Tag Archives: doubt

Why Are You Even a Christian?

Christians who ask lots of questions or wear their evolving beliefs on their sleeves often incur the umbrage of other Christians still on the “inside.” There is a surprising amount of resentment toward those who publicly wrestle with faith and doubt. When I was looking through Christian memes for a recent post, I came across this one which hit home in a big way:

why are you christian

This is a variation on “why are you even a Christian?,” a question that has been directed at me more than once and at countless Christian seekers in “real life” and online. This really is an absurd and loaded question, but after I explain how absurd it is I think I’ll go ahead and answer it anyway.

“Why are you even a Christian?” is a rather rude and thoughtless way of scolding someone for not meeting our personal expectations. The assumption at the heart of this question is that I am a “normal” or mainstream type of Christian, and you have drifted so far from where I am that you no longer qualify. Or maybe I just look at you and wonder how you could possibly think those thoughts and ask those questions and even want to identify as Christian. Maybe this isn’t the right religion for you if you really think that way, and maybe we don’t want you anyway! Ultimately the question reveals a deep lack of self-awareness and a small and undercooked notion of what it means to be a Christian. It’s an implicit and lazy appeal to the status quo of institutional American Christianity and a thinly veiled judgment on someone else’s character.

I can think of three honest responses to the question “why are you even a Christian?”:

1. I was raised Christian (like most of us). 

2. I attend church and read the Bible and do many of the same Christian things that other Christians do.

3. I find Jesus endlessly compelling and choose to follow the path he taught and embodied. I am a Christian because I have faith (that is, vulnerable trust) in Jesus.

But maybe I should try and answer the real question, “how dare you defy my expectations?”:

The expectations and judgments of others cannot be the basis for something as personal and vital as how I interpret and experience faith in Jesus. If my journey and my thoughts are troubling to you, it might be that there are dimensions and aspects of life and faith that you have not considered. Or maybe we just have a genuine disagreement about what it means to be a Christian. Either way, we are both subjective voyagers, neither of us has the credentials or the authority to police the borders of true Christianity. We need each other’s questions and doubts just as much as we need kindness and encouragement.

I used to be where you are, and I was also puzzled and alarmed when people asked inappropriate questions. In fact, reaching back, I start to recall my old reasons for clinging to Christianity: obligation, fear, expedience, inheritance, expectation… And all of that is a recipe for anxiety and unhappiness. If I had a chance to talk with my young self I might ask him, “why are YOU even a Christian?” Turns out it’s an excellent question, if you ask the right person.


Follow-Up to “Do You Have to Believe in Hell and Angels…?”

This is a brief follow-up to last week’s post “Do people have to believe in hell and angels before they can follow Jesus?” I’ve been thinking a lot about the questions I raised in that post, and had a few good conversations with Christian friends about it. My overall feeling after much consideration and thought is this: it is surely much better to remain agnostic concerning the supernatural than it is to doubt (or forfeit) values like compassion and mercy. This is particularly true given that the church has often erred in the opposite direction, certain about details of the afterlife and apocalyptic schedules but cautious and dubious about grace and inclusion. And after all, one of the major revelations of the New Testament is that God accepts all those who “do His will” regardless of who they are and what they believe (Acts 10:34-35).

But there is a big “gotcha” in this discussion, one which I didn’t address in the original post. That is the question of the resurrection. Isn’t it necessary that one must believe in the miracle of the resurrection to be a Christian who is “right with God”? This seems to be a juncture where belief in the supernatural becomes absolutely bundled up with Christianity. And here’s the thing: in no way do I wish to sidestep or deny the centrality of the resurrection to our faith. This is the heart and soul of what we believe! However, the fact that this comes before us as a divisive question about faith versus skepticism, belief versus exclusion, indicates just how far we’ve strayed from the essence of the gospel, and how hard we’ve worked to separate the ethos of Jesus from the pathos of his story.

A major misstep by both sides of the “religion vs. science” debates is this violent division between the sacred and the mundane, between the miracle and the message. The traditional camp has been all too happy to distinguish the miracles and passion of Jesus from his life and ethics, and to emphasize the former at the cost of the latter. Skeptics then engage them at their point of emphasis, and the central issue becomes whether or not modern/postmodern people can bring themselves to believe in these sorts of claims anymore. But without their original narrative contexts and resonance, without the story, miraculous and supernatural claims are just arbitrary and kind of empty. If you believe them, you are in. If you don’t, you are out. But what does it benefit one’s character or the world around them which side of the divide they happen find themselves on?

In the story, Jesus’ miracles are not random magic tricks, they are “signs of the kingdom.” He heals human lives as a sign that peace and forgiveness have come to Israel. In the story, Jesus doesn’t die to satisfy God or become a theological hero, he is killed by a corrupt empire because influential people were unsettled by his teachings about the kingdom. In the story, Jesus isn’t resurrected as a tacked-on happy ending or so that Christians can belong to the correct religion. God raises him up in full public vindication of his prophetic message about the coming of the kingdom. There is no point in the story at which the events and claims surrounding Jesus’ life are not directly connected to his teaching about a loving God and a kingdom of peace. The story is not “these things happened and so Christianity is true,” it’s “these things happened and so grace and reconciliation and freedom and mercy are true!”

This is why I reject the rigid and literalistic belief/disbelief binary that uses supernatural claims and miracles as a litmus test for belonging to a religious tribe. We are invited into a story, and the story means something. You can choose to believe every detail in the narrative with all of your heart without ever being affected or transformed by their meaning. Or, you might find yourself struggling with the details of the story but gobsmacked by their implications. You might find yourself drawn into hope and discovery and illumination, even though you’re not sure what you believe. If we embrace the miracles but not the meaning, we’re no better off than we were. But if we embrace the meaning, the miracles are not far off. 


Smarter Than God

Christians who explore scholarship or otherwise demonstrate curiosity and a willingness to question tradition are often met with disapproval and suspicion by other Christians. I’ve experienced this myself since attending seminary and even more since blogging about issues of Bible interpretation. I see it happening to others all the time, especially online. One particular phrase that comes up again and again and encapsulates the pushback experienced by curious Christians is “smarter than God.” As in, “you think you’re smarter than God?” It’s a religious variation on “too smart for your own good.”

Publicly question the traditional reading of a Bible passage, dissect the logic of a Christian aphorism, or voice an unpopular political opinion and you’re likely to run up against this warning. But is it actually possible to understand too much about your religion, or about anything? Is it really dangerous to seek deeper understanding or to change your mind about important issues? Is there a threshold of knowledge or intellect beyond which God can no longer guarantee your safety and well being? Of course not. What a dumb idea.  Continue reading


Three Ideas That Saved My Faith

I’ve never been much of a skeptic or a doubter. At the same time, I’ve never found science or scholarship to be threatening. I find reality more interesting than conceit, and trust that whatever seems reasonably true and good is something I should embrace. God and Jesus have always seemed as true to me as history and photosynthesis.

After seminary and some personal crises of faith – mostly involving the Bible and politics – my faith in the traditional formulations of Evangelical religion in which I was reared began to crumble. My esteem for Jesus wasn’t on the chopping block, but almost every other aspect of my Christian identity was. At one point, I would have been very happy to drop the label “Christian” and just be a Jesus fan. The tenets and strictures that were being torn down on a daily basis far outnumbered new and constructive ideas. I was almost done.

But in the last five years or so, I’ve experienced the surprising excitement of reading, listening, praying, conversing, and thinking my way into some new arenas of Christian hope and identity. They are new to me, anyway. There are many ideas that have invigorated and sustained me as a Christian in this new season of my life, but here are three that changed everything and rescued my dimming faith.

1. The Bible as a Diverse Library

This is the main topic of this blog, so I won’t oversell the idea here. But the reason I’m so intent on calling my fellow Christians to reexamine their approach to the Bible is that my own spiritual progress remained stalled and stifled until my view of scripture had been radically transformed.

The Bible is a collection of diverse, disparate texts, often in explicit or implied dialog, often in disagreement, all unaware that they are destined to become part of a collection known as “the Bible.” These are ancient works of persuasive human creativity which we consider to be inspired and sacred, but which bear the markings of the human personalities which crafted them. To read the Bible as a unified, monolithic whole is to miss the trees for the forest. The “perfect” Christian Bible that teaches a simple, straightforward, linear theological plan is a fiction. This error has kept us from a) learning to discern and appreciate unique individual voices in scripture, b) comparing and contrasting those voices, discovering harmonies and confronting tensions, and c) isolating and embracing the uniquely authoritative voice of Jesus.

2. The Anti-sacrificial (Nonviolent) Reading of the Bible

Traditional readings of the Bible which deny or obscure its diversity and polyvocality almost inevitably confound the message and work of Jesus with elements of ancient sacrificial religion which pervade the canon. In this popular view, God really does require blood sacrifice and punishment to keep Himself satisfied, and Jesus is the ultimate human sacrifice, the one that finally got (some of) us off the hook. This reading, accepted by millions of Protestant Christians as the only responsible and correct one, does great injustice to the character and reputation of God and dilutes and complicates the gospel of Jesus Christ. It sees violence as woven into the very fabric of the universe, and divine violence as the inevitable climax of human history.

Through the work of writers, teachers, and luminaries like Brian Zahnd, Brad Jersak, N.T. Wright, James Allison, Walter Brueggemann, Michael Hardin and René Girard (to name just a few), I have encountered various strains of nonviolent and anti-sacrificial theology. These are careful and faithful readings of scripture that understand Jesus as a corrective and liberating revelation of God’s true nature. Girard (for example) identifies in the Bible two unique voices: the mythical voice of the “vengeful victim” (eg. Abel) and the fresh voice of a “forgiving victim” (eg. Joseph) who interrupts the cycle of human retribution. This reading sees Jesus as the ultimate forgiving victim, who exposed the violent sins of religion and empire on the cross, and announced divine forgiveness upon his peaceful resurrection. In a nutshell, it takes “mercy not sacrifice” very seriously.

Such an interpretive scheme doesn’t pretend that the whole Bible is inherently nonviolent or anti-sacrificial, as if to impose modern liberal sensibilities back onto the text (an easy but lazy critique). Instead, it finds prophetic threads of anti-sacrifice and forgiving victimhood inherent to the texts and identifies these as the divine voice by which all others are challenged. To my heart and mind, this reading illuminates and animates the texts of the Bible in shocking, beautiful and unbearably profound ways. It accounts for the true nature of the Bible and does not impose a false uniformity. It exposes the true depths of our sin and the staggering extent of divine forgiveness. It gives voice to victims and reveals God as a loving co-sufferer rather than a doer of harm. It illuminates the way to true salvation and peace.

3. Hopeful, Open-ended Eschatology

As a child I would lie awake at night, terrified that the rapture would happen at any moment and my life would be over. Of course, as a Christian, I understood that my “real” life would only just begin at that moment, but I didn’t care. The prospect of leaving behind the world of friends and movies and cartoons and girls and going to the boring eternal church service in the sky was horrifying. Likewise, for many conservative Christian adults, the “end times” are a terrifying and violent inevitability, a doomsday brought about by the rampant sin of unbelieving people. But for Christians who claim to believe in this imminent reality, shouldn’t the revelation of God and the culmination of His purposes be a thing of beauty and delight? Something is very wrong.

Embracing a diverse, human Bible and exploring its inherent witness to a nonviolent theology also opens the possibility for a more holistic and hopeful eschatology. If the Bible is not a strict, flat, literal blueprint for an immediate and bleak future; if God is not a bloodthirsty punisher; if salvation encompasses all of creation and not just civilized, self-interested humans; if religious war and divine violence are not the inevitable climax of history; then there is room for hope. There is as much room for human progress, climate rescue, and “peace in our time” as there is for eternal salvation, new creation, and the peaceable kingdom of God. There is real hope, not that we might survive Armageddon, but that we might reject it and choose life instead.