For years I’ve convinced myself that I based my faith on a dogged pursuit of truth. “If I’m wrong about this,” I’d tell myself, “I want to know. So I’ll follow the truth until my beliefs align with reality. If that means letting go of Christianity, so be it.”
Now, I’m not so confident that this was true. As I look back over the last 15 years, I recognize how I’ve rewritten and reorganized my belief system in ways that allowed me to hold onto it. As my personal posture became more inclusive and my view of the world became more hopeful, I struggled to craft a faith that would accommodate me.
I’m not sure that absolute truth was ever my goal—and I’m not sure it should have been. We all subscribe to personal mythologies and legends. We’re constantly telling ourselves a story that puts us (and our chosen deity or philosophy) at the center of the narrative. So what we call “truth” is more a reflection from our vantage point than it is a genuine epistemological expression.
Today, I’m less interested in the “truth” of Christianity. Instead, I’m trying to decide whether Jesus and I need to recognize our irreconcilable differences, sign our divorce papers, and be done with it.
But if I’m being honest, I’ve been afraid of taking an ax to the root of this tree. It’s been the center of my identity for so long. Letting go impacts familial ties and long-standing community relationships. It confirms the prejudices of those who hate deconstruction’s work, and it can be seen as condescending to my loved ones who still choose to believe.
Over the next couple of weeks (months?), however, I intend to dive into this troubling narrative with both feet. It’s time to be honest with myself about where I am and give voice to others struggling with their faith stories.
When Christianity doesn’t deliver on its promise
There’s something wrong with humanity. And Christianity tells a compelling story about what it is that’s wrong with people (once you get past the rustic garden and the talking snake). And for the longest time, this explanation kept me ensconced behind the church’s stained-glass windows. Humankind’s disobedience meant it could not live up to its potential.
Christianity has this dramatic redemptive arc about a God that inhabits the flesh of a man and dies to reconcile humanity with Himself. And there’s such beauty and tenderness to this story that people tend to forget that the symbol of their faith (and favorite pendant) is a Roman torture device.
But on the back side of this narrative, I began to see real cracks in my faith. Christianity offers more than heaven when you die. Through the advent of God’s Spirit, the New Testament promises that Jesus’ followers would become more loving, joyful, peaceful, kinder, gentler, and a whole host of other positive traits.
I wish Christians would be more honest about how rarely this fruit is actually manifested. And I’m not looking at the most obnoxious and mean-spirited examples of Christians in the media. I’m talking about the people in my small and largely “Christian” town. I’m talking about the people in my family.
I’m talking about me.
Everything I’ve been told over every pulpit for the last thirty years and everything I’ve read promises a marked contrast in the character of those “filled with God’s Spirit” and everyone else. But I’d settle for even a marginal difference.
I hate to admit it, but my experience has demonstrated the opposite. Not only are Christians not kinder, gentler, and more loving than others, but an argument can be made that religious faith moves them in the opposite direction. And it’s not like they mature over time, eventually becoming filled with these spiritual fruits. Quite often they’re at their most loving immediately after conversion and, over time, become more exclusionary, insular, judgmental, controlling, and hard-hearted.
“You’re looking at the wrong thing”
When I would try to talk to others about this growing concern, they’d inevitably tell me the same thing. I shouldn’t look to others for proof that Christianity was real; I should look to Jesus. People are broken, but Jesus will never let us down.
But the New Testament instructs me to judge others by their fruit. The same has to be true of Christianity itself. You can’t tell me to ignore the visible manifestations of God’s salvation (people) and instead focus on the invisible and intangible qualities of what might be an imaginary being. That’s like telling me to quit examining the evidence of extraterrestrials and instead, focus on the fact that I really want aliens to be real.
Imagine if I started a weight-loss program that constantly told everyone not to focus on the fact that no one on this diet actually loses any weight. Instead, to focus on what I tell you is true about this diet. Ignore what you see and believe what you’re told.
One friend had a particularly interesting take on the idea that I was looking at the wrong evidence. He was certain that the miracle of faith wasn’t that people become better. His proof was demonstrated by the ways his appetite for the “things of God” grew. Once he became a Christian, he had a sudden hunger for Scripture. He suddenly wanted to go to church every week. He had a desire to pray. These signs were proof that something dramatic had happened in his heart.
Couldn’t you say the same about any belief system? A convert to Islam didn’t have the same desire to read the Qur’an before conversion. No one is committed to Dianetics before becoming a Scientologist.
I mean, let’s just be honest. If a desire to read core materials, attend gatherings of people who share your interests, and give a large percentage of your income to an organization is miraculous, then Dungeons & Dragons should establish itself as a religion and sign up for a 501(c)(3).
“But I know plenty of lovely Christians”
This discussion eventually turns toward the anecdotal evidence of wonderful and loving Christians. People will tell you of the good examples of Christians they know. My struggle isn’t whether or not there are sincere and loving Christians. I know there are. I could name hundreds of them.
The real question is whether or not Christianity made them delightful. I’d wager that quite a few of the beautiful Christians I know would be exemplary Buddhists, Sikhs, or atheists. Some people are naturally wonderful, and sometimes their faith gives them outlets to express those parts of themselves.
Again, one could offer examples of people who were changed by the gospel. The philanderer who changed his ways. The inmate who turned over a new leaf because of Jesus. Et al.
I don’t necessarily see these as proof of a religious system. People looking for positive change in their lives often look for a catalyst. It might be Judaism, or it might be Alcoholics Anonymous. The fact that someone leaned into a religious system and found the necessary inspiration to change their ways isn’t the proof of concept that we would like it to be.
What I’ve neglected to see in Christianity is a marked difference in the goodness of its adherents. I live in a country that likes to imagine itself to be a “Christian nation,” and that faith is too often expressed in the most unlovely ways.
It’s becoming way too difficult for me to ignore how ineffective Christianity is at changing Christians.