It can be difficult to be a Christian in today’s world. Many of us are embarrassed by the intolerance of other Christians. The media tends to focus on intolerance and not on the good works which are done every day in the name of Christianity, many of which tend to be small, un-newsworthy events. In a world in which we are increasingly exposed to other cultures, we may be attracted by the richness of other faith traditions. Many of us who were raised as Christians or who have considered ourselves Christians at one time or another may have problems with Christian doctrine and find ourselves wondering if we are still Christian.
Spiritual giants such as the Dalai Lama and Mohandas Gandhi have counseled us to remain loyal to the faiths of our birth. There are some people who make a deep connection with another faith and are able to find a permanent home there. However, those of us who were born into a faith may discover that we have deeper roots there than we realized. My own experience and my experience of working with others in spiritual direction suggests that we can learn an enormous amount from explorations of other faith traditions, but that ultimately many of us will be more grounded if we remain within the faith of our birth and use our exploration of other faith traditions to enrich and challenge our understanding of our faith of origin.
I was raised as an Episcopalian, but I have spent part of my adult spiritual life trying to escape from my own tradition, thinking at different times that I might become a Zen Buddhist or a Hindu. What does Christianity have to offer that I come back to? The teachings of Jesus reach deep inside of me. There have been times when I wasn’t sure if I believed in the resurrection or in Jesus as the son of God, but Jesus’s teachings have never ceased to intrigue, challenge, and attract me. I know I will always be compelled to try to live by them, even though some of them baffle and disturb me. Then there is God, often portrayed in scripture not as the unmoved mover of the Greeks, but as a caring figure who is affected by relationship with us, who argues with Abraham and Moses, listening to their ideas and opinions, who comes down to us in human form as Jesus Christ, willing to experience all of our suffering and be transformed by it. The great Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel saw God as searching for humankind, needing our human emotions, asking for all our love, our emotion, and our passion in the godly command that we serve God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our might. No matter how many arguments I have with Christian dogma and the behavior of Christians now and throughout history, these two figures, Jesus and the Judeo-Christian God, remain completely alive to me.
Jesus constantly exhorts us to live in a way that is the opposite of worldly. Nevertheless, our world exerts an influence on our perceptions of Christianity, and we come to believe that Christianity says things that it doesn’t. The ancient Greeks were uncomfortable with passion, and our culture has embraced their idea that God must be an abstract, unemotional deity even though the biblical God is nothing like that. Many people believe that Christianity prohibits any kind of sexual pleasure and advocates an extreme asceticism. We actually know nothing about Jesus’s sexual life and Jesus was not known to be particularly ascetical, although he did fast for periods. He was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard (Luke 7:34). Yet the influence of Augustine and other church fathers who had strongly ascetical personal attitudes towards sexuality plus centuries of societal pressures have caused most people to believe that Christianity asks us to somehow erase our sexuality. Gay and lesbian people are often discriminated against in the name of Christianity, yet the Bible makes very few mentions of homosexuality, and the references that do exist can be interpreted in very different ways.
Christianity needs to be rescued from misconceptions and misinterpretations. Jesus said that the first and greatest commandment is, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” All other commandments come second to this commandment to love. Those of us who are trying to run away from Christianity because we see in it the very intolerance Jesus so often condemned need to remember that Jesus has entrusted us with this commandment and given us the authority to break other rules if it is necessary to do so in order to be truly loving. Christianity is not a religion of complacency, rule-following, intolerance, exclusion, self-righteousness, or judgmentalism; it is a radical policy of love, tolerance, and acceptance, modeled by someone who tried to honor Jewish law without following conventions.
If you’re tempted to abandon Christianity to those who seem to be making a travesty of it, here are some suggestions:
Don’t believe everything you hear about other Christians. We live in a culture of media hype. Individuals or groups whose beliefs are different from your own may still be making sincere efforts to live a good life in ways you can agree with.
Don’t forget that if you want to model tolerance yourself, it means at least listening to those who are different from you. They may be less different than they seem once you understand them better.
If you have strong ideas about what your religion should be, perhaps God is calling you to model those ideas in the world as a leader. Those who feel marginalized because their vision of what should be doesn’t fit in with the status quo are often called to be leaders.
Keep turning back to scripture, community, and practice, and they will help you to bring God’s love into the world.
Christianity is riddled with problems, but most Christians will not find truth by running away into other faiths, where we will soon begin to uncover other problems. As Mohandas Gandhi said:
All faiths constitute a revelation of Truth, but all are imperfect, and liable to error. Reverence for other faiths need not blind us to their faults. We must be keenly alive to the defects of our own faith also, yet not leave it on that account, but try to overcome those defects.
Spiritual exploration and questioning can lead us ever closer to God. We can learn a great deal from dialogue with other traditions, but exploration can also take place in the realm of our faith of origin, which will often be the most painful yet also the most fruitful place for it.