Most of us with a religious faith go through ups and downs during our developmental years. Many teens and college students drift away from the bible stories of youth. Some lose their faith entirely during college years, dumping church attendance in the process.
A fair number gravitate back to some aspect of belief in God when family and kids come along. There is a ritual to religion that feels foundational.
Last week while dining with some very close friends with whom I attended college, the subject of religion came up. Some religious courses were required at Luther College, and it turned out both of us had taken the same New Testament class with a certain instructor who shall remain nameless. “It was so boring,” my friend said. “It turned me off to religion even more.” I recall feeling the same way. The dull thud of theology rendered in legalistic terms bounced right off my brain at the time.
Most of my Sunday mornings in those days were occupied with long runs rather than attending church anyway. In the fall we’d race on Saturday and rise together as a team on Sunday mornings for 20-mile runs at 6:00 pace. Which was insane. We should have been running much slower than that on our long runs. Yet something in our team culture made us go fast, all the time.
So I swear I did see God several times during those long runs in the hills around Decorah, Iowa. Then one warm September morning our coach stopped with a van at 10 miles to offer us something to drink.
“Coach?” one of us asked. “Warm lemonade? Really?”
Most of us skipped the drink entirely. In fact, we seldom really hydrated on any of our runs. Run 10 miles in sixty minutes? Quite typical for us. Who has time to stop and drink? We just didn’t do it. Still, it didn’t keep some of us from muttering, “Jesus Christ, I’m thirsty.”
Thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain? We were guilty of that quite often.
All that training seriously meant that very few of us had time for the Living Water of faith. One or two Christian teammates found time for midweek Chapel or visited churches in downtown Decorah after our runs. And I would do that on occasion too. The rest of us lived off the fumes of our earlier encounters with God and Christ.
Truth be told, I’d become cynical about Jesus especially during my college years. A woman that I dated junior year in college read a devotion book daily. I made fun of the practice. Perhaps it did not help that I was taking the Philosophy of Existentialism at the time. But you know what they say: The unexamined faith is not worth having. Those immersions in godlessness taught as much as the Bible in many ways.
It was not until I met and fell in love with a woman my senior year that a faith in God was somewhat rekindled. Don’t get me wrong: all along there were mentions of God in all my running journals. Yet I did not really notice this until many years later while perusing those journals for training information. Yet there it was on almost every page, some mention of God. The curiosity was always there even when circumstances and priorities changed.
I had, after all, gotten confirmed on my own volition. A group of 8th-Grade friends all banded together to get confirmed at a small United Church of Christ in Elburn, Illinois. Then I attended Campus Life meetings run by Wheaton College kids who tried to leverage the Christ is Cool approach. But really, it turned out to be an effort to shove a little conservatism into our lives. One counselor angrily warned me that I would never be a Christian if I kept asking so many questions. He’d lost patience with me, something God never does.
In other words, their brand of religion was ultimately about conformity and ideology. But as I aged and began reading the Bible with a more mature mind, I realized how wrong the conservative approach truly was in context with what Jesus really preaches in the Bible. As I read more deeply through the entire Bible, I was almost stunned to learn that Jesus was the key non-conformist of all, a man who resisted religious authority that sought to control the lives of others to its own political benefit.
Even God is shown to defy conservative instincts for humanly power and authority of others. When some of his Chosen People rise up to demand that God give them a king, the Lord responds with patience. “Follow my way and you will not need kings,” he offers. But the people would have none of that, demanding even more strongly that an earthly ruler be installed over them. So God did. And the kings that followed turned out to be real assholes.
And when King David asked to be allowed to build a temple to honor God, the Lord answered him, (and I paraphrase) “No Dude. You have too much blood on your hands.”
This was revolutionary stuff that no one talked about in Sunday School or even bible studies at the conservative church where I belonged for 20+ year.
And as I aged, I spent considerable amounts of time thinking about how Jesus wanted to kick ass and take names rather than adopt the conformist version of confessional and legalistic faith being served up by the Chief Priests and Elders of his day. I even wrote a book about the adverse effects of biblical literalism on politics, culture and the environment.
The more I studied that example of Jesus resisting the zealots and control freaks of religion, the more it became evident that the same dynamics exist in this day and age. Look around you: the same brand of control freaks and religious zealots are everywhere. Pat Robertson. Franklin Graham. Mike Huckabee. Phyllis Schlafly. Throw old robes on these dudes and dudettes and they’d fit right in with the Chief Priests back in Jesus’ day. They are all self-righteous zealots with a warped sense of social justice based on biblical literalism. It’s a sickness of the mind. Jesus says so.
Yet they don’t recognize themselves in the scriptures for the same reason the Chief Priests refused to recognize Jesus as the Son of God. The humility of the true Christ is simply beyond them. They instead demand heroics rather than accept the real and humble work of the Kingdom of God. They deny the example of the Good Samaritan because it is an inconvenience to their habits and dignity and worldview. Nothing changes. They are, in a word, too conservative for their own good, or the good of others.
And that’s exactly the problem right here in America. The brand of faith that has taken over much of Christianity in the United States is obsessed with power and authority. It loves the glitz and glamor as well. Thus you get power churches and megachurches that focus on the show of religion to attract congregants.
Many of these churches do great things. So this is not a blanket criticism. But the damage done by conservative brands of faith is too well documented in history to ignore. The Catholic Church radically persecuted men such as Copernicus and Galileo for simply telling the truth about the structure of the universe. And conservative brands of Christian faith were used to justify slavery of black people and commit genocide against Native Americans. This has all gone on far too long. But frankly, there is little hope of changing any of it. All that can be done is to resist it, as Jesus did, and make the point through sacrifice that self-righteousness is no substitute for the real thing.
Populist brands of Christian conservative faith are not much better. Ever since Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace (yes, there were two of them that conceived the Origin of Species at the same time) introduced the theory of evolution, conservative Christians have ignorantly mocked this truth with claims that man did not come from monkeys. Which by itself illustrates that these people do not even understand the basics of the theory of evolution. We didn’t come from monkeys. We share a common apelike ancestor.
Yet there’s also a giant arklike replica of Noah’s Ark in Kentucky. Inside it is a museum claiming that 10,000 species of birds, 5,000 species of mammals and 30 millions species of insects, to name just a few, were somehow caged up in a boat five football fields long. It’s absurd, amounts to a lie of proportions. And it’s all based on a conservatively literalistic interpretation of a bible story from the Book of Genesis.
If Jesus were around to talk about this brand of nonsense, he would kick their asses. See, Jesus was a keen naturalist himself. He loved using organic symbolism in his insightful parables. These helped make spiritual concepts relatable to his humble audiences, many of whom were not literate or book educated. So these familiar symbols felt real, and when Jesus’ own disciples questioned his methods of teaching through parables, he chastised them: “Are you so dull?”
Jesus also called the Chief Priests and Scribes of his day a “brood of vipers” for their calculating intentions and secretive ways in wielding the scriptures like a weapon against the people they were intended to serve. He branded them “hypocrites” for making a big show of faith in public, and for marching around in grand robes demanding respect from the masses.
Those same hypocrites reportedly whipped the masses into a furious rage (shouting “Crucify Him!”) when Jesus was handed over for trial by the Chief Priests. Then Jesus was mocked by Herod, grilled by Pilate and handed over to be flogged by Roman soldiers, who may well have raped the man, then threw a purple robe over his shoulders. But rather than give confession or make excuse for his ministry, Jesus held his tongue. Finished the race toward death. Carried out the mission.
Which was demonstrating that the political might of this world indeed has its limits. So the act of love Jesus offered to the world was not just atonement. It was also a demonstration that perseverance in the face of oppression is the right thing to do. Oppressed Lives Matter.
Of course, not taking the easy route is often a hard choice to make. Even his own disciple Peter denied his association with Jesus to protect his own life. The scripture at the top of this article relates to those choices.
We deny our own existence when we refuse to engage with those we love, and learn to hate as a result. The difficult lesson of all is to forgive, for it is so easy to be selfish. We’re all quite practiced at placing our own priorities over helping others, and to hate and seek vengeance rather than love. We grow used to accusing and persecuting others in order to defend that deep vein of selfishness that resides within us all.
To counter this insanity is why many people choose to believe in God and in turn, Jesus Christ. One could say the same thing for the Muslim faith, and trust in Allah. People feel a powerful call to reconcile their inner turmoil with a greater power than themselves.
I also hold a deep humanist streak within me. I believe in the goodness of people, for example. Yet we must acknowledge that many people do bad things. So the work of both the religious believer and the ardent humanist or agnostic or atheist is the same: Calling people to account for their behavior, and moderating our own.
People who run or ride or swim can be accused selfishness and narcissism. We appear on the surface to worship our own bodies. We invest long hours in solo pursuits. Some are even tempted to stray from relationships by taking off with others who enjoy the same things. All this can be confusing and add complexity to life when we are truly meant to live in simple harmony with his world. If we can muster that.
Yet there is also a self-sacrificing nature to the effort invested in these sports. We willingly court pain and persevere. The Bible itself speaks (and we paraphrase) of “running the good race.” We compete with others and find commonality in that cause. We develop compassion for those with less talent, and respect for those with more.
But in the end, we are one in humanity. Race disappears on the race course and in training. Even our sexuality dissolves, just as it did with Christ who despite what some aspects of the Bible insinuate, saw women as excellent examples and models for the best of humankind.
It is this equality that we should all seek. These are the liberalities of true faith, to see all people as equals, and to encourage that love for others. And like it or not, this love must extend across all faiths, and not be exclusionary or seek reasons to hate over lines of scripture from any book that can be turned into reasons for war, or murder, discrimination or torture. As Pope Francis recently stated, “The law teaches the way to Christ, and “if the law does not lead to Jesus Christ,” Francis said, “and if it doesn’t get us closer to Jesus Christ, it is dead.”
Perhaps there are steadfast believers who still don’t get that message clearly enough. They prefer to apply the traits of literalism to the Book of Genesis so that everything seems pat and organized. Or, they love the reverse literalism of Revelation with its phantasmagorical imagery that fearmongers apply to the present era in order to predict the end of the world.
But again, Jesus would kick all their asses for that too. It is all smallmindedness writ large. He had no patience for any of it. As the Pope points out, it is fruitless clinging to traditions that are not relevant to the call of love in all our lives.
I once got beaten in a 10K by a man wearing a shirt splattered with religious symbols and sayings. For the last two miles he ran just ahead of me and I could not muster the strength to pass him by. He was joyous at the finish, pointing toward the sky and giving full credit perhaps to his vision of Jesus and God helping him to victory.
Yet somehow I thought back to all the people who were coming in behind us. Perhaps all of them might pray to win as well. But some were not as gifted at running. Did God somehow relegate them to this misery and broken wishes?
The entire display of the man winning the race, or any race for that matter, is not what faith of any type is really all about. If perhaps the man had stood and hugged every one of the competitors coming across the line after him, I might have been impressed. That would have been an interesting example of human compassion and faith.
Instead, we live in a world of “I’ve got mine” and that winner-take-all attitude spills into politics and religion and candidates who can only talk about themselves until they’re orange in the face. There is really nothing healthily conservative in nature about such people. But they certainly don’t measure up to the liberal call to justice advocated by Jesus Christ.
So let’s bring this to a close with the tail end of that scriptural passage I snapped with my iPhone last Sunday morning in church. It jumped out at me when I opened the book, and it resonates truly throughout all our lives.
“What does it profit for them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?”