Faith. That’s the hardest element of religion for me. I sincerely struggle with it. It's tough for me to be wholly faithful and tough for me to explain my faith journey too. What I think I should do here is give you a sense as to how my journey has played out thus far and encourage you to take from it what you will. The biggest part of it for me has been divorcing myself from the traditional Jesus centered religion of my family and childhood. The shift I've made (and am still making) is from Jesus to God as the central element of my religious life.
Okay, I should back up for a moment. I know that for many who adhere to the Christian faith, God and Jesus are identified as a single entity. I often hear folks use God and Jesus interchangeably. They’ll say “God” at the beginning of the sentence then say “Jesus” at the end even though the subject has not changed. People consistently pray to God but talk to, or about, Jesus, during that prayer. Perhaps more tellingly, these folks often conflate God and Jesus with their language but only pay attention to their Jesus images and ignore their images of God. There are lots of reasons for that to be true but it’s problematic for me. Jesus has been horribly mutated into a bizarre amalgam of God and Santa Claus with a little Merlin thrown in. It took me a very long time to discover that my appreciation for Jesus as an historical figure was a large part of the reason that I had such trouble accepting the cartoonish image of Jesus most contemporary Christians hold dear. This created a disconnect that made religious faith hard especially hard for me and, to simplify, it was something like… ‘I want to be religious but I can’t believe in the central figure of my religious tradition.’ That disconnect provided a substantial obstacle to my faith.
I’ve discovered that my problem wasn’t my belief but instead, my relationship to the object of my belief. The transition I’ve made, away from Jesus and towards God, often sounds counterintuitive to people but it now makes perfect sense to me. I’m no longer connected to Jesus in the theological sense and I’m much closer to God as a result. I now feel as though my relationship with God is more direct and personal. That relationship is about me and it’s about God. It’s not about anyone else and is not mediated by anyone else. I know lots of people develop this kind of closeness through meditation but for me it’s been much more about the direct experience of prayer and reflection.
My academic work in Religious Studies has helped provide me guidance in this direction. Studying various works in Liberation Theology has played a big role in my new ability to relate to God, ironically because of some works that attempted to elevate and alter the role of Jesus in ways that make Jesus more central to the lived experiences of their communities. One is "The Future Is Mestizo" by Virgilio Elizondo. One sentence explanation: Jesus lived as a mixed person and contemporary Mexicans and Mexican-Americans can use him as a model for understanding their own lives. Another critical author is James Cone who developed a theology of Black Liberation and he posits that Jesus lived to represent and serve the poor. For Cone, this purpose means that in 20th (and now 21st) century America, Jesus is Black. Both these authors helped me discover that Jesus is more than just a person. Jesus is a symbol now (which is why it’s so easy for people to turn him into Santa) and symbols are intended to be utilized for the needs of the people.
The Jesus I need is the historical Jesus. I need the person who was willing to heal the sick, welcome the outcasts, embrace the prostitute and feed the hungry. I need the Jesus who was so devoted to God that he sacrificed his life to maintain that pose of fidelity. That’s the Jesus I need to know and value for my life. That Jesus is not the object of my religious devotion but was a seeker and model for me. He exemplifies being a child of God in the way that I want to be one.
This notion of being God’s child helps illustrate the other part of my search which has been about finding ways to get closer to God and develop a better relationship with God. Geza Vermes’ "The Changing Faces of Jesus" has helped me understand my own connections with God as has Rosemary Radford Ruether’s "Sexism and God-Talk". These books helped me discover numerous new ways of interpreting, defining, naming and experiencing God. I realized that I had been stuck in the Renaissance paradigm of God being male, White, old, bearded and distant. Those are the ways I used to perceive God although those are not the ways I experience God. God is incredibly near and present in my life and welcoming that reality has been a great change.
Feeling God’s love on a regular basis and recognizing it and interpreting it and speaking of it are all fairly new to me and I still struggle with the idea of being loved by God. That’s probably why this has been such a difficult piece for me to write. It feels somehow arrogant to consider God choosing to love me. But it’s only arrogant when I make that reality about me. Clearly, it’s not. I can’t make God love me. Fortunately, I don’t have to try to do so. God loves me because that’s what God chooses to do. It really is enough for me to acknowledge, appreciate and, as best I can, reciprocate that love. That’s truly a liberating theology.
I hope illustrating some of my process makes it a little easier for you to continue exploring and considering your own faith journey. Please let me know where it takes you!