Friday, July 6, 2012

How to Save Christianity

Churches are dying.  Did you know?  The age of rationality is surely upon us, when the cancer that is religion will be wiped out from society.

Okay, obviously this isn't how I really feel about the state of faith in the world, but the sentiment is pretty pervasive.  The countries we generally consider to be the most developed and progressive are also the least religious.  Portland, Oregon- that symbol of liberalism- is the least-churched city in the US*. 

For a lot of people, the decline of organized religion in the developed world is a great thing.  They look at extremist Muslims blowing up schools, Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem spitting on young girls because they don't cover their arms, and conservative Christians condemning sexual minorities, and then they say "Of course religion poisons everything.  It's the primary cause of wars and grievous violations of human rights.  We're better off without it."

As we learn more about the world through science, people's faiths are being shattered when they realize they cannot reconcile the creation story taught to them through religion with the growing evidence supporting the understanding of an old Earth.  As we learn more about the suffering of people around the world, people are leaving their faith over the question they feel unable to answer: How can a loving God allow such evil?  As more and more of our friends and family come out of the closet, there are those who feel the strain of balancing the orientation their loved ones can't choose with the religion they can, and the religion is often what gets dropped.

But here's the thing: I don't think it's because religion is bad or backward.

When many of these religions started, they were improvements upon the cultures from which they came.  The Quran radically put limits on how many wives a man could have (even saying it's better for a man to have only one wife, if he cannot be equally loving to each of the up to four wives he could have), and condemned female infanticide.  Yeshuah of Nazareth (yes, Jesus) said that the meek would inherit the earth, and had the crazy idea that instead of getting revenge on our enemies, we should forgive them; he also taught women alongside men and generally treated the genders as equal, something practically unheard of in first-century Palestine.

In my own life, I know that Christianity makes me a better person.  Would I be a soulless rampaging serial killer without it?  No.  But Christianity gets me outside of myself, gets me to focus on people besides myself.

I'm a lesbian, and I'm a Christian.  I believe in evolution, and I'm a Christian.  I'm a feminist, and I'm a Christian.  It seems so easy to me to not have these things in conflict, but for many others, to question their holy text or a bit of doctrine is to open the door to their faith completely falling apart.

I don't think religion should be rendered obsolete.  People coming together because they believe in something greater than themselves has been the source of so much good.  I've witnessed it in my own church, and the churches of others, and groups made up of many different faiths.

Yes, much bad has happened in the name of religion.  But I blame people, not necessarily the faith itself.

I'm not a pastor.  I have no desire and feel no calling to the clergy.  But for love of my religion, Christianity, I feel I need to speak.  I pay attention to what people are saying when they leave the church, and what people are saying that is driving my generation away.

I have some ideas for what can save Christianity from obsolescence.  They are what helped me stay a Christian even when things get tough.


There is such a suspicion of the sciences in much of the church, but this wasn't always the case.  Biology especially used to be a pursuit of men of faith, because they wanted to know how God's creation worked.  Science was approached with the intent of learning about creation and how God made everything work together to make the universe function.  These days, religious scientists have that same mindset- they trust that science will always be in line with a God-designed world.  If something challenges them, they don't get afraid, they get curious.  The religious scientist doesn't ask "Why doesn't this fit with what I read in the Bible?" They ask something like "What was the intent of this passage- is it supposed to be read as literal?" or "Is there something waiting to be discovered that would make this miracle possible?"

Remember Galileo?  The Catholic Church denounced him because he had observed that Earth orbits the sun, not the other way around.  Instead of finding new ways to look at their Bibles, the Catholic leadership chose to cling to Ptolemaic astronomy, even though it was obviously wrong.

This conveniently leads into my next bit of advice.


Being wrong sucks, I know, but it's killing the church.  It really is.

Remember when it was clear and obvious that the Bible made it okay to enslave Africans?  And when it was obvious that women shouldn't get education or be allowed to vote?  We.  Were.  Wrong.  These days, there is a general understanding that the Bible should be approached carefully, that not all parts of it should be followed equally.

But lots of Christians fear considering the Bible as something less than the perfect dictated-to-humans-by-God Word of God, and that's something that is making the church seem irrelevant to a lot of young people, who in the age of the internet have access to the work of scholars who have some interesting things to say about the way the Bible was written.

Did you know that the Creation story of Genesis is a wonderful example of ancient Hebrew poetry, and it's possible that it was Christians (not Jews) who first had the idea to take it literally?

Did you know that the Old Testament is made up of story, song and law, and not all of it should be read the same way?

Did you know that Job is the first book which mentions a figure named Satan, and the Satan first appeared in Zoroastrianism (suggesting that the story of Job's life is more of an allegory than a historical event)?

And I don't think I need to ask whether any of my readers are aware of the apparent contradictions within the Bible, like God in Job essentially calling Job's friends idiots even through they were quoting Deuteronomy to find reasons for Job's suffering.

I'm not saying we should throw the whole book out- the Bible tells the story of the Jewish people and the evolution of their culture and relationship with God; records the life, teachings, death and resurrection** of Jesus; and details the growth of the early church when Christianity was still considered a gentile-friendly sect of Judaism.  It's valuable because of the spirit of the thing- my former pastor calls the Bible "the story of God's rescue mission for humanity".  It's not a constitution, it's a library, written by many people over thousands of years out of love for God.  If we learn to see it like that, we can figure out really matters.  (Hint: it's what the guy who was the Divine in a human body told us to do.)

Psychologists are discovering that people are happier when they come together for a common good, instead of a common fear***.  So many churches, I fear, focus on getting to Heaven after death or try to rope people in by making them fear going to Hell.  That's effective to a point, but when you tell everyone and their baby that they're going to Hell by your arbitrary criteria (and trust me, some of these people have really arbitrary criteria), you start driving people away.
I see people at music and arts festivals with signs which generally say "Turn or Burn," and they are mocked.  No one takes them, and by extension Christianity, seriously.  When I see these people, I'm more likely to shout my opposition to their message than I am to say that I'm technically a part of their group****.
What churches should focus on is Jesus' teaching of unconditional love, justice and forgiveness, and put their energies into making the communities in which they're based better.  Fund community centers, create and run charities, provide counselling for broken homes.  Remember that song, "They'll Know We Are Christians by Our Love"?  We can bring that back.  These days, Christians are more likely to be known as hateful than loving, but we can change that if we bring good to the world, and stop fostering fear.
Bringing good to the world, by the way, doesn't mean "Make everyone Christian now".  Another stereotype of Christians is that we're pushy and we shove our beliefs down people's throats.  Unfortunately, this is reinforced by conservative Christian politicians trying to encode conservative Christian ethics into law.  I've written my thoughts on this phenomenon before on Facebook, and they can be summed up like this: if you're going to make everyone live like conservative Christians, you have to make sure everyone sincerely becomes a conservative Christian first.
Frankly, many people in this country are perfectly content not being Christian at all.  My girlfriend was raised Jewish and feels Christianity doesn't fit with her; many of my friends are satisfied being atheist, Muslim, Buddhist or whatever.  They do not feel a need for Christianity in their lives, and for Christians to assume otherwise and try to change them is demeaning to the individual's right to experience the Divine in their own way.  I can't tell you how many people used to identify as Christians, but left the organized church (while remaining followers of Christ) due to the church being disrespectful of others.
Read John Shore's book I'm OK, You're Not- The Message We're Sending to Nonbelievers and Why We Should Stop.  There are so many stories from people who now hate (or at the very least distrust) Christianity because of appalling actions from people who believed that because they're Christians, they have a monopoly on truth and morality and everyone else are evil heathens with no ethics.
If Christians can back up and work on bettering themselves through their faith, and improving their communities without saying that non-christians are less than or that Christianity is the best thing ever yippee, then we become more easily respected, less easily dismissed or hated.  We become a part of the adventure in making this world we have the best possible, alongside Jews and Muslims and Hindus and Wiccans and atheists and all other human beings on this planet.
I am very critical Christianity; not because I hate it, but because I love it too much to let it die or be slapped with the "irrational" label and abandoned.  I have managed to remain associated with the church because I shifted my focus of what's important, and to apply a scholarly approach to issues of doctrine; some questions I'm still unsure about.  But it's precisely because I'm open to new interpretations of Scripture, based not on a reading of the latest translation into English but instead on understanding the culture and vernacular of the time, that my faith remains unshaken.  I'm committed to God because I'm not committed to taking the Bible or what any pastor says as-is, no questions asked.  I do believe that if we dare to ask questions and shift our focus, Christianity's image and trajectory will change for the better.
We just need to have courage to make that change happen.
Check out the article that partially inspired this post: "8 Ways Christian Fundamentalists Make People Convert- To Atheism or Agnosticism"
*Fun fact: It also has the most lesbians per capita.
**Non-religious friends: I know some of you guys like to make zombie Jesus jokes, but it's actually quite irksome and I'd appreciate it if you didn't mock one of the central tenets of my faith.
***My girlfriend wrote a whole post on her blog about the psychology of happiness.  You should read it.  Hi, honey!
****When the anti-theists marched in the San Francisco Pride parade, however, I didn't hesitate to shout "I'm Christian and I'm a dyke!" as loudly as I possibly could.

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