Why I believe
I don’t know when I decided to be Christian, to be a Christian. But I know I decided
Perhaps it was after I had completed my Master’s degree. Lost, doubting both my own integrity and my place in the world, working a job that paid the bills and left me sadder each day, I set off to Europe for the second time – more to get away than to see something new. The best version of me would take this time to adventure, to learn a new language. Perhaps I would indulge my curiosity by going to Tunisia, study Arabic and build on my newly developed interests in Islam and the Middle East. But in the wake of the Arab Spring, my courage and my logistical fortitude failed me. I had been in similar situations enough to anticipate the loneliness of arriving in an unfamiliar country, finding an apartment, and heading to a language school each day. And so I wound up, guided by Providence no doubt and my mother’s advice, at the Christian monastic community of Taize. For a week or two, I thought, and then I’ll travel and practice my French. But I remained for seven weeks, spending one in silence. For the first time in my adult life, I learned to pray. I began a conversation with God, and for the first time in several years, started to feel comfortable with the uncertainty in how my life would turn out.
Then again, perhaps it was earlier. Maybe I decided to be a Christian at the moment when I publicly declared it, just as one would expect, at my confirmation service in the suburban United Church my family attended. I think I was about fourteen, grade nine, and I remember wrestling with the question of what I could, in good conscience, say. I began by acknowledging my doubt, by distancing myself from a literal or rigid interpretation of Christianity. And then declared my belief and affirmation of Jesus Christ, to his concern for the poor and the oppressed, his universal love and his generosity of spirit. These are the principles, I said, that I embrace, and if that means being Christian, then I am one.
But I think most importantly, most profoundly, it was during the intellectual tumult of university. The most important and intense year of my intellectual life was first year university, reading and discussing the great ideas of the Western tradition. But I had arrived, by the end of the year, at something of a crisis. I was convinced that the great traditions of old did not hold much water. The ethical systems of Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas all, in their own ways, relied on beliefs that I could not affirm. Even worse, I came to suspect that the basic moral teachings underlying them – Love thy neighbour and so on – were themselves a kind of pleasing fiction.
I tried nihilism. I tried believing that there was no meaning or significance in human actions. That my life was composed of a series of random amoral episodes, for which I retrospectively invented meaning. I wrestled with the notion that judgements like “good” or “kind” were no more than selfish attempts to make myself feel better about an otherwise arbrirary existence. That it was a sign of my inauthenticity that I was unwilling to encounter the world as it actually was, but had to dress it up with these moralizing labels. That it signified a problem with my constitution, a pain in my gut, as Nietzsche might say.
It sounds extreme, perhaps. Self indulgent and implausible. And no doubt it was, but I have always been a pastor’s son. I learned from my father that the central drama of a human life is the struggle to bring one’s behaviour in line with one’s principles. To find some kind of harmony between the cosmic order of the world – good and evil on the grand scale – and the quotidian choices that give our lives texture and substance. To give up on such harmony now, simply because I no longer believed in a cosmic order with which to harmonize, struck me as the peak of cowardice. No that’s probably not right. I just didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t know what life was for, I couldn’t figure out how to use my days, if not by puzzling over the relationship between the great truths of the world and the small truths of my life. That intellectual curiosity was a compulsion, not a choice. A problem in my gut.
Eventually, I came to see my inability to live according to the Nietchean principles that I nominally espoused as a problem, not for my life, but for my principles. No matter what I said, my behaviour always revealed that I thought it mattered to be kind to others. In the quiet of my own mind, I could never quite give up on the belief that my mother loves me. I could say that her love was a convenient fiction of my own mind, a retrospective imagining that I used, in my weakness, to stave back the horror of life’s meaninglessness. But I could never quite believe it.
So much the worse, then, for nihilism.
But a lot changes in that reversal. No longer is the task, first, to figure out the right principles – what Good and Bad are, what God wants from us – and second, figure out how to live my life according to those principles. Instead, I had to start with the principles that are revealed to me in my own actual behaviour. I had to scrutinize myself, and on the basis of that scrutiny, figure out the world.
I am, as most of us are, a product of my childhood. In my case, that means I was raised in a liberal Christian home, in Southern Ontario, at the turn of the twenty-first century. My home life was structured, in ways I did not appreciate until much later, by the collision of a few broad social trends in the bodies of my Mom and my Dad. My mother was a professional, a lawyer. Unlike my grandmothers, who worked until they had children, or my great-grandmothers, who gave up their independent incomes on their wedding days, my mother worked – part time and then full time, through most of my childhood. Feminism joined hands with the intensification of late capitalism to ensure that the bourgeois life my grandparents had worked their way in to was only available to us as a two-income household.
This was particularly true given the precipitous decline in the social prestige – and the inflation-adjusted income – of the professional clergy. Both of my grandfathers had given themselves to the United Church of Canada during its golden age of post-war expansion. Their personal sense of a sacred calling brought them into a world of small towns and growing suburbs thirsty for the leadership and fellowship they had to offer.
By the early 80s, when my father received from his mother a life-altering letter, it was clear that the Church had come to occupy quite a different place. My grandmother shared with David what she had thought for some time, but had been reluctant to say. That he would make an excellent minister. But when my father answered his Call, he knew it was a call to minister to a secular and secularizing world, one in which psychologists, scientists, lawyers and doctors had definitively replaced the clergy as figures of broad social trust.
What this meant, for him, was that he could not do the job the way that my grandfathers and great-grandfather had. His role was not to bring the wisdom of Christianity and the fellowship of the Church to a community that sought it. The bit-by-bit fashioning of Canada into a Christian nation was neither plausible nor desirable.
His role, rather, was to live a Christian life in a nation transformed. And this meant that he always had an intensely personal, even private, relationship to his faith. Never an evangelist, Christianity for my Dad has at its core his duties as a father and a husband. He made peace with, or embraced, the feminism of the nineties by exploring dimensions of masculinity that had gone broadly untapped by previous generations. He compromised on scriptural literalism by remaining consistently open to gay and lesbian equality, understanding this to be the Spirit rather than the Letter of God’s Law. The fragmenting of the institutional church over this issue should perhaps be read as a prelude to his efforts, several decades later, to form a new kind of spiritual community through the staging of several plays which explore transgender and queer experiences of life and faith.
My dad has spent his entire career as the public face of a dying institution. He is not nostalgic about this; the Church is an institution like any other, flawed and all-too-human. But it is perhaps not a coincidence that the faith in which I was raised was always a questioning faith. The issue was always integrity, never righteousness. As a child I had an allergy to evangelical expressions of God’s love, to Christian rock and speaking in tongues. Too loud. Too hypocritical. It was hard for me to see, in the cacophony of the Holy Spirit, the quiet, patient love that I understood to be the essence of God’s Revelation.
Children cannot recognize the tradeoffs and compromises of their own parents lives. Neither do they have they experience to see the social forces that have presented these choices to them. But as I found myself casting about, around my twentieth birthday, for a way out of the ethical dead-end I had reasoned my way in to, I came to think that maybe my moral intuitions and inherited beliefs, unexamined and unphilosophic though they may be, contained within them a rich enough wisdom to be worthy of my allegiance.
What I believe
I begin from the conviction that the world exceeds our grasp. That there is more than we can know; that mystery is a permanent feature of the human experience.
This is obvious. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism tell us this. Physics tells us. The Sun Dance tells us. Yoga tells us. The Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean waves tell us. The World is Thin, as Indigenous Bishop Mark MacDonald once told me. Or as the late great Leonard Cohen put it, “There is a crack in everything/ that’s how the light gets in”. Only ideologues deny it.
Ideologues want to take my faith away from me by shrinking it. What about the Virgin Birth, they say. If you are a Christian, do you believe that?
To me the Virgin Birth means this: that the divine is with us. The God came down, like light through the cracks.
It has been my experience that there are two basic ways we can relate to things in this world. Sometimes I look on someone I love and I know them, the experience of immanence. Sometimes I do not know them at all, I am transfixed by their otherness. The experience of transcendence. These two forms of loving are critical forms of these experiences, but they are not the only ones.
Immanence. The world presents itself to me in a way that I feel I can understand. This is a miracle, if only we would pay attention to it. That light travels a certain speed, that we can calculate the probability of rolling a six, and understand what someone means when they speak to us.
Transcendence. The world reminds us how far it is beyond our grasp. The light of a star, the infinitesimally unlikely event, the incomprehension of those we know best.
Christianity names the first experience “God the Son”. The divine in human form; Truth, here among us, Word made Flesh. Christianity names the second experience “God the Father”. Up there, out there, the Truth that is never here, and yet is always present. Transcendence and immanence; mystery and intimacy. The point of the Virgin birth is that these are two experiences of the same God. That Christ the man and God the Father are cosmically joined. In the basic doctrine of the trinity, the central doctrine of the Christian faith, there is also the Holy Spirit, that which connects the two. That which gives us each, as individuals, our own little piece of the divine.
The truth of this truth does not rest, for me, on the question of whether or not Mary and Joseph had intercourse. I reject the petty literalism that would deny my faith by shrinking it. I do not mean what you mean when you say miracles. But yes, I believe in miracles.
Let me say a bit more, come at it another way.
If this cocktail of a feminist, progressive, private, and heterodox Christianity, aligned with but critical of the dominant trends of Canadian life, is my inherited default, then the challenge for me is how to live in to that tradition. I’ve been deeply influenced, in recent years, by my brother-in-law’s paraphrase of Ghandi. Ghandi explains that conversion represents a misunderstanding of the relationship between the individual and the tradition; traditions are not the sort of thing that we get to choose, opting in to and out of. Rather, traditions make us. We are formed by our inheritance, and if we find ourselves unhappy with it, it is our responsibility to refashion it into something better.
Liturgically, I’m a traditionalist. I’ve read my Aquinas and Augustine; I like ritual, repetition, and theological seriousness. My allergy to Christian rock continues in a general suspicion of ‘modern’ or trendy modes of worship. When I seek the divine, I seek quiet.
Doctrinally, I embrace change. This is not because I reject authority or hierarchy. It is not because I think we know more about how to live today than we did before. I reject the notion that the last few hundred years have been constant enlightenment, from homophobia to gay marriage, from racism to multiculturalism, from Christianity to secular modernity. I know that racism is modern, and that pluralism is ancient. I know that the heteropatriarchy was a part of the European colonialist project, with deep but complex historical roots.
I embrace change because God changes. The world is thin; the divine presence is always showing through. What I seek, in worship and in ethical life, is simply to be attuned to the presence. Whether it be in the words of anti-racist crusaders, loving mothers, or a songbird. For that reason I reject a narrow Christianity, a Christianity that has as its core the drawing of sharp lines between people. Such a Christianity serves primarily to blind us to the depth and breadth of God’s mystery. It is no true Church.
And yet for it to be a Christianity at all, it cannot be infinitely broad. Just as one does not get to ‘choose’ one’s traditions, one also does not get to invent one’s own Christianity. That’s not Christianity, that’s Daniel-ism.
But neither does one have to accept the dominant, trendy, or stereotypical version of one’s faith. The Good News that my education has brought me is that Christianity is not a set of static dogma. It is a long tradition of diverse and brilliant communities of people, taking a shared set of texts, ideas, and practices as their starting point for this great journey of living. Those communities have gone a lot of different ways; they’ve been Orthodox and Coptic and feminism and queer. They’ve all erred, they’ve all struggled. But they’ve also, in their way, participated in God’s revelation.
My Church, the United Church, was founded on the principle of Ecumenism. It’s always been light on Doctrine, but if it has one, that’s it. To me, Ecumenism means inclusivity of both Christian and non-Christian experiences of the divine. It means being open to God where God finds me; where I find God.
And where God has found me, it turns out, is in 2018, as a PhD student with a tenuous connection but a strong lineage in the dying United Church of Canada. For me, that means that I don’t get to just walk away from the paradox of the Virgin Birth. I don’t get to deny the Resurrection in an effort to seem reasonable. Christianity never claimed to be reasonable, or easy, or popular. The least that I owe to it is not to abandon it on that account.
Maybe there is a way to make a meaningful life in this world other than trying to be the best version of what you already are. Maybe some can do more than take what they are given and make it grow. But if there is a way, I don’t know it. I am what I am; that’s what God gave me; that’s what I’ve got.