Do you seek to follow Jesus, who shows us the way? (New England Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, Queries)
“I kept steady to meetings, spent First days after noon chiefly in reading the Scriptures and other good books, and was early convinced in my mind that true religion considered in an inward life, wherein the heart doth love and reverence God the Creator and learn to exercise true justice and goodness…I found no narrowness respecting sects and opinions, but believed that sincere, upright-hearted people in every Society who truly loved God were accepted of him.” (Page 28 from John Woolman’s Journal)
I identify as a Christian. There is a picture that is well known in the Friends community entitled “The Spirit in the Midst.” In this picture, Christ is an accumulation of creative divine energy, which then speaks through individuals and moves people to action. Christ, God, Jesus, the Divine are all names for the same Presence. In this picture is the communion of the community with Christ, which is central to many Friends and speaks to my experience of worship.
I grew into Christianity deeply hesitant of Biblical Scripture. I experienced God’s grace in my life long before I discovered Christianity. My relationship with scripture bettered at first when I discarded passages that personally offended me. I think that one thing that drew me to the scriptures was less the content of the book and more the power that people who believed in the words possessed in ministry. Another thing that drew me to the Bible was the connection and a type of spiritual experience I felt with the teachings of Jesus. When I first listened to my friends speak about Christianity, I felt a kinship with those who found protector, savior, and friend in the Divine.
I now respect the Bible and its content and use it in my daily life. Jesus' messages of radical unconditional love and non-violent action against injustice are messages that I am learning to live into. Presently my old practice of discarding passages bothers me. I am conflicted wanting to find God’s truth outside of a dated over interpreted text, and anxious that I am not finding that truth if it is difficult to live with or if it condemns me as an individual. Years of seminary, theological and biblical study have given me tools to understand the Bible and its more troubling passages with a greater sense of historical context and a variety of theological and criticism.
My interpretive principles of scripture have developed alongside my interpretive principles of my experiences. The influences of my upbringing, those based on fact and scientific proof challenge the creation stories. Not only does science as a field of study and belief present a solid case against the Bible’s creation stories, but if I believed in a literal interpretation of the Bible, like friends of mine, who would identify as Evangelical Christians, then I would have to admit, as a scientist, that something in the Bible is not the word of God.
My exploration into other faiths, especially Native American spirituality, shows that many cultures and religions use a similar creation story. The two creation stories in the Bible are close enough to each other and to these other stories that I must ask a question concerning how such different and vastly separate communities of people could come up with such similar stories. Does faith in the Divine, regardless of language or location produce a common imagination?
I also struggle with the story of the crucifixion because of the classic atonement theories depicting God as the abusive father who takes his wrath out on one child to save the others. This scenario is acted out regularly throughout the world, in the form of domestic violence. While substitutional atonement is only one of several atonement theories; the violence that it condones is rooted in to the religious imagination. Once in our imaginations we consciously and unconsciously enact our beliefs through all manners of ritual such as walking the 12 Stations of the Cross, reciting the Passion or how you act towards your family at home.
Even during my darkest moments, I have always felt God’s presence. I am privileged. I have not suffered in a way that would make me question the presence of God. I have never gone without food, shelter, or love. My personhood has only been threatened in theory. I wonder if people that I know who have been tortured wonder if they have been forsaken.
I also question the attention of God, the Risen Christ, to the homeless, the refugee, the disaster victim, the abusive father, and the soldiers. Does God “delight” in us enough to bring us down from our crosses or does God expect us to bear our burdens until we yield our spirits? This theology works in some situations but does not work in others. The theology that God leaves us on our crosses until we submit our spirits applies more to people in positions of privilege than those who are oppressed. While there are challenges and hardships that we all must face in order to grow and become strong should those challenges and hardships be forced on people with little means of working through them?
The yielding of one’s spirit over to God and the immediacy of compassion expressed in the stories of Jesus in the Bible demonstrate that humans are inherently good and tend towards acting for life rather than against it. There is a deep faithfulness in these actions that contrasts the doubt of Jesus’ cry at the end of his life: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Perhaps it is in the fullness of humanity that we doubt and hope, despair and rejoice, mock and express concern.
While I feel empowered by the stories of Jesus in the Bible and my own experiences with the risen Christ to be more fully who God has called me to be, perhaps that fullness includes my experiences of doubt and despair as it does my hope and joy. Do I seek to follow Jesus, as the query asks? Yes, I seek to follow the road that his witness has set in front of me, hand and hand, body in body with the his risen living Spirit, doing the work that God has for me.