Giving Up Christianity for Lent
But still going to church, praying to God,
loving Jesus, and serving the poor.
Was He Married?
BY STEVIE SMITH
Was he married, did he try
To support as he grew less fond of them
Wife and family?
He never suffered such a blow.
Did he feel pointless, feeble and distrait,
Unwanted by everyone and in the way?
From his cradle he was purposeful,
His bent strong and his mind full.
Did he love people very much
Yet find them die one day?
He did not love in the human way.
Did he ask how long it would go on,
Wonder if Death could be counted on for an end?
He did not feel like this,
He had a future of bliss.
Did he never feel strong
Pain for being wrong?
He was not wrong, he was right,
He suffered from others’, not his own, spite.
But there is no suffering like having made a mistake
Because of being of an inferior make.
He was not inferior,
He was superior.
He knew then that power corrupts but some must govern?
His thoughts were different.
Did he lack friends? Worse,
Think it was for his fault, not theirs?
He did not lack friends,
He had disciples he moulded to his ends.
Did he feel over-handicapped sometimes, yet must draw even?
How could he feel like this? He was the King of Heaven.
...find a sudden brightness one day in everything
Because a mood had been conquered, or a sin?
I tell you, he did not sin.
Do only human beings suffer from the irritation
I have mentioned? learn too that being comical
Does not ameliorate the desperation?
Only human beings feel this,
It is because they are so mixed.
All human beings should have a medal,
A god cannot carry it, he is not able.
A god is Man’s doll, you ass,
He makes him up like this on purpose.
He might have made him up worse.
He often has, in the past.
To choose a god of love, as he did and does,
Is a little move then?
Yes, it is.
A larger one will be when men
Love love and hate hate but do not deify them?
It will be a larger one.
Stevie Smith, “Was He Married?” from New Selected Poems. Copyright © 1972 by Stevie Smith. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.
I have a friend who gave up Christianity for Lent. She said she did it in order to become a better Christian. I will call her Janet.
She is imaginary but I want to describe her anyway, Maybe you know somebody like her.
Janet did not give up on God or Jesus, scripture or tradition, prayer or service. She became even more active in her local community of faith. She volunteers regularly at the interfaith clinic and sings in the choir.
But she gave up what she called Imperial Christianity: that is, the kind of Christianity that claims to have the only path to salvation and that seeks to convert the whole world to a single worldview called "Christianity."
"I am just tired of being so arrogant," she said.
For Janet, this kind of Christianity is bound up with the doctrine of the Trinity. There's not a logical connection between Imperial Christianity and Trinitarianism, she explains, but there is, for many, an emotional connection.
"We Christians like to distinguish ourselves from others by saying that we, and only we, know that God is relational. We call it being Trinitarian."
To be sure, Janet likes what some Christians call trinitarian thinking. She feels that trinitarian thinking can be helpful, inasmuch as it invites people to think in relational terms. "It encourages us to recognize that there is something like relationality in the very heart of God."
On this matter Janet is influenced by the kind process-relational theology important in this website. Along with Rabbi Bradley Artson, she believes that the very One in whom we live and move and have our being is affected by all that happens in the universe all the time. As Rabbi Artson explains, God is like the woman who narrates the GPS system in his car, whom he calls Glynnis. As he puts it in an article called Omnipotent? No Way!
"God doesn’t judge or condemn us; God doesn’t coerce us. God offers us the best possible choice (mitzvah) at this (and every) moment. If we rise to God’s lure, then God says, “Good — now here’s the subsequent best choice” (the next mitzvah). If we don’t accept the lure, God says, “Recalibrating. OK, given your last choice, here’s the best possible choice you can now make.” Like Glynnis, God persistently invites us, lures us, commands us to make the best choice. That model of God invites us onto a path of compassion, justice and resilient strength that the bully in the sky never could."
This is the kind of God -- omni-adaptive in spirit -- in whom Janet believes. She adds, as would Rabbi Artson, that God is omni-vulnerable: like a mother whose own inner life is affected by all that happens inside her womb, the sufferings of people and other animals, and the joys, too. Just what happens in a womb happens to the mother, so that happens in the world happens to God.
"If the doctrine of the Trinity is an invitation to recognize divine relationality," she says, "I'm all about it."
The Humanity of Jesus
But Janet knows that for many Christians the idea of the Trinity is more than an invitation to affirm relationality. When they speak of the Trinity they have in mind the idea that Jesus pre-existed his physical birth and existed alongside God, somewhere in heaven, even before he "came to earth." And they mean that, having arrived on earth, he was fully human and also fully divine, but that by virtue of his divinity, he never, ever sinned. He never made moral mistakes.
This is what Janet doesn't believe. She believes that Jesus, too, knew what it was like to miss the mark, to fall short of the love to which he was summoned by the One.
Janet has come to think of Jesus as a human being among human beings, born of human parents, who was called by the One to reveal something beautiful, namely God's tender and embracing love. She believes that, at certain points in his life, Jesus became so open to God that people could sense the light of God's love shining through him. "At points in his life he became a window to God. Sometimes he was radiant."
But she also thinks that there were times in his life when he became more opaque -- that is, less transparent -- to God's love, as when he lost his temper a time or two, even growing so petulant as to curse a fig tree. She is not so sure he was always so nice to his brothers and sisters, either, or that he was sufficiently kind and understanding of his brothers in the faith: the Pharisees. "I think Jesus truly struggled with temptation and sometimes succumbed, after which, like the rest of us, he had to get up and try again."
In short, Janet loves Jesus as a kindred spirit whose journey she wants to share, not as a divine being whose perfection places him above any impurity. In this respect she is a post-trinitarian Christian.
She gave up imperial Christianity for Lent and she gave up the kind of Trinitarianism that denies Jesus his humanity, by pretending that he never made moral mistakes...not even when he was a teenager.
A friend asks her why she doesn't chunk the Bible. This is an interesting question because, as it happens, Janet is a pretty good biblical scholar.
She begins by explaining that, as far as she can tell, the doctrine of the Trinity is very unbiblical. "The word never appears in the Bible," she said, "the New Testament usually presents Jesus as a good Jew, that is, as one who distinguishes himself from his Abba."
But she knows that there are some passages in the New Testament which can be interpreted in trinitarian ways; so she adds that, for her, the Bible is not a rule book or inerrant authority, but rather a partner in inter-religious dialogue that can be learned from but also questioned and disagreed with. "We don't always share the same faith," she joked, "but we enjoy each other's presence."
She adds that the Bible is a compilation of many different texts with many different understandings of faith, sometimes competing with one another. "The Bible is the product of a sixteen hundred year experiment in inter-religious dialogue," she says, "I plan to keep the dialogue going."
The more you get to know Janet, the more you realize that she is deeply biblical in a certain way. At least she is influenced by a certain strand of biblical thinking, namely the prophetic strand which emphasizes hospitality to strangers, and the primacy of love and justice, over ritual practices. These traditions are part of what led her to give up Imperial Christianity for Lent. Her critique of Imperial Christianity is, in part, biblically inspired.
"Imperial Christianity is too loud and gregarious," she says. "It seeks to absorb the whole world into its orbit. It won't let people be different. It won't let butterflies be butterflies."
The Dignity of Difference
She gets the image of butterflies from her young daughter, aged six, who was studying butterflies in biology class. Janet say that Imperial Christianity is stuck in a cocoon and afraid to be transformed into something more humble and free: something that celebrates diversity and finds beauty in differences, both human and ecological.
She has been reading Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire by Rita Nakashima Brock & Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker. These two authors make the proposal that the religion we call Christianity was once somewhat diversity-loving and people-friendly, celebrating joy amid intimacy, but that over time it became preoccupied with atoning sacrifices and patriarchal control. Christianity devolved into a tradition of self-sacrificial suffering and dominating authority, not a religion of community and compassion.
Influenced by this book and many other factors, Janet has given up Imperial Christianity -- or Trinitarian Christianity -- for Lent.
Would Jesus approve? Maybe so. Perhaps he, too, would have given up Imperial Christianity for Lent, if Christianity had existed in his time.
But of course it didn't. He was Jewish, not Christian. Christianity did not exist when he was alive, imperial or otherwise.
What is clear is that a religion called Christianity did evolve and, thankfully, is still evolving. This evolution is its hope. Christianity is not a fixed and settled fact, defined by the achievements and failings of its past, and it is not a perpetual process of retrieving inherited wisdom and articulating is anew in the present. It is an ongoing process of becoming, beckoned by the One toward a new future. Perhaps it is moving past its Trinitarian phase.
If this is the case, then the Unitarians were among the first to see this. Janet is not alone.
If Christianity does evolve in this direction, it will become more Jewish: that is less interested in proclaiming Jesus' divinity and more interested in proclaiming a Oneness that embraces differences. This is a lesson we learn from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, author of The Dignity of Difference.
He is not a process theologian, but like process theologians he suggests that the One in whom we live and move and have our being is enriched by differences: religious differences, cultural differences, linguistic differences, personality differences. As a Jew, Sacks, too, seems to believe in multiplicity. He believes in a God of many covenants.
So does Janet.
One time I asked Janet who her favorite theologian was. She teasingly said the English poet, Stephie Smith (1902-1971). I asked her what her favorite poem of Smith's was and she said "Was He Married?"
It seems to be about Jesus and how he wasn't fully human, and thus worthy of a medal, unless he knew what it is like to be married, and to fail at things, and to suffer, and to wish that he had done better.
We do not really know if Jesus was married. But sometimes I wonder if Janet, in her spunky spirit, isn't married to him in some way.