Come and See: Why I Am (Still) A Christian

Come and See: Why I Am (Still) A Christian December 21, 2018

In a sermon towards the end of 2015, the (now former) pastor of my church encouraged us to do what the disciples are depicted as doing in the early part of the Gospel of John: tell our story. It had been a long while since I’ve done so here, and so I thought I’d seize the opportunity. But for some reason it didn’t happen right away, and got saved as a draft post. When the Patheos Progressive Christian began getting bloggers to share their perspectives on why they are still Christians, I thought I would return to this topic and tell my story of upbringing, coming to personal faith, and remaining a Christian. I worked on it some more, but once again didn’t finish and publish the post.

Eventually, though, something prompted me to finally finish it. I found myself talking in my Sunday school class a few weeks ago about the Greeks who come to see Jesus in John 12. This inquiry of non-Jews works in the Gospel on two levels, as does so much else. Greek-speaking Gentiles (even if converts to Judaism or “God fearers”) would not be readily identifiable as such, and so would probably be suspect – are these people who are interested in Jesus because the Roman authorities are interested in him, with a view to apprehending him? This turning point in the Gospel thus makes for both a natural connection with the arrival of the hour and the prediction of Jesus’ death, but also a theological thematic one as the crucifixion-exaltation of Jesus will lead to his lordship being proclaimed to a wider world. We also talked about the shape and extent of that world in an ancient context. And we also connected with the changing view of the world that we now know is spherical, and more widely inhabited across a vaster surface than ancient peoples envisaged.

Here’s my own story’s highlights, which I’ve shared at least some of on this blog in the past. I grew up Roman Catholic, and in my teens drifted away from attendance – although not from searching for God – having found that the experience of undergoing confirmation failed to impact me personally. I was extremely confused and regularly depressed as a teenager, as I suspect most of us are, and so I’m not sure that I need to elaborate on anything to do with specific circumstances or details. Confirmation was supposed to involve receiving the Holy Spirit, I thought, and yet I felt no different.

I wrote songs about God, still seeking. Eventually, I happened across a contemporary Christian radio program (playing music by artists like Michael W. Smith, Amy Grant, and Bryan Duncan), and was struck by the way they seemed to have a reality to their faith experience that had thus far eluded me. My songs were an expression of what I felt I was looking for, not something I had found or could take for granted as part of my lived experience the way they could.

Not long after, I was invited to a concert one Saturday evening at a Pentecostal church by a friend at school. My impression of the music was similar to what I had heard on the radio, and a song with the refrain “I say yes, Lord” made a particular impression on me. I went back to the church the following morning, and at the end of the service I prayed to God, saying, “I don’t know what your way of living is, but mine isn’t working, and so whatever yours is, I want to try it.” A sense of peace came over me, unlike anything I had ever experienced.

The rest, as they say, is history. The impact was immediate. At my workplace the next day my employer made a joke about the importance of money, and I suggested that God is more important. When my coworkers asked me when I had become religious, I answered honestly: “Yesterday.” Eventually I did volunteer work on children’s camps in Ireland, which led to connections with Christians of other denominations that led me to Belfast Bible College, and to the British educational system, which led to me meeting my wife, pursuing teaching, and studying for degrees in England. Over the course of studying the Bible and theology, my views evolved. I think that, because an experience rather than a creed was at the core and foundation of my faith, I was able to feel free to seek wholeheartedly after God and after truth in a way that did not require shielding my beliefs from critical examination. I’ve said more about that part of my journey elsewhere on the blog, as well as in my book The Burial of Jesus, which resulted directly from my wrestling with the relationship between faith and history (on which subject see also Andrew Perriman’s recent post about what the application of historical methods to the Bible has to do with being a Christian).

A commenter here on the blog recently asked about my connection with young-earth creationism, and so I will also add a little about that (which I also shared in a comment in reply, but many may not have seen it there). The short version is that I was taken to hear a young-earth creationist speaker after coming to a personal faith in my teens, and accepted what I heard and incorporated it into my Evangelical worldview. I worked antievolution ideas and emphases into lots of conversations and even formal talks that I gave in my evangelistic fervor. I was also eager to learn more on the topic, and so I found the book Science and Creationism, edited by Ashley Montagu, in a public library, checked it out, and read it – and discovered that I had been lied to. And so I dropped YEC – and learned the important lesson in the process that my life-changing religious experience did not mean that everything that I heard within the circles of those who share that experience is trustworthy. I’d say that the educational value of my error and having it shown to me has been particularly helpful as I’ve sought to integrate the various components of my worldview as I’ve grown and studied further.

I recently had a sermon in my church help me formulate a specific succinct answer to the question “Why am I an American Baptist?” My answer is, because I find that it helps me to be a Christian.

Those are some of the key moments in my story. I am a Christian for many reasons, which include upbringing and circumstances, a life-changing personal experience, and the ongoing meaning I find in the challenging message of a crucified messiah. The answer to the question “Why are you a ______?” should never be answered just in terms of a past experience, however crucial that experience may have been. It needs to be answered in the present tense as well.

And so let me share my “Creed” – a song I wrote after a conversation in my Sunday school class led to reflection on how, traditionally, Christian creeds have focused almost exclusively on what people believe, and not at all on what people do.

See also Vance Morgan on why he isn’t an atheistZack Hunt’s post on the gulf between what it means to be a Christian and what Christians often say and do, Rob Moll on the biological basis of spiritualityChristian Century on personal relationships with Jesus, Rachel Held Evans on the Why Christian? conference, and other sources on progressive Christian identity and the defense of progressive Christian views and values.

See too:

The Atheist Who Spoke to God

Why I Am Still a Christian

My Statement of Faith

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Thanks for sharing some parts of your story, James. Illuminating for all of us and cool to get to know you better.

    • John MacDonald

      Hey Phil,

      I’m curious as to what you think about why people are leaving Christianity. For instance, Dr. John Marriott points out that:

      It’s always hard to determine exact numbers. And we all know that you can get statistics to say just about anything you want. But in the case of faith exit, it really does seem to be the case that people are leaving the faith in droves.

      For example, In 2001, the Southern Baptist Convention reported they are losing between 70 and 88 percent of their youth after their freshman year in college. Of SBC teenagers involved in church youth groups, 70 percent stopped attending church within two years of their high school graduation. The following year, the Southern Baptist Council on Family Life also reported that 88 percent of children in evangelical [Baptist] homes leave church by the age of eighteen. The Barna Group announced in 2006 that 61 percent of young adults who were involved in church during their teen years were now spiritually disengaged.

      Supporting Barna’s findings, a 2007 Assemblies of God study reported that between 50 percent and 67 percent of Assemblies of God young people who attend a non-Christian public or private university will have left the faith four years after entering college. A similar study from LifeWay Research that came out the same year claimed that 70 percent of students lose their faith in college, and of those only 35 percent eventually return. In May 2009, Robert Putnam and David Campbell presented research from their book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, to the Pew Forum study on “Religion and Public Life,” in which they claimed that young Americans are leaving religion at five to six times the historic rate. They also noted that the percentage of young Americans who identify as having no religion is between 30 and 40 percent, up from between 5 and 10 percent only a generation ago.

      That same year, the Fuller Youth Institute’s study “The College Transition Project” discovered that current data seems “to suggest that about 40 to 50 percent of students in youth groups struggle to retain their faith after graduation. The 2010 UCLA study “Spirituality in Higher Education” found that only 29 percent of college students regularly attended church after their junior year, down from 52 percent the year before they entered college. A second UCLA study, “The College Student Survey,” asked students to indicate their present religious commitment. Researchers then compared the responses of freshmen who checked the “born again” category with the answers they gave four years later when they were seniors. What they found was shocking. On some campuses as high as 59 percent of students no longer described themselves as “born again.”

      Given what we know regarding the loss of faith among American young people, it will come as no surprise that America’s Class of 2018 cares less about their religious identity than any previous college freshman class in the last forty years. A third study by UCLA found that students across the U.S. are disassociating themselves from religion in record numbers. “The American Freshman” study reveals that nearly 28 percent of the 2014 incoming college freshman do not identify with any religious faith. That is a sharp increase from 1971 when only 16 percent of freshman said they did not identify with a specific religion.

      I’m curious as to your thoughts about this …

      • Unsurprisingly, I do have thoughts about this!

        Although, we should bracket this by saying that we’re really talking about a Western phenomenon. All your statistics, unless I missed something, are American. So, that factors into our analysis of this. I think it can be easy to have a skewed picture of “what’s happening” when we don’t consider that, worldwide, these are not the dominant trends at all.

        I mention that because I think it’s a significant factor. Most countries in the West have been heavily shaped historically by Christianity in some form or fashion. That’s not to say that America was a Christian nation or anything like that, but culturally speaking, it’s hard to overlook the influence of a Christianized Roman Empire on the West, both for good and ill.

        A number of factors are dismantling this edifice, though.

        One is the rise of the basic philosophical critique of entrenched cultural assumptions and institutions. Although Americans of all stripes are still overly in love with modernism, this has come under fire and, even for those people who are still fundamentally modernist in their outlook, some of the social ills have made greater critique necessary. There’s a strong association between “traditional” and “social ill” that is not at all unfounded. We’re entering an era when people not only don’t “have” to be “Christianish” outwardly, but may actually be perceived as contributing to social ills if they are. People are interested in structural justice in new ways with new zeal, which is awesome, but holding to at least older forms of religion is often seen as a barrier to this, and for good reasons, usually.

        For instance, it wasn’t long ago that I was talking to a friend of mine who used to be an evangelical (of the good sort) and recently told me that he wasn’t a Christian anymore because he wanted to stand in solidarity with the gay community (he’s not gay, himself). While one could argue that isn’t a necessary separation, for him it was. It wasn’t so much a matter of changing theistic beliefs as it was abandoning what he thought was a socially destructive force.

        Another reason is that, especially for Americans still very modernistic in their thought, science is quickly taking the place of both oracle and savior. The application of the scientific method has produced data and interpretations that undermine at least a literal understanding of many of the biblical stories. While even ancient peoples knew that snakes didn’t talk, they did have certain cosmologies that Genesis depends on that science has demonstrated are not real. This affects the perception of the credbility of biblical writings in general and the integrity of certain theological ideas in specific. Although Darwinism was not the first blow to this, it was perhaps the most decisive.

        This was especially destructive because, again – limiting this to America and perhaps the West more generally – Christianity was often presented as being tied to relatively literal understandings of the biblical writings often divorced from their Jewish world and concerns, and this happened VERY early on in church dogma, beginning with those initial Greco-Roman theologians who got their hands on these very Jewish scriptures. And this only got sharper in recent American history. So, we sort of grew into the shape of our coffin. When you tell someone, “Either the earth is 6000 years old or the whole Bible is a lie,” eventually people will start accepting the other horn of that dilemma, and people who are thoughtful and honest are going to go with the horn that is increasingly, demonstrably true.

        However, what most research is bearing out, once again speaking mostly about America, is that people are leaving the institutional forms of Christianity that have historically been prevalent in America, but they are not necessarily abandoning spiritual interest or theism. My hope would be that the church could use this as an opportunity to correct herself.

        • John MacDonald

          I know as a young secular humanist I gravitated toward the idea that “If this part of the bible supposedly inspired by God is wrong, why should we have confidence in any other part of the bible that is supposedly inspired by God?” I think this is a large part of the point of the online Skeptic’s Annotated Bible: https://skepticsannotatedbible.com/ . Another part of this is trying to show God isn’t worthy of praise, e.g., “And I will cause them to eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters, and they shall eat every one the flesh of his friend. – Jeremiah 19:9.” Coming in contact with liberal Christians has been good for me because it helped broaden my perspective of what faith is.

          • Well, yeah, and that also goes into what it means for something to be “inspired by God,” which is probably one of the more fundamental distinctions between more traditional and more progressive ideas of Christianity.

          • John MacDonald

            I tend to see liberal Christians as having a more “Critical (in Kant’s sense)” faith compared to conservatives; having a more rigorous analysis/focus regarding what falls within the pursuit of faith and what does not. Kant challenged the often rigorous Philosophy before him for uncritically pursuing content beyond the limits of reason.

      • Neil Brown

        Religion can be used to guide my life, or to try to control yours. The former approach leads to growth – if it works. The latter will always struggle in a liberal democracy.

  • John MacDonald

    As for my personal journey, there are a number of reasons I belong to the Bajoran religion, and still maintain that faith on the Deep Space Nine Space Station. I was brought up on Bajor in a deeply religious family, so I guess it makes sense I have powerful faith, even if I have questioned things about it, such as a particular Kai. My faith is centered around the Worm Hole near our planet, as the Bajoran religion states that the wormhole is actually a celestial temple occupied by the Prophets, gods who communicate with and guide the Bajoran people using artifacts and visions recorded in sacred texts.

    There is a stratified system through which the Bajoran faith is organized. The spiritual leader of the Bajor is called the Kai and is elected by the Vedeks in the Vedek assembly (similar to the election of Earth’s Catholic Pope by the College of Cardinals). I have known numerous Vedeks and Kais, and my religion has brought about intrigues of the political and social components of any organized religion.

    I am a competent and effective member of the crew on Deep Space Nine, who benefits greatly from my religiosity. I perform the various rituals and praying, and my faith provides me with both guidance and a moral and spiritual axis that centres and empowers me. I struggle with my faith at times, but continue to experience the enduring and supportive role that religion brings and benefits my life. I have, though, had to struggle with the more fundamentalist aspects of my religion, such as when Vedek Winn protests the space station’s schoolteacher teaching that the sky phenomenon was a wormhole and not a celestial temple.

    – From the journal of Major Kira Nerys, liaisons officer, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Federation Station.

  • Thank you for sharing this.

    “…it didn’t happen write away…”

    I choose to believe the pun is intentional.

  • Illithid

    “I was also eager to learn more on the topic, and so I found the book Science and Creationism, edited by Ashley Montagu, in a public library, checked it out, and read it – and discovered that I had been lied to. And so I dropped YEC…”

    *applause* The ability to be swayed by evidence to change one’s mind is rare and noteworthy.

  • robrecht

    “… “Why am I an American Baptist?” My answer is, because I find that it helps me to be a Christian. …”

    I don’t know much about Baptists, but I have heard that some supposedly claimed their origins went back to John the Baptist. Interesting that you have also been studying the Mandaens, some of whom also claimed pre-‘Christian’ origins with John the Baptist (or earlier). I wouldn’t suppose that you ascribe to either of these views, of course, but it is interesting nonetheless. Since Jesus was Jewish and not Christian, it’s moot.

    • I have heard that there are Baptists who are so biblically and historically ignorant as to think their denomination actually goes back to John the Baptist. I find it depressing to think about.

      On a lighter note, once when I was going to a conference about the Mandaeans, I told my Sunday school class that I was headed to a conference about “non-christian baptists.” The puzzled looks were exactly what I hoped for…

      • robrecht

        Don’t be too depressed. I suspect those ahistorical Baptists were perhaps merely trying to counter ahistorical Roman Catholics who were trying to perpetrate and perpetuate the myth that Peter and the apostles were the first Pope and bishops. I’ve also heard good things about Baptists preferring the inviolable rights of conscience over creeds. They can’t be all bad.