Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Lent: the art of cherry-picking

Early on, in my mid-twenties when I was first struggling with leaving behind the faith of my childhood, I occasionally tried to talk to people who were older and wiser, and whose opinions I respected.  I discovered this wasn't this best way to figure out what I needed to figure out, but it didn't change the way I feel about them.  They are still older and wiser than me, and I still respect them and their opinions. I've just chosen a different path.  I rarely talk about my beliefs with these people anymore, although I still listen to them and learn, re-writing things in my head to suit my current way of thinking.

Anyway.  One of those times, I talked to a much-beloved uncle who is about as conservative as anyone I know.  I don't remember what topic we were discussing, but I must have said something to the effect of I-still-believe-this-but-I-can't-believe-that.  And he responded that you can't cherry pick which beliefs you want and leave behind the ones you don't.  In his mind, Christianity is a piece of whole cloth-- seamless, like Jesus's robe. 

He didn't mean that there are no problematic passages or thorny theological issues-- on the contrary, he is probably far more aware of those than I am (he is a seminary graduate, although he decided to go into teaching rather than the pastorate).  He meant that if you've made the choice to be a Christian, you're in it for the whole thing, not just the parts of it you like and that make you feel good. 

And I understand his point, and in some ways I think it's a good one.  Kathleen Norris makes a similar-but-different point in her excellent book Amazing Grace.  She says that it's silly to sit in church and speak certain lines of the creeds while remaining silent on others (which is exactly what I was doing at the time).  Her point was not that you should blindly accept all the doctrines of the church, but that you should acknowledge the ones that bug you, let yourself rub up against them, argue them, take them head-on.  Claim them, as it were, instead of dumping them, or trying to pretend they don't exist.  In doing so, in stretching your mind to try to understand the thought behind the theology, you may uncover some surprising insights.  It's a method I've used frequently since.

But there are also some things that need to be said on the other side.  First of all, Christianity is not as monolithic as my uncle would like to believe.  If it's made out of whole cloth, who's cloth are we talking about?  Catholics? Presbyterians? United Church of Christ? Church of Religious Science?  On just about any item of faith, if you delve deeply enough, there are a range of opinions, and not just between denominations-- even within churches.  One of the most interesting discussions I've ever heard was in a small group at our church where the issue of pre-destination vs. free will came up.  What exactly does it mean? Every person in that room would have said without hesitation that they are Christian, and yet the range of opinions was wide.

Which leads to my further point that faith is a choice, and even conservative Christians have to make (sometimes) difficult decisions about what they believe and what they don't. Sometimes believers (of all stripes, not just Evangelicals) short-cut those difficult decisions by just mouthing the creeds they've been taught and not thinking the issues through.  But that doesn't mean the difficulties aren't there.

So all of that is just to say:  When I talk about finding the parts of Christianity that I want to keep, it's not something I take lightly.  I'm not just choosing the feel-good bits and ignoring the difficulties (I hope).  I'm talking about trying to winnow through the things that are habit, the things that people believe just because that's the way they were raised, the way it's always been done, and sift through to something that feels more essential.  For me, that has involved cobbling together a set of beliefs that come not just from Christianity but from all sorts of sources.  If it's cherry-picking, it's thoughtful cherry-picking.

I just read a blog entry by one of my extended family members who is still extremely Evangelical.  That whole mindset can still hook me right back in.  Not that I believe it again, but it's so familiar, like a pair of slippers that mold perfectly to your feet.  It's still hard sometimes, even after all these years.


  1. Believe me I understand this post. Considering we were raised in the same Evangelical tradition...and at the same church for a time. My struggle, coming out of that darn Baptist tradition, has been to understand that there is grace in the walk of faith. That it is not all "Thou Shalt NOT! And if thou does then thou art not saved after all and going to hell". Yes God is the God of justice and wrath but He is ALSO Love and Grace and Understanding and Mercy. He asks me, because I love Him, to walk in the way that He says is best.

    I have to laugh at those who say that "religion" or Christianity is an easy way or a crutch. It is a much harder way to walk in a world where it would be easier just to pick and choose what "feels good".

    I think I need another cup of coffee.

    1. Oh, my, I had forgotten about going to the same church for awhile! I have a surprising number of memories of that church, considering that we moved when I was six. I remember sitting in church and trying to figure out which of those squares was the baptistry :-) and using a pencil to rub over the embossed image on the hymnal cover to entertain myself during the sermon.

      I know what you mean about how we were taught to concentrate on the wrath and justice of God instead of the grace and mercy. More posts coming on that, I hope.

  2. I have to admit I'm grateful to never have been a member of a church that concentrated on the wrath and justice, instead it's been about the love and mercy. Becoming a mother was a revelation to me in terms of my religious beliefs. (In other ways too!) I looked at this precious darling child, my child, with such incredible love and thought that that was how God looks at all of us multiplied by infinity. So the love, mercy and compassion bit, the loving God makes sense to me. I can understand anger, disappointment, etc. at a child's failings, particularly an adult child, but I cannot comprehend outright condemnation for eternity. It just doesn't compute for me.

    1. I'm grateful you weren't, too! I have to say that it was always a mixed message. There was plenty of stuff about the love of God, it was just always mixed in with the iron-clad expectation of certain standards. It wasn't always even explicitly spoken, we just knew that BAD THINGS WOULD HAPPEN if we screwed up. It's very definitely fear-based. Fear of hell was at the bottom of it, but I don't remember that we ever actually talked about hell all that much.

  3. FInally back to read some of these entries I had wanted to but didn't get to yet. And all this to say... I TOTALLY believe in thoughtful cherry picking, from all kinds of sources. ;-) What I've found is that the things that really speak to me, feel holistic when put together. Like I keep finding pieces of the puzzle.