What is your best reason for being a Christian?
I am a Christian because I believe that God exists – in the complexity of nature, in the beauty of art, and in the human capacity for empathy and compassion. Some people have told me that this belief is irrational. I am not so bothered by this charge.
I am a Christian because I believe that, while there are many ways of seeking knowledge of the divine presence in the world, Jesus Christ’s simple commandment for us to love one another (and his following of that commandment in his own life, through his ministry, suffering and death) is the best model for me to follow.
I am a Christian because I want to be part of the tradition that gave birth to Augustine’s Confessions and John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, to Michelangelo’s “Pieta” and Dvorak’s “Stabat Mater,” to Chartres Cathedral and to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, to Archbishop Oscar Romero and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and, if you believe what Charles Taylor says in Sources of the Self, our entire modern identity. I want to belong to the community that (if it practices what it preaches) is supposed to treat all people with mercy and compassion.
I realize that by identifying as a Christian, I also claim membership in a tradition that is hardly beautiful, one that burned so-called witches at the stake and excommunicated supposed heretics, one that started brutal wars and destroyed entire civilizations in the name of God, one that continues to breed intolerance toward women and anyone who does not identify as straight. However, I do not understand these actions/attitudes as manifestations of Christianity but perversions of it, just as the Gulag was a perversion of Karl Marx’s humanistic philosophy and the Taliban is a perversion of another beautiful religion, Islam.
I don’t claim knowledge of the truth, but for me, Christianity is the best path toward it.
What evidence or experience (if any) would cause you to stop believing in God?
For me, faith is very subjective, and I suspect that what would most likely cause me to lose it would be some sort of drastically traumatic personal experience in which I felt God’s absence very strongly, as it appears to have happened to Elie Weisel in the Holocaust. As for empirical evidence against God…The reality is that (for the moment anyway) there isn’t any. I know that this is a claim which atheists dispute, but for now at least, science has been unable to prove or disprove God’s existence. Also, I do not consider science the only valid approach to human knowledge. It is certainly the best means of explaining to us how the universe works, but it cannot tell us why the universe exists, or what the purpose of life is. For this we turn to other sources: art, philosophy and (for some people) religion. Some Christians concede that a confirmed discovery of the remains of the body of Christ in Jerusalem would force them to abandon Christianity, for its central claim – that Christ rose from the dead – would be proven false. However, I do not think that this would be enough to make me abandon Christianity. The religion would be proven factually false, but I maintain that factual truth is not the only kind of truth. At best, Christ is the God who created the universe and destroyed death; at worst, he’s a very wise man who was just a little bit better than the rest of us, and that alone, for me, is enough of a reason to follow his teachings and seek to emulate his life.
I do not believe that Christianity has a stronger truth claim than other religions. Religion is the creation of fallible human beings who are very limited in our capacity to understand God. Consequently, all religions contain many flaws, and while all can claim to approach the truth, none can claim to have attained it (and, with the exception of the fundamentalists, most religions do not make this claim). No one knows for certain whether or not God exists, or whether or not humans have an immortal soul, or what (if anything) happens to us after death. Religion is a product of the human imagination. While critics of religion would dismiss this imaginative nature of religion as grounds for its falsity, I maintain that imagination is one of our most important human faculties. The ability to tell stories and find beauty and meaning in our experience constitutes a significant part of who we are, and in my view, this drive for myth and narrative is the most important thing that religion offers to humanity.
My decision to be a Christian is a very subjective one, and to be honest, it’s based largely upon aesthetics. Whether or not you believe in Christ’s divinity, it is hard to dispute that this outspoken, passionate man who healed the sick and ate with tax collectors was a beautiful person. The parables which he tells are beautiful stories; the morality which he outlines is a beautiful morality. Of course, one might argue that all religions contain such beauty – and they do. Christianity is just the one that speaks to me most personally.
How do you read the Bible? Do you study the history of its translations? How do you decide which translations/versions/books are the true Bible? How does it guide you if you have a moral or theological dilemma?
I belong to a Christian denomination which is notorious for its lack of biblical knowledge; the majority of us encounter the Bible in a liturgical setting, where various passages are read, but very few actually study it. I must confess that I have not yet compared translations or read the apocryphal books of the Bible (though both of these activities are definitely on my to-do list)! Also, I do not interpret the Bible literally, but as an allegory and an image of one particular human community’s experience of the Divine.
Other than one religion class taken in high school, I have only studied the Bible seriously while preparing to teach it to a group of literature students. In this class we read the New Revised Standard edition of the Bible as a secular literary text. Interestingly, reading the Bible in this nonreligious context allowed me to rethink my faith and to renew my religious beliefs. I was struck by the various images of God in the Old Testament, which I view as complementary rather than contradictory (the transcendent creator-God in the first Genesis creation story followed by the immanent human-God in the second one, for example) and the revolutionary spirit of the New Testament (I sometimes wonder if most Christians even realize that we believed in a God who told us to give all our possessions to the poor, to drop absolutely everything in order to follow him, and to love our enemies). I do sometimes turn to the Bible for inspiration in times of moral crisis; I have several favorite passages, and when feeling flippant I occasionally open the book to a random page (Magic 8-Ball style!) and read whatever message I find there, just as Augustine did.
Voting opens Friday afternoon