Last month, the latest Pew Research Center survey on American religion confirmed that our nation is becoming less and less religious. From 2007 to 2014, the percentage of Americans calling themselves Christian dropped from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent, while the percentage of people claiming no religious affiliation at all (the so-called “nones”) went from 16.1 percent to 20.8 percent.
In America today, a lack of religious commitment is both more common and more socially acceptable than ever. Church attendance is no longer a mandate or even expectation. Most of us aren’t surprised to learn that celebrities or our office mates are dabbling in diverse spiritual practices, from Buddhist mindfulness and Hindu yoga to pagan solstice rituals and Jewish kabbalah. As Christianity becomes increasingly peripheral to American culture, the news media love to showcase our faith’s more unpleasant and controversial representatives, such as Westboro Baptist Church, making Christianity look like a refuge for the ridiculous and an excuse for evil. And even in vibrant faith communities (including my own Episcopal church), many Christians readily question traditional doctrines, such as the virgin birth, Jesus’s divinity, and the existence of heaven and hell.
Given these realities, it’s remarkable that anyone still goes to church. So why do we? Why are we still Christians? Why am I still a Christian?
I’m not a Christian because I’ve worked out a detailed and cohesive theology that answers every big question. The Bible, for me, is not a history book. It doesn’t answer every question about who God is and who we are, or solve every problem facing humankind. The Bible is, rather, a collection of stories that invite us to contemplate human life and the created order, and through which we encounter what is holy and eternal.
I’m still a Christian because the Biblical story speaks to my deepest needs, longings, pleasures, and pains.
I’m still a Christian because the Biblical story communicates a world view that makes sense to me.
I’m still a Christian because the Biblical story affirms five core beliefs that I see at work in my life, in humankind, and in the world.
I believe that the universe was created with meaning and purpose—In his song “Big Mistake,” David Wilcox sings:
They taught us kids in school between the recess breaks/That the universe just sorta fell together like a Big Mistake/It started with a bang that sent the pieces flying/Then it cooled and twirled into dinosaurs and dandelions…Now back to science class through the looking glass/We were magnifying little ancestors of our ancient past/Watch ’em break a couple chromosomes, wait a zillion years or so/And get an ostrich, a jellyfish, a kangaroo, and a Romeo
I accept the scientific evidence for both the Big Bang and evolution. But I share Wilcox’s skepticism that the sheer miraculous tenacity of life, the existence of things like beauty and love, and the absurd variety of creatures are all just happenstance. When I look at geologic and human history, I see pattern, purposeful movement, and so many intangibles—love being the most significant and profound. I can’t help but conclude that some purposeful force is at work behind all of it, a force we call God.
I believe that love is a significant and powerful force in the universe—Like Anne Hathaway’s character in the film “Interstellar,” I believe that love is neither mere sentiment nor an evolutionary blip to ensure that adults will keep their babies alive. Love carries practical benefits, sure. But in so many ways, love doesn’t make sense. Love inspires us to sacrifice our own good, even our very lives, to benefit others. Love transcends time and space. Love makes us want to be better versions of ourselves. Love requires relationship; love can’t arise from nothing. God is not some mere tinkerer, cobbling together worlds and creatures just because God can. Love is a real force, as powerful and significant as gravity or motion, that emanates from the creator and sustainer of the universe—a God who desires relationship, a God whose very being is defined as love.
God gives all we need.
We mess up—again, always.
But God’s love won’t fail.
Even if you’re suspicious of the Bible—because of how it’s been thumped over your head and used to justify all kinds of nonsense and terror—if you’ve ever had a best friend, or a spouse, or a child, you already know how love trumps struggle, brokenness, and pain. You already understand that love wins.
I believe in resurrection—The resurrection of Jesus Christ is central to Christian belief, and there are many different ways of understanding and interpreting it. But in the broadest sense, my faith rests not on my belief in the resurrection, but on my belief in resurrection as a reality woven into creation. As I’ve written before:
When it comes right down to it, this is why I am a Christian. I believe not only in the Resurrection—in an empty tomb in Palestine two thousand years ago and all that means for humanity—but also in everyday resurrections. Like a dead house being reborn into a lively home for a growing family. Like a friendly puppy frolicking in the same yard where we tried so hard to make a timid, anxious dog into a thriving family pet, and ultimately failed. Like the summertime itself, the season I have always disliked for its enervating heat and humidity and my childhood associations with summer surgeries, becoming a season that I can savor for its long days with time for sitting on a bench in the sun while the puppy digs and the children play.
These everyday resurrections point to the truth that I cling to when faced with darkness, whether in my own home or in the world: that light is stronger than dark, that love is stronger than death, and that “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38–39).
I believe that Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection provide a uniquely powerful response to the problem of evil and suffering—If God’s love is so powerful, why is there so much pain and suffering in the world? That’s one of the most fundamental questions that any theistic faith must grapple with. The Christian understanding of Jesus Christ as both fully human and fully divine, along with the doctrine of the Trinity, whereby God comprises three persons existing in relationship with one another, provides a uniquely moving response to the problem of pain and evil. When Jesus Christ was tortured to death on a cross, God knew, for the first and only time in history, what it feels like to be godforsaken—bereft, abandoned, hopeless. On the cross, God was with us in our suffering in the most profound way possible, because God suffered as we do. And the resurrection that followed was evidence, once again, that life is more powerful than death, love more powerful than hate.
The cross is the means of reconciliation between God and humankind, not because Christ paid our debt but because Christ (Godself in human flesh) suffered as sharply, in his physical pain and spiritual abandonment, as we do. I have come to realize that the classic line from Romans 6:23 used to support the penal substitution theory, “The wages of sin is death,” is not about a cosmic death penalty, but about cause and effect. If we remain mired in our sinful, selfish, unloving ways, the result is death—of spirit, of love, of possibilities, of a life in which we can truly flourish and nurture a world in which others can also flourish. If we follow Jesus, learning to live with generosity, hospitality, and forgiveness, and to value what Jesus (God) values, we will live a new kind of life. And this way, the way of Jesus who suffered as we do, is the only thing that ultimately prevails against the death-dealing ways of humankind and our broken world. Love that suffers with and for God’s beloved people is the only thing that can prevail in this way.
So those are the five core beliefs, expressed in the Biblical narrative, that keep me claiming the label “Christian.” Can I prove these beliefs to the skeptical? Nope. Do I think that the Christian version of these core beliefs is the only one that matters? Nope again. Other faith traditions can also attest to a universe infused with meaning, the supremacy of love, and the power of life over death (though I still think that God’s suffering on the cross provides a uniquely eloquent statement about God’s presence in our despair).
All I can do is offer a sincere witness that these core beliefs help me make sense of the world. I see these beliefs at work in my self, my family, my community, and the world every single day. There is so much I don’t understand…Now I see through a glass, darkly, and all that (1 Corinthians 13:12). But these core beliefs give off just enough light to allow me to keep putting one foot in front of another, living and loving and hoping. I don’t need any more than that.