I’ve been attending a church here for nearly two years now. Before this, I had taken a break for about five. It was a break from religious institutions, necessary after the string of churches I’ve been privy to since before my birth. In my mother’s womb and on scattered Sundays throughout my childhood, I went to a Japanese church in Glendale, California. This was followed by Catholic baptism, Christian preschool, Lutheran and Catholic elementary schools, and my eventual settling as a Methodist. Like my mom, also baptized Catholic, and my dad, an Armenian Orthodox, I learned to find such denominational distinctions less important.
My faith has thus developed into the kind that focuses on the prize, not the game played to attain it. I prefer to look up, not down onto the rules and the institutions that write them. A character in Madeleine L’Engle’s A House Like a Lotus makes a point I can’t help affirming:
Max was, theologically, heterodox. Religion, Max said, is divisive, and went on to cite the horrors going on between Christian and Muslims in the Middle East, between Hindus and Buddhists in Sri Lanka, between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland. If we could forget religion, Max said, and remember God, we might have a more reasonable world.
I will sit at the same table with Muslims, Buddhists, or Jewish guests and join in a collective prayer of thanks to one God. To me, it’s the same God. I will even sit with people who don’t share faith and refrain from said prayer, out of respect. I can respect all points of view, from Christian to atheist, pending they come from individuals who demonstrate a respect for other people’s faiths, ideologies, or lack thereof.
I cannot, however, tolerate people who insist on the right to tell others what they should or shouldn’t believe in. My eyes, ears, and heart close at the pushing of one’s dogma onto another. I’ve seen this in all forms, from outright religious ridicule, to the attempts to convert to one’s own point of view, to the judgment of others based on personal ideology.
“You are wrong, because there is no scientific proof for what you believe in.”
“You are not welcome here, because you are gay.”
“You should not be ordained, because you are a woman.”
“Take my point of view, or
go to hell
be intellectually inferior to me.”
My choice for an open, mutually tolerant faith also credits my ecumenical journey through different denominations. But that journey simultaneously led, by default, to a kind of neglect of the catechism I’ve been fed since day one.
After learning Bible verses by heart in elementary school and sitting in church pews once a week for thirty years, I’ve tended to take the fundamentals of my faith for granted. I am well acquainted with the parables that reverberate from the pulpit. Most Sundays I’ve waited for that moment of light bulb recognition, assuring myself of my vast theological pool of knowledge, before drifting off to notice the baby in the aisle or the colorful turban on the woman across the sanctuary.
When a friend emerged as an atheist of the Dawkins generation, he did it in the aforementioned way I cannot tolerate. In the quiet between our ensuing arguments, I’ve had time to think about what it is I actually believe in. As an arrogant voice persistently insists that everything “religious” people believe in is based on hogwash, I am forced through a test of faith. I’m like Papagena on the arm of my husband, following the faint flute music through the fire. This requires a little singeing on my part – an introspection into the reasons why I believe what I’ve been taught since I was two, when others are so quick to find that intellectually irreconcilable.
When my church here offered an Alpha course again this fall, I said yes. My husband would be leading a group this year, and I would be joining one. I went last week to the first meeting, received by people I’ve come to love over the past two years. I also met others who walked in off the street. I can’t think of a better way to spend a gray, autumn evening: vegetarian lasagna, scones and tea with questions addressing the fundamentals of our faith. Who was Jesus? What is the evidence for the fact that He was who He said He was? Why do we believe what was written in our primary source, the Bible?
I’m asking these questions with everyone else: people considering the idea of Christianity, and people, like me, who have been around the block. I’m looking at faith with fresh eyes. I’m looking at it critically, thinking of my friend’s atheist insistence on my intellectual inferiority.
I walked away from Alpha with a glowing handful of new and old friendships warming the space of my heart. I also came to the realization that we, as people of faith, have answered a daunting, challenging call.
We don’t have Christ, the charismatic, attractive thirty-year old walking among us. We cannot witness how people are drawn to His side, and how they, for reasons not even known to themselves, drop their nets and follow. He’s not walking down the main shopping streets of Jerusalem, Los Angeles or Rotterdam, saying things to make bishops’ jaws drop. We aren’t able to attest to His boldness and quiet conviction, so blown away that we tag along, shopping bags in hand, until He finds a park bench, causing everyone to scurry and grab a spot on the ground nearby. We are not privileged to sit at His feet and listen to what He has to say, hearing and seeing this man for ourselves, changed by the mere being around of Him.
We, in our time, are laden with the burden of faith. We have only that faith to go on. We have to decide if we believe all the things we read in the Bible about Him, if we believe the Bible at all. Once we, as Madeleine L’Engle said, “dare” to take such hearsay into our hearts – to believe that Christ wasn’t crazy, manipulative, or the figment of history’s imagination – that’s when we receive the Gift. Then we discover what it’s worth. At some point, we realize that God is indeed among us, challenging and revolutionizing as He did two millennia ago.
Yet it’s easier to think we are alone in this world, and that bad things happen for no good reason. It’s easier to make the human plight the center of our universe, to devote our lives to the progress of our intellect, to life-long searches for proof that we are self-sufficient. It’s harder to admit that Love is enough. It’s almost incomprehensible to admit that Love is not only enough, it is an active force at work in the universe, and it is a force that can be reconciled with suffering. Yes, it’s difficult to decide that our reason for getting up in the morning will be something that we cannot see and something that we can only hope for. It’s a leap, a stretch, an authentic point of surrender. C.S. Lewis was dragged, kicking and screaming to it. Anne Lamott took a long, deep breath, said, “All right,” and finally let the cat in.
But Madeleine made a point. I dare you to believe in God. I dare you to think our existence wasn’t an accident.
Copyright © 2007 Anastasia Hacopian. All rights reserved.