One of the hardest things about admitting to being a Christian is bearing the weight of other people’s assumptions. The most prevalent of these is the assumption that you’ve got it all worked out, that you’ve swallowed a dogma whole, see no fault in it, and have more or less stopped thinking for yourself.
But for me, being a Christian is similar to being a woman, or a mother, or a writer; it’s a work in progress. I’m working it out as I go along, asking questions, looking for leads.
There are many things to deplore in the history of my religion. I find much of the dogma troubling, and some of it just plain incomprehensible. And yet, overall, this is the religion in which I recognise my world, my God, and myself.
Three popular assumptions about religion trouble me more often than any other. The first is that a belief in God is a charm against misfortune. For example, a much loved friend, and a fellow woman of faith, was recently bereaved. Among her many responses to the loss of her husband, she has turned her back on God because, she says, God has clearly turned his back on her. If God loved her, he wouldn’t have let her husband suffer; he wouldn’t have allowed her to be left alone.
What was she expecting from God? Did she think her faith was like armour, a protection from life’s vicissitudes? That bad things only happen to people that have no faith, or not enough faith, or the wrong kind of faith?
Then there’s the related idea that God loves some of us better than others. I wince when people claim to have been divinely delivered from severe trials. ‘God was with me!’ they cry. ‘It’s a miracle!’Clearly, by implication, God isn’t with those who don’t survive life’s traumas; they aren’t worth the miracle.
And here’s the third: when terrible things happen and people say, ‘It’s God’s will.’ Really? I can’t conceive of a God who would will disaster, devastation, death.
At the heart of each of these assumptions lies the same idea: that when the chips are down, God should step in like a benevolent parent to make everything okay; and if she doesn’t, then she ain’t all he’s cracked up to be.
It’s a dangerous world. Some of the dangers are not of our own making; many of them are. (By ‘our making’, I mean mankind’s, not yours or mine, although you and I aren’t always as innocent as we’d like to think.) Dreadful things happen, and innocents die. I don’t know why God doesn’t step in to make everything okay. I don’t begin to understand the big issues.
But I do know that if God made a habit of stepping into the world to change events, rescue individuals and generally sort things out—I know that if he did this, I would live my life very differently.
For a start, the framework of what’s possible would be very different. For example, God can’t give me everything I want, because a lot of what I want affects other people, and might mess with what they want. Naturally, I wouldn’t expect God to give me what I want and tell everyone else to go whistle. God wouldn’t be God if that’s how he operated. And I doubt even God would be able to reconcile all our wants and requirements. So the framework of possibilities would be greatly reduced. I suspect we’d all get a lot less of what we wanted; the very word ‘possibility’might vanish altogether from our lexicon and imagination.
The other victim of a more God-involved world would be responsibility. We might bemoan the lack of personal responsibility in society at present, but can you imagine how much worse it would get if we knew God would put it all right every time we got it all wrong?
The human race would end up in a strait-jacket, hampered by rules and restrictions (because in a world where everyone’s wishes had to be respected, no one would get much of anything), but simultaneously taking care of nothing and no one because Big Mama was in charge and nothing we did mattered much anyway.
However you look at it, it’s our world, for good and for bad. God doesn’t make bad thing happen, and he doesn’t step in to rescue some of us and not others. But she’s there in each one of us, in everything, the power and the mystery, to harness or to ignore as we will.
As we will.
That’s the whole point: human free will. It’s in our hands. Communal responsibility. When we pray, we harness that power for good, activate it, swirl up the energy so that it spreads out, into the hearts and minds of each other. We draw God into the world. It’s our choice.
Oh, oh, here’s another of the assumptions that floors me. Do we believe in God—those of us that do—because we hope that things will be better in an afterlife, in heaven, or some paradise Earth magically restored to all its pristine glory? Is our belief an insurance policy, a sort of future-proofing?
Personally, I’m not much interested in what happens to me after I die. Perhaps that means that, technically, I’m not a Christian, but I’m not much interested in the technicalities either.
I’m interested in what happens here and now, in this life. I believe in God because I believe in the power of good over evil, and that love conquers all, and that we’re here on earth to take care of one another and the world. I’m a Christian because overall (there are notable exceptions, absolutely, but overall) I like the stories. Some days I can’t decide in my own head whether Jesus was the son of God literally or figuratively, but I don’t think what I decide changes things one way or the other. Jesus—not a dogma, not an institution or private club, not an idea—laid down the path I want to follow.
And he told excellent stories.
If you think I’m being flippant, let me tell you a story. Not one of his, but in the same tradition of storytelling. I was in church recently to watch the ordination of six new priests. After the vows were made, a long-standing priest took to the pulpit and offered words of wisdom. He told the new priests that their values and beliefs would be constantly challenged, but that they must have the courage to never say: I’m right, you’re wrong, go away. Because, he said, being a priest—being a Christian—wasn’t about dogma. It was about stories.
And then he told this one.
It was the end of the world, and everyone was together in heaven with God—everyone redeemed, everyone united, all grief and suffering over, all evil defeated.
It was a party—a fun fair, let’s say, with dodgems and a big wheel and candy-floss, and everyone having a wonderful time.
The disciples were there, of course, and they wanted to chat with their old friend Jesus, so they started looking for him but he wasn’t anywhere in the crowds.
So they set up a search and eventually they found him at the edge of the fun fair, anxiously looking out into the darkness beyond heaven.
So they said, ‘What are you doing? Come and join the fun! Everyone’s here, safe with God. Your work is done. Come and celebrate!’
But Jesus kept scanning the darkness beyond. ‘I can’t come yet,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘I’m waiting for Judas.’
Call me sentimental. Call me childish, naive, deluded. That’s not how I feel. I feel absolutely certain that with a heart full of hope, our free will in one hand, and our stories in the other, we’ll find our way home.
© Janet Allison Brown, 2012