The Way Forward

01-08-16-hope

by Randall S. Frederick

Over the last two years, I realize I have become very sensitive to criticism, negativity, or “bad vibes.” At different times, I’ve discussed this with my therapist to determine whether it is a “wave” of PTSD that is affecting me or whether it is some other development taking place.  Most of my anger and negativity leans towards Christianity. Not other religions; Buddhism and Judaism fill me with hope. Islam is a beautiful religion that, I admit, feels exotic and mysterious, to me in a way that makes me feel guilty of my WASP upbringing. Even here too, the consideration of other religions, cultures, and worldviews, I find the anger I learned from Evangelical Christianity press upon me and hate everything different from what I know. And, in turn, I hate this part of myself with more intensity that I could ever muster towards the unknown corners of human experience. It makes me pause, wondering where this anger comes from and how I can lessen it.

In 2010, I applied to attend a seminary on the West Coast hoping to accomplish that. I hoped to find new language for my anger, to channel it if unable to “get over it” or “give it to Jesus” as the hymns and altar calls of my childhood routinely encouraged me to do. It’s no surprise that seminary did not help. At least not in the way I had hoped. I learned new language for discussing my questions, but in so doing I also developed new questions. Predictable and common, as I came to realize. I am grateful for those years of being able to study a field I enjoy, for the friendships and contacts I was able to make. But when I graduated, I can’t say I was better or more learned than the average church-goer. This too made me angry. My best friends and I always seem to touch this talking point when we get together – the religion we grew up with has failed us. And worse, it’s mutated into something entirely different than the way of life idealized in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.

This year, it seems every news outlet and blog has one anchor to their cycle: How is it that Donald Trump captured the attention of Evangelicals and disenfranchised Christians alike? How has a man who confused a communion plate with a collection plate able to get the approval of the most rigorous members of the now-fractured Moral Majority? For me, the answer is clear. He trafficks in anger and disappointment – the core of all Evangelicalism. The world is broken without the message of the Gospel. Politicians will have moral failure if they do not fail to uphold the Gospel (which is always the will of the people – or, well, certain people). Americans, yes even your neighbors, want to destroy the world and only we can save it. Jesus is coming back, and boy is he pissed. The God of scripture is an angry, vengeful deity ready to strike down with furious anger. Even those wicked Moslems agree with the Bible on that!

The long and short of it: At seminary, I was surrounded by cynics. Many of religious individuals tease that seminary is the same as a cemetary – where the piety of good Christians go to die, liberalized and encouraged to think too much about God so as to make the divine less real. But I’m not convinced of that, and even liberal individuals who I know came to seminary with the proverbial chip on their shoulder found new levels of spiritual experience as well as rigorous academic preparation. But, more or less, there remains a steady population who attend seminary to disprove the existence of God or exit their education deeply cynical, becoming the living embodiment of terminal theology. It was this sentiment that I wanted to get away from. Familiarity bred too many “jokes” or “teases” about religion in general – the expletive-laden “discussion” of why Baptists were wrong (sidenote, I think Baptists are good people with a corrupt theological understanding) or how Presbyterians are haughty and elitist (sidenote: I’ve never known a Presbyterian to be otherwise). Feeling, as I did, that this environment was antithetical to the Christian (even “religious”) experience, I packed up and left as soon as I was done. Many friendships have remained, but remaining in an environment hostile to religion wasn’t my form of entertainment or worship, so I left.

I may very well be wrong about this; I hope I am; but Christianity has become a religion of deception or disillusionment. There are too many cynics cheekily “evangelizing” with jokes at the expense of a religion they claim to orient their lives around. It’s total bollocks. And I’m just as guilty as the next lot – I’m no different. This site provides evidence enough of that fact, and I certainly believe we have reason to be cynical. Speaking only of my own life, I have watched moral corruption glossed over with “God told me”, theft and gross mismanagement of tithes/offerings excused with a “praise the Lord!”, outright hatred blessed and sanctioned by religious leader, and behavior decidedly condemned in scripture with exegetical gymnastics that claim God’s grace is conditional and specific for “us” but not “people like them.” The universal church Christians talk about has become a shibboleth to me – are we even speaking of the same “church” anymore? My own father, for example, claims that “Jesus was a racist, so that makes it okay” and the memory of the last church I worked for disgusts me to this day, some five years later. When I mustered up the courage to visit a Catholic church last February, the entire service was devoted to asking for money. Not “asking for money more than what is appropriate” but seven requests for money, each punctuated with an appropriate hymn and the priest saying, “This is what God wants – God wants you to give us your money! He wouldn’t have told me if it wasn’t true!”

You see, it’s not just Evangelicals or even Protestants. Corruption in the Church is everywhere. The Anglican Church has dismembers the Episcopal division in America, depriving them of votes in annual fellowships for the next four years on polity, policy, and theology. The Catholic Church is experiencing a kind of reformation over sexual abuse scandals, the role of the laity, women in ministry, and whether the “infallible” words of an “infallible” Pope are “infallible” if they don’t agree with him. In many instances, a therapist does more good for the soul than a pastor.

But in spite of all of these bad experiences and in spite of the professional knowledge I have on the decline of religion in American, even global life, I remain hopeful – to my surprise and a great measure of frustration. In spite of setbacks and disillusionment, I want religion to mean something. I want to be able to connect to those who went before who also found meaning, purpose, solidarity, and comfort in and from religion. Christianity means more to me than arguing who is right and why, focusing on the excess and “sins” of the few, or allowing clearly fringe beliefs and practices to be understood as canonical. Everyone makes mistakes when it comes to religion – it’s why we esteem those who have lived out their beliefs for decades over those who celebrate weekly, even monthly anniversaries with their Lord and Savior.

In other words, the recent exposure of Evangelicalism as a loose confederation of racists, xenophobes, and the ignorant does not speak for Christianity. Yes, they have loud speakers and have invested in glitzy razzle-dazzle but then again so do all charlatans. Stagecraft and a “good performance” does not mean the actors legitimately believe their lines. In the end, the makeup must come off and they are exposed as frail humans who, I imagine, love their children just the same as everyone else. But they do not reflect authentic Christianity – the very nature of a performance is to exaggerate, never to embody the silent simplicity of the mundane quotidian.

Which is why all the bluster we have seen from Evangelicalism lately makes me laugh (yes, in derision as much as tragic amusement) and fills me with hope that, in the words of the hymnal, when the dross is consumed, when the veneer is scraped off, the real beauty and splendor might be made known. There is no risk with cynicism. All cynicism promises is predictable drinking conversations about who hurt whom when, each person trying to outdo the other with how deep their hurt has become “after all this time.” They are war stories. Which are wonderful and necessary. Commiseration certainly helped me understand I was not alone in the world – pastors molest children, secretaries steal money, dreams will die, and well-intentioned friends will inevitably shame you with poorly chosen words. There are an infinite number of ways religion in general and Christianity in particular have gone wrong and can go wrong, but at some point we must confront the basic fact that Christianity, as intended by Jesus, was a way of life that brings hope. Any version of the faith that does not acknowledge the hurts and mistakes while also holding to idealism and hope is not an authentic form of Christianity.

The public addresses of the first Apostles in the narrative of Acts, the intentions of Jesus as presented in the Gospels, Paul’s primary message over and again, the intimate conversations with doubters and the disillusioned, even up to the very final thoughts of the New Testament all seem to be collected around the central idea of hope. Without hope, there can be no Christianity. Which sounds nice and swell. Who doesn’t want to feel encouraged and hopeful? And if you can distill those ideas down and get a few out-of-context statements from the Bible to support that idea, hey! Christianity for everybody! Except, as we know too well by now there is a deep ravine between how things are supposed to be, how they were intended, from how they actually are. This too is human. And in a way, this too is hopeful. It guarantees solidarity – everyone will, at times, be disappointed. The first Apostles were disappointed. Jesus was, on many occasions, disappointed. His cousin John? He too was disappointed. So were the prophets. And, from the very first story in Genesis, Adam and Eve were disappointed. And, before them, God was disappointed too.

But God, according to Genesis, was also hopeful. God wanted something better for humanity, for the world, for all that breathed and moved. And that hope continues today, in unseen and unknown ways, to expand and inspire.

For me, that’s a key selling point. It’s what wins me over. The ability of hope to inspire something different. A Christianity that criticizes and dwells on the mistakes of others is unimaginative. It focuses on what happened, how people will never change, how things will never get better, and that there’s nothing we can do about it. Game over. Even writing that sentence bored me as much as I trust it exhausted you to read it. So what?

I hope and work towards a Christianity that inspires us to think of, live into, and create something imaginative. I hope and work towards a Christianity that recaptures the imagination of artists and musicians, that inspires plays and hair colors, that finds new ways of saying things even as it finds new avenues to bring about hope, health, and renewed confidence.

Rob Bell in his new book, How to Be Here: A Guide to Creating a Life Worth Living (2016) says it very well when he writes

Often, cynicism presents itself as wisdom, but usually comes from a wound.

Cynicism acts as though it has seen a lot and knows how the world works, shooting down new ideas and efforts as childish and uniformed.

Cynicism points out all the ways something could go wrong, how stupid it is, and what a waste of time it would be.

Cynicism holds things at a distance, analyzing and mocking and noting all the possibilities of failure. Often, this is because the cynic did try something new at some point and it went belly up, he was booed off the stage, and that pain causes him to critique and ridicule because there aren’t any risks in doing that.

If you hold something at a distance and make fun of it, then it can’t hurt you.

In this one thought, I felt like Bell captured so much of what I have seen and experienced. Here are stories of pain and hurt (on the progressive side), and stories of fear and panic (on the conservative side) that cause people to become understandably cynical. These are, for me, the basic tentpoles of What Happened – but not What It Means or even Where It’s Going.

There is a decade and a half of my life that I don’t talk about very much. I call that period “All That Happened” and there are really, at base, two reasons why I don’t talk about those years. One, they were so traumatic that two therapists have cried in session for me – not with me. For me. One of my therapists said, just listening to me, he had to make an appointment with his own therapist. The second reason I don’t talk about it is because I don’t feel like it defines me. Yes, I felt that way for a long time. And yes, fifteen years is a long time to just shrug off and disregard. But on the tail end of that period, I remember thinking “I can either stay here and allow All That Happened to destroy me. Or I can entertain the idea of there being something different.” I didn’t believe at first. I’ll tell that to anyone – at first, I didn’t believe things could be different. And sometimes, I still have doubts. What I did at that time was I decided to believe that things could be different. Not that they would be. But that they could be. I rolled Hebrews 11:1 in my head for weeks, then months. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for; it is the evidence of things unseen.” That’s a confusing verse – my gut turns even as I write about it. But in my head, I’ve been breaking that verse apart for years – faith is a result of hope. Hope is the core. I’ve seen people without faith who still have hope. I’m one of them. To the best of my knowledge, though, I’ve never met someone with faith who no longer had hope. It just doesn’t happen. Without hope, humans begin to die – any doctor will tell you that.

The same is true for Christianity. When we prop up the dead carcass of a religion whose followers no longer have hope, no longer live in hope, no longer seek a new way of life and living with hope, no longer feel inspired or creative because of hope, but instead talk about how things used to be and everything that’s wrong with the world now because whoever they hate this week ruined it for them, it is no wonder that Christianity is known for its cynicism. People are tired and wounded, but need something to believe in. They do not need another support group, book club, or altar call. They need hope. And if Christianity cannot reclaim that space in the human experience, then it is time to take Jesus down from the cross and pack his image away in the barn. If Christians cannot create a theological imagination for those who already have a vested interest, there is no way they will be able to bring in new adherents to share their non-existent faith and hopelessness.

What Christians need to do right now is cultivate hope – for themselves, for their communities, for their religion – and begin speaking about it. Recognize the challenges, sure. Don’t put a new coat of paint on two thousand years of problems. But don’t forget that this faith is built on hope for something better, and let’s see where that takes us.

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