Why Remain?

It’s a fair question. I have enough departures from “orthodox” Christianity that it won’t do for me to cry foul if someone wonders why I’m a Christian at all. This has proven to be a more difficult question than I expected. Usually I joke about it, and maybe the jokes themselves have something to say:

Joke #1: I’m a Christian because God won’t let me be an atheist.

I have a great deal of sympathy for the atheist position, but atheism leaves me cold, as do many atheists. I wish them well, but I can’t join the club. I don’t know that I believe in God as a being who exists and does things. But I persist in thinking that my life has some kind of shape, or purpose, or direction, and I persist in thinking this, intuiting this, often in spite of myself. If I’m getting less and less comfortable in evangelical circles, I’m still smitten by Christian theology. I still believe deeply in the justice proclaimed (however partially) by the Hebrew prophets, and I believe in God as a way of invoking this justice. I don’t believe a crucified 1st-century Jew walked out of his grave, but I do believe in resurrection. I don’t know what the Holy Spirit is and I don’t have the conceptual apparatus to makes sense of any kind of explanation, but I have felt its stirring and in my better moments I respond to its call. Christians, and I must admit evangelicals in particular, are my people, and I cannot deny that I am from here. It’s a part of me, and there’s a sense in which my life continues in the habits of faithfulness I’ve learned in community long after the attendant belief system has ceased to be meaningful to me.

Joke #2: I’d become a Buddhist but I don’t want to learn a bunch of new words.

Part of the joke here is that I probably have a slightly-better-than-average command of Buddhist terminology. But that’s not the point. If humans are rational animals — and I’m tempted to suggest it depends on the sample — we are certainly religious ones. I don’t think all religions are the same, or point in the same direction, but I do think they express a basic human need. A need for meaning. For purpose. For a way of describing the world not just as we see it or measure it but as we feel it and intuit it. Religion gives us a language to describe the irreducible. It gives us metaphors for things that can only be expressed in metaphor. It gives us rites and rituals to stuff into the gaping existential maw of our own nothingness. It ensures that we only ever see God’s backside because no one can see God’s face and live. In this regard, Christianity is my native tongue, and I still find it serviceable. Again: this is my heritage. These are my people. That may seem hopelessly unsentimental, but it is not disingenuous. The metaphors I reach for to make sense of and to narrate my experience of the world come from Christian scriptures and Christian theology. Which brings me to:

Joke #3: I’m a Christian because I refuse to surrender the use of perfectly good metaphors to idiots and assholes.

This sounds, and probably is, uncharitable, and of course not all orthodox Christians fit into one of those categories. But drawing boundaries of inclusion and exclusion — deciding who’s in and who’s out, and on what basis, seems to be built into the DNA of Christian theology. Some will be saved, some won’t. Some are elect, some aren’t. Some are numbered among us, some aren’t. This is not altogether sinister; if it’s going to mean something to be a Christian there has to be some calculus by which one is or becomes a Christian, as well as some means of identifying those who aren’t, or who are no longer, Christian. The irony, or at least the troubling inconsistency, is that every group (and, on some level, every person) performs that operation by different calculus. We all have a different sense of what it means to be Christian, a different set of criteria by which we make that designation sensible. The sheer plurality, then, effectively disabuses us of the notion that there is a univocal standard by which being a Christian is rendered intelligible.

I was once asked if I had a personal relationship with Jesus, and I quipped “No, I have to share him with everybody else.” I noted in a blog post that if you feel compelled to do something with Jesus, whatever that might be, then you’re part of the broader conversation that is Christianity. It may not make you a Christian, per se (I’ll leave that to the watchdogs of exclusion), but Jesus is a tenacious and slippery little bastard. He doesn’t let go easily, and none of us really gets to tell him what to do. Nor does anyone get to determine what the next person should do with him. Christianity is rife with rich and lush metaphors that speak to us. And stories. Lots of stories. Nobody gets to hoard those. Nobody has the line on how they’re supposed to work or what they’re supposed to mean. It is a deep and glorious kind of grace that we can go back to that well again and again and find living water.

And that’s why I remain.

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