Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Lessons from Sem 6: Christianity for Grown-ups

This is my last post in the "Lessons from Sem" series. It might not seem like it, but I had all the topics outlined before I even started the series, it's just taken me a long time to get them fleshed out, and this post was the worst. Remember - I'm a tortoise, not a hare. This the longest post I've had by far, and I cut out a lot - what remains only scratches the surface. This topic is just too big - it might make a better book than blog post.

The stark reality for all kinds of churches in the western world is that 20 and 30 somethings (now creeping into 40-somethings) are conspicuously absent. Heck, I'm in my 30s, which is well into adult territory, and often feel like the young kid in my church - especially as I get more involved. Young adults - specifically young men - are absent in church. This is more true in conservative evangelical churches than other groups, but it holds true across the board.

As I look back on my later college years, and the years between college and seminary, I realize that I was in a place where I was struggling to make sense out of the God I was taught about in my childhood. You know, the God who is a little like Santa Claus, in that if you were really good and prayed right, you might get what you ask for. The God who peered down on us from above, simultaneously waiting to destroy us in wrath and save us in love. The God who created a world in seven days that also looks millions of years old. The God who (according to some) decreed everything from the beginning of time, yet is somehow not responsible for it.

During my later teenage years, I couldn't find a lot of good answers to my questions in church, so I looked for them outside of church - in scripture, history, philosophy, and even fiction books. The result is that I came to very different conclusions about God than what I was taught in church. Yet, in my conservative evangelical tradition, a difference of opinion was usually not very well tolerated. I heard "The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it." more often than I should have. I was insulted and demeaned for my questions from a deacon teaching one of my youth sunday school classes. So, I silently turned my questions inward. My self-confidence suffered. I did (and still do) often wonder if it's me, not them, that's the heretic in matters of faith. I often wonder if maybe I'm the one that's wrong.

But as life went on and I struggled with problems with my friends, problems with my job, problems with my wife, and problems with my faith, the god of my childhood didn't seem up to the task of making any sort of meaningful difference in my life. The faith of my youth was anemic, anti-intellectual, sickeningly ascetic, and over piously dogmatic. Deep, powerful questions and searching were incompatible with the tools I was given. Some personal experiences continued to fuel me, but I knew there had to be more life in it than there appeared to be.

During this time, a couple of things occurred to me. First, that when I was told as a youth "You just can't do it without God" was a lie. The reality is that people do it without God every day, all the time, all around the world. The reality is that when people leave the anesthesia of church life, they find all kinds of pleasures that make them feel good, and free, and alive. In some very tangible ways, these pleasures make them feel human. I wondered, is this all wrong? Furthermore, the reality is that when people go to college and learn the historical evidence of the earth's age, and of the findings of anthropology, of psychology, and of biology, that Christianity is too easily mistaken as magical nonsense. When you factor in hard issues of how the Bible came to be, historical issues with the Old Testament and ancient near east literature, why should a person privilege the Bible and the tenants of Christianity over scientific forms of knowing?

I'm not a fan of John Shelby Spong, but as he talks about the absence of young adults in the church, he has some very cogent words to say:

"So what happened to the God who was thought to live just above the sky, keeping record books, invading the world periodically to accomplish the divine will? The God who sent sickness and weather patterns to punish individuals? Because that's what we believed...The God they meet in church is simply not big enough for the world they inhabit."

The second thing that occurred to me is that the story of the Bible (with some exceptions) doesn't really include any kids. Instead, the stories are written about, for, and to adults. They are written about career fishermen, about murderous pharisees who have a miraculous conversion. They are written about old men who suddenly feel called by a strange God to move away from home. They are written about wealthy family men who tragically have everything taken away from them. They are written about an adult Jesus. Sure, the adult focus may be cultural, but I'm convinced there is something there.

Seminary opened my eyes to that something. Seminary opened my eyes to the fact that these questions that I've forcefully kept silent have an important place in the life of faith. Far from being a force to retard my faith, the questions are an expression of it - they are a way in which I show that my faith is alive - that, like Israel, I wrestle with God and won't let go until He blesses me. Seminary taught me that meaningful and deep questions mean that a person is serious about how deeply they want Christ to impact their life. Far from being apathy, the searching demonstrates commitment.

Seminary taught me that issues like personal transformation, and the use of the scripture, and concepts like forgiveness, love, and cosmology can't be properly understood by a set of rules - even rules written on two stone tablets. The reality is that Christianity is for grown-ups who are past the stage where rules and regulations are enough. Christianity is for people who can penetrate the evolutionary concept of power, and understand what it means when Christ asks us to be born again. As much a we try, no set of rules can encompass what it means to be a Christian - but instead the rules should give way to a relationship with God and with others that mediates the presence of Christ, through the Spirit, to people in the world.

Seminary confirmed my notions that the Christian conception of Spirit isn't a ghost that can be explained like some Scooby-Do cartoon, but is the all-encompassing origin and orienter of all creation. The Spirit isn't something that is in a different domain than science, but it is the origin of the universe, of matter, and of the creaturely questions that ask how the universe works. The Spirit is complex, wild, and unbounded, and it creates in us the very questions to which we seek answers as it creates in us the need to understand the truth of our situation. The Spirit is the condition in which we, as creatures, seek.

And the truth of the situation is that, for better or for worse, we are creatures bound to bodies. At least on earth, talk about "spirit" and "flesh" as if they can ever be separated is foolish. We are material beings, and if we are to believe the Bible, will be material beings for eternity. The pleasures of this life are meant to be enjoyed - we are designed so that experiences make us feel alive. It should tell us something that sensory deprivation is considered torture. The Christian message is that experiences don't give eternal life, but that salvation is found in the inversion of power, in giving all we have to the poor and following Christ in his self-sacrificial way of experiencing life in the world.

Christianity for grown-ups understands that salvation is not found in a book, or in a denomination, or even in saying and believing the right thing. A lot of people I interact with might say, "Duh! Of course Christianity is for grown-ups!", but my perspective is that most Christians don't treat it that way - they seem to treat it like something they believe because they have to. They treat it like something they do because they don't know any other way, and like it is something that unravels if too closely examined. Christianity for grown-ups is more robust than that. The Christian way is complex and nuanced - it is a relationship with the infinite God of creation that orients in unexpected ways, and that calls us to put aside childish things while at the same time forcing us to acknowledge that our understanding of God will always be child-like in its adequacy.

One of the lessons that seminary taught me is that, far from being a magical or ignorant religion, Christianity is for grown-ups.

1 comment:

Tracy P. said...

"The Spirit is complex, wild, and unbounded, and it creates in us the very questions to which we seek answers as it creates in us the need to understand the truth of our situation. The Spirit is the condition in which we, as creatures, seek."

Amen to that!

I have a feeling that when you first posted this the mom in me objected and was rendered speechless. (Congratulations. :-) ) I of course still struggle with the process of getting to adulthood, and the importance of the faith foundations of childhood. Most pragmatically, how to lay a foundation that my kids don't feel compelled to dismantle when they are 20, because I honestly can't think of a worse time to try to reconstruct your base. The kid who was 8 when you published this just yesterday is now a teenager. I find great hope in the Spirit, wild and unbounded, creating the right questions in him, and the sister just behind, but I can't help wondering where they will seek their answers. I guess that's the place for prayer.

I think you would discover once again the obedience as currency theme in my latest post (2 parts), which naturally gets at the parenting aspect of it. I might feel as though I were plagiarizing from you except that they were almost fully written last spring.