Let me say up front that this has been a difficult piece for me to write. But remembering why I write, I have concluded that is OK.
So here goes.
I want to write about my changing relationship with Christianity. Christianity has been significant in my life, and the life of my family, from the time of my earliest memories through until the present. And for this reason, it should come as no surprise to anyone that it might be both difficult and important for me to write about. I want to start by saying this in terms of my heritage: I am deeply grateful for my family and the Christian upbringing that I was gifted by them. However, my relationship with Christianity is changing – perhaps as I have entered my middle age – or perhaps as a result of my personal experiences of pain and loss – but irrespective, it is changing. Specifically, I have been asking a lot of questions of my theology that seem to have uncomfortable and disconcerting answers. This piece is my attempt at sorting my questions and doubts into some semblance of coherence.
But first, let me start with a little background that I think is needed to explain how I perceive the way that my personal change (in the things I believe and the values I hold) operates in and around my (our) lives.
Perspectives on change
I have come to the view that being aware of the ways in which our own beliefs and understanding are undergoing continual change is important. Specifically, it is my observation that we all change, we all learn, and we all develop & refine the ideas we have that help us make sense of the world in which we live. I believe that recognising this is important.
More, I now regard being able to recognise and articulate this process of change is significant to a person’s development, both as an individual and as a community member. It is my observation that a lack of self-awareness of this development process can (often) lead to intolerance and may foster significant polarisation of views that can result in exclusion and oppression within communities.
I suspect that if we fail to recognise change in our own beliefs, values and ways of understanding the world then we can more easily form the view that our way of thinking about the world is resolute and unshakeably correct. And this conviction about our own rightness can easily lead to certainty and strength of conviction regarding the “wrongness” of others’ beliefs. Whereas, recognising the frequency and degree of change in ourselves can help maintain a sense of humility when considering how others’ beliefs differ from our own.
At least this seems to be true for me.
And more, to my mind: Change is both inevitable and required. I wonder if stagnation and sameness represent backward motion for us as a species for whom growth and maturity is a relatively natural part of growing older.
I also see that choosing to allow this process of change to be visible to our friends and family is a good thing, something that promotes the development of strong communities.
That is not to say it is not difficult. For me anyway. I have many questions.
How do I honestly articulate the story my own growth?
How do I fairly describe the things I now think, believe and hold to be true ways of understanding the world in which I live?
How do I do this in ways which portray honestly who I am, but in ways that do not needlessly denigrate the many dear friends who think differently (some very differently) to me?
How can I hold these things in tension, knowing that my understanding is not set, and more change is not only likely but inevitable?
Diana Butler Bass puts it this way, thinking about how to hold the errors of our forebears in creative tension with our own beliefs in the present:
“You learn to bear the past as profoundly flawed, tradition as an expression of power, and honestly apologise for every single rotten thing that was ever done in the name of Jesus Christ.
You learn to wear your own certainty lightly, cloaked only in humility and willingness to admit how wrong you can be, and a graciousness to know that in a century or two, you, too, will probably be shown to have contributed to some injustice that was invisible to you.”
One of the areas of my life that has seen significant change is that of my religious belief as a Christian. I was raised in a Christian home, with a background in the Uniting and then Baptist churches with my family. My parents have always taken their Christian belief very seriously, and I have the deepest love, honour and respect for the formational role they played (and continue to play) in my life. I count it one of the great privileges of my life to have their support and friendship.
But my understanding of Christianity has changed, and the questions I ask of it have changed. Whereas I once believed that Christianity taught the only real moral/right way to live and represented the predominant force for unmitigated good in the world, I now see it through a very different set of lenses that result in me asking a whole lot of questions for which I have struggled to find satisfying answers.
The church I spent most of my adult life a part of, Beachway, expressed its essential beliefs in this way:
- One God existing in three persons – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit
- Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God who died on a cross for our sins and rose again
- The Holy Spirit, working supernaturally in and through His people
- The Bible, God’s living word and foundation of our life
- The lost condition of all people without Jesus
- The baptism of the Holy Spirit for all believers
- The church as the body of Christ fulfilling His last command
For those familiar with the way modern Christian churches are described, it would be fair to describe it as Pentecostal, Evangelical, and Charismatic. This expression of Christianity focusses on individual salvation, the direct personal experience of God through the work of the Holy Spirit and the forming of tangible church community through regularly meeting together for church services and small groups.
For me and my family, it formed a beautiful and cohesive part of our lives and provided a close community and support for our young family in ways that contributed strongly to our life together as parents of young children. We formed a number of close friends, relationships that remain important to me to this day. It provided a place and space for a community that we could share with our children, providing them with a wider network of relationships that we saw as hugely significant to their growth through their primary and teen years. I am very thankful for the time my family and myself spent as part of that community.
Unfortunately, this church ended and the community it represented fragmented. This is another story for another time – I have been working on a post I’m calling On leaving for several years now, but it represents a difficult and traumatic time for me, and I’m not done (writing about it) yet.
But for all of the love and support I have received and benefited from as part of my church community(s), I have needed to (continue to) grapple with the view of God that I have been taught – with my theology so to speak – and the way in which that shaped my worldview and my responsibilities as a member of an affluent western society.
Let me explain. Or at least, let me tell my story.
One of the central ideas that I’ve needed to confront is the idea of my own rightness. It is my observation that this idea is actually central to much of modern western Christianity. Or at the very least, underpins many of the ideas that represent the marriage of western modernity and modern Christianity in my experience.
Let me explain.
Pentecostalism, at least for me, contains a significant emphasis on the presence and empowerment of the Holy Spirit that enables a Christian to live a Spirit-filled and empowered life. This belief is a powerful one, in that individuals are *seen* by an infinite God as people of specific unique value and significance. This is an incredibly powerful idea, and one that promotes the worth of every person in a community – not only are we all (equality) made in the image of God but we participate in the life of the divine in a concrete and personal way as part of our daily lives.
This idea is expressed in my previous church’s statement of belief as “The Holy Spirit, working supernaturally in and through His people”. It is similarly expressed, though in more detail, in the Australian Christian Church’s Doctrinal Basis (I’m currently part of an ACC church):
“We believe in the Holy Spirit, the third person of the triune Godhead, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, and is ever present and active in the work of convicting and regenerating the sinner, and sanctifying and guiding the believer into all truth (John 14:26; 16:8-11; Romans 8:14; 1 Peter 1:2).”
For all of its power to include and validate people, this idea can carry with it (it did for me anyway) an associated belief that we have incorruptible access to “rightness” in our own personal journey, and that the divine person of the Holy Spirit can and does affirm our perceptions, choices and endeavours as we proceed through life.
I have come to see this as problematic, if not potentially dangerous, for two primary reasons.
First, it centres the individual in a way that is difficult to test and validate. If I have definitive access to the voice of God in my own personal life, this is also true for all people, but with each hearing God from the viewpoint of their own life. My observation is that this centring of the individual can be good, at least at some level, in the place where we view Christianity though the lens of individual salvation (some thoughts on that later) and the conviction that God has a personal plan for each of our lives, which he reveals to us gradually as we walk with God through life. The problems begin for me in the space where our lives interact with the lives of others, and the choices we each make have implications for those we share the planet with.
Second, it raises a range of complicated and subtle power dynamics where the words we attribute to God carry with them an implicit authentication (it is after all the voice of God speaking) which we don’t (in my experience) talk about or critique with anywhere enough rigour.
Think about it this way: If a friend shares that they are considering moving to New York, you as a friend may feel invited into the conversation and free to offer your feedback on the ideas or plans that have been shared. However, if that same friend shares that God has told them they should move their family to New York, things get a little more complicated, and feedback now needs to attain a higher standard before being offered: The critique is now of the words of God rather than the ideas of another individual. Things get even more complicated when shared by leaders, or those with some level of power in an organisation, as the words of God – and in particular when shared in a public setting. In these settings, it can become incredibly costly for individuals to ask questions or offer critique as the questions can be seen as “did God really say?” questions.
In my experience, even where not consciously intended this way (most often the case), words like “I was praying yesterday and God told me…” can introduce hugely consequential dynamics into the way individuals interact, problem-solve and wield social power in everyday community life. I’ve personally seen and been of part of these types of social dynamics to varying degrees over many years in churches, community organisations, families and couples. And where I have come to today causes me to be incredibly cautious about adding the weight of phrases like “God told me” to interactions, relationships and communities that I’m a part of.
Now, I recognise and acknowledge that many will and do see things differently than the way I do right now – that’s to be expected in a culturally rich and diverse society. Although, from a personal perspective, and as I indicated at the start, writing down these thoughts has been difficult, anxiety-inducing and taken me quite some time to come to because of this. However, it also seems true that I am not alone and you don’t need to look too far to see that many, many people are grappling with similar questions. I do think these conversations are worth having.
But let’s carry on: I think that the idea of rightness applies far more broadly than just to Pentecostalism and the impact on individual peoples’ personal worldviews as discussed above. I expressed earlier my perception that Christianity sees itself as the predominant force for unmitigated good in the world, and I have come to the view that in the context of broader communities/societies the idea of “rightness” has played a significant role in world history. Specifically, the idea of “rightness” has coexisted well with the most aggressive, powerful and colonising societies within the Western world. In particular, as part of the process of aggressive colonisation, Christian belief supported the general view that the “rest of the world” was a “mission field”, populated by people, who whilst made in the image of God in some individual sense, would obviously benefit from our western compassion and charity.
This idea is expressed in Christian doctrine as the idea of the “great commission” in which Jesus instructs his followers to share the good news of his teachings to all the nations of the world.
It is worth noting that I suspect the great commission had a very different flavour in its original context – instead of being the driving force behind a large, predominantly middle-class and well-resourced community, the original declaration would have been shared within the context a small group of relatively powerless resistance fighters / activists up against the most powerful empire the world had ever seen.
However, that is not the place of Christianity in the world today. Rather, Christianity now sits as effectively the official religion of the western world. And for my part personally, however kindly I looked upon others, I still see it that I learned a way of thinking about the world which presupposed our right as members of a western, Christian society to “help” others in the world to live as we did. That our view of the world was validated by God and it was our Christian duty to share our version of the love of God with any and every other person on the planet.
I did not see at the time, that along with this “sharing of the gospel” invariably came benefit to our western societies. That is, this love came with strings attached. I also did not see that in so many cases the very circumstances we were using Christian charity to help people out of, had very strong connection to injustices wrought upon those same people by violent colonisation in the past.
This is not to say that many (likely all) aspects of human history contain elements of good and bad, of light and shade, of elements of great beauty and compassion mixed in with some of the ugliest examples of human behaviour. In particular, I am convinced that there are many amazing human beings in both Christian communities and Western societies, who have acted from selfless love and beautiful compassion – and – have achieved significant good.
But there has been for me, a resounding cognitive dissonance in my own conviction regarding my own rightness, and the rightness more broadly of Christianity and Christian practice. If I’m honest, for most of my life I have found ways to discount the failures of others – particularly when examining Christianity’s role in world affairs over the past 2,000 years – whilst at the same time counting myself impervious to the things that entrapped them or deceived them.
I am no longer convinced on either front. I think that our Christian forebears should be critiqued closely and I most definitely do not think that I am impervious to all of this.
I see that too often the Christian church has been intimately connected with white imperialism and white colonisation. And worse, as has ever been the case, religion (Christianity in this case) has been used to validate and enable the actions of the powerful. And more, Christianity has, at least to some degree, been as successful and pervasive as it has been due to the manner in which it has been successful in achieving those ends – that is, successful in validating and enabling the actions of the powerful.
This now causes me to ask a huge number of questions of my Christian belief, and its expression in the communities and societies of which I am a part. I am no longer prepared to see Christianity as something which holds any sort of exclusive access to a right and true view of the world. Nor am I prepared to sit with a personal worldview which attributes “wrongness” and/or eternal damnation to fellow human beings on the basis of difficult to validate religious beliefs that exclude entire people groups. I have come to the conclusion that these types of ideas and ways of thinking about others do something inside of me – walking around with a conviction that most people you meet and interact with, and in fact most people that have ever existed, will be punished by the divine creator in eternal conscious torment does something to you – and for me, that is not beautiful. Not to mention, I might be wrong about everything.
Now don’t get me wrong: My rejection of “rightness” is not a place of accepting that anything goes or that there are not wrong and ugly ideas. I am surer than ever that ideas need to be examined and critiqued. Brilliant ideas need to be applauded and toxic ideas called out. I also believe that spirituality is a core part of us as individuals and collectively as a species, and our existence will be so much more beautiful if we seek to embrace spirituality in healthy and good ways.
And nor am I am prepared to throw out my Christian faith. But I am attempting to look through a very different set of lenses, and to ask it a new set of questions.
The second significant aspect of my thinking around Christianity that has changed is my consideration of salvation as a primarily individual matter between myself and God. That is not to say that western Christianity does not make stipulations of people who wish to belong, but rather that it has (or appears to have in my experience) evolved away from examining most forms of collective sin and salvation, focussing instead upon the choices individuals make and whether those individuals would be going to heaven (in the afterlife), or not, as a result. There are two intertwined threads to my thoughts around salvation: First, I want to talk about how this idea of salvation impacted my life and practice as a Christian, and then speak to questions I’ve asked of the life of Jesus and the story of his execution.
Theologian NT Wright discusses the change in how we think about salvation in his book The Day the Revolution Began:
“… a radical split emerged between personal sin, which stopped people going to heaven, and actual evil in the world, including human wrongdoing, violence, war, and so on, but also what has been called ‘natural evil,’ earthquakes, tsunamis, and the rest. ‘Atonement theologies’ then addressed the former (how can our sins be forgiven so we can go to heaven?), while the latter was called ‘the problem of evil,’ to be addressed quite separately from any meaning given the cross of Jesus by philosophical arguments designed to explain or even justify God’s providence.”
I have come to realise that I had only really considered the idea of personal sin, and salvation from it, and never really examined systems (political, religious, economic, social systems etc) nor considered whether or not the stories in the Bible were influenced by and/or offering critique of systems (and systemic or structural evil) rather than (just) individuals.
Upon reflection, my blind spot is an interesting one in that the Old Testament regularly critiques collective sin. If fact, much of the story of the people of Israel is framed in the text as the story of God’s relationship with the nation based upon collective attribution/critique of behaviour and actions.
As but one example:
“This disaster happened because the people of Israel had sinned against the LORD their God who had brought them out of the land of Egypt from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt and because they had worshiped other gods.” (2 Kings 17:7)
That is not to say that the Old Testament does not contain laws directed at individuals, and individual actions or behaviours – clearly the Ten Commandments and many of the associated laws contain proscriptions aimed at individual behaviour. However, it appears significant to me that much of the Bible describes the actions of the collective nation/community and God’s response to the collective.
Much of this aspect of collective responsibility appears to have been lost in today’s western Christianity. We don’t hear expressions like “the people of Australia have sinned …” or “the members of the XYZ Church have sinned…”. Rather, reference is made to individual wrong-doing and the need for individual salvation. Referring again to the Australian Christian Church’s Doctrinal Basis for the way it explains the problem of sin and the need for salvation:
“We believe that man was created by God by specific immediate act and in his image and likeness, morally upright and perfect, but fell by voluntary transgression. Consequently, all men are separated from original righteousness, being depraved and without spiritual life (Genesis 1:26-31; 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-21).” (The Fall of Man)
“We believe that salvation is received through repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. This experience is also known as the new birth and is an instantaneous and complete operation of the Holy Spirit whereby the believing sinner is regenerated, justified, and adopted into the family of God and becomes a new creation in Christ Jesus and heir of eternal life (Titus 2:11; 3:5-7; 1 Peter 1:23; 1 John 5:1).” (Salvation of Man)
Now also don’t let me overstate this. There is certainly, to my observation, a much larger emphasis on individual responsibility in many New Testament writings (particularly Paul), but I do think that my understanding of Christianity had a significant overemphasis on individual actions focussing on morality rather than recognising the impact of systems or the elements of systemic sin. And I do think that while this tension existed in both the Old and New Testament writings, it did not exist in my own life as a Christian. Or at least, not to the degree it perhaps should have.
I would go further to say that my read of Jesus now is that he critiques individual actions and inner heart attitudes, but always in the context of participation in systems and power structures that harm and oppress rather than according to moral codes imposed by a deity.
- In John 8, Jesus is presented with a lady who has been accused of adultery, and who according to the Jewish Biblical law of the time, should be killed by stoning. I don’t think it escaped Jesus’ notice that the man who would have been party to the act of adultery was not similarly presented. Neither, I suspect, did it escape Jesus’ notice that he was hearing from men wielding power for their own ends and without any particular care or regard for the women involved.
- Matthew 21 describes Jesus protesting the commerce of the Temple – specifically, that religious obligation (the required sacrifice of doves in atonement for sin) was being used as a system of oppression to steal from the poor. Jesus’ critique was not of an individual moral code but rather of a system designed to reward the powerful and oppress the weak.
- In Matthew 23, Jesus makes this accusation of those in power – “They tie up heavy loads that are hard to carry and put them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves aren’t willing to lift a finger to move them.” Again, a critique aimed at a power structure designed to oppress rather than a particular element of a moral code.
In my view, it is important to consider that this distinction between critique of collective sin as opposed to individual sin is not restricted to the Bible. Consider the horror that was the Holocaust. With this event in the past (and perhaps with Germany holding less power in today’s world), we, as a species, seem comfortable to collectively attribute this sin to “Nazi Germany and its collaborators”; to quote Wikipedia:
However, we seem (to me at least) far less willing to offer, or accept, such assertions in relation to the here and now (for which we are responsible) – think of recent wars and other atrocities.
But where does all this commentary on collective sin vs individual salvation lead? Why is it important to me now? Here is what I see: When we talk in terms of collective sin in the here and now, we are forced to place ourselves in the narrative, irrespective of how beautiful or ugly the story – we must talk about us and our – and as a result we are perhaps more inclined to looks towards our collective redemption. However, a critique of individual actions and individual sin allows us much more freedom to imagine wrongdoing on the part of others whilst failing to critique our own behaviour.
My observation is this: The focus of the church culture I have been a part of has focussed on individual salvation and individual morality at the expense of engaging with the more difficult but ultimately more redemptive consideration of collective sin – because of what flows out of such consideration – that is, what we as communities can do to effect change (for the better).
This brings me to my second line of thinking around these ideas of salvation and collective responsibility. I started my discussion of individual salvation quoting NT Wright, in which he referenced “atonement theologies”. My thinking, in terms of individual salvation, was predominantly influenced by the Protestant view of penal substitutionary atonement, a view of the cross (the place of and means by which Jesus of Nazareth was killed) in which Jesus’ death is seen primarily as a punishment meted out and required by God as payment (by way of Jesus substituting himself for us) of the debt owed by us to God for our sins.
Christians talk often about Jesus death, with his death most often understood in terms of this symbolic atonement for our sin.
However, this way of understanding Jesus’ death now seems to me to ignore the explicit physical facts of his death. This may not be intentional, but it does seem to be what has occurred in my experience. Specifically, my question is: Why did the people who actually killed Jesus, choose and desire to do so?
And more: How has the story of a Middle Eastern Jew named Jesus – who loved the communities of which he was a part, resisted their oppression and was killed by the violent Roman Empire because of this resistance – been somehow co-opted over the past 1,700 years by that same powerful empire and its successors to actually validate and authenticate the very violence and oppression that he resisted?
Now there are lots of ways that people over the past 2,000 years have sought to understand the cross, and the meaning behind Jesus’ murder by torture upon it, but my question comes out of what it was that Jesus was resisting. And why he was resisting. It seems to me, that in asking these questions, I have been challenged to re-think the significance of Jesus’ death.
As I’ve considered Jesus’ teachings, and his actual resistance against the powerful men who oppressed many of his time – both the cruel Roman Empire and the subjugated religious leaders within his home country – I cannot see the ideas encapsulated in substitutionary atonement sitting within the primary narrative of the actual story.
Jesus was not tortured and murdered because he proposed changes to an ancient moral code. He was especially not tortured and murdered for changes which encouraged his followers to hold themselves to a higher standard which considered inner heart attitudes in addition to outward actions.
No. Jesus was tortured and murdered by men with power because he challenged the way in which those men wielded that power to oppress and control others for their own benefit.
So here is the rub for me – and yes, this is only one personal take on a complicated subject – inadvertently or otherwise, I have come to the view that a focus on individual salvation at the expense of the critique of systems and the accountability for systemic evil, is inconsistent with what happened to Jesus and that is problematic for several reasons:
- The focus on individual salvation is highly compatible with seeing the world through the lens of our (my) Western privilege. For example, it is far easier to talk about the goodness of God to a middle class audience – where the focus is on calling individuals to Christian salvation and the teaching of community members in ways to walk with God in an everyday middle-class life – than to grapple with the question of systemic evil in relation to our Western democracy – such as examining the kindness and justice of an immigration system created by the government we collectively elected (and are therefore collectively responsible for).
- It tends to be inward looking as a result of the focus on individual salvation.
- It is compatible with empire, even violent empires that commit great systemic evil.
This leaves me personally in a position where I have a whole range of questions for Christianity that are new and different from the ones I have previously asked.
Unsurprisingly, that is both difficult and painful.
Important ways I seek to understand the world
So. I have thoughts and I have questions. And, honestly, both of those are anxiety inducing and confronting for me for a whole range of reasons.
Anxiety inducing because these thoughts represent significant change in my worldview, but more so perhaps as a result of the friction and anxiety that these ideas (are likely to) induce in many of those closest to me. I worry that many of the questions I have are ones that many in my church community(s) may find difficult to deal with. I don’t enjoy causing friction or asking difficult questions simply because I can. But, I see that many of the systems that we (as a species) have developed in our world are not just, promote inequality and are oppressive for many – and I think religion and our worldview as people should have something to say about that.
So. I might be wrong about everything. I will certainly be wrong about many things. But this is where the journey has me right now.
I am not prepared to throw out my Christian belief. Jesus remains from my vantage point one of the most authentic and beautiful people in human history, and I am keenly interested in living a beautiful life myself.
I am not prepared to promote or further ideas that oppress or exclude. I wish to learn to be inclusive in all areas of my life and for all people – irrespective of race, gender, creed or privilege. I wish always to be motivated by love toward my sisters, brothers and the planet which grants and sustains my life.
I want always to view the world around me through a lens which examines power dynamics. Who is seeking to exercise power over whom? Why? How is violence functioning in that exercise of power? I suspect the exercise of power is almost always violent, even though we have normalised many forms of violence and inoculated ourselves from its impact. I want always to seek to apply this lens to the world around me, to the narratives that are promoted and exemplified in society and to the narratives we use to explain our history and place in the world.
I want always to learn better ways to create safe spaces for the people I live amongst. I want always to seek to establish increasing freedom in our communities and societies, recognising that true freedom seems tenuous, is almost always a long-term investment that needs careful nurture and is subject always to capture by almost any that gain hold of power.
Here is to finding ways to better live beautiful lives.