It is both terrifying and exhilarating to interact with people from a position outside the walls of institutional Christianity. When I use the term ‘institutional Christianity’, I mean that community of people who are together based upon a set of beliefs, propositions, norms, and lifestyles that are both valued and shared. Without meaning to sound condescending, institutional Christianity is in that sense sort of like a ‘club’. If you grew up in the church like I did, there are certain agreed upon rules and norms that we can use to make sure we are safe together and belong together.
Let me an offer an example. I was recently chatting with a thoughtful and gracious young woman who was raised in a Christian home by loving parents. She related to me that as she matured and began to find her own way in life apart from her parents, her faith in God did not suffer, but the rules of engagement began to come into question. For example, she is now engaged in a friendly but on-going debate with her father concerning the two (and she believes related) issues of abortion and capitol punishment.
I asked her what her father believed about these issues. When she told me, I recognized his opinions instantly. His opinions are the opinions that are shared by virtually every Christian that I know. Now, there are Christians who do not share these opinions (this young woman is one of them), but the Christians with whom I grew up, with whom I have always hung, understand among ourselves that these are the ‘correct’ views for the follower of Christ, even though Jesus never directly addresses either one of these two issues.
“My dad says ‘no’ to abortion and ‘yes’ to capitol punishment”, she declared, arms raised, palms up, as if to say, ‘what could be any clearer or more obviously right than that? ‘What do you believe’?, I asked, as I sensed a growing uneasiness inside.
‘Personally, I don’t understand why it’s alright for any of us, governments or church or anyone, to think we get to decide who lives and who dies,’ her matter-of-factness was disarming. ‘That’s what my dad just doesn’t get’, she continued as my uneasiness began to subside. ‘Why is it ok to say ‘you die’, and ‘you live’? Who has that right?’
She was now hitting on all cylinders. ‘As for me, I don’t believe in abortion. I would never have one. But I don’t think that decision should be anyone’s by mine.’ ‘As for capitol punishment, I get that there are things people do which probably are so bad that death might be justified. But I don’t see anything in the life of or teachings of Jesus that gives us the go-ahead to say, ‘you die’.’
It then hit me that because I was listening to her as a recovering Christian professional, and therefore a recovering ‘institutional Christian’, I was sort of ‘listening’ for the first time. And it was both terrifying and exhilarating. It was terrifying, because I have largely disconnected from institutional norms, and therefore am without the safety of knowing exactly what to believe about everything; exhilarating, because I was actually listening to a person without any need to see if she believed ‘correctly’.
It is a new and refreshing experience to actually ‘hear’ others who are not in your club and realize that they are concerned about and struggling with the same issues you are. I have a lot to learn.
The Glass Pastor