Me, Myself and Christ: Naivety

When I met Trey (a fabricated name) at contemplative prayer, I shared that I had written two books on apologetics. He skipped past my contributions, asking whether I had read his favorite writer on the topic. I simply shrugged and countered:

My perspective is grounded in unusual experiences.

Most popular Christian writing focuses on the theology of redemption or the experience of healing. I cannot claim to have been threatened seriously with destruction by sin – either in my own weakness or as prey to others. I was raised in a white, upper-middle-class community by a brilliant father and a mother committed to saintly service. The household had its issues, but they were issues that reflected the opportunity to negotiate choices, not the pressures of fear and want.

When my mother and I were discussing the psychological challenges facing her grandchildren, I observed:

We were a household of children raised by strong and caring parents. We spent our formative years struggling for influence over one another. It was only very recently that I realized how powerful my will had become, and so to appreciate how hard others had to work to maintain their autonomy.

The characteristic attitude of my childhood was an awed gratitude for the past. The most representative memory is standing with one foot on the sidewalk below the school, staring at the seam between the asphalt and concrete, and realizing that many people had invested their energies in manifesting this magical conduit that guided cars, people and water, each in their proper places. But my gratitude also kept me in reading my history books long after my siblings had gone out to play.

We were a Catholic family until I graduated from elementary school. I attended St. John Fisher in first grade, the strongest memory of which is kneeling for communion near the angry cross, and wondering why people worshipped that kind of God. I was consoled by the Catholic Children’s Bible, which I read in second grade. I found the Old Testament to be suspiciously like the Celtic and Norse myths that my elder sister brought home from the library, but the New Testament was an attractive promise of healing for the world. My father, unfortunately, could not reconcile the science of the day with Christian theology, and his critical analysis of faith eventually tore the entire family away from the Church – with the notable exception of my younger sister.

Faith was replaced by secular ethics. The foundation was gained in Church: our parish was a liberal Vatican Two congregation with an active lay membership. My parents were active in Democratic politics and the Civil Rights movement. Cub Scouts also provided a grounding in service to others, with weekly paper and bottle drives organized in collaboration with the Boy Scouts.

Unfortunately, it was clear that my peers were intimidated by me. I was aware that my intelligence separated me from others, and it was a tool that I applied forcefully to understanding of the world. Paradoxically, it was also the engine, powered by my father’s skepticism, that kept me from recognizing the silent voices calling out to me in my childhood. The closest encounter was on my first Jamboree. The other boys went off to make friends, but I found myself wandering on the paths above the campground, drenched in the peacefulness of the trees and brush, until a scout in my patrol ran up to warn that I needed to follow the buddy system, and dragged me back to camp.

With mature perceptions, today I recognize how my elders used my calming dispassion. For myself, I was far too busy trying to figure out how the world worked to think much about the impact I had on my peers. I studied physics in college because it was the most fundamental of the sciences, but in the rich social and political environment of UC Berkeley, I could not avoid the understanding that morality and politics determined the ends to which power was turned. I absorbed the popular ethics of the day, reading F. Scott Peck and Rollo May, supplemented by Foreign Affairs and the Christian Science Monitor.

There were a few signs of the impact my devotion had on those that managed to get close to me. After discussion section one afternoon, I followed the professor and my friend Peter up the hill toward the Campanile, thinking about how wonderful it was to have people like them in my life. They had moved ahead twenty feet, talking seriously. I was moved by a great joy. They stopped, looked at each other, and turned bemused smiles to me.

Discovering Love in a Secular World

My public authorship was initiated after rereading the Bible from the perspective of the angels. This has led me into deep philosophical and theological waters – “ever deepening”, naturally.

Having made a conscious decision to attempt to ground myself in human experience, I found myself at a spirituality book store in Santa Monica. That day, I found two books calling to me: Sera Beak’s Red, Hot and Holy, the subject of several blog posts at the end of last month. While that itself became pretty cosmic, Sera’s honest celebration of sex has helped me to ground myself physically.

The second book was Spickard and Cragg’s A Global History of Christians. I must admit to feeling a little let down by the book. The subtitle reads “How Everyday Believers Experienced Their World.” From that, I was expecting something along the lines of Tolstoy’s experience. Having become disillusioned with sophisticated Russian society, Tolstoy retired to his country estate, where he awakened to faith not through the erudite ministry of the priests, but in seeing how the peasants drew upon Christian teaching to build relationships grounded in decency.

Two hundred pages in, however, it is pretty obvious that the book’s title should have been A Global History of Churches. The book focuses on the dissemination and transformation of institutions and dogmas. In the sense that Christianity was the foundation of Europe’s social contract from 500 to 1900 or so, the title may be forgiven. The way that people saw themselves in relation to their neighbors and government was largely determined by their Church. But the book does not actually delve into the details of their lives to reveal how Christians differed from non-Christians in their behaviors, nor how their behavior was influenced by the evolution of Church teaching.

The book does chart the role of theology in the formation of ideas of the self, mostly through the reflections of theologians concerned with the problem of sin. This leaves a huge psychological gap. I found myself, when considering the appeal of Christianity as an adult, to be profoundly moved by the idea of a God that did not demand sacrifice from worshippers, but rather remembrance for the sacrifice of a brother made in honor of a loving Father. How did this idea impact those living under the rule of Roman patriarchal impunity? I have this strong prejudice that Jesus’s example should have caused many to question and seek to improve unfulfilling relationships, and was hoping to discover answers to this and related questions in the historical survey.

The focus on redemption leads to a different set of questions, with a somewhat narcissistic tone. How do I achieve salvation? What causes me to sin? The common (anthropocentric) reading of the Garden of Eden is ultimately revealed as a caricature of human nature. We were not created in grace to fall into sin. We represent an evolutionary waypoint in a long and difficult process. Perhaps secularism – rejecting the baggage of institutional dogma – was required as a precondition for illumination of that process. Even if not necessary, we are yet today as Christians operating in a world that is preconditioned by the challenges of secularity – the idea that humanity can (or must at least try to) manage itself without recourse to God.

I must admit to being grateful for the historical background that makes apparent the extent of this dilemma. Stripping away the Biblical idea that we are defined by the necessity to achieve redemption from a fallen state, what does it mean to be human? The authors present four modern answers to this problem: Darwin, who held that we are the product of natural competitive forces experienced by all living creatures; Marx, who recognized that culture has created an entirely artificial competitive environment that is propagated not through genetics but social indoctrination; Freud, who identified the enormous challenge of raising our indoctrination from the depths of our subconscious into the light of rational analysis; and the existential philosophers led by Sartre, who championed the goal and practices of self-realization. In its full expression, then, secularism adopts the posture that to be human is to struggle for self-identity against the resistance of other wills.

The Christian response to these thinkers is characterized with reference to three theologians. Tillich elaborated an accommodation of secular thought, in heralding Jesus as the exemplar of self realization. Barth elaborates rejection in asserting that the secular project is doomed because we cannot overcome the bias of our imperfect and fallen perceptions – we require the aid of an eternal, all-loving God. Finally, Niebuhr saw secularism as a prism which could be used to refine our understanding of Biblical metaphors that reveal the strength found in a relationship with the Divine Presence.

All of these men were impressively learned Christian scholars, but as I considered their theology, a single image completely demolished their relevance: the image of a mother nursing a child. I can see where the difficulty arises: Jesus commands “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” with the prequel somehow elided: “As God seeks to love you…” Thus the image of the bond between the nursing mother and child. A bond of complete trust: unconditional donation of the mother’s self, and from the infant unguarded gratitude for the gift of sustenance.

And so it all seems terribly simple to me: the agency of love in our lives is to give us strength. Who in their right mind would ever choose to reject it? Jesus made it clear, not least in the parable of the prodigal son, that no sin is beyond redemption – all we have to do is turn to God for acceptance and receive gratefully the cloak of his authority.

Of course, the commandment continues “Love your neighbor as yourself.” As loving God allows us to receive God’s love, so we should share the love of God with others. In fact, to sin is to deny love to others. The only measure of the degree to which we have received God’s love, then, is the witness of those that we are given to love. When love has worked its way through us, its power flows through us without resistance to serve others. In love, we both facilitate and stand in guard of each other’s perfection.

As I see it, then, the proposition of Christianity in a secular world is: try to be yourself, and then see what happens when you chose instead the mutuality of love. The power that awaits you there is beyond mere human comprehension.