I used to think I had my faith all figured out. Maybe it is more accurate to say that I used to have religion all figured out. I am, for the most part, a rule-follower. This is particularly true when it comes to matters of faith. I would have made an excellent Pharisee, back in the day. I was raised Catholic, and the impression that I had growing up was that being Catholic is not just something that you are, but also something that you DO. I was pretty good at DOING what I needed to do to be a decent Catholic. My mother made sure that we attended a Catholic school, went to church regularly, and performed all of our sacraments as expected. I went to confession, where I unburdened myself of as much of my Catholic guilt as any Catholic can reasonably be expected to let go of, temporarily. Our community had a large population of Catholics with varying degrees of church involvement. Those of us who attended regularly would shake our heads and cluck our tongues at the “Christmas and Easter” church-goers.
When I was in high school, I started attending a youth group at a Christian and Missionary Alliance Church. This was my first introduction to a Protestant church, and I loved it. Instantly. It seemed so different from the church I was raised in. There was no mechanical chanting of the liturgy, no (overt) rituals. We were encouraged to read our Bibles, study on our own, and the emphasis was on a personal relationship with God. I threw myself into that. It made me a very awkward high-schooler, but at youth group and church, I fit in. I felt I had been relieved of what I perceived as the legalistic burdens that had been placed on me growing up in the Catholic faith.
Now, looking back, I realize that I didn’t really unburden myself of anything. I let go of some things passed down from my Catholic upbringing, and exchanged them instead for a conservative evangelical worldview, which had its own set of standards and expectations, and its own brand of legalism.
Here is a confession. Sometimes, I feel embarrassed to admit that I am a Christian. Not because of my belief in God or Jesus, but because of how we as Evangelical Christians have (rightly or wrongly) become this caricature of ourselves. Over the past two decades, the world around me has changed, church leaders have risen and fallen, certain societal issues have become hot buttons in the media, and I have been humbled as I have come face to face with my own legalistic beliefs, and my lack of love and understanding for people who don’t share those beliefs.
I am not at all trying to say that the Church–Evangelical, Catholic, or otherwise–is inherently bad or wrong, or not worth being a part of. On the contrary, I think the Church is filled with good people who are really trying their best to get it right. But all of those good people are also imperfect, still learning, and still being shaped, and sometimes we get it wrong, either individually or collectively. We want to label everything, put it into neat little boxes, maintain order, and have everyone follow a consistent formula that will add up to the sum total of our faith. So when issues are difficult to categorize, we try to make them fit into a category. Right or wrong. Black or white.
For the last decade I have just felt confused about how to look at controversial issues, such as abortion, homosexuality, social justice, racial inequality, or gay marriage, through the lens of my faith in Jesus Christ. I thought I knew how I felt about all of those issues. But mostly I just knew what the well-meaning, imperfect people from my church upbringing had taught me about those issues.
I have spent years weaving the fabric of my faith out of black and white threads, only to find out that when I take a step back, it all looks grey.
I am making peace with the grey areas right now. I think it is OK that they are there. I think embracing the grey areas has made me a kinder, gentler person. I am still working on the more militant, legalistic parts of me that pop up every now and again.
I think Jesus actually did his part to point out some of the grey areas, while he was here on earth. I think of the woman who was to be stoned to death for adultery, when Jesus encouraged anyone in the crowd who was without sin to cast the first stone. Also, he was a rule-breaker, wasn’t he? Healing on the Sabbath, hanging with the bad crowd, getting the most devout people of the time all in a tizzy.
My worry is this: when does this pondering and wrestling with the grey areas of my faith cross the line and become complacency, apathy, or a form of moral nihilism? If I remove all those absolutes, get rid of the list of moral and religious “do’s and don’ts”, am I subscribing to a watered-down version of faith that I have designed to make myself less uncomfortable in the culture in which I live, or am I breaking through a barrier? Am I embracing grace, or am I conforming to my culture?
I don’t have any answers yet, in case you were hoping I would have a closing paragraph that would bring clarity. But I am interested in hearing comments from those who can identify with me and are willing to share!
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