04 March 2010

Meeting Jesus halfway

Winter on Yalagin Street
(photo by Judy Maurer)

This week I read two blog posts from two sources I respect, both giving glimpses of what passes for public understanding of God and faith these days.

Exhibit A: Contemplative Scholar considers three manifestations of incomprehension about religion.

Exhibit B: Linus Torvalds, the godfather(!) of Linux, overhears a conversation about spiritual warfare. Be sure to survey the comments. (Thanks to zdnet's Paula Rooney for the reference.)

Over the years, we believers (Quakers excluded, of course*) have given the world our own fair share of snake-oil sellers, power-grabbers, religion addicts, and just plain idiots. As a result, some non-Christians have been repelled from entering our community. Too often we've also institutionally amplified this sad effect by seeking to maintain a privileged status in places where Christianity has had cultural dominion. (Is historical accuracy the actual agenda for those claiming that the USA was strictly founded on biblical Christianity?)

So ... we haven't always made it easy for fair-minded seekers to consider trusting us enough to make us their spiritual home. But, on the other hand, I'd like to make a friendly challenge to our critics--can you meet Jesus at least halfway by taking some of the skepticism that you've directed at us and our Savior, and applying it to our self-declared opponents as well?

Years ago, when I was a new Christian, a newly-minted Quaker in Ottawa Meeting, I was asked (by another Quaker!) how I could justify calling myself a Christian after all the garbage Christians had perpetrated throughout history--the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, relentless anti-intellectualist campaigns against everyone from Galileo to Darwin, colonialist missions, endless religious wars, and so on.

Since that day, I've had 35 years to try to collect articulate answers, but that was then.... All I could say at the time was "Jesus saved my life." My life to that point felt like a series of betrayals: My world fell apart when my sister Ellen was murdered, and then my parents tried to cope by accusing me and my anti-racist views of contributing to her death. Eventually they threw me out of the house. That might have been the best thing that ever happened to me; the more lasting betrayal, in my own mind, was mine: I had failed to protect my sister, and had undeservingly survived her. When Jesus told me, speaking directly to my heart as I was reading the Beatitudes, that I could trust him--he would not betray me--my life was pulled back from the brink. To this day I make this claim, namely that he truly saved my life. This I knew before I knew a syllable of doctrine or church history.

By the time I ran into this Crusades/Inquisition/Galileo buzz-saw, I was still unprepared to make any sort of extended argument, but as I sat in meeting for worship one Sunday around that time, I did wonder why Christianity's critics were unwilling to distinguish Jesus and his challenge/invitation to us, from the social phenomenon known as Christianity. No branch of the Christian church boasts that, by affiliation with the church, our stupidities, prejudices, temptations, appetites, and failures are automatically neutralized. A hundred years ago, G.K. Chesterton wrote, "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried."

Isn't it fair to criticize "the Christian ideal" if in fact it seem incapable of being put into practice? But, if the critic really means to be fair, then some additional work is required before summarily dismissing a whole faith. Is every Christian an inquisitor, colonialist, anti-intellectual? Are there no non-Christian inquisitors, etc? And will the critic take into account the Christian role in the rise of universities, charitable organizations, anti-slavery, anti-imperialism, feminism, the peace movement, and law?

This kind of analysis is routine for most thinking people in most topics, but for some reason when some consider Christianity, a sort of laziness sets in.
* This is a joke.

I'm amazed at how many worlds my head can hold at once. I just devoured Marilynne Robinson's novel Home and can't help wishing to overhear one more conversation among the Boughtons, and hoping that Robinson will eventually let us know when Jack's son grows up and visits Gilead. But now I'm immersed in Siri Hustvedt's The Sorrows of an American--I'm just at the point where Erik is finding out why his tenant is being stalked by a man with a camera.

But that isn't what kept me from going to sleep last night. I'm just now catching up with the fourth season of HBO's The Wire. I was lying there worrying about how much Lt. Daniels should confide in the new mayor-elect.

In some ways, The Wire might seem far from the quiet Iowa world of Gilead and Home. But what makes all these characters come alive for me--enough to keep me glued to the page/screen, and even awake at night--are universal themes. Hope and abandonment. Cruelty and kindness. Strength and fragility. And as much as anything else, simply the enjoyment of high-order creativity.

A few more links:

Update: Speaking of meeting Jesus halfway: Robert Woodberry, "The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy."

The Arts and Faith Top 100 films list, according to Image. And here are Christianity Today's ten most redeeming films of last year.

More about Marilynne Robinson, author of Gilead and Home.

It's been seven years since Mister Rogers left the neighborhood.

I've said before that loyalty (or, I cautiously say, some kinds of loyalty) doesn't always serve Friends United Meeting well. Might Wess Daniels' creative understanding of "betrayal" be applicable?

An under-reported reality?--nonviolence in Palestine.

Slashdot's progress report on U.S. government experiments in participatory government via the Web.

The Olympics are over. In their wake, a couple of MSM articles sparked by Norway's performance. Wall Street Journal, "The Mystery of Norway." New York Times, "The Hard and the Soft of Norwegians."

February 21 marked the fifth birthday of the Roadhouse blues podcast, which I've been following since somewhere toward the end of the first year. The fifth anniversary show, No. 261, was truly excellent, a worthy milestone podcast. I bought three of the tracks:

Doug MacLeod, "The Sun Shine Down My Way"

Janiva Magness, "I Want A Love"

Mavis Staples, "This Little Light"

You've probably never heard "This Little Light" the Mavis Staples way: My God promised a rainbow sign, just gotta let my little light shine.... Don't give up, don't back down, don't let the Liar turn you around....

As for Doug MacLeod's song, here's a performance version:


Linda J Wilk said...

Perhaps without consciously meaning to, you have given the largest and strongest argument a Quaker Christian can give to anyone about their relationship, personal as it is, with Jesus. "Jesus saved my life." This is not about all the things Christians did to other, it is about your inner personal relationship with the Jesus you have come to know. To me, a universalist-leaning Quaker, this is the most powerful thing you could say. Especially with the small s. Jesus saved my life too. Not by the cross though, by his living example and teaching. My saving is not the suffering salvatory redemption at the end of creation, it is the living, breathing gratitude and humility for the presence of the inner Teacher, through whom my life is recreated and recreated and I am granted the grace to live joyfully on this planet.

I feel horribly that the experience many people have is of the Christians who have politicized the teachings of our humbe prophet into something that is so far from the Truth.

I feel sad that many scientists cannot acknowledge all that is beyond their understanding and for a moment stand in awe and say, "Ah, that is God."

I feel horrified that people would link my name with a belief that berates and tortures and conquers others who do not bow down, when the bearer of the name Christ would never do any such thing.

I grieve that even in our own religion, we are so tempted to tell others that Jesus would think they sinned because they do not follow the letter of the Bible.

The God/Jesus of my understanding is a living entity/energy that can inform and guide me, and it is so simple, I only need to listen.
Would that I did so more often.

Marshall Massey said...

Johan, this was an essay I greatly appreciated.

I would like to ask some of the scoffers who challenge Christians by asking, “How can you call yourself a Christian after the Crusades and the Inquisition,” — but who, themselves, identify with Science —: “How can you identify with Science after the atom bomb, Thalidomide, Three Mile Island, pesticides, the destruction of the ozone layer, and global warming? Are you not applying a double standard here, excusing Science for the sins of its followers but not excusing Christ for the sins committed by his?”

Mackenzie said...

I think this is the point where you go back to Gandhi's "I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."

So the challenge then is to get better examples of what Christianity means to be visible to non-Christians. At least help clear the name a bit, ya know? Mother Theresa is the only one I can think of at the moment who is widely regarded as really fitting that "they will know we are Christians by our love" thing I grew up hearing in Church.

(That phrase, incidentally, has been on my mind a lot lately and I ended up bringing it up during Meeting for Worship last week...which I still find a little...uncomfortable, I guess...because I'm a non-theist Friend)

kevin roberts said...

Johan, Marshall points out a very clear and important dichotomy that so many critics of Christianity are unaware of:

There is a difference between the religious teachings of the Christian faith and the activities of Christian institutions over the centuries. There is a difference between Christianity and Christendom. Many of the prime movers of Christendom were lousy Christians.

The followers of Science have indeed given us the military use of the atomic bomb. Very interestingly, it is in the halls of science that much of religion is considered bunk.

Thank you for this post. As always, you make me think.

Unknown said...

No friend,no
I am perfectly well aware who has been trying to control, hurt and kill me, it would be strange indeed if I didn't. I will never cooperate. I will never bend to your will. I am a quaker, not a a christian. Look to yourself, not to me.