious context allowed me to rethink my faith and to renew my religious beliefs. I was struck by the various images of God in the Old Testament, which I view as complementary rather than contradictory (the transcendent creator-God in the first Genesis creation story followed by the immanent human-God in the second one, for example) and the revolutionary spirit of the New Testament (I sometimes wonder if most Christians even realize that we believed in a God who told us to give all our possessions to the poor, to drop absolutely everything in order to follow him, and to love our enemies). I do sometimes turn to the Bible for inspiration in times of moral crisis; I have several favorite passages, and when feeling flippant I occasionally open the book to a random page (Magic 8-Ball style!) and read whatever message I find there, just as Augustine did.
I meant everything I said in this post, and I still mean it. So, you can imagine my shock when I looked at the statistics from the readers’ responses to my post. Only 10% of voters were definitely convinced that I was a Christian, with an additional 20% voting me a “lean Christian.” 70% found me to be either a “lean” or complete nonbeliever. Seeing these answers, I couldn’t help but shuffle nervously in my chair and read my responses again. Did I really sound so weak in my convictions that only a minority of readers found me to be a genuine Christian? My answers had not sounded or felt weak in the moment when I was producing them – why, then, did they fail to convince everyone else? Or is it just that these were not the responses that someone would expect a true Christian to offer? Looking through the post again, I certainly understand why people might be unconvinced of my religious conviction. What gives Christianity a higher truth claim than other religions? Nothing, I say. Is Christ the Son of God? Maybe; I hope so. These are not the answers of a person of strong faith. These are the answers of a person mired in doubt and uncertainty, someone who has tottered for years on the precarious tightrope between belief and unbelief. Perhaps my one strength is that I do know which side I want to be on, and I do manage to land there, even if staggering, time and time again. But somehow, this is not enough of me. I recall the ending of Flannery O’Conner’s classic short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” After the Misfit finally kills the racist, hypocritical grandmother, he makes an interesting comment:
“She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
Fortunately for me, I don’t have someone there to shoot me every minute of my life, but I can’t help but wonder what kind of person I might turn out to be if I did. Maybe at least then I would learn to have some convictions that others could know and recognize to be genuine. But for now, I continue to walk the fence, struggling to avoid the sharp metal spokes but continuing on even when my feet get pricked, naively trusting some unseen higher power that I’ll continue to fall down on the side of faith, which is still the side where I so vehemently want to be.