I guess this whole thing started when I wanted to move away for college and picked a school right on the beach in hopes I’d meet surfers, and my mom was wary because even though it was what most people consider a very conservative Christian school, the science department taught evolution. My mom was worried that I would become influenced, and become a liberal Christian. Well, yes, that happened.
But it didn’t stop there. Between a three-week trip to Liberia to work with churches there and a summer working at a church in Hawaii, I realized how little I knew about what church was or is supposed to be, and the same for being a Christian. My senior year my goal was to go to a different church every Sunday, and every kind of church – Lutheran, Episcopal, universalist, etc. It was borderline successful because I sort of got hooked on the Catholic church in Ocean Beach (highly recommended – sometimes they go for fish tacos and beer after the Sunday night service).
I guess, as my beliefs change, I wonder, how far can I go until I’m not actually a Christian anymore? Well, if my 18-year-old self was judging, I’d be far past that line. But I still love God and pray more than I ever used to, and have gotten a lot closer to understanding *why* I believe and how this Christian lifestyle/worldview/etc. fits into the rest of the world.
Case in point: When I was a freshman in high school I had a friend who had never been to church and was an atheist. We talked about God once and I tried to explain that I felt I had to tell her about my beliefs, because, you know, Hell, but once I got to heaven I wouldn’t be able to be sad about her not being there because heaven is a place of eternal happiness. At the time I think we both knew how little sense that makes, but when that’s the definition of the world that you are given, you just go with it.
But that’s where this book comes in: A New Kind of Christianity.
Yeah, the title is terrible, but work with me. The author’s point is that lots of us have these questions that Christianity doesn’t really answer, or gives a terrible answer, things like why a loving God would create or allow something like Hell. I haven’t really believed in it for a couple years now, although I don’t know what the alternative afterlife is (something this book failed to address). Thing is, after college I worked at a coffee shop, got certified to teach yoga, got my master’s at a secular school (for journalism) and overwhelmingly hung out with lots of people who are not Christians. The issue is, why would you be friends with someone if you believe they are going to Hell? That’s painful, how do you deal with that relationship? Cognitive dissonance. You either have to actively work to persuade them, or stop believing in Hell.
But back to the book. I guess the most interesting thing is how he describes these ages, and how people/humans had different needs as time went on – in the beginning, they needed survival/water/food, so that’s what they prayed for and what the Bible describes God as providing. Then they needed national security, more recently, the basic human need (here in the capitalist West) is individual purpose, and that is what churches teach that God is providing. Well, looking forward, I think what we need is global equality and social justice, and no, that isn’t new, but it’s becoming more clear, maybe thanks to the Internet.
So our needs for God are changing (or what we need from him) but the book also makes the point that our understanding of God is on a sort of evolutionary upward spiral. So, it’s getting better. It’s not that the people 50 years ago or 2,000 years ago were wrong about who God is, but they just understood him as they could at the time (think: 1 Colossians 13). And our understanding should to continue to mature.
On a micro level, it’s not that one denomination is wrong but that we are all on different plateaus of maturity in our relationship with God, so while someone may need what they find in a Pentecostal church or a Catholic church (great music vs. tradition) that is good for them to get what they need based on where they are. But looking ahead, the Christianity that’s real to me won’t fit into what I was taught growing up (old wine, new wineskins) and it’s a trend that will continue on, forever.
It’s frustrating and sort of “brave new world” to realize I don’t believe what I used to believe, that my old self would have judged me, that people I know and love could judge me, but there’s also a bit of “you can’t go home again” because I can’t force myself to be naive and safe, once I’ve crossed the line. It’s not that the newer faith is easier, but it is better and more resonant. The author says it best when he points out Gamaliel, traditional Jewish person in early Christianity, who said that if it was just a fad, it would die out, but if it was from God, it would be foolish to fight it. So the same for this new brand of faith – it’s different than what I grew up with, but if it is in line with God then it will last and earn its stay.