In times like these, it’s easy to want to “blame” good fortune- as well as misfortunes- on something esoteric and otherworldly. Today, I went to a church with an aquarium, a restaurant, and an elaborately designed sanctuary. Everyone was very welcoming and was always saying “Jesus loves you.” The pastor made it a point to say things like, “The reason why you’re going through trials is because you’re on assignment” and “People aren’t against you, they’re against the Jesus that they see in you.” He tied the reception- or the lack thereof- that Christians receive in the world to their relationship with the Christ figure. He blamed some troubles on the Devil (“The Devil won’t steal my joy!”).
When the pastor kept asking congregants to say “Jesus loves you” to one another, I’ll admit that eventually I just gave in rather than be the awkward one in the room. I justified it by saying that if Jesus really were alive in heaven, and the sin-defeating, healer/miracle worker that the Bible described, we really could say “Jesus loves you.” During the first songs- which were popular gospel tunes- I started to feel emotional because I couldn’t help but think of how much my mother would’ve loved that church. I had a sense that that church was a real community, centered around a love for- and perceived love from- Jesus Christ of Nazareth.
I don’t know if they perform the same outreach ministries that my church does, but I’m sure that they do a great deal. In fact, a large portion of the pastor’s sermon was about how Christians “aren’t in the life-saving business anymore.” How once, Christians cared about whether people “got saved”, but then they became more concerned with how much they loved the sanctuary, the ushers, and most of what was happening within the four walls. They lost their vision and their desire to reach out to people outside of the church community. He talked about “sins of the spirit” like “pride”, “a superior attitude” and “impatient words.”
“Reaching the lost” is considered by most churches to be a huge part- if not the ultimate goal- of their ministry. This doesn’t just mean feeding the hungry, rehabilitating people, and visiting people in hospitals and prisons. It primarily regards a call to conversion, to seeing people “turn away from useless idols to serve the living God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). This part of Christianity that is so essential to its creed is what I take the most issue with. The idea that we’re lost or depraved is the one that I have most come to reject. I also reject the idea of a God with astounding abilities who chooses to remain largely indifferent to the sufferings of humanity. If I believe that God is omniscient and omnipotent, and his primary mission for us is to bring people into the faith, I must also accept that he is responsible for their state of unbelief and depravity to begin with.
Paul’s epistle to the Romans, in fact, addresses this very conundrum. In it Paul admits that in the Old Testament account, God is said to have hardened Pharoah’s heart. He then goes on to address the question of how God could rightly judge anyone, if he was responsible for whether they obeyed or disobeyed him in the first place. Paul is rather condescending and dismissive in his response, saying “Who are you to reply against God? Shall the one formed say to him that formed it, ‘Why have you made me this way?’” He also said that God had “vessels of mercy” and “vessels of destruction” and was free to show his favor to one, and display his wrath and power through the other.
I don’t know about you, but I choose not to believe that I’m simply a puppet on a string being jerked around in a contest of wills between God and the Devil (or maybe even just God and Himself). I also don’t believe that even if God were all-powerful, that he would be given to such a mercurial and unstable temperament- especially not if he were also all-knowing and could fully comprehended human frailties. Some people could argue that I’m just trying to turn God into a god that satisfies my human sensibilities, but I don’t see how that’s any different from what people have been claiming about God(s) for hundreds of years. Whether people believe it or not, the concept of God is interpreted differently by each person. He’s vengeful to one, all-merciful to another one. To some there is one God, but to others, there are multiple deities. Since we seem incapable of reaching a consensus, I am going to say that it is perfectly acceptable for me to create my own concept of what God is like, as well as my own way of approaching him/her/it.
Right now, though, I don’t feel that I need a savior. I don’t need to be saved from my sins. I’m just a human being in a world of many other human beings, trying to make the best life for myself that I am capable of. In the Christian community it’s considered cool to brag about your imperfections, that you’re “ a work in progress” or in the “process of sanctification” or on the “journey of holiness.” There’s nothing wrong with that, but if we’re really all sinners, regardless of whether we’re “saved” or not, then maybe “salvation” doesn’t really make you any different from anybody else. Maybe believing in a set of “facts” about a man who died over 2000 years ago doesn’t make you holy. I think we’re all in the same boat here, and that we all need to work together to make this world a better place. If religion is what inspires you to do good for your fellow man, then I can’t say that there’s anything wrong with that. If you choose to do good because you think it’s right and it makes you feel happy, then that is just as well. Let’s just not judge each other because of having different motivations.
The more I go to church, the more I feel a profound sense of loss at the community that I used to be a part of, but the more I also feel grateful for the path that I’m currently walking. As a person who still feels connected in some ways to Christianity, but cannot bring herself to accept the core doctrines of her former denomination(s), I often find myself in that dry place that Bishop John Shelby Spong accurately termed “the Exile.” I have a profound respect for the Jesus of the Bible, but I cannot bring myself to feel comforted when people say “Jesus loves you.” I do not feel convinced of the existence of hell or heaven- for all I know, when I die, I am no more. Even so, I know that I’ll live on in the memory of those people who loved me. I know that even though I’ve lost a lot with what I’ve decided, hopefully I’ve gained just that much more. I know that life is more about the journey than the final destination.