Are You an Ex-Christian?
July 11, 2010

Whether using the label “Ex-Christian,” “Post-Christian,” “Non-Christian Christian,” “Outsider,” or whatever else, many of us have grown up in Christianity, and have grown tired of it. Maybe we now call ourselves atheist or agnostic, or have just moved over to another religion or non-religion, but my qualifier here is that we once called ourselves Christian and now we don’t, or at least hesitate to. I’d love to know why you don’t.

For me, I am not anti-Christian. But technically I cannot call myself Christian simply because I no longer meet the traditional criteria, which for ages has been disputed but seems to be essentially agreed upon. Some say that a Christian is defined, just as it was in the first century, as simply someone who follows the teachings of Jesus, “The Christ.” Easy enough, right?

Well, that last little part of his name is where things get tricky, and that’s why Christians who try to lure people in with the simple definition are not being honest with themselves and others. Because “the Christ” for most went from simply meaning “anointed one” to “The Messiah” or the only true Son of God by whose name all things in Heaven and Earth are unified and in whose name one must believe in order to obtain eternal life, or for that matter, in order to obtain a truly whole life here on Earth…and the list of associated belief  requirements goes on and on, and I won’t get into the arguments thrown about from each and every perspective on that. But that’s one criterion that has become a sticking point for me, technically speaking…and it’s just one example of some of the things by which most people agree to define a Christian. And most of these things are mentioned in the Christian Creeds, like the 12 doctrinal items of the Apostle’s Creed.

And I have difficulty with these items, so I prefer to call myself agnostic regarding these points. (For more explanation see my FAQ and Definitions pages.)

But rather than wallow in the technical aspects, I want to focus on the fact that, for many who prefer not to call themselves Christian, it’s more of a personal issue…meaning, dealing with people. Some…no, many have been really hurt by those professing to be Christian. Some have been turned off, to put it mildly, by the hypocrisy or other behavioral factors of Christians. Gandhi, for example, said he “would probably be a Christian if [he] had never met one.”

For me, I was the Christian that turned me off. I was the one that “hurt” me. I was the hypocrite. And I did not want to be that anymore.

Of course, I feel that I was not really hypocritical in the typical sense. I was sincere in my faith, and I honestly tried hard to be genuine in the way I lived out my faith (I still do). But the word hypocrite comes from the Greek plays during which the actors wore masks to portray their characters. I look back and see that I was playing a role, (method acting maybe, because I was deeply sincere), and when it came to certain things, I was not being true to myself. And that ended up causing me serious internal, existential conflict.

And I can say that relieving myself of the burden of belief freed me to really pursue God in deep honesty. Today I feel that I am true to myself and true to that “still, small voice” inside me moreso than when I was living the life of a model Christian. And while some areas of my life are definitely not easier, today I am more content and peaceful than I have ever been.

***

I still consider myself a Christian in the sense that I follow the teachings of Jesus, but I also cannot call myself a “Christian” because I do not necessarily believe all the doctrines I’m supposed to. So that makes me an outsider, or, what might be more apt, a “non-Christian Christian.” That’s a term I heard recently by a guy interviewed in the just-published DVB (DVD + book) called The Outsider Interviews, (trailer here) by Jim Henderson, Todd Hunter, and Craig Spinks. The work was inspired by the book UnChristian, by Barna Research Group president David Kinnaman.

A few years ago I reviewed unChristian and was thoroughly pleased. While the Barna Group occasionally has been criticized, David Kinnaman is a good guy and his book, citing numerous statistics from in-depth surveys, really woke up some Christians to the reality that there’s good reason why some people hate them. And Outsider Interviews puts a face to the statistical evidence. It interviews atheists, agnostics, other “outsiders,” as well as young Christians who tend to agree somewhat with outsiders. And while the language is geared toward Christians, the authors have done an impressive job at letting outsiders speak for themselves, unfiltered, about why they don’t want anything to do with Christianity, or at least Christians. So I highly recommend it.

***

Anyway, what’s your story? Are you an ex-Christian? Why?

Or maybe you’d like to be an ex-Christian. Well, consider this your anti-altar call: (cue soft piano…)

With all heads bowed and every eye closed, how many of you tonight would say, “You know, Dave, I wish I could free myself of always trying to believe the right thing, but I’m afraid I’ll go to hell, and I’m afraid I’ll be an outcast.” If that’s you, could you just raise your hand right now? With no one looking around, if that’s you and you’ve raised your hand, I want you to just stand to your feet and don’t be ashamed; be honest with yourself… (Can we play that last song again, Tim? That’s right, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”) Let’s all just sing that right now as we stand together…Join with me… I have spoke with the tongues of angels. I have held the hand of the devil… But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for….I believe in the Kingdom come/Then all the colors will bleed into one…But yes I’m still running…You broke the bonds/And you loosed the chains/Carried the cross of my shame/You know I believe it…But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for….

As I often say, You are not alone.

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Do You Know Your Enemy?
June 30, 2010

Do not be too quick to assume your enemy is a savage just because he is your enemy. Perhaps he is your enemy because he thinks you are a savage. Or perhaps he is afraid of you because he feels that you are afraid of him. And perhaps if he believed you were capable of loving him he would no longer be your enemy.

Do not be too quick to assume that your enemy is an enemy of God just because he is your enemy. Perhaps he is your enemy precisely because he can find nothing in you that gives glory to God. Perhaps he fears you because he can find nothing in you of God’s love and God’s kindness and God’s patience and mercy and understanding of the weaknesses of men.

Do not be too quick to condemn the man who no longer believes in God, for it is perhaps your own coldness and avarice, your mediocrity and materialism, your sensuality and selfishness that have killed his faith.

–T. Merton

***

When I first read those lines a year or two ago, I had other people in mind. I envisioned myself saying those words to them, calling out the error of their ways. It’s easy to do that, especially when I’ve been on a journey away from the established traditions that raised me. It’s easy to take every opportunity to snap at those who I may see as hypocrites in religion or those that I feel may be holding us back from “progress.”

Now I’m trying to envision someone saying those things to me. Yes, I’ve had many call out the error of my ways. It’s sort of been a theme of my life for some time now. But this is different. It doesn’t deal with belief or doctrine. It deals with behavior. It deals with the ways I choose to  see the world and others around me.

So instead of “convicting” others of such things as “coldness and avarice…mediocrity and materialism…sensuality and selfishness,” I’m trying to recognize where those elements might have a home in me. Instead of assuming people see me or my views as the enemy (although that may be the case), I’m trying to recognize when I see “them” as my enemy. How do I speak of them when they’re not around? How do I speak to them when they are around?

There’s a balancing point somewhere in all this. What’s the  optimum tension between staying quiet with a humble, open mind, and not hiding my own truths? (To be sure, there’s a difference between “not hiding” and “asserting.”) And to be honest, I’m tired of trying to find the wrong in others, and looking for holes in arguments. It just takes too much energy.

And in that sense, my enemy is often myself, sapping my energy for the sake of an endless war.

So maybe I can try not “knowing” the weaknesses of my enemy, and instead try to know them as individuals. Which just happens to be what I expect of them.

My spiritual exercise for now is to just go with the flow, staying content in my own truths, assuming no ill of anyone else, and remaining responsible for my own words and actions.

But that’s hard.

Circles and Boxes
January 27, 2010

This is in fact how many people see it…

A couple years ago I reviewed David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons’ book, UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity and Why it Matters. In it the Christian researchers give statistics attesting to the realities of Christianity’s image problem and the reasons behind it. Importantly, they add that Christians must realize that the negative sentiments “outsiders” express are not merely because they are critical, or even “deceived.” These sentiments are the result of personal experience with Christian family or friends.

They also note that Christians should “avoid being defensive about the culture’s push to remove Christianity’s power in society,” and that “if the enormous number of Christians in this country has not achieved the level of positive influence hoped for, it’s not the fault of a skeptical culture.” In fact, they add that young Christians themselves are hesitant to raise the Christian flag because they too see Christianity as embarrassingly judgmental, confusing, insensitive, too involved in politics, out of touch with reality, hypocritical, and anti-homosexual, to name a few.

Some of the stats include:

  • Percentage of young non-Christians (“Outsiders,” ages 16-29) who see Christians as judgmental: 87% …Same question for churchgoers of the same age: 52%
  • …anti-homosexual > Outsiders: 91% …Churchgoers: 80%
  • …not accepting of other faiths > Outsiders: 64% …Churchgoers: 39
  • …out of touch with reality > Outsiders 72% …Churchgoers: 32%
  • …insensitive > 70% … Churchgoers: 29%

My purpose here is not to smear Christians or call out facts that many already know. It’s just to reiterate the point that any religious group that defines itself by what it must abstain from will obviously be defined that way by others…by what the group is against, not for. Now, I know that many Christians are trying to get beyond this; I have pastor friends who are working incredibly hard to simply offer love and healing to people. And I know that many Christians would say that they in fact really define themselves by what they are for: God’s grace, the principles of love taught by Jesus, intimacy with the holy spirit…all positive things.

But when one examines the qualifications of those things, it becomes apparent that the religion really does define itself by what it excludes more than what it accepts. An example… The benefit: Christians believe in the power of God’s all-encompassing grace which is available to all. The qualifications: “Jesus said that no man can go to the father except through him, the son (Jesus),” so no one is allowed to truly experience God’s grace unless he/she believes that 1) Jesus is God’s son 2) Jesus was born of a virgin 3) Jesus died on the cross and that process served as the only possible substitutionary atonement (payment) for the penalty of sin passed down from Adam 4) Jesus resurrected from the dead 5) Proclaim all these beliefs publicly 6) Be baptized (this may or may not count as the public proclamation) 7) Be filled with the holy spirit (preferably with the evidence of speaking in tongues, depending on denomination) … and I could add more, but I’ll stop at 7 because that’s God’s number. 😉 The theological explanation for this says that God’s grace is “sufficient but not efficient.” In other words, it’s power is based on the condition of our choice to accept it [on the terms given us by the church, to which Jesus gave all authority when he left earth].

So the circle of inclusion quickly gets smaller and smaller, the number of “acceptable” fewer and fewer. And don’t forget that, according to Christian teaching, “In the last days there will be a great ‘falling away,'” in which many Christians will become deceived themselves and will “backslide” and fall out from under the covering of God’s grace. So the circle gets smaller still. And all this makes me wonder if God’s grace, according to religion, really is all that powerful.

I choose to believe that it is, but the only time we get the picture of graceful inclusion is when a preacher is trying to “pull in the net” during an emotional altar call, or call for salvation. And this is what enforces the negative salesman image of preachers…Get in as many as you can without telling them the details of the deal. “Grace is the free gift of God for all,” it is said. “…Except…oh by the way…just sign here…”

So what’s my solution? I suggest that God’s grace is bigger than religion, bigger than Christianity, bigger than whatever box we humans try to fit God in, and yes, maybe even bigger than our ability to reject it. But I think that when we think we’re rejecting “God” we’re really just rejecting the notions of God that we’ve been taught.

This past Sunday at Journey we talked about the labels we put on God. And we had an illustration at the end of the gathering: A light box was up front. But the light was having a hard time illuminating the room because the clear side of it was covered with numerous strips of tape, so the light was very dim, only enough to let you see the overlapping lines of the tape strips. The strips were all the labels we put on God, maybe things like, “male” or “white” or “patriarchal” or even “Christian” or whatever. But at the end of the discussion we all lined up and one by one walked to the box. We each pulled a strip of tape off the clear front of the box, and with each removed piece of tape more light shined through. First a small shaft of light pierced through a split in the tape. Then another. Then another. Then light was getting more intense as it burst through all but a few strips around the border, and those got peeled off until the light emanated powerfully from inside the box and lit up most of the place.

I saw this and thought, “Maybe we should try to let God speak for himself.”

I know that’s hard because then who is to say that voice is verifiably that of God according to whatever criteria we come up with. Because even though the words touched the person who heard them and that person is better because of whatever they heard and however they heard it…even if it was through a tree growing beside a waterfall or a young man being nice to an old lady or a cartoon on YouTube…We must then gather a committee and debate and make sweeping proclamations and whoever has the best argument wins. After all, that’s how we got the Bible, aka, God’s Word.

There must be a better way, or as some like to say, another world is possible. I think God’s word, and God’s grace, is bigger than us. Bigger than all our little circles and boxes, no matter how nice we dress them up.