by Kathleen Staudt
A piece by T.M. Luhrmann in a recent issue of the Sunday NY Times pointed out that we often clarify our faith commitments by identifying the things that we really don’t believe. That is why arguments between “heresies” and “orthodoxies” can be clarifying (so long, I would say, as they don’t involve politics and violence as they so often have in history). I’ve been doing a lot of reflection lately about what it means to be what I consider to be a reasonable person who is also a person of committed Christian faith – something a lot of people around me seem to find anomalous. Maybe it will help to try to explain a little about what I don’t believe. Perhaps the best place to start is to say that I believe in God, and I pray regularly and joyfully, but I don’t believe in Santa Claus. Nor do I believe in a God who is anything like Santa Claus. Here are some things, following from that, that I don’t believe:
1. I don’t believe that God is always “making a list and checking it twice,” judging us for every mistake and misstep and condemning us for things that our social group would also condemn us for (not being a good person, however that is defined.). I do believe in a God that in some mysterious way desires our thriving and calls us to be our best selves. That’s a different kind of relationship than the Big Brother God who is always watching to see if we have slipped up and expects us to be sorry all the time.
2. I don’t believe that God gives us what we want if only we’re good enough, pray the right way, find the right words. The whole question of why good and bad things happen is, to me, a mystery. I believe that God is in it but I don’t understand it. It is at best magical thinking – left over from childhood – to believe that I can somehow by my good behavior force the universe to do things the way I want them to be done. On the other hand, I do believe that the resources of Scripture and religious traditions and practice give us some clues about how to seek the will of God in some situations, and align ourselves with that – that is behind my own practice of intercessory prayer, a mysterious practice which in my experience does sometimes seem to bear fruit in a powerful way. But I don’t pretend to understand how.
3. I don’t believe that when bad things happen it is because I or someone else has been bad and deserves punishment. That seems to me like a very magical and limited idea – that I can control the universe by my behavior. On the other hand, the religious tradition I have embraced does include many stories of actions that have bad consequences. Usually the stories wind up being stories about the divine mercy – God ultimately returning and restoring the balance that human beings have upset. That story gives me hope.
4. I don’t believe that the Bible is in any sense the literal, dictated word of God, but I do believe that it is “Scripture’ in the sense of giving us a privileged record of human experiences of God that still has much to teach us today. I wish more people knew more about the context and background of the Biblical stories. In my experience, the more I know, the more the stories speak of the mystery of a God – the God of all the Abrahamic traditions – who keeps trying to get through to us, who has some kind of stake in human history and human moral life, and keeps on inviting human beings to grow into their fullest and best selves, despite mighty resistance and ugliness that often comes from the human side. They are stories, giving shape to something that is beyond story and history, but they are a way into the mystery, for me.
5. I don’t believe that people who don’t believe in Christianity – my version or anyone else’s – are going to hell. A lot of Scripture comes out of tribal contexts, and there is a lot of “us and them” language running through it, but if you look at the overarching Biblical story, it is about a God who desires to gather everyone in. At least that’s how I read it, and how many other wise people in the tradition have read it, in different generations. “Us v them,” “Who’s in and who’s out” doesn’t make sense to me.
6. Lately I think the fear of being heard as exclusive or literalistic has sometimes kept people within the Christian tradition from reading the Bible thoughtfully and from embracing the unique and exciting ideas that Christianity brings to the table in the conversation among world religions. I wish we could reflect more about the unique and positive things that Christian faith has to offer, rather than ceding ground to some of these other ways of thinking about God. I long for a deepening of Christian faith among people who have been drawn to it and raised in it, and for honest and thoughtful listening across faith traditions.
I often say to my seminary classes “If there’s anything to what we say we believe, none of us has got it right. “ If there is a God, especially if there is a God who entered history as a human being to show us the way to a greater wholeness, as Christianity claims, then the whole story is ‘way bigger than anything we can grasp or control or understand. But the invitation to live into the story is there. As are the resources of Scripture and tradition. I am grateful for this.
Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph. She works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area and is the author of two books of poetry: “Annunciations, Poems out of Scripture” and “Waving Back:Poems of mothering life”, as well as a scholarly study of the modern artist and poet David Jones.