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Reflections, Theology & religion

Some thoughts on religion and its place in my life

I am going write something about which I am somewhat ashamed: since converting to Christianity I’ve never doubted the existence of God or even the incarnation of God through the person Jesus Christ.  It’s not my faith that makes me ashamed, but the fact that I have never had a serious crisis of faith, never a time when I became convinced that God did not exist.

I’d like to think of myself as a critical and realistic person.  I’m very suspicious of authority.  I often find myself on the side of atheists and sceptics.  I have serious doubts about the existence of heaven and hell (serious doubts amounting to non-belief).  I tend toward socialism, but deep down inside I am an anarchist in the sense that I believe all institutions are severely flawed.  And I don’t believe that any of these things are a choice, but rather, they happen to be where I find myself and where I have found myself for several years. To make any sense of this I must go back to my ‘conversion’ to Christianity from atheism.

I remember several particularly traumatic times in my life when I prayed to something because I wanted a god to exist.  Early on I wanted to make sense of my questions and pains.  I was an extremely contemplative child, writing stories and reflections from as far back as I can remember.  I wanted to find solace in something (though I am not claiming to have found such solace even as a Christian).  I happened upon the works of Marx and Engels when I was 12 and that seemed to do it for me.  I learned about the Communist Revolutions in Russia and China and found them to be counterfeit – the old regimes had only put on new clothes.  I saw oppression, closed-mindedness and totalitarianism, trademarks of all institutions before and after.  But in the ideals of Marxism and the Frankfurt School I found restored hope.  A god wasn’t necessary.

When I was 14 I wanted nothing to do with religion.  Friends would try to lure me into attending lunch hour meetings of the Christian club at our high school.  They baited me with pizza, but even the pizza wouldn’t draw a 14-year-old who couldn’t stomach the thought of listening to someone talk at him about religion.  These friends then approached me from another angle – a Wednesday night Bible study with a skate park and a good bit of socialising.  After a few attempts I eventually gave in and went.  It was an unremarkable setting and apart from hanging out with my friends I wasn’t really looking for anything in particular.  But after a few Wednesday nights something clicked in my head.  It wasn’t a particular word or song.  I can only deduce that it was an authentic religious experience, whatever that may mean.  I felt a sense of God’s presence.  I wanted to live my life for that God, whatever that meant.  I found an old Bible that had belonged to my then-senile, late grandmother and read the Gospel of Matthew.  I wanted to follow this Jesus.  Love, inclusion, justice – ideals I had valued before conversion I found embodied in Jesus.  I can now acknowledge that in the ‘marketplace of ideas’ those ideals are not unique to Christianity, but it was never so much a choice among equal options for me.  I don’t believe that any belief system is a choice, whether that is a belief in Santa Claus, reincarnation, The Beatles, Jesus or naturalism.  Beliefs are merely what we make of the things before us.  It’s not bare logic, but it is some form of deduction.  We all believe things and ‘non-belief’ is merely a belief in something that opposes another belief.

After that ‘religious experience’ I never found my belief in Christianity to stand in great conflict with any of my other beliefs.  Of course, over time my views have evolved (for instance, I used to believe in some sort of heaven and hell), but the most basic elements of my beliefs — that an empathetic God loves the world and has involved herself intimately in the workings of her creation through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit (that’s a lot to stomach for non-Christians, I know) — have only been emboldened.

Back to the earlier days of my religious faith, I followed my reading of the Gospel of Matthew with two readings of the Bible in its entirety.  I understood far less than the little amount I understand more than a decade later and some parts rubbed me the wrong way, but I gathered a general sense of the trajectory of the Christian faith as it is presented in the Scripture.  A few years later, near the end of my time at school, I sensed a calling to serve in full time church ministry.  I didn’t know what that would look like, all I knew is that I wanted to learn and experience more about God and Christianity in order to be better equipped to serve people in that way. Since the age of 17 my life has been on this course (though not without countless mistakes).

Now I find myself in a different country, in the midst of a PhD and candidacy in the Church of Scotland.  My view of the world and of myself in the world has changed dramatically over these last eight years (and I thank God for that).  I’m indebted to a great many people for loving, encouraging, challenging and inspiring me over these last years, but I’m back to my first statement: since converting to Christianity I’ve never doubted the existence of God or even the incarnation of God through the person Jesus Christ.  I have had dark times when I doubted my place in the kingdom of God and when I felt an intense separation from God (thank you, San Juan de la Cruz, for guiding me through those days) and I suspect that darker times are in store, but my faith in God remains.  Still, I want to make certain that my acceptance of faith is not some default position.  I don’t want to remain on this path because I’ve convinced myself that I’ve gone too far to change my mind.  I must keep questioning my motives and my ambitions.

I am not a Christian because I am a good person – I am not.  I don’t believe that to be a good person one must be a Christian – one does not.  I don’t have answers to many difficult questions prompted by a belief in God, or at least by my type of belief in God.  I don’t know why some people believe they’ve had a religious experience when they didn’t want one, whilst some people really want a religious experience and have yet to receive it.  I don’t know why the universe is chaotic.  I don’t know why such lovely people die of cancer.  I don’t know why millions of people die of starvation and disease each year.  I don’t know why, if a God exists, that God doesn’t just sort all this out this instant.  These are difficult questions; questions that make the writing of some blog post seem absolutely meaningless.  But even though I cannot give someone a life-changing religious experience, even though I cannot stop a tsunami, even though I cannot feed all who hunger and even though I cannot answer these questions in a neatly-packaged way, I know that this world and the people therein are beautiful and God has called me to give of myself for others in love, despite my lack of love and my lack of ability.  Part of that calling is to encourage others to do the same.  So I will just keep doing what I know and keep asking the difficult questions.

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About Elijah

My name is Elijah and I am a proud Angeleño-Glaswegian. I serve as Minister of Queen's Park Govanhill Parish Church. My other interests include life in active community, writing, performing and partaking of music, collecting vinyl records, hiking/outdoors, urban exploration, Celtic FC and the Detroit Tigers.

Discussion

13 thoughts on “Some thoughts on religion and its place in my life

  1. I do love the way your mind works and how you express those workings out into the world. It is indeed intriguing to consider the diversity of religious experience, as you’ve pointed out.

    I did have one specific theological question: when you say you no longer believe in heaven/hell, do you mean that there is no resurrection from the dead, or just that what happens to humankind at that point is different than the traditional ideas of heaven (floating in clouds) and hell (burning under the earth)?

    I’ve personally been trying to re-train my kids not to talk about “going to heaven,” but rather emphasizing, “when heaven comes to earth.” I’m not quite sure when I should get into explaining my view of “soul sleep” to them though. It’s a bit hard for a 10 year-old to be the only one who believes that grandmas and grandpas aren’t floating up in heaven with Jesus right now.

    Love to you my brother…thank you for sharing so eloquently and honestly about your faith.

    Posted by Greg | 9 May 2012, 10:10 PM
    • Greg,

      Thank you for your comment and the humorous touch to your incredible wit. You’re too sweet to me. I miss our theological musings (along with all of the other musings and goings on, like visits to the torch…).

      Regarding the heaven/hell thing – I would side with what you’ve implied concerning non-traditional views and probably move a bit further. But I’m open to other views, that’s just where I’ve found myself these days.

      Also, I must note that you are one of those to whom I am ‘indebted…for loving, encouraging, challenging and inspiring me over these last years’! Among the fore!

      Blessings to you, brother!

      Posted by Elijah | 9 May 2012, 10:34 PM
  2. Elijah, your post reminds me of another post by a Franciscan friar I follow, on his conversion by way of punk, which I think you’ll enjoy:

    http://friarminor.blogspot.co.uk/2010/10/francis-punk-and-conversion.html

    Blessings,
    Cole

    Posted by Cole Matson | 9 May 2012, 10:22 PM
  3. Thanks for sharing this, Eli. I just picked up a collection of works by St John of the Cross, and am hoping I’ll find myself guided through this very long bout of feeling God’s nearly complete absence. Your thinking, love, and passion have had a profound influence on me, and for that I’m very thankful.

    I love you, dear friend, and I really miss you.

    -MES

    Posted by Kenzie | 10 May 2012, 8:25 AM
    • McKenzie,

      Thanks for commenting. I’m sorry to hear about this absence of God feeling – it would be stupid of me to trivialise that experience, but throughout my adult life St John’s Dark Night of the Soul has proved to be very encouraging, but not in some sort of quick-fix way (not that I suspect you of going for quick fixes). You have had a great impact on my life as well, so the feeling’s mutual. Much love and peace to you.

      E

      Posted by Elijah | 10 May 2012, 8:59 AM
  4. Elijah, I am deeply touched by your candidness & moved by similar sentiments in my own faith. I’ve long contemplated writing a detailed piece on my “beliefs”, if for only my own clarity. This has encouraged me greatly. I hope that at some point in our travels, we get to chew some of this spiritual fat.
    Much, much love,
    -=Charlie

    Posted by Charlie Pecoraro | 10 May 2012, 8:44 AM
    • Great to hear from you, Charlie, and like you’ve expressed, this was actually a reflective piece for my own clarity and eventually found its way onto the blog because I thought it might prove encouraging to someone, somewhere. I’d love to read your thoughts if you get around to doing that/making it public. And yes, I hope our paths cross again soon – you’ll always have a place to stay in Scotland or wherever I may end up.

      E

      Posted by Elijah | 10 May 2012, 9:02 AM
  5. Thanks for posting this, Elijah, I found it very interesting and quite moving.

    As an atheist with an intense fascination in religion and religious truth (which is so often dismissed by atheists in favour of scientific truth), I have always been attracted to theologies that focus on God as being something unknowable, something completely beyond human experience and understanding. I tend towards the belief that all religions are different paths up the same mountain (to paraphrase a Buddhist expression) and as such I have always felt more drawn to Eastern religions, Taoism and Buddhism in particular, than to monotheistic religions, concepts such as tao and dharma rather than God as a personified figure. It seems to me, from an admittedly limited outsider’s perspective, that Christians (and Jews and Muslims) can mean very different things when talking about God and belief in God – although this is probably just a matter of looking at the same thing in different ways.

    So in reading this post, I am curious to know what the concept of God means to you. Is it something that can be, even imperfectly, understood or described? And is your concept of God a purely personal matter, or is it in part a communal issue?

    Also, props for calling God ‘she’!

    I look forward to hearing your thoughts,
    Stephen

    Posted by concretevoid | 10 May 2012, 12:46 PM
    • Stephen,

      Thank you for taking the time to read and share! I’m always interested in hearing your thoughts on these issues. As for your questions, they are all very thoughtful and I hope to comment on them in a half decent manner.

      Regarding the concept that all religions are different paths up the same mountain (or the illustration of a group of blindfolded people all touching and describing different parts of the same elephant), I would respond with what you pointed out regarding Christians/Jews/Muslims/anyone else meaning very different things when ‘talking about God and belief in God.’ When a monotheistic religion declares that God possesses personal attributes the ‘different paths up the same mountain’ illustration breaks down because the characteristics of theses ‘Gods’ are contradictory. Some Gods are most interested in loving others, while others Gods are more interested in being worshiped. In this way I believe that the Christian concept of God (which, as you pointed out, is not wholly uniform among different denominations), a concept that necessitates belief in the deity of Jesus Christ, is somewhat ‘exclusivistic’ in the sense that Muslims and Jews do not believe that Jesus is God. This is just one of many examples that make the Christian concept of a personal God incompatible with other concepts of a personal God (and therefore incompatible with any concept of an impersonal deity).

      But talking about God is a very interesting subject. In 1981 Raymond Carver published a collection of stories entitled What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. I’ve always wanted to write an essay called ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About God’ (which, I have just discovered, is the name of this article written in 2008). I believe that whenever we talk about God we’re talking about something we’ve half-created. My understanding is that God is beyond understanding. The Barthian theological dialectic tells us that: the God [of Christianity] is unknowable. But being the great dialectician he is, Barth also tells us that the unknowable God has made herself known through the incarnation. The task, then, of the Christian theologian is to hold these two theological facts (or ‘truths’ as in, ‘having a true relationship to ultimate reality’) in tension through the imprecise means of language. I expand on this a little more through a brief discussion on Wittgenstein in a blog post from last September, ‘Agnosticism and the kingdom of God‘, which was written with the partial aim of making use of my understanding of God (and our limited understanding of God) and encouraging conservative religious folk to soften some of their views. Ultimately I believe that we all have many wrong views – it’s inevitable. To quote from my article above,

      But what I’ve come to appreciate is the freedom to simply not know. In other words, the inevitable transcendence of God (the inability for humanity to know everything about God) means the inevitable ignorance of humanity. The sheer otherness of other people should be enough to help us realise our inevitable, eternal ignorance. Even our inability to know ourselves fully shows us our ignorance. We don’t need to be insecure about uncertainty and paradox. It’s okay to answer, ‘I don’t know,’ – it’s even okay to answer, ‘I don’t know and I probably never will.’

      A post I wrote from May of 2010 entitled ‘Orthodoxy vs Orthopraxy‘ also explores this concept of knowing about God.

      Regarding the ‘personal’ vs ‘communal’ issue, I am not 100% sure of what you’re asking, so I’ll try to respond in a couple of ways:

      1) Does the Christian experience of God take place on an individual level or is it a communal issue? I believe that one of the major flaws of Western Christianity is the tendency toward individualism and hyper-individualism. I explore a bit of this in yet another post, this one from July of 2010 entitled ‘The “Self” in the kingdom of God‘.

      2) Is the Christian God a personal deity? The quick answer is yes. The God of the Christian religion is, for lack of a better word, personal. But the God of the Christian religion is complex – whilst transcendent this God is also very immanent. This is related to the ‘theological dialectic’ above: the God of Christianity is unknowable and yet has made herself known through Jesus Christ. In addition to this, the Christian understanding is that God is yet more mysterious as there is an expectation that ‘[when] all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all’ (1 Corinthians 15:28). In other words, there is an expectation that God will drive out all oppressive institutions (see 1 Corinthians 15:20-27) in favour of some sort of unity and oneness in which God is ‘all in all’.

      Have I missed your question entirely?

      I’m not assuming that I’ve satisfied your excellent questions with the words above, but I think that we might have enough to continue the conversation.

      Posted by Elijah | 10 May 2012, 4:28 PM
  6. It is interesting to have watched you as a young child and to see the perspective of this particular aspect of your youth through your eyes. So different.

    What caused you to write this?

    Posted by Your favorite cousin Nan | 11 May 2012, 2:35 AM
    • Nan,

      Thanks for reading. I write a lot of things like this in my personal journal, but after I began to write this one I realised that it was sort of a plea for others to keep me accountable to what I say and a bit of an apologetic for why I believe what I believe.

      Sometimes people will ask me difficult questions and I don’t want to give them half-baked, unsatisfactory answers. I don’t think Christianity is about having all of the answers. But I think Christianity expresses that God is present us in the dark times, sharing in our pain and suffering (remember Jesus’ difficult question on the cross: ‘Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani?’).

      Posted by Elijah | 11 May 2012, 9:33 AM

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