Friday, January 11, 2013

On (re)becoming a Christian

I think every religion has its strengths and weaknesses. I don't think Jesus is the only "way." ("Way" to what exactly is a whole other discussion.) I don't think Christianity is a superior religion and I see plainly that it has its flaws. So why did I decide to become a Christian? Again?

Some say that as a Mormon, I wasn't a Christian, but I am of the opinion that self-given descriptions are the only ones that ultimately matter. I considered myself a Christian then. For several years, I did not consider myself Christian. Now once again, I do, though a very different kind of Christian. Though I'm active in a mainline Christian sect, many would still say that I'm not a "real" Christian, based on some of my beliefs, and lack thereof. I've seen this sort of superimposition of labels among skeptics too. "I'm an atheist." "Well, I think you're really an agnostic." And vice versa. I really dislike the tendency to tell other people what they are or aren't.

And I really dislike the tendency make belief the most important aspect of religion. Under my Religious Views on Facebook, I wrote: "I am a Christian, though not exclusively or uncritically so, and I'm much more about religious 'do's than religious views." In my last post I mentioned my epiphany in realizing that you're not supposed to take religion literally. Another important realization for me was that religion is so much more about practice than about belief. By that, I don't mean that how you live is more important than what you believe, though that's true too. I mean that taking part in the ritual aspects of religion offers more potential for transcendence and transformation than coaxing one's mind into intellectual assent.

I remember the first time I went to Catholic Mass. I was 19 years old and a Spanish major at ASU. I wanted to learn more about Catholicism, since it's such a big part of Hispanic culture, so I went to Mass with a classmate. And my reaction to all the sitting and standing and one-knee kneeling and crossing and reciting was, "What the heck is all this? And people say Mormons are weird. We might wear funny underwear, but at least we take our church services sitting down, thank you very much!" So much activity in a religious service was foreign to me. Though I later came to see the beauty in it, my initial opinion of it was simply "weird."

The religion that I'd known was so much about words and thoughts, reading the scriptures, going to religious classes, listening to talks, discussing scriptures and talks and doctrines, becoming competent in apologetics. All these cognitive exercises were about getting you to have the right beliefs. Having the correct views was an essential part of being a Mormon. The bishop even begins his interview in which he determines your worthiness to go to the temple with belief questions.

Nowadays, religion is so much more about practice to me than about belief. I think most any religion will do, really, but in order to get to the good stuff, you can't remain an observer simply learning about a religion. You have to get in there and do the religion. An imperfect analogy from the music world: a lot of opera music is truly beautiful, but you won't really get what opera is about unless you go and watch operas. Opera is meant to be seen, not just listened to. And religion is meant to be done, not believed. Part of my "why" for picking Christianity is because the communal ritual aspects of it are available. If there were a place where I could go take part in the rites of, say, the ancient Greek religion, I may well have picked that.

I love Firenze's divination lesson in chapter 27 of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. It appears that the real value of divination for a centaur isn't in any of the "answers" or results, but in the practices themselves, burning leaves, looking to the stars for meaning, etc. And yet Firenze admonishes not to put too much stock in any answers gained by these methods. So why do it if it doesn't yield reliable answers? Because the point isn't to get answers; the value is in the doing. Similarly, liturgy isn't about funneling dogma into brains. It's about engaging in a rhythm that creates space for a different mode of consciousness where insights (not answers) can emerge.

While believing the narratives of a particular faith isn't critical, knowing those narratives is, which is another reason why I stayed within Christianity. The Episcopal Church is different enough from what I came from that I'm not constantly running into associations that remind me of the emotionally repressive place that I came from, but it's similar enough that I don't have to start from scratch to learn and become fluent in the faith. A linguistic analogy: I studied Spanish extensively, and so it took a lot less effort when I wanted to pick up French and Italian because of the similarities. If I wanted to learn Chinese or Korean, my prior studies in Spanish aren't going to help me much. If I wanted to really go into Buddhism or Hinduism, I could do it, and I think they're both valid and valuable paths, but it would take a lot more initial effort on my part, and not much of what I learned by being a practicing Mormon is going to transfer.

So what do I personally believe as a Christian? I believe Jesus of Nazareth was an actual person. As far as his status as the Son of God, I believe that bits of the light and love of God shine out through all of us, and that Jesus was a particularly luminous vessel for that light. I believe that the stories that we have about his life, many of which are probably based on actual events, offer insights (not answers) on how to live in harmony with God. "Christ" to me is synonymous with God, the Divine, Tao, Brahman, etc. As a carrier of that essence of the Divine, Jesus acquired that associated title of Christ. Making a commitment to follow Christ was more about committing myself to an ideal of love and grace than about being committed to any sort of personal deity. When I cross myself, the place where the cross intersects, at the upper part of my sternum, is the place in my body where I physically feel connected to God within me. It is where I carry my wisdom, my intuition, my deep place of knowing. Crossing myself is a kinesthetic activity that reminds me to always be loyal to that inner guidance, to my Self, and not to be swayed by what anyone else may wish to superimpose on me.

I don't believe in virgin birth or water into wine or a physical resurrection. I don't believe that Jesus is the only name under heaven by which we can be "saved." For some, this unbelief disqualifies me from being a Christian. But I am a Christian because I consider myself one. I'm aware that when people see me wearing a cross, many of them are making assumptions about what that does or doesn't mean. But I know what it means to me, and that is ultimately all that matters.


  1. Bravo Leah. So glad I found your blog. I too have very similar sentiments. I left the Mormon Church at 18, my father was a Bishop. It wasn't until my sister came for visit recently that I have started to come to terms with my past religious life's affect on me currently, and my very intense desire for validation. Your blog has provided a bit of that for me now! Best, Jennifer

    1. Jennifer, glad you found something valuable:)

  2. Religion should be more about practice than belief--Bravo! So glad you're blogging again, Leah!

    1. Thanks, Donna! It's good to be back at it!

  3. "Firenze's divination lesson in chapter 27 of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix"

    New Scripture!
    Harry Potter is now part of the club of Sacred Texts!
    YES! :-)

    I didn't know you were blogging again, Leah. It's great to see. And read.
    Sounds like you're having some fun on your own Journey.

    [blogger commenting options still leave me in a lurch though - have to use an old profile]

    1. Thanks, Andrew! I feel like I'm in a good place and it was time to start writing about it again, so here I am. And yes, I hold good literature sacred!

  4. "When I cross myself, the place where the cross intersects, at the upper part of my sternum, is the place in my body where I physically feel connected to God within me." That place is where your heart chakra is located. Interesting that you intuited that or perhaps you knew that already. I'm not sure I follow what you mean by the difference between an insight and an answer they seem synonymous to me. I use to get excited about ritual especially those involving worshipping nature, but now I find those to be inefficient ways of connecting and it doesn't have to be so complicated to find connection through that heart center. To me belief is everything. If you believe that you can turn water into wine, you can. Most of us have been brainwashed for millennia to believe we can't. The physical world is only limited by our belief that we are limited by it.

    1. If belief really affected the physical world like that, then wouldn't kids do mind-bending, spectacular things all the time? Kids have some really bizarre, yet completely sincere beliefs.

      Like, when I was a kid, I dead-seriously believed that if I tucked a strip of toilet paper in the back of my pants it would make me jump higher, like Mario's raccoon tail. Another time, I remember praying to God with complete sincerity that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would come on TV next instead of whatever boring daytime TV show was actually scheduled. I absolutely *knew* it was going to work.

      I also distinctly remember a toothpaste commercial in which people's clothes were blasted off by a gust of fresh air when they used the toothpaste, and HOLY CRAP I HAD TO HAVE IT because I'd never have to undress for a bath again! Admittedly I never actually got to try the toothpaste in real life, but I imagine I would have been in for a disappointment.

      Kids have the purest belief around. They lose many beliefs when they discover those beliefs don't line up with reality. No adult ever brainwashed me into thinking I couldn't fly with toilet paper, or use God as an on-demand TV service; the results taught me all on their own.

    2. I do know about chakras. I think all of our religious traditions have discovered truths about what it means to be human, and I suppose you could say I believe in energy centers in the body. I know I've experienced physical phenomena in my body that do seem to have a correlation with emotional factors.

      I'm with Mike, though, in my incredulity about the efficacy of belief to affect the physical world.

      As far as the difference between answers and insights, I decided to write a post about that.