08 March 2005

Re-Dreaming Christianity

Beer and Belief
contributed by Peter J. Walker*

The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. — 1 Corinthians 2:14
Have you ever seen two babies try to have a serious, intimate conversation? Each baby is entirely wrapped up in what he or she wants and never listens to find out what the other baby is asking for. One baby wants milk and the other wants its diaper changed and neither is interested in the other, nor in learning how to walk the road ahead. A life of Faith often starts like that conversation. I'm learning to listen. In doing so, I hope I'm learning to walk.

Lots of my friends are not Christians. That is to say, most of them don't go to church or read the Bible often or identify themselves by any religious label. Most of my friends are spiritual, though. The Bible says that we are supposed to meet together regularly and share things about each other. The Bible says this will make us stronger. I think that's true, but Christians like to use this as an excuse to stay away from anyone who doesn't agree with their theology. This is a mistake. There are lots of Christians who aren't very close to God and lots of agnostics who are closer. I don't think God is a doctrine or denomination or political party. He's bigger than all of that.

Lately God's been moving me to listen in on what atheists and agnostics are saying about Christianity. Sometimes I find these revelations in bars or cafes. More recently, I sat down with two old friends, Chris and Bryan, over a six-pack of Fat Tire Ale.

Bryan is quiet, friendly and unshakably agreeable. In college, Bryan joined the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He wasn't a Christian then, either. He just thought it would be a nice way to make new friends. Bryan and I have had numerous conversations about God but they always end in Bryan's openness to faith and his simultaneous lack of commitment. He doesn't feel any urgency to make a choice and it makes the fundamentalist parts of me squirm.

Chris is a self-identified philosopher and intellectual. He smokes lots of marijuana too. Once when he was high, Chris spent an hour explaining the beauty of human yearning that exists in the story of Pinocchio. When he gets started like that it's best to just let him go.

I began our conversation with a few questions: “I want to know what you guys believe about God and creation and eternity.” Not too broad, right?

“Well... okay,” Chris answered. He carefully began rolling a cigarette, first sprinkling his tobacco onto a small square of paper. “How about evolution first?” Chris licked the paper and sealed it tight. “I mean, if there's evolution, why is there still everything else? Like, why are there men and apes at the same time?” He flicked spilled tobacco leaves off his lap, “and why are fish and lizards and birds all here if they're all heading toward the same place?”

“It's random, so it doesn't affect an entire species,” said Bryan. He was staring out across the apartment complex. Not fully vested in the topic, I thought.

Randomly, Chris jumped on to a convenient tangent. He blurted out, “So, if God created Adam and Eve, maybe they were just super dope human beings! You know? Genetically! Maybe Jesus and Buddha and Gandhi were all in that bloodline,” he had a grin on his face as if that thought brought him some deep satisfaction.

I had little to say about Adam and Eve being “super dope.” I laughed and pushed into the subject Chris brought up himself with the Creation reference: “What do you think about Christianity?”
Chris thought again, paused, “Harmless.” Not what I expected. “Harmless... possibly benevolent. It's non-threatening to me… I guess the only threat is homogenization.”
“How do you mean?” I asked.

“If everyone became a Christian it would dilute the intellectual evolution of man. Just one big pool of similar ideas. No room to question things.” An interesting thought, since I've met few Christians who thought alike. I understood his point, though.

Bryan came in, “So what do you think happens when you die?”

Chris didn't answer. I followed: “Death? Do you think there's a Christian heaven?”

“That's a creatable thing,” Chris answered. “Either on earth or in actual heaven,” Chris paused on that thought, then, “If Christianity were good enough I'd be there now, but other things are good too. The path things enter my life through must be convenient. If I pick this beer up, it had better be convenient!” He gulped and Bryan rolled his eyes.

“Convenience,” Bryan chimed in now, “If you're looking for a spirituality, church doesn't have to be the end-all be-all of being spiritual. I can think about it on my own or hang out with friends like this. Church is fellowship. I can respect that. But there are so many ways to have that fellowship.”
I asked, “Then is there value in organized religion?”

“There's value in fellowship,” said Bryan. “It would have to be people whom I trusted and who were open minded. There's not a lot of value in going somewhere to have people tell you you're wrong.”

“Can I expand?” Chris asked. We nodded. “Churches are like support groups, you know, for people who want guidance... It validates them. I think marriage is a compact version of that. It's also easier for people to become excited when there are lots of people. It makes them zealous.”
“But some people go because they think they have to,” said Bryan.

“Yes. In Catholic church, my parents judged me from a standpoint of perfection instead of understanding I was imperfect,” said Chris. “I just wanted to sleep in on Sundays.”

“I wish people were more open-minded,” Bryan said. “It's intimidating to discuss all this with those who are so knowledgeable in their own religion. For me it's much more abstract. There's nothing I can gain from someone who doesn't value my questions.”

Something in that last statement rang true for me, like I needed to highlight it and pray about it and tell people to listen closely. No one had ever valued Bryan's questions; they had treated his curiosity as a battle to be won.

“And Hell is a good form of extortion,” Bryan continued, “Being good has a lot to do with it but it doesn't seem logical that someone could live an evil life and be saved on their deathbed,” A tough concept for us all. “I don't know. There are so many religions telling me so many things, and that if I don't choose one of them I'll go to hell. It just feels like extortion.” There was that word again. Extortion. Blackmail.

A part of me used to get frustrated that I couldn't “close the deal” with friends like Bryan and Chris. The other part was always left ashamed at the way my heart for God was still thinking in sales terms. That salesman will always be an embarrassing part of my inner-self, trying to turn my passions into marketable products.

So how do I make Christianity work for guys like Chris and Bryan? Do I tailor it to fit their comforts? Do I try to make it less offensive? I think not, but my humanism desperately tries to create a politically correct apologetic. Bryan himself said there was right and wrong — he even said that evil people shouldn't deserve heaven. So Christian or agnostic, we all have judgment hiding somewhere. God tells us to let that judgment go and trust Him to cover us with love. That makes all of this so exasperating: no matter how much I try to appeal to sensibility and logic, the Biblical God still flies in the face of all our wisdom.

* Peter Walker works with youth and worship ministries, desperately trying to forget the wrong answers and recover the right questions. He also creates the Essence Project.

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