A Story about the Church
I often find myself adrift in a sea of cynicism. There are many of us, aren’t there? Many of us “grew up in the Church” and now peer back into our past with questions, doubts, frustration, and perhaps anger. Whether we occasionally dropped by youth groups or masses, or once zealously committed ourselves to religious ministries, all that seems a bit odd to us now. Perhaps we had doubts and questions about faith that could never be answered. Perhaps the boxed answers never satisfied us—or they did, but now those tired, old arguments don’t stand up in light of our deepened learning and broadened experience of the world. Perhaps the other “believers” seemed fake. Their smiles, their “Hallelujahs,” their worn out metaphors and overplayed songs—it’s all just sickening now. Or perhaps they were simply jerks.
The “Church” means many different things to many different people. For me, the Church has meant Evangelicalism. In my experience, this has often meant the efficient conversion of souls into a personal, saving relationship with God, in which Jesus becomes a best friend forever. It has often meant that nothing really matters except for evangelism, discipleship, and a narrow, cliché vision of justice. Throughout my life, Evangelicalism has also meant a specific political agenda, a rejection of science, a devaluation of the physical world, and a negative view of the life of the mind.
But one issue was particularly troubling. I often wondered: if it’s all about evangelism and discipleship, saving souls and reading my bible every morning, then why does anything matter? What was the real spiritual value of fun? Of sports? Of learning? Of course, I continued to have fun, play sports, and learn, but I couldn’t help feeling it was all a bit, well, meaningless. Shouldn’t I just abandon worldly vocations and pursue international missions? In effect, daily life held little meaning to me. My hope was in getting myself and others to heaven someday, when we would eternally praise God with our immaterial bodies. It was quite troubling when I stopped to consider how ridiculously boring that sounded.
“Discipleship” was run like a business. Discipleship meant: please prove to me that you are making productive spiritual progress. How have you grown closer to God? How have you lived for Jesus this week? How have you immediately applied the word of God? You must constantly be improving yourself. After all, isn’t faith one big self-improvement project? It was if our American idolization of efficiency and productivity had been simply replaced with Jesus-y content.
Another major problem for me was the pop-culture cheesiness embodied in the experience of Jesus as BFF. A classic story in Evangelicalism is growing out of an impersonal “religious” church upbringing into a real (emotionally exciting) experience of the person of Jesus Christ. (I used to just go through the motions at church, but then I met Jesus!!!!) In this culture, what mattered was that church was fun and exciting. Traditional practice, and indeed tradition itself, was chastised as an empty, man-made idol. For many Evangelicals, it’s just them, the Bible, and a personal relationship with Jesus. What else could possibly matter?
It wasn’t until I left my childhood home for the first time that I began to grow uncomfortable with faith. In college, I stumbled through new experiences, groping for answers in the dark, yearning for more substantive experiences of faith. In a diverse world of compelling ideas and fascinating people, my uneasiness with faith developed into more solid criticisms of Evangelicalism. Once I was able to identify my religious experience, I was able to identify it as weird. It seemed liked things were getting worse. But then I began to meet some very interesting people.
These people have made all the difference for me. It’s part of the reason I can’t credit myself for remaining a part of the body of Christ. Without examples of what it means to pursue God with painstaking honesty, where the deepest questions and doubts and (dis)beliefs are fully recognized, I would have abandoned my pursuit of faith years ago. Without the humble, loving example of those wiser than myself, I might have walked away forever.
Through the platonic spirituality, the cultural cheesiness, the business mentality, and the certainty, I think what I was looking for was honesty. A sincerity free of self-deception and romanticism. A perspective that recognized the genuine value of this world. One that recognized that faith wasn’t always fun and dandy and happy and cheery and exciting but instead could be angering, saddening, and painful. One that recognized that living a Christian life does not always consist of clear and consistent progress and immediate transformation but rather manifests itself in a long, and often bumpy, spiritual journey. And one that recognized that loving God and following Jesus can be quite complicated. There aren’t logical answers to every question. Faith, after all, is a mystery. At some level, religious or not, we all have to learn to live with the bumps and the bruises and the questions. None of us will ever have everything figured out. And somehow, my community of faith makes me okay with not having everything figured out.
But even as I began to meet these people, faith still felt a bit odd. I could never grow completely comfortable in bible studies and fellowships. Although I had encountered a deeper faith—one that transcended my frustration, my lingering presence in Evangelical circles still felt quite frustrating. Although this new collegiate community had encouraged me in a number of ways, the same fundamental, and in my opinion, problematic, frameworks remained. I continued to feel alone and isolated.
The Church is supposed to be a home for struggles. When you struggle with school, or with family, or with friends, or with work, you lean on this community. But what happens when that community itself becomes a source of internal strife? What happens when you begin to see the “biblically supported” condolences and romantic dreams of your fellow Christians with disgust? Those of us who have found ourselves adrift in this dark sea know the guilt. You might also know that victorious sense of liberation you get when you leave it all behind.
I was once very frustrated with Evangelicalism. Actually, I’m still quite frustrated. But for me, the story doesn’t end there. By the grace of God, I haven’t left Evangelicalism entirely behind.
Evangelicalism has also meant other things for me. Good things. It has meant the transformation of my mother’s life from emotional instability to a joyful and life-giving selflessness. I have met some of my very best friends in the world of “Evangelicalism.” I have learned a reverence for God and his Word. It has taught me that all my intellectual explorations must ultimately be rooted in loving God and participating in his redemption of creation (and my own life!). I eventually learned to dream not of escaping this world, but of God’s Kingdom coming on earth as in heaven—of space, time, and matter being redeemed rather than rejected.
Perhaps in your experience of the Church, there were more good things. Or maybe there were very few. Or maybe you’re just not sure. Maybe you’re just sick of the religious crazies you see in the news. Maybe you, like me, remain with some sort of ambivalent attitude to your religious upbringing.
Although I still cling to my cynicism, I realize that it’s not entirely justified. I haven’t encountered blatant lying or hypocrisy. I haven’t heard the hateful political speech from the pulpit that you might expect. I haven’t had the fear of hell dangled over my head. Despite all the anguish I have described, the stereotypical caricatures of Westboro Church that often grace our television screens have remained just that—stereotypical caricatures. Anecdotal evidence that only fuels tired generalizations.
For me, cynicism came to be a disease, a rampaging intellectual pride. I quickly came to detest everything and anything that resembled Evangelicalism. If an expression of faith was draped in the language of Evangelicalism, I simply dismissed it. I came to resent anyone who was satisfied with what I felt were broken systems and fancy illusions. I relished in joking about these silly religious fundamentalists.
Soon enough, I began to reject my community for not seeing the light. I started to dream of a community different than my own. I hoped to bring my enlightened understanding of the Christian tradition to help these poor folks shackled by modernity.
In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s reflection on Christian community, Bonhoeffer writes,
Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial.
I often wonder if this principle is true for all communities—not just Christian ones. But then I wonder if this perspective simply hampers radical change. Yet deep down, I know I must love my brothers and sisters in Christ more than I love my dream of that community—at least if it is truly to remain a community. And I must be aware that my honest, earnest, and sacrificial intentions can cause great harm.
Of course, I do still hope to participate in the redemption of Evangelicalism. I’m overwhelmingly passionate about seeing Evangelicals come to value embodiment, tradition, and diverse intellectual exploration. But I now do so with a forgiving love for my community. I do so knowing that if there ever was a perfect church, they wouldn’t let me be a part of it. I do so striving for a humility that recognizes my own lack of understanding. Finally, and most distressingly, I do so with the added expectation that Evangelicalism will continue to transform me for the better.
This story is framed in my experience of a particular faith tradition. It is my subjective encounter with the “Church.” Perhaps some of it resonates with you. Or maybe your pains were—and are—deeper. I wish I could just tell you to come to church and it will all be great. It won’t. That’s the reality. The people inside the Church are as broken as the people outside. But lobbing hand grenades from the outside will never accomplish anything. When I did it, it only goaded me into spiraling cynicism and a debilitating despair.
Nowadays, I still don’t have faith figured out. But occasionally I stumble into wise, loving, and humble human beings who call themselves followers of Christ. Those are the ones that give me hope. Working and laughing and crying and eating and drinking with those people has come to sustain me. Despite all the relational bumps and bruises, and the odd scar, that make up the mess of physical particularity that I call my spiritual home—that is, the Church—this community has ultimately provided me a family for which I am thankful. And this family is what gives me hope in the mess of physical particularities that we all call the world.
Bonhoeffer, church, Evangelicalism, friendship, God, hope, justice, love, politics, Pomona College, pride, science