Why I Don’t Hate Calvinism

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I spent a good part of my formative theological years in Reformed, Calvinist circles. Yes, the stereotypes of Calvinists being argumentative, stubborn, and more than a bit tone-deaf are mostly true (I being the chief at fault there), but Calvinism itself was a safe haven for me.

I’ve always been keenly aware that what I most needed saving from was myself. First it was from the vile sins of a totally depraved heart, like getting frustrated when people were rude, or being a jerk of a big sister, or failing to read through the Bible in a year, or neglecting a robust prayer life. Then, as my faith started shifting, it was from my ignorance of my own ignorance — my people-pleasing, my fear, my brokenness, my humanness, the subconscious things that controlled what I believed and how I acted — things too subtle for me to even notice, much less combat.

I noticed how at the core of almost every (if not all) sin was hurt or human weakness. People lashed out in anger when they were bullied. Abusers were often once the abused. Kids shot their fellow students because they were misunderstood and ostracized.

If it were not for that hurt, compounded by human weakness, that turns into despair and then hate, what might this world look like?

And because these things are so subtle, many people are not even aware of when we grossly wrong another person or ourselves because of whatever lies we were taught or picked up or concluded due to our individual experiences.

My kindergartners constantly bullied and hit each other. I thought, at first, they just needed to learn to keep their hands to themselves. But that was not the issue. The issue was that their parents told them to fight when they were wronged. This was the inner city. Life or death might depend on being able to fight back. In a world of fear, hurt, and danger, violence, rather than peacemaking, made perfectly logical sense. It was my namby pamby rule of using words rather than violence that was stupid and immoral.

Due to our experiences, all of us get broken, wrong ideas implanted in our souls as perfectly logical and moral. Everyone is a good guy in their own ideology. Everyone is on the right side according to their view of the world.

Lord, have mercy.

I say that with all seriousness: Lord, have mercy, because we need some hands-on intervention into our brokenness.

This is why I never resonated with Christians’ exuberance over free will. “God is a gentleman. He never forces himself on anybody,” I heard frequently, as if that was the highest praise. “You are not insistent, You do not force me, You are not controlling,” Audrey Assad sings in her latest song “Deliverer.”

Of course, I understood the heart of these sentiments — we aren’t robots; true love comes from the opportunity to choose love freely. And all of those things I would come to believe and value in time.

But if I was honest with myself, both the past and present versions of me, I dislike the image of God the gentleman standing to the side as he watches the world burn; God the gentleman saying, “Depart from me; I never knew you,” when he could have stepped in and made himself known; God the gentleman creating free will in the first place when he knew it would cause us to suffer so much.

Embarrassingly, I resonate with John Donne’s shocking, violent depiction of God’s sovereignty:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Yes, batter me. Break, blow, and burn away all the ignorance and brokenness that drives us to hate and harm and choose all manner of evil in the name of good. We don’t know better, and you do, so do something.

Calvinism allows for a God who micromanages his elect, orchestrating their salvation, keeping them within the fold. I remember feeling such confidence, such an awash of grace, when I first learned the doctrines of irresistible grace and the perseverance of the saints. Nothing, nothing, nothing — especially not my own ignorance or sin or weakness — could keep me from the love of God.

I was finally safe from my worst enemy — myself.

I love Calvinism for introducing me to a God like that — a Father so acutely aware of my limitations that he doesn’t just sit by as I obliviously wander into oncoming traffic; he runs and snatches me up; he doesn’t let me go even as I kick and scream and don’t understand. He loves me more than he loves my free will, which isn’t, in a world as broken as this, as free as we’d like to think.

***

This image of a fatherly, ever-loving, all-knowing, sovereign God is why I am ultimately no longer Calvinist.

The flipside of a God who chooses and keeps his elect is a God who chooses to damn the non-elect for no reason other than his pleasure — a vile departure from any notion of love. And because God chooses his elect willy nilly (i.e., according to his wise counsel), he’s not really saving us from ourselves as much as he is saving us from his capricious self.

Hence, most people, I discovered, hated Calvinism. It surprised me how much people hated Calvinism and the God revealed in Calvinism.

But this past year, I went through long periods of terror in the hands of an angry God. I felt like I couldn’t keep the faith; it was slipping away from me into agnosticism. I wanted so badly to stay Christian, but I wasn’t able to.

I felt damned.

And I knew from Calvinism that God was capable of saving the elect, that he would never leave me or forsake me, that the elect would persevere until the end. Since I wasn’t able to persevere until the end, since I was rapidly losing the faith, I was clearly the vessel he created for destruction.

No matter how much I railed at this ugly idea, that God damned his creation for his own glory, all I kept hearing was Paul heartlessly repeating, “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?”

Once again, my humanness got in the way of my salvation. This time, there was no rescuer.

***

Ironically, it was this spiritual experience that leads me more than ever to rejoice in God’s sovereignty.

As I’ve stepped outside of the raging Arminian and Calvinist debate, I no longer see salvation in terms of God’s sovereignty pitted against human will. Ardent supporters of either theologies will insist that, as total sovereignty and total free will are opposites, I have to choose one or the other as the primary instigator of predestination.

But I don’t see them as opposites. I see them as paradoxes. What we’re dealing with here is not a logical thing, but a spiritual, experiential thing with too many facets for a systematic theology. And as such, I’ve gained more clarity about the issue from abandoning the labels and the debates and the attempts to stitch together my favorite clobber verses. I’ve paid more attention to the metaphor and the mystery of God’s love as experienced through human love — particularly through parental love.

The more I interact with children through gentle parenting/teaching methods, the more I understand how it’s possible for God to be sovereign — for God to have his way — and for God to respect, honor, and allow our free choices in a way that doesn’t ultimately harm us.

In gentle parenting, when a child throws a tantrum, the parent doesn’t leave the room, close the door, and let the child deal with the negative behavior he chose (the equivalent of the worst of Arminianism, in my mind). Nor does the parent bark orders, punish, or demand that “you better do what I say — or else!” (the equivalent of the worst of Calvinism, in my mind).

The gentle parent knows that her child is acting out of legitimate discomfort and ignorance about how to handle that discomfort — hunger, sleepiness, disappointment, embarrassment, pain.

Knowing this, she sits with her child until the tantrum ends. If the child lunges at her, she gently blocks the child’s hand and says, “I understand you’re angry, but I won’t let you hit me.” If the child starts running around the room and throwing things, she stays within reach to make sure the child doesn’t harm himself. If he can’t keep himself or others safe, sometimes she enfolds him in her arms gently and firmly, empathizing and repeating that she will not let him hurt himself or others.

She will not be moved by the worst of his moments. She will not punish, threaten, or coerce her child into doing what she wants. She is always near, always ready to jump up and protect, jump up and rescue, until her love is so evident and so unavoidable and so relentless that her child collapses into her arms.

Unavoidable, relentless love wins out every time — not because it batters its way through, but because we were made for love, we were made in the image of love. No matter how broken, hurt, twisted, and sinful we are, there’s always a part of a us that can and will respond to love, given enough time, given enough relentless patience.

While I would no longer describe God’s sovereignty as a rape, I wouldn’t describe him as a gentleman either, waiting around to see what our free will will choose. I would describe him as that patient mother. His sovereignty isn’t invasive; it’s intimate. His patience isn’t passive; it’s involved.

Will he get his way in the end, with all men being saved? Will love reach us where we are most broken and hardened? Oh, I hope so. If anybody could do it, this sovereign, patient God could.

Readers, to focus the discussion, let’s not argue within the binary of Calvinism and Arminianism about which side is “right.” I myself am still capable of giving a point by point proof of Calvinism in rebuttal to this article. I’m more interested in hearing how God’s sovereignty and our free will makes a difference in your spirituality, how you have grown in your understanding of how they work together, etc. 

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I Found a Church!

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I was the odd Christian who loved going to church far more than daily devotions. I never missed a Sunday, whereas daily devotions were a pain and a frustration that didn’t get off the ground for longer than a few days strung together. Church was where I met God best. Even when I began deconstructing, church was the last thing to go — and only very reluctantly.

Despite my love of church, I’ve got a checkered church past. I once belonged to a home church that, while well-intentioned and on the surface a great fit, was controlling and spiritually abusive. I kept “growing out” of the two Baptist churches I attended most of my life. I say “growing out,” because even though they weren’t a good fit theologically, I stayed with them out of love for the community and ignorance about where else to go. They were like family. You don’t just abandon family because your beliefs change, no matter how frustrated or upset they make you.

This left me with so many questions about church after I got married and started the “settling down” process — in other words, the hunt for the forever church.

I wanted to be loyal to a church, not like the church hoppers who found fault with everything, but I didn’t want to end up bored out of my mind, offended, or leaving service midway in tears a couple years after joining. How was I supposed to anticipate where my spiritual growth would go?

I also questioned where to compromise, because there was always compromise involved when it came to denominations and me. I finally settled on the idea that while it would be ideal to agree with the denomination at large, it was more important to find a local church we felt comfortable with. Yes, it was disappointing to consider joining a church that belonged to the Orthodox Church of America, which was taking steps to further limit women’s involvement, but if that particular church was pastored by a self-proclaimed feminist, I wasn’t going to complain.

But finding out I was pregnant shook up our options. If we homeschooled, church might be a major social outlet, so a church with young families was more critical. Since we wanted our son baptized and able to take communion from birth, that quickly eliminated most options previously available to us as two baptized adults. I was initially willing to belong to a more male-dominated church, but I couldn’t stomach the thought of raising a child, particularly a girl, in a church that told her her womanhood barred her from service.

And these are just a few of the beliefs I could have personally overlooked; they either didn’t affect me and my husband because we were baptized adults, or they didn’t affect us because we knew tradition and theology well enough that disagreement didn’t confuse our faith. Now that we had to consider what we wanted our son to see, hear, and participate in, our options narrowed.

For a while, Erich and I visited an Orthodox church. We loved the liturgy, the theology, and the people of that church. Ultimately, we decided against it because I wasn’t comfortable with their anti-egalitarian overtones and because it was hard as Westerners to get our foot into the door of an Eastern church. The Eastern church calendar is different than the Western, which would alienate us from our Western families’ religious celebrations and practices.

And as petty as this is, the community felt foreign to us without some of the Western trappings of groups and adult Sunday school, and with the rigorous process of catechesis and chrismation. We were already shy, lonely, and totally new to the real world. Joining our family to an unfamiliar church tradition proved too much for our faith and social capacities at the time.

So for those reasons, and other reasons I’ll share at another time, we didn’t go to church for the majority of this year. When we did go, we would never go two Sundays in a row. It held little meaning for us, as I didn’t consider myself a Christian, and we were in the middle of moving, and church exacerbated spiritual and social problems.

Even after I decided to go back to Christianity, and even after we settled into the area we hope to live in for the rest of our lives, we were slow to find a church. And I will shamelessly admit this is partly because having two days a week to sleep in is glorious. But mostly, again, what was the point?

Then cancer and casseroles reminded me of how much I missed church.

A woman in my old church had been diagnosed with aggressive cancer, and I listened to my mom share the details of how she and the church got involved, bringing casseroles to the family, calling them, praying for her every Sunday, and all the things communities do.

I realized we wouldn’t have that if our family went through a tragedy. There would be no retired grandmas or homeschooled teens willing and able to watch the baby. There would be no assurance that anybody within several hours of us would be checking up on us weekly. And there would be no casseroles in foil pans. We’re fortunate to have my in laws five minutes away from us, and some close friends and family an hour or two from us, but that’s not quite the same thing as having a local community mobilize to your aid.

And that was my pious motivation to get serious about church hunting — wanting a community who would bring my family casseroles if something ever happened to us.

We worked out on paper that the Episcopal church would be the best fit for us theologically and practically, accommodating Erich’s Catholicism, my Protestantism, our shared desire to baptize and raise our son in a historic faith tradition, and our strongest theological beliefs. Eucharist every Sunday was nonnegotiable. Sacramentalism and liturgy were nonnegotiable. Our views on the Bible, tradition, equality, and love of the other were absolutely nonnegotiable.

We’ve been attending a local Episcopal church, and I love it. The community is warm, united, and diverse. It feels like one of those small town churches you read about in novels or watch in Hallmark movies, where the main issue is how to love one another instead of people’s pet theological fights, where parishioners are simultaneously ornery and opinionated but not above changing their mind by the end of the story.

The pastor journeyed from fundamentalism to, in his words, “crazy liberalism.” “I tell this to everybody, I’m a crazy liberal,” he told me. “Just so you know where I’m coming from.”

But his crazy liberalism results in simple, thought-provoking sermons that challenge all of us to take seriously Christ’s call to love, starting with the person in the pew next to us. He manages to touch on politics without ever being political. During one sermon, he mentioned how loving one’s enemies means doing good to them always, regardless of who they are. We were collecting money for hurricane relief efforts that Sunday, and he prompted us to remember that the money was going to people some didn’t think should be in America (illegal aliens) or people whose political views disturbed us — to the “others” we often treated as enemies. It was the most tactful, convicting reference to our nation’s divisions and its impact on our spiritual lives.

Then there’s the deacon with the pierced ear and the Kentucky accent who says, “Peace, y’all!” when we pass the peace, and the older ladies who waved the colored pom poms during our anthem from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Coat more vigorously than the kids. And the church still manages a reverence and solemnity lacking in many other churches we’ve visited.

Speaking of which, there’s the choir. It’s beautiful and fun and an easy foot into the community’s door (particularly since I passed out cold during our kickoff Sunday).

It’s not an absolutely perfect fit. I’m more theologically in agreement with Eastern Orthodoxy on certain issues. There aren’t any young couples our age, much less those with young children. We miss the five-senses experience of Orthodox liturgy. The congregational responses are just slightly different enough from Catholicism’s that we keep messing up and fumbling around in the Book of Common Prayer.

But for the first time in a long time, I am excited to go to church. I don’t want to sleep in on Sunday or go on weekend getaways if it means missing church. I meet God there. I am relieved that they encourage all who seek a closer relationship with God to take communion, as I still feel unworthy to partake. Once again, I think church is a crucial part of my spirituality.

Plus, it’s looking like this is the kind of church who would bring us casseroles when needed.

God Can’t Meet Your Emotional Needs

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Christians say strange, pious things all the time, but one of the most confusing of those strange, pious things is the idea that God is the one who must meet our emotional needs. I feel scandalous even questioning this idea, because it sounds so right on the surface.

As depicted in Christianity, our relationship with God is one of deep emotion and intimacy — God as father, as mother, as friend, as lover. Christ promises rest for the weary. He binds up the brokenhearted. Never will he leave us or forsake us. God is love.

Out of this, we’ve understandably developed this idea that God meets all our emotional needs. “Put your relationship with God first” translates into, “Run to God first with all your joys and pains.” Jesus is your best friend, Christians will say. Jesus is my boyfriend, teen girls will say. And woe to those who say otherwise — if you don’t find your emotional security in God, we’re warned, we’ll ruin all our relationships, human and divine.

It’s idolatry to expect any one person to fulfill all our needs. Only Jesus can do that.

When I first started dating, I felt guilty and idolatrous all the time, because, frankly, I preferred my boyfriend’s comfort to God’s. When I ran to God first and sobbed it all before him, I was met with silence. No words of advice. No hugs. No stupid jokes that lightened the mood. Just cold, existential silence…and the constant nagging thought that any comforting emotion I did feel was probably of my own manufacturing. And the other nagging thought that I shouldn’t think that way, and then that other one, where it was sinful of me to even expect an emotional experience, because spirituality wasn’t all about emotions, even though only God could ultimately meet my emotional needs.

Running to God first left me more distraught than running across campus to curl up next to a physically present person who verbally whispered, “I love you,” who advised me out loud in real time, who had real arms to hug me and a real mouth to tell me it was all okay.

Did he always meet my emotional needs? No, of course not. But it was less painful, even if equally frustrating, when my fallible boyfriend (or friend, or parent, or sibling, or professor) let me down emotionally than the perfect, omniscient, omnipresent God.

And the best of human comfort was by far preferable to the best of comfort I experienced alone with God. I could walk away from friends and family and feel full to the brim emotionally. I could walk away satisfied from a “God moment,” as I called them, but it was shorter lived, involved more emotional investment, was not reliably accessible, and rarely, if ever, left me overflowing.

For much of my childhood, I experienced periods where only Jesus was my friend. It was fine. I got by. But I much prefer life when I have human friends who laugh and hug and tease and physically exist without any mental exertion. Just Jesus was a lame friend, to be blasphemously honest, even if he was, in some vague, inaccessible sense, always there.

Like I said, scandalous. Idolatrous. Real Christians don’t feel that way. Hence the intense amount of guilt I felt about my closest relationships.

I question that now.

In much of mainstream Western spirituality (both Catholic and Protestant), emotions are categorized as primarily spiritual. The measure of one’s spirituality, to some extent, is one’s emotional connection to God. We might not admit it in our doctrinal statements, but I don’t think I’m alone in identifying the Christians with their hands raised, eyes closed, tears streaming down their faces as the more spiritual (especially if this response is consistent every single Sunday).

This is called pietism, an Eastern Orthodox priest told me. We prefer powerful sermons. We like our music stirring and emotional. If you’re Catholic, you depict Christ primarily as battered and anguished, hanging on a bloodied cross.

All of this to evoke some sort of emotional response, with the assumption that emotions really are spiritual, transcendent, and other-worldly.

But are they?

The more I study psychology, the more I’m convinced that emotions belong solidly in the physical realm. Physicality — illness, chemical imbalances, stress on the one hand; massage, exercise, warm baths on the other — affects mood. I’m amazed at how many problems a good night’s sleep solves when nothing else will.

And touch, we’re learning more and more, is vital to human well-being. Psychologists link a lack of human touch to aggression and an inability to regulate negative emotions in men, because there are limited forms of physical affection that men can give and receive without being perceived as sexual. Neglected infants who rarely receive cuddling suffer developmental delays and permanent mental damage. And on the flipside, infants who get regular skin-to-skin contact with their caregivers receive a developmental boost.

But we don’t need science to tell us how difficult life is when you’re far away from close friends and family and there’s nobody there to listen or give you a hug. It’s no shocker that we’re happier and healthier when connected to a good marriage, family, or community.

It shouldn’t be blasphemous to list consistent emotional and physical connection to other humans as a psychological and physical necessity. Yes, necessity.

We Christians are uncomfortable with thinking of companionship as a necessity, partly because of pietism and partly because good relationships aren’t as easily acquired as other necessities in life. It seems selfish to call relationships a necessity when so many come from broken families, operate without close friends, or long to be married. We want to offer hope to those less communally fortunate (especially if we find ourselves one of the lonely ones).

That’s where much of our strange, pious sayings originate. We tell women that Jesus can be their boyfriend to take away their heartache about being single. We tell kids that Jesus can be their best friend to give them something to grab onto when they’re bullied or isolated. We tell the lonely that Jesus is everywhere and always there, unlike any human. And we beef up that relationship with Jesus — he’s all I need; if you’ve got Jesus, you’ve got everything; even people in happy relationships need to run to Jesus first, or they’ll be a wreck.

But we know, deep down, that’s not true. Yes, Jesus can give hope, but Jesus cannot meet our emotional needs, not the way a human can, because emotional needs are primarily physical needs — like clothes and food and shelter. Just as we cannot wear, eat, or set up house in Jesus, we cannot meet our emotional needs in him.

There is a sense in which Jesus can meet our emotional needs, and it is in the same sense that he meets our other physical needs — through other people. He provides for our emotional needs through our own efforts to reach out and join community, just as he provides for our other physical needs through our own efforts to find a job and earn a paycheck. And when we are incapable of meeting our physical needs — whether it’s an emotional poverty or a financial poverty — he commands his body to be there with food, clothing, shelter, and, yes, friendship, if need be.

Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours. — Teresa of Avila

Ironically, this meeting of physical needs is a deeply spiritual act. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this,” James tells us, “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction.” He goes on to say,

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

This is precisely what we do when we tell emotionally needy people to run to Jesus. “Go in peace,” we tell them, “find friendship and love,” when it is through our physical body, our friendship, our presence that God wishes to reach them.

We can run to God when we run to others. We can connect with God when we connect with others. God is pleased when we eat real food, live in real houses, feel real heat, and get real hugs from real bodies when we need them. It is a terrible, terrible lie to guilt a person for wanting human touch and companionship, to send them on their knees to Jesus without giving them the tools to meet their emotional needs.

Which leads me to say that the tools to meet our emotional needs are not merely having friends, being married, or starting a family. People will not always be there, and even if they’re there physically, they’re not always there emotionally.

And even then, we can misdiagnose our emotional problems when we rely too heavily on others without developing self-regulation, self-soothing, and independence; when we pine away for a boyfriend while ignoring other relationships right in front of us; when we put too high of expectations on others. Sometimes our desire for companionship can distract us from the need to love ourselves, meet other physical needs, get an attitude adjustment, or just go take a nap. And of course our desperation for human love can manifest itself in a myriad of spiritual problems too.

But this is true for all physical needs. We can have too much or too little of material things that then causes mental, physical, and spiritual problems. We can be unregulated in our desire for material things. That doesn’t negate our need for food or clothing or work; it’s just to say that sometimes we need other things too, or we need to order our desires to get the most out of what we already have.

Many Christians today, particularly if they bow out of the long tradition of sacramental theology, are ascetics and reductionists when it comes to spirituality: the more you can believe without any sort of physical aid, the more you can deny your physicality (this unconscious thinking goes), the stronger Christian you are. Rosaries, weekly Eucharist, icons, the other five of the sacraments, candles, and incense are seen as primarily stumblingblocks to a real relationship with God.

Human relationships are treated the same way. Some Christians never attend church because their relationship with God allegedly doesn’t need a communal aspect. And if you try to tell someone that a big part of your relationship with God involves giving and receiving human love, you will get many questions about the legitimacy of your spirituality.

This is completely out of touch with the spirituality presented in Scripture, tradition, and the reality of who Jesus is.

Jesus became God with us in an incarnate, physical way. He fed the hungry. He healed the sick. He took a child on his knee. He developed relationships with others, who became so close to him that they leant upon his bosom during a supper that two thousand years later allows us to partake of him in a physical way. And even though he is no longer on earth, we experience God’s grace and presence through bread, wine, water, and chrism. Christianity is sacramental because our God became incarnate, and our God became incarnate because he knows our physical needs.

Sacramentalism aside, the fact that God instituted a community of people and commands that we partake in that community shows us that God will not call us to loneliness — ever. Loneliness is not a sustainable life for any human, even a human who has Jesus in her heart.

But loneliness builds dependence on God, a pious Christian might argue. It might, just as starvation might bring one closer to God. There are many mysteries about how this world works and how God works in it for good, but we do not stop feeding the hungry and helping the poor just because God might do a spiritual work.

In the same way, as part of Christ’s body, I am obligated to help those who are emotionally impoverished, regardless of what God can do and is doing spiritually through that impoverishment. And as a human being with a body, I am obligated to meet my emotional needs in a physical, emotional, human way.

So I will first run to my husband’s arms when I need comfort, and thank God that I can.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Saved by Affirming the Right Moral Stance

Just a quick thought, in light of Article X in the Nashville Statement: If our salvation is dependent on picking the right side during turbulent culture wars, the majority of our heroes of the faith is in hell for racism, sexism, and violence.

Martin Luther advocated horrific violence against Jews.

Augustine was, shall we say, not trying to look anti-misogynist.

Many great American Christians owned slaves and thought white people were superior to black people because the Bible clearly says so. 

Do we really want to get into this territory of deciding who is in and who is out based on where they land during the culture wars? Do we really want to take it upon ourselves to condemn the millennia of Christians before us who held the wrong social views? Do we really want to go there?

I certainly don’t. I’m not qualified to judge other people’s souls or the work God is doing in them. I believe there’s great urgency and need to discuss what is the Christian view on certain social issues, but that is far different from saying there’s a need to discern who is damned and who is saved — particularly on the basis of one, controversial topic.

It’s telling that those who support Article X don’t want to “go there” when it comes to any other moral issue. Apparently, supporting LGBTQ+ people after careful research, prayer, and study is a damnable offense, but the Christians who came before us who advocated violence instead of peace, racism instead of dignity, misogyny instead of equality — they get a free pass? God isn’t as strict on the supporters of other social evils as he is on the supporters of homosexuality?

How pathetic a gospel whose effectiveness wears off with one dose of LGBTQ+ acceptance! A gospel that covers a multitude of racial sins but just can’t quite reach LGBTQ+ acceptance. Knowing my own proclivity toward ignorance and misunderstanding, I find no comfort in grace contingent on me figuring out an issue as complicated, personal, and emotional as same-sex orientation and gender dysphoria.

The irony is that we all struggle with what is right and what is wrong. We all fall prey to misinformation and a lack of opportunity to learn the truth. We all have a tendency to get caught up in what our tribe says and lambaste the opposing side. We all share the same nature and the same Spirit and still come to radically different conclusions. We all believe that our careful, prayerful opinions (and even our rash, bigoted ones) are the Christian way. And often, we all once held the viewpoint we now oppose — with equal conviction about what the Bible clearly says….

Do we really want to be damned by the same standard of human frailty we all share?

Do we even want to judge ourselves in this way — that back when we believed such and such a view, even while we loved Jesus and sought his heart, we were damned? But now that our thinking evolved through whatever journey it took, we are saved by our affirmation of this moral, political thing?

Lord, have mercy on my soul if that’s the case, because I loved Jesus and believed some pretty abhorrent, ignorant things at the same time. Thank goodness I reached a state of enlightenment on moral issues before an untimely death.

This is what is meant when Jesus said, “Judge not, lest you too be judged.”

Nobody escapes damnation if salvation is dependent on believing the right things instead of on the scandalous mercy, grace, and love of God.

If we want a gospel, a grace, a salvation dependent on our political, moral stances, so be it — but we too will face the hellfire to which we damned others.

The Irrelevancy of the Nashville Statement

Article 10 of the Nashville Statement.

I waffle back and forth between anger and uncontrollable laughter at the Nashville Statement. Anger, because it is so spectacularly tone deaf. Laughter, because it is so spectacularly tone deaf.

Nothing prompted the Nashville Statement except the same old impending, post-Christian apocalypse already upon us, driven by the spirit of the secular age. In other words, there was no particular driving force except everyday evangelical paranoia. I mention this only because there are several other things that immediately come to mind as more timely for evangelicals to address.

How about a statement against white supremacy, what with this year’s national displays of xenophobia and racism culminating in white supremacists marching in the streets and feeding off the President’s forgiving words? Or speaking of the President, perhaps a statement against the many sexual sins he embodies? Surely, if it’s always timely to make broad, sweeping statements of judgment about sexuality, this year — when many in the evangelical church actively support a serial, unrepentant adulterer, fornicator, accused rapist, and sexist — would be a great year to chastise the church’s departure from the traditional Christian (hetero)sexual ethic.

Or if evangelicals must publicly state something about homosexuality, why not address all the grieving, estranged LGBTQ+ Christians whose “loving” families abandoned them, ridiculed them, and persecuted them? Why not apologize for the many ways the traditional Christian sexual ethic has been wielded as a weapon rather than as a healing? Why not acknowledge the high suicidal rate among transgender kids? Why not finally take the pastoral stance this issue desperately needs?

Of course, this is an oft-repeated criticism of the evangelical church — why are you always talking about homosexuality as the chief of all cultural evils when there are so many evils to choose from? But I will repeat it: Why, evangelical church, are you always talking about homosexuality as the chief of all cultural evils when there are so many evils to choose from? Even if you believe in the traditional sexual ethic, why is it that two gay Christians in a loving relationship is cataclysmically destructive in a way rampant divorce, adultery, white supremacy, abuse, and hateful rhetoric are not?

Yes, the breakdown of the family is alarming. But it should not be controversial to say that parents shunning their gay children, transgender kids committing suicide, husbands abusing their wives under a divine mandate, authoritarian parenting, porn use, infidelity, an adulterer-in-chief — those sorts of heterosexual sins are breaking down the family in a way gay marriage and transgender identity cannot and will not.

Like I said, when I first heard about the Nashville Statement, I wanted to laugh. The actual evangelical church — not to mention the church at large — is not particularly interested in hearing the same old stance against homosexuality. They’re more caught up in discussions of race, leaders trading their moral authority for political affluence, and the Christian machine’s destruction against those who disagree on secondary issues.

The Nashville Statement is thus wholly irrelevant to conversations and concerns that are most pressing or should be most pressing to the American church in its current political, sociocultural, and historical context.

Then again, I’m not surprised at its irrelevancy. Its callousness, poor timing, and ignorance of the concerns of real people who actually struggle with being a person of color or gay or gender dysphoric in the church is not a coincidence.

The statement was named after the location of its drafting, in the footsteps of historic articulations of orthodoxy like the Nicene Creed. The hubris of even daring to associate the Nashville Statement with the likes of the Nicene Creed shows an appalling ignorance about orthodoxy.

For one thing, all historic articulations of orthodox faith were ecumenical. The whole church got together and hashed out their differences with the hope that the Holy Spirit would guide them. There was an understanding that the truest devotion to Christian orthodoxy could not be accomplished by one church alone but by the whole, catholic Church. This is true from the very beginning, when the apostles met to discuss issues of inclusion and moral practice back in Acts 15.

There is nothing like that about the Nashville Statement — no wrestling, no invitation or openness to hear what God might doing in the LGBTQ+ Christian community, no input from those who disagree. There was nothing at all surprising about the Nashville Statement: it repeated the same poorly articulated fundamentalist party line about sexuality, with the intention of drawing a line between its adherents and its dissenters.

It’s backwards from how the church has operated when defining things as orthodox: first, the drafters of the Nashville Statement articulated what orthodoxy is; then, they issued it to the larger church to deal with.

This “sign your name” style of orthodoxy only further divides a divided, uninformed church catholic. The fact that there are counterstatements popping up around the internet, also articulating the one and only stance on Christian sexuality and inviting signatures from laypeople and clergy alike, demonstrates how ultimately ineffective the Nashville Statement was as an attempt to clarify orthodoxy once and for all.

But it’s not really about orthodoxy, is it? It’s not about rallying the church catholic to truth or inviting the LGBTQ+ community into wholeness and healing. Those who signed the Nashville Statement thinking such were sorely deceived. As president of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood explicitly stated, it’s about division. It’s about drawing lines in the sand.

It’s the classic evangelical obsession of reducing Christianity to who’s in and who’s out.

But the current debate is not primarily about the traditional Christian sexual ethic versus the secular spirit of the age — the who’s in and the who’s out. The debate is about whether the effects of the traditional Christian sexual ethic and the articulation of the traditional Christian sexual ethic are consistent with Christ. There is a huge gulf between those who signed the Nashville Statement and those who didn’t — and it’s, surprisingly, not between those who support the traditional Christian sexual ethic and those who don’t.

The signers of the Nashville Statement talked about the doctrine itself (“beautiful” and “precious” were common adjectives). The dissenters, even if they agreed with the traditional Christian sexual ethic, talked about the ugliness, despair, burdening, and violence these views and the traditional way of expressing these views had on the LGBTQ+ community.

Jen Hatmaker sums up the real issue in a series of tweets: “If the fruit of doctrine regularly & consistently creates shame, self-harm, suicide, & broken hearts, families, & churches, we [should] listen. … If the natural end to a doctrine is not consistently leading to whole, healthy, vibrant lives in Christ, something is wrong with it.”

This is at the heart of the evangelical debate on LGBTQ+ issues.

The Nashville Statement fails to understand that debate. It dismisses out of hand that its precious, beautiful doctrine, as stated, is or could at all be partially or wholly responsible for LGBTQ+ suffering. It offers its doctrine as an unequivocal solution to LGBTQ+ pain, when the people closest to the pain are insisting the doctrine is the cause of that pain.

Because of this misunderstanding, the real losers are those who think the Nashville Statement’s exclusion will affect the church. The Nashville Statement drew so sharp a line in the sand that its adherents cut themselves off from the rest of the church still in the throes of this debate. By regurgitating a solution without understanding the problem, they made themselves irrelevant. Laughably, they think a small segment of conservative evangelicalism, already compromised in morals and principles, has the authority to determine orthodoxy for the entire church catholic. In their zeal to decide who’s in and who’s out, they have only made themselves the outsiders.

But the Nashville Statement has no authority — neither in actuality nor in reputation. And so the rest of the church will grow deeper in wisdom, love, and truth, while the Nashville Statement fades into obscurity.

The Nashville Statement is nothing more than people wanting to be right stating their beliefs in public with no desire to hear about the real life consequences their beliefs wreak on the weaker — just another clanging cymbal in a cacophony of irrelevancy.

Photo Credit: Religion News Service

What to Read During a Faith Crisis

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Back in college, I experienced a massive spiritual crisis — like usual. I wondered if God wasn’t real and humans had invented religion to survive the soulless empty universe — like normal. This time, however, it wasn’t just my brain churning up question after unanswered, unanswerable question. Schleiermacher and Freud and William James were hammering these questions even when I wanted to check my brain at the dining room door and talk about dating.

My spiritual crisis paralleled my recent Android phone meltdown.

I first noticed something was wrong when my phone contracted demon possession and began typing sweet nothings to my husband (such as ccccccccccccCCCCCCCCCCCCCCççççç). Nothing a restart can’t fix, I thought.

Wrong.

The sweet nothings worsened. Then the demon refused to let me close out of my conversation with my sister, and when I overrode it by shutting down Messenger, it petulantly opened Snapchat and Ibotta and Duolingo, rearranged the app order, and wrote insults about my technological abilities.

Just kidding on the last one, but the phone was thinking them, I’m sure.

The demon possession drove me to the holy book of Google, where I tried to exorcise it via installing a virus scanner. It wasn’t a virus. That left actual demon possession, or a scrambled digitizer and flawed touchscreen. Something was wrong with the phone itself.

That’s how I felt about metaphysics at that point. A few little bugs here and there might indicate something could be horrifically wrong with the theistic worldview. Nothing a good brain restart couldn’t clear up, a la C. S. Lewis. Then the bugs persisted. And worsened. And C. S. Lewis stood by helplessly as I drowned in the quagmire of atheist epistemology — or, to put it in technological terms, every single doubt was opened, rearranged, and refusing to close out.

I puzzled over philosophy as I puzzled over badly spelled Android help forums. You’ve got a virus in your thinking, Christian apologetics suggested. Run this line of thought against the heathen philosophy. But Lee Strobel and random apologists who ran ugly websites in exclusively Times New Roman font were no match against the wiles of epistemology.

My thinking didn’t have a virus, I concluded. The whole theistic system was just broken. I didn’t want to believe it, in the same way loving Christians feel forced to call gay marriage an abomination simply because the Bible says so, against all evidence to the contrary. Except in this case, all evidence pointed towards theism’s brokenness, and only a desperate intuition that this couldn’t be all there is to life made accepting that evidence difficult.

I dragged myself into my history professor’s office one last time to share the embarrassing news that I’d lost the good fight to empiricism, dreading another unhelpful Christian argument that even further convinced me that atheist’s had the corner on rational discourse.

He offered me one suggestion: stop reading philosophy, and start reading theology again.

That helped. A lot. (But pro-tip: don’t count Aquinas’s Summa Theologica as helpful theology in this regard.) Discovering Orthodox theology changed my life. Reading David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? came the closest to satisfying my questions on theodicy. Then a friend mailed me Sarah Bessey’s Out of Sorts. 

It didn’t solve my spiritual crisis, but it took control of the bugs opening doubts without my permission. Now I could open them myself, gently, calmly.

My professor also told me something else that day — that the weight of all humanity believing in a higher power might mean something — and another professor told me that to know truth from untruth, you must experience it. I didn’t know it then, but their words gave me permission to listen to the intuition battling against the bleak empiricism I felt forced to follow.

And where do you listen to intuition, where do you find experience? Why, in a class on modern British novels, of course — which reminds your beleaguered soul about the power of narrative to convey truth in the best, most honest way.

If I were a professor now, and somebody as spiritually and intellectually scrambled as junior-year Bailey walked into my office, I would recommend not only theology but specifically theological memoir. Anne Lamott if you’re more liberal. Ann Voskamp if you’re more conservative. Sarah Bessey, Rachel Held Evans, Addie Ziermann if you’re deconstructing.

When the little demons are flying and the doubts are opening and shutting and getting punted all over your metaphysical framework, when you’re no longer sure of specifics like up or down, or perception or reality, or true or untrue, narrative cuts through that. Narrative takes it down a couple theoretical notches. Narrative gives you permission to sit and observe — maybe you’re getting the answers wrong because you’re missing a couple crucial pieces about life. Narrative doesn’t demand you come to conclusions. It simply demands you listen, and respond (usually with tears and exclamations of Why didn’t anyone ever say this out loud before?).

Narrative gives you another, earthier, human way of exploring truth — via vicarious experience. Narrative takes on flesh and walks among us. And narrative is honest — it just says what things are; it leaves tensions and mysteries in all their frustrating, beautiful, awful, true, contradictory ways; it doesn’t trick you with moralisms and platitudes; it doesn’t try to fit everything in the universe together into one unsatisfactory metaphysical system.

It focuses on one story, one thought, one paradox of life at a time. It requires faith, real faith that accepts both the revelation and the hiddenness of God working through a present-day narrative. It integrates body, soul, and mind as only a good story can. It satisfies the intellect as well as the intuition.

When you’re in a spiritual crisis, read those books. God isn’t a problem to troubleshoot. God is here to be experienced.

Photo by Lilly Rum on Unsplash

My Deepest Insecurity as an Educated, Talented Woman

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I graduated summa cum laude with a degree in Christian studies. I worked hard for that degree. Both the working and the courses forever changed how I approached life and Christianity. Not for one second do I regret those four years I spent writing papers on the Incarnation and reading the early church fathers.

But I’m not ignorant. I’ll be the first to tell you that there is, basically, nothing I can do with that degree. Part of it is because you will never find “Christian studies” listed as a prerequisite degree to apply for a job. And most of it is that if that major is listed as an acceptable prerequisite, the job is probably off-limits to me — because I’m a woman.

I wasn’t fully egalitarian when I started my coursework, so I knew from the beginning that this degree was for kicks, giggles, and personal transformation.

Did I want to be a minister, people asked me. No, churches don’t hire female ministers.

Did I want to be a teacher, people asked me. No, churches and Christian schools don’t hire female Bible or theology teachers.

Did I want to do anything with the degree, they asked me. Well, yes, but how could I when I’ve got a vagina?

The truth was, I really did like the idea of teaching and preaching to an audience over the age of seven about academic, gender-neutral things that mattered. But I wasn’t going to set myself up for failure and heartache chasing an elusive career in a Christian culture that opposed my existence as a female leader and teacher.

And truth be told, I do love the opportunities I’ve had. I adore working with children. I will happily talk about marriage, childrearing, and relationships. Mentoring women about women’s issues, teaching children — those are not at all lesser things to me.

I don’t resent those opportunities.

But I do resent that those are the only opportunities I’ve had.

When I am at home, not blogging, not earning a paycheck, not calculating how my interests and gifts will pan out in the “real world,” I read books on theology and sociology. I sit cross-legged on my unmade bed and talk through my theological and spiritual thoughts. I listen to podcasts on culture and Christianity while washing dishes.

I am and have always been an academic nerd who lives for the intersection of culture, faith, and everyday life.

There’s a part of me that jumps at the idea of going back to school, becoming a pastor, becoming a chaplain, becoming a tenured professor who writes books and gets called up on the Liturgists because I might know something.

Then that part of me sits right back down with a thud and moves on happily with life in the opportunities that have always been given, approved, and supported.

Because I’m terrified.

I’m terrified of being responsible for knowing things, saying things, teaching things, and guiding souls.

Which sounds very wise and humble of me to say, and I am glad I am properly terrified of such huge responsibility, but I don’t have that fear in my “okayed” roles. I say things all the time on my blog without terror. I was happy to share my knowledge of the Old Testament exile during adult Sunday school hour when the pastor asked for questions or comments. I taught my heart out even when I didn’t quite know what I was doing. I enjoyed counseling, mentoring, and offering advice to the women, teenagers, pre-teens, and the occasional man who came into my life asking for it.

I’ve always imagined my adult successful self as an English high school teacher, a speaker, a writer, a counselor.

So what’s the difference, fearful heart? What’s the terror of transitioning from “speaker” to “preacher,” from “counselor” to “pastor,” from “teacher” to “professor”?

I think the difference is that I have support in the okayed roles, and opposition in the “men only” positions. Not that I mind the opposition, per se — but I’ve internalized the paranoia that a woman shouldn’t do X, regardless of her gifting.

I’ve internalized it so much that it feels presumptuous of me to even think of presenting myself as a teacher, pastor, or spiritual guide. Who would take me seriously? Who would honestly come hear a woman speak, who would sign up for a female professor’s class, who would attend a church with a woman on the pastoral staff?

Women are too emotional. Women are too biased. Women leaders have no truth to speak because they’re all liberals pushing a liberal agenda. Women can’t command presence. Women can’t earn respect. Women are easily deceived. Women are lacking something that makes them fundamentally unqualified for leadership — like, being a man.

These are all things I know aren’t true, but that I believe deeply enough that they limit me from considering any sort of career outside of the prescribed female roles.

I try to explain this to my husband, who grew up with women leaders and teachers in his Catholic parish, who is not a woman, who never heard that women can’t because they’re women. I try to explain how brokenhearted I am that the patriarchy lives inside me and limits me. I try to explain what it’s like to feel automatically disrespected and dismissed simply because of my gender.

I don’t know how to explain it.

I don’t even know if I fully understand how damaging those beliefs are to me, how debilitating it was to be the best at something and passed over because I was a girl.

My home church made this worse, in retrospect, because they genuinely recognized my gifts and provided ample opportunities for young people to practice leadership in the church. Well, for young men.

The male Bible college students, regardless of degree, all got a chance to preach a sermon in evening service.

The high school boys all got a chance to read the sermon passage during the morning service.

The young men got to teach the youth group lessons.

Honestly, not all of them were qualified or even good at what they did. That didn’t matter to the church. They supported them, they encouraged them, they gave them opportunities. And I think it’s absolutely beautiful that our church recognized how empowering it was to believe in them and what they could do. I am happy they had those opportunities.

I would have loved those opportunities, too. I would have loved being encouraged and supported in such a public, challenging way.

That’s all I’m saying.

Many people, including the pastors, went out of their way to thank me for the comments and questions I gave during Sunday school hour. Why didn’t that ever translate into a chance to lead youth group?

Everybody praised me up and down for my speaking skills. Why didn’t that lead to an opportunity to preach an evening sermon or at least read the Bible aloud?

Why didn’t it matter that I was equally or more gifted in certain areas than my male peers and that everybody knew it? Why were my comments during Sunday school a blessing but the idea of me reading the Bible aloud an abomination of the created order? Why were my leadership skills praised when I co-organized VBS but a cause for visceral anger when I asked to lead worship? Why was my singing able to minister when it was during special music but all of the sudden a disaster waiting to happen when the congregation was singing along with a woman directing the tune?

Why do I feel capable as a kindergarten teacher with no formal educational training but incapable of teaching a class on something for which I earned a degree? Why do I feel little fear at training as a counselor but terror at training for a pastoral ministry? Why am I okay writing a blog post about a spiritual issue but uncomfortable with “preaching” it on Sunday morning? Why do I feel somewhat qualified to raise impressionable children’s souls as a mother but disqualified to guide thinking adults in the faith as a Sunday school teacher?

I know the answer to this.

I’m a woman.

And that’s the terror I have of stepping into a teaching or pastoral position over adults — heck, over even teenage boys — not that I don’t have something to say, not that I wouldn’t be good at it, not that I would not be gifted and equipped and called, but, simply, that I am a woman.

I am terrified of my womanness and the havoc it could cause. I want to spare myself from that destruction. I want to spare others from that destruction.

I’ve been taught that regardless of how gifted you are, being a woman ruins it somehow.

As an educated, talented woman, that is my deepest insecurity.

Photo by Stephen Radford on Unsplash

God’s Unfaithfulness

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Not surprisingly, I deconstructed many of my beliefs about God through teaching children. Faith like a little child is so clarifying. It’s so devoid of the systematic, the splitting hairs. A child’s faith calls it like it is.

We were working through a reader on the time Elijah informed Ahab that his whole kingdom would experience famine until he repented of his wickedness. We spent days discussing how the body can survive only so long without food and water. We analyzed the emaciated cows on page 5. We predicted how God would use the crows to feed Elijah. “The eggs!” a couple of them shouted. “Maybe he’ll eat the birds?” another wondered.

Happily, no crows were harmed in this story, and neither was Elijah. “Did God provide for Elijah?” I asked the group of six-year-olds. “YES,” they shouted. “Was God faithful to Elijah?” “YES.”

And because I was curious, I asked, “What do you think happened to all the people in the famine?”

“Oh, they died,” the kids informed me.

“Do you think God was faithful to them?”

“No-o,” they droned.

If that makes you uncomfortable, don’t blame me — I’m not the God who starved an entire nation to rattle one wicked king and then ignored all their prayers for basic sustenance.

Because if we’re defining faithfulness by “God meeting our basic needs” (as we just did in Elijah’s case), then no, he wasn’t faithful.

I didn’t tell my kids any of this, of course. That was my own thought process as I zipped the readers back into the Ziploc bag and all hell broke loose during center time clean up.

But I thought about it again, yesterday, when I read to them a lesson on prayer. “God doesn’t answer our prayers for bad things,” I was teaching them, “but God will always give us what we ask for if we ask for good things that we need.”

Except he doesn’t. He doesn’t all the time give us the things he promises. There are many times when you ask, and it won’t be given to you; you seek, and you never find; you knock, and the door remains bolted from the inside.

And of course, I’ve learned all the caveats — God’s grace is sufficient, God works all things together for good, you have to ask in faith (are you sure you didn’t believe hard enough?).

It’s an elaborate system of caveats and exceptions to the basic promises that God is faithful, he will always come through, and he will provide for our basic needs. But the promises don’t always hold true. His yes doesn’t mean yes, and his no doesn’t mean no. Contrary to Jesus, not all of his children are clothed like the lilies or eating like the sparrows.

And the caveats of spiritual improvement don’t always function, either — the sufficient grace or the peace that passeth understanding down in our hearts. We get emptiness, silence, and angst. We get the joy of wondering where God is and what he is doing and what is the point in believing all of this.

We’re left with famine while God seems busy giving out A plus grades when the student didn’t study and free Starbucks drinks “just because he loves me” and a spiritual insight “right when I needed him most.”

It is, frankly, abhorrent to me that God would prioritize getting a cappuccino to one of his princesses who woke up a little down today while his other princesses are getting slaughtered on the other side of the world. (And how convenient that those who get the most from God materially seem financially positioned to get the most, anyway.) It is abhorrent to me that people attempt to find God’s love in neglect, that God’s perfect plan involves so much hate, violence, and evil.

But this doesn’t make me doubt God’s love. It just makes me doubt that humans have figured out a predictable pattern in this mysterious God’s ways.

I’ve given up on believing in a system of how God works — particularly regarding prayer. In fact, I don’t petition God for anything anymore. There’s nothing more terrifying than being at the end of your humanity and knowing that God might choose to withhold his divinity. There’s nothing more devastating than hoping against hope for a miracle of a more earthly nature and getting the final “no — I think I’d rather work on your spiritual improvement right now.”

What happens happens. If he’s determined to ignore the pleas of innocents as a way to show them his sufficient grace, so be it. Who’s to argue with God, so why try?

And yet I believe in a God of love. And yet I believe in the possibility that God does intervene in this world in a way that doesn’t make him a capricious monster.

That’s the mystery, always — how an omnipotent and loving God can interact with or tolerate or coexist with finite humans and the evil let loose in a once-perfect world. To deny the omnipotence or the love of God or the distinction between good and evil is to leave one utterly without hope. It makes God out to be a monster.

To deny the seeming absence and capriciousness of God is equally hopeless. It makes you out to be a faithless, doubtful sinner.

I believe in God, but I don’t believe in systems about God — and what that exactly means, I’m not sure.

I think it means believing in God as he is, not in God as he does — God as goodness, light, beauty, truth, love. Because there are always some glimpses of them, somewhere, if not in your life right now, than in your past and hopefully your future and definitely in someone else’s life. And those good things are just as real (and hopefully more real) than the bad.

I think it means acknowledging when God is here and when God isn’t here, being grateful for the good and grieving for the evil. God is in the good things. God is not in the bad things, and he hates them as much as you do, so why he doesn’t stop them, I don’t know. Sometimes God answers your prayers, good or bad. Many times he doesn’t, and I’m not sure why.

I think it means that God is hidden and obvious, absent and here, faithful and unfaithful, according to human definitions and human experiences. For some reason, certain faith-filled people experience him one way, and certain faith-filled people experience him another way, and we’re missing crucial information to mesh those two experiences into one, coherent, loving, omnipotent deity.

But here’s the certain hope, often uncertain: in the end, the very end, goodness and love and God will win. Humanity has always known this. We don’t always get eagles ex machina or the free Starbucks or the basic sustenance to survive (or maybe we do), but somehow, someday, when the story ends, we’ll make good on our hope in God.

P.S. See Psalm 89 for proof I’m not a heretic, plus more thoughts on good and evil.

The True Liberal/Conservative Divide

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You heard about Princeton revoking an award to Tim Keller because of his beliefs on women and LGBTQ people in ministry? And perhaps you read Jonathan Merritt’s criticism of Princeton for “marginalizing” Keller, a conservative? And if you did, no doubt you got sucked into debates about whether Princeton did or did not marginalize Keller, and if it’s appropriate to critique a theologian based on his secondary theological beliefs concerning minorities, and whether beliefs concerning minorities are secondary.

I’ll show my hand: I feel like Princeton had a right to revoke the award and choose to celebrate only those theologians who affirm inclusiveness; I think it was sloppy to award Keller and then revoke the award; I do not think Keller is a misogynist and homophobe; and I think Princeton could only be considered intolerant and close-minded if it refused to allow Keller to speak on April 6, which they did not.

Here’s the thing. Christianity has always had problems with celebrated theologians who held questionable, if not outright deplorable, beliefs. Many have pointed out that Abraham Kuyper, the theologian after whom Keller’s retracted award was named, was racist and supported apartheid. If you do any sort of digging into Christianity’s past, you will find theology and theologians shaped by all kinds of pettiness, politics, personal disputes, and prejudices. Christianity does not have a perfect moral track record. Christianity was not always, in all eras, in all issues, united against bigotry, genocide, patriarchy, and oppression.

And I don’t need to tell anybody that Christianity today is not in all issues united against every Christian’s personal or collective idea of injustice.

That’s something Christians need to own, because Christians need to deal with it. They need to deal with in-house immorality and injustice.

Many Christians try to deal with it by committing the no true Scotsman fallacy — well, no true Christian would support x, y, or z. True Christianity stands with a, b, or c. And that’s why there’s thousands of denominations and denominations within denominations and emphases within denominations within denominations. Christians split into their own true or truer communities that affirms the “true Christian social ethic.”

But Christians squarely within orthodox belief do believe questionable and/or deplorable things — including that only men should be leaders within the church and home or LGBTQ people are abominations.

Even more frustrating, said Christians do have historical precedent, tradition, and Scripture supporting their beliefs because, as mentioned above, Christianity was not always, in all eras, in all issues, united against bigotry, genocide, patriarchy, and oppression.

For better or for worse, Christianity has or has had oppressive views about women, LGBTQ people, racial minorities, etc. that technically count as Christian — if we’re defining Christian by what Christians have traditionally believed and taught.

This is not to say those beliefs are true. This is not to say those beliefs are consistent with Christian charity, ethics, or common decency. This is not to say those beliefs are supported by correctly interpreted and applied Scripture. This is simply to say that the Christian church was not, in all eras, in all issues, united against bigotry, genocide, patriarchy, and oppression.

And this is also to simply say, that no matter how wrong-headed or bigoted those beliefs or those people are, they still fall within Christianity, and Christians have to engage with them as Christians. Christians cannot write off other Christians as not Christians. Certainly, Christians can critique other Christians and their beliefs as not being in line with Christian charity, ethics, or Scripture. But they cannot shrink the definition of Christian so small as to exclude the majority of Christians.

As hard as it is to admit, Christians, as Christians, as wonderful, decent people who love the Lord and mean well, can believe horrible things.

Such is humanity. Such is Christianity.

That’s why I support Princeton’s decision not to celebrate Tim Keller. That’s why I also support their decision to still allow him to speak. Christian institutions, churches, and individuals must find ways to critique each other’s beliefs while still acknowledging the Christianity of the other.

***

As evenhanded as this sounds, I’m chafing as I write this.

It’s so clear to me that certain social justice issues are not merely “secondary theological issues” or even “theological issues,” but rather human rights issues. It’s so clear that while privileged people (including myself) are feeling good and open-minded and ecumenical with their discussions about whether a woman should be a minister or whether gay people should marry or whether there’s racial prejudice still around, real people are suffering.

There’s a loud, clamoring part of me that wants to say that nobody who oppresses or limits others can be a true Christian or a decent human being or a good theologian or a man after God’s heart or whatever. And there’s a smaller, more fearful, but calmer part of me that says, “But Bailey, you know that’s not true.”

Because I know these good, true, decent Christians who believe oppressive things.

And I know there’s a difference between good, true, decent (and ignorant) Christians who believe oppressive things because they think the Bible says so, and false, ugly “Christians” who believe oppressive things because they hate women, gays, and minorities.

I think Christians need to start discerning when a Christian is operating out of hatred and when a Christian is operating out of a wrongheaded love for God, especially via a love and obedience to a literal interpretation of the Bible.

For sure, there are those who trash talk women as deceivers, weak, gullible, and unfit for leadership. For very sure, there are those who despise the LGBTQ community’s existence. And certainly, there are those who seek the destruction of minorities and the “other.” Those people, motivated as they are by hatred, deserve neither applause nor a platform.

But there are others who believe their oppression comes from love — love of others, love of God, love of the Bible. The logic goes like this: God is a loving God, and his commands are loving. No matter how unloving his commands seem, they are loving. In order to love others, we must introduce them to this loving God and his loving commands. That is the most loving thing to do.

And that’s where you get Christians who genuinely believe gay conversion therapy, rigid gender roles, slavery, or any other controversial measure is not only true but inherently loving — God’s best for others.

Why don’t more Christians question these “loving” beliefs, particularly when so many of those affected by those “loving beliefs” decry them as unloving? Fundamentalism is a closed system. You cannot question certain beliefs because those beliefs have been hammered home as orthodox. In this view, theology is systematic — one premise builds upon the next. If you question those “secondary theological issues,” Christianity collapses.

Confronting a Christian on his insensitive beliefs is literally asking him to reconsider his entire systematic theology — at least, that is what it feels like to him.

This complicates matters, when two different Christian sides see God clearly saying, “This is a human rights issue” or “This is a secondary theological issue attached to the sum of the Christian faith,” which amounts to one side saying, “You’re clearly a bigot” and the other, “You’re clearly a heretic.”

Neither are accurate labels. The truth is, both sides believe they are following the heart of God, Biblical mandates, and Christian ethics. Both think they are right because of either their moral or their theological superiority.

And both sides are going to get nowhere in their efforts to unite Christianity against evil until they recognize that what divides them is neither hatred and bigotry nor rebellion and heresy, but rather the ignorance, blindness, misunderstanding, and sin that has always plagued true Christianity.

PC: Religion News

Child-Like Faith and the Danger of Accepting Jesus into Your Heart

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It matters to me what a theological belief produces — fear or hope or peace or striving.

I used to dis paedobaptism because I thought it encouraged spiritual laziness. Kids would ride on the coattails of their parents’ faith, I thought; infant baptism would trick kids into thinking they had a relationship with God when instead they had only a relationship with the church. I thought the stereotypes of Catholics and Lutherans were true, that they based their salvation solely on the fact that a priest sprinkled water on them a week after birth.

I get the concern that paedobaptism produces apathy. For a while, that convinced me that paedobaptism was patently harmful — because I, as a kid, took my faith personally and seriously. I chalked that up to making my own profession of faith at the age of 7 and being baptized soon after.

But I’ve been thinking, recently, that there are fruits of paedobaptism that I find beautiful and relieving and holy, and aspects of credobaptism that are or can be harmful.

It boils down to this: how seriously do we understand Jesus’s command to believe as little children? 

Presbyterians always argued that the children of Christians were a unique case. Of course, they need to come into their faith as their own, and Presbyterians still require an intellectual assent via confirmation. But Christian kids grow up within the church, within the redeemed community. They are surrounded by the visible, particular graces of God. They are raised as Christians, regardless of their personal confession.

I’ve always felt that Christian kids were a unique group too — exposed to all the blessings and curses of Christianity. I remember telling my mom as a young teenager that I felt God calling me to preach the gospel to Christian kids, to church kids — kids like me, who grew up with Christianity all their life, but never understood the unconditional, accepting, gracious love of God.

We were — we are — a messed up bunch of kids, more or less. Many of us struggled with depression. Many of us were frantic and fearful — fearful of God, fearful of hell, fearful of not being enough. We were weary, psychologically strained, but we were passionate, and we cared, and we took our faith seriously.

We would find each other when someone was brave enough to say, “Hey, I doubt my salvation all the time” or “Hey, I’m not sure what I believe anymore,” and we would nod along, YES, EXACTLY, in all caps.

Our doubt didn’t come from lack of trying or rebellion. It came from bone-dry exhaustion.

And when you think of it, think of the psychological damage concepts like sin nature and damnation and hell can do when handled poorly. Think of what happens when you hear, Sunday after Sunday, that you need to make a personal decision for Jesus, that, in effect, you don’t actually believe in Jesus, even though you can’t remember a time you didn’t believe in Jesus.

Think of how horrible and twisted that would make you feel: You, little child, even though you believe Jesus, are damned to an eternity of conscious torture because you haven’t “accepted him into your heart.” You, little child, need to repent and believe, because the belief you already have as a trusting little one who sings “A little talk with Jesus makes it right” and prays every night and asks mommy deep, thoughtful questions about God, isn’t enough.

That, to me, is worthy of being drowned in a proverbial sea with a proverbial millstone around one’s neck.

***

I am eternally grateful to my mom who always encouraged us to make our faith personal while respecting our childlike faith.

She told me, once, of a child who asked her mother whether God hears her prayers. And the technical response, if you really believe that your child is damned until they have a personal relationship with Jesus, if you truly accept that God does not hear or honor the prayers of unredeemed sinners, that no, God does not hear or accept that child’s prayer.

My mom could not bring herself to believe that, much less tell her child that.

That stuck with me.

My adopted mom, my college mentor, also shaped my beliefs on this issue. Once, she was explaining to her girls that only people who believe in Jesus can receive communion.

“I believe in Jesus,” one of her little girls said.

This was not a come-to-Jesus moment. This was not a “profession of faith” culminating in the sinner’s prayer. This was not a walk down the aisle. This was what she had always believed, ever since she could remember.

And so my mentor allows her daughters to take communion in a Baptist church that requires that only people who believe in Jesus can partake. She honors their child-like faith.

I think those two mothers grasp the idea of faith more than the idea of pressuring a child who already believes to believe in a particular way, to express their belief in a particular way.

In the Orthodox church, infants are baptized, and infants receive communion. There isn’t even a “coming-of-age” confirmation class, or a concept that one must intellectually comprehend faith before becoming full members of the church or “Christians.” This is how it was in the beginning of the church, too.

Child-like faith was honored, because it is faith.

***

I’ve tucked in quite a few children who believe in Jesus without having accepted Jesus into their hearts yet. My little sister has a better prayer life than I ever maintained after I accepted Jesus as my savior. My mom made her a child’s book of prayers, a folder she has tucked between the slats of the bunkbed above her. She memorizes those prayers and prays them every night, adding her own requests. She has no fear of hell, no concept of damnation, no baggage of fear or striving. God is only love to her, and she doesn’t psychoanalyze her faith.

It brought me to tears, once, tucking in three little Presbyterian girls after babysitting them. “Dear Jesus,” they all began, screwing up their eyes. And then they rambled, as if he was there and he loved them and he heard them, but without expecting him to answer or wondering why they didn’t feel anything or doubting their worthiness.

I want a faith like that.

And then just the other day, when I finally reached the point in our Bible curriculum where I had to talk about God’s view of sin, and I said to the kindergartners, “We’re now afraid of God, now that we’re sinners, just like Adam and Eve were afraid of God. Do you ever feel afraid of God?”

“No,” they all chorused.

That’s Christian kids, for you — before they make a personal decision for Jesus.

***

And what of the personal decision for Jesus, accepting him in your heart?

I think there’s a huge difference between taking one’s faith seriously and personally and teaching a child to “make a personal decision for Jesus.”

The former encourages the child to grow in the faith she already has. The latter dismisses the faith the child already has.

And that has lifelong consequences.

When I accepted Jesus as my savior, I was seven years old. I was wandering around the front yard, between the fire hydrant and the crab apple tree, thinking about Jesus dying for me. It occurred to me that put Jesus there on that cross. My sins did that. My sins caused his flogging, and the blood streaming down his broken body, and the nails in his hands, and his dead weight sagging against them.

And I realized at the same time (this according to my mom, as I didn’t recall this myself) that even if I was the only sinner in the world, Jesus would have still died for me. He loved me that much.

I burst into tears, guilty and loved and broken and euphoric.

I ran into the house, told my mom, and we prayed something like the sinner’s prayer together. I was now a Christian. I was something different than I was before. I was saved.

And ironically, that’s when the fear started — the sleepless nights, the angst, the terror of God and hell and reprobation that still grips me to this day.

As I’m writing this, I can see my Orthodox priest shaking his head and repeating, “No, no, no” over and over again. “We don’t do that in Orthodoxy,” he would say. “We don’t have bloody statues of Jesus. We’re not supposed to work up our emotions or our pity or our guilt. That’s pietism, not faith. Faith is simply acknowledging the ineffable God who is.”

That makes so much sense, doesn’t it? My Christian community taught me to label a moment of pietism, of heightened emotion, as saving faith — the moment I became a Christian, when I passed from death to life. My eternal destiny, my relationship with God, all hung on that moment of faith.

But that sort of faith isn’t sustainable. My spiritual highs only resulted in existential crashes. I was chasing after a kind of faith that was untenable, and it produced nothing but guilt and striving and disappointment. It was exhausting to work up enough emotion and certainty, day in, day out.

That kind of faith has damned me, it has damned my friends, over and over again.

That is not of God. Can I just say that again? That is not of God.

The faith of the little child saying her bedtime prayers each night — that is of God.

***

I want to baptize my babies, for these reasons. I want to honor their faith. And I will never, ever teach them that they need to have a particular experience or a certain profession of faith to know God.

There are, certainly, people skating by on their infant baptism with zero cares about their spiritual life because “they were baptized” and that’s that. But I think I misunderstood the people who valued their infant baptism as essential to their salvation and spirituality.

I think placing so much emphasis on their infant baptism might be an acknowledgment of the faith they’ve always had, the grace they’ve always experienced, without any striving or accepting required.

That, to me, is beautiful.