So I've still been reading this book, A New Kind of Christian, and I've been trying to think of when it was, primarily, that my perspective really shifted. I know it was gradual, but by the time I was done with college, I no longer felt at home in most church experiences, specifically, most sermnizing that I found. Then I stepped into Solomon's porch, where the pastor could freely admit that he didn't know if something in the Bible meant one thing or another or could say that he didn't think a portion of the bible was really relevant to the way we were doing things now, and all the practices were a creation in themselves, liturgies that really meant something, personal stories being shared, everyone sitting in the round, facing one another, music that was written by the community and reflected the journey of that community, art happening continually, and much more. And I stepped into this church, and something within me finally found a home for who I had become. I don't know if I would have felt the same when I was in high school or not, and I guess there's no way to know. I just know that a lot of the ideas in this book are ideas that I've encountered before and actually found embodied or celebrated at Solomon's porch, and they're ideas that I found to fit just where I was theologically and personally.
So I'm trying to discover in my memory, when it was that my perspective shifted.
I remember my Intro to Biblical Studies class, taught by Scot McKnight, when we talked about James, and his assertion that salvation (or justification) is "not only by faith, but also through works." Scot described this passage as a direct, opposing response to Paul's assertion that salvation is "through faith, not by works." I guess it was the first time that I had heard someone in authority on biblical issues act is if the goal were not to synthesize everything into a nice compact whole. In our modern mindsets (modern being a period from around maybe the 1500s to a little while ago) we look at the Bible and try to figure out how they are all saying the same thing, or how they all fit together as a cohesive unit. In class I raised my hand and said something about this, without really knowing what was going on, and I was made to feel quite stupid for it.
The point of that experience was to learn that there are other ways. Even if my teacher had been wrong, it would still show that a man who truly loved God could have a different way of looking at the Bible and still be a man who loved God. As it was I saw that he was pretty much right. People could easily take Paul's words and conclude that they don't have to do good works, and they could be saved anyway. Even Paul didn't go that far and sometimes warned against this, but James probably felt he had to set the record straight, and make the truth plain - no, you have to have good works. If you don't that so-called "faith" that you've been saved through doeasn't mean squat.
So maybe that was a big part of the shift for me. And throughout my education in Biblical studies, along with my own personal reading time, I came to a different understanding of how to read the bible, and I developed a kind of aversion to systematic theology.
Another example, and I believe this must have been around the same time, I was in a C.S.Lewis class, and in it we were required to do a paper on anything C.S.Lewis. I went to the library and picked up a book that I had never noticed before, called "the Great Divorce." In the Great Divorce, Lewis creates an afterlife and focuses on people going to hell. In this hell, the world is much the same, only without God in it. People live on the earth and go about their days, drifting further and further apart from one another and winding up in eventual misery. But in this hell there is a bus, a flying bus that anyone can take up to heaven. Woo-hoo, a bus to heaven. When they get to the outskirts of heaven, they're met by a number of angels and heaven dwellers, who offer to lead them up into the great city. But first there's a bit of discourse. First of all, the ground itself is so real, so strong, so incredibly lively, that it is too hard to walk on. The grass bites up through their shoes, the sun is too bright, the rain is too wet, that kind of thing. Their hosts tell them that they'll soon grow into it as they travel, and they'll learn to enjoy it, but this dilemma is in itself enough to send several people back on the bus. Other people have other problems with heaven. Some of them don't want to live under God's rules, they want to live however they pleased, just like they did on earth. Others are looking for Nirvana and refuse to accept their predicament as reality. Pretty much everybody has a problem with heaven, and everybody gets back on the bus and goes back down to hell, where they're free to live out their miserable existence as they please.
On the one hand, this story might pass under the radar of those who will look at it and go, "yeah, that's right. Everybody who goes to hell belongs there." But if you look at it carefully, you can see that's a very subversive idea in our modern contexts. First of all it's saying that the afterlife is not just a verdict and a sentence based on one certain infraction or another, which is how we like to see it in modern Christianity. You've done wrong, you go to hell, and without Jesus to step in and bring you to heaven, you're doomed. It's really a harsh metaphor, and it's one I find disturbing. I much prefer the loving father metaphor, who wants all of his prodigal sons to return and welcomes them with open arms. This story suggests that that love may continue after death.
So I ended up writing my paper on this book. I stayed in that library until like 3 in the morning, reading it. And I ended up mulling over the story for years to come. I consider it a shift in my focus, one that I think I had been longing for. Life was no longer just about heaven and hell, like so many modern evangelicals would have it. Rather, heaven and hell were merely about life. What we did and who we became in this life suddenly became incredibly important. Other religions seemed to have important things to say, now, because they weren't just all wrong, any more than we were all right. It wasn't just about being wrong or right. It was about becoming more real or less real. It was about becoming people who could walk in the reality of that kind of a heaven. And it was about welcoming others instead of ostracizing them. I wondered if there were those who did not know Jesus, who would get to this heaven and say, "okay, I think I can do this." I wondered if Ghandi, who said positive things about Jesus and merely disliked his followers, would get off the bus, find a heaven that he has yearned for throughout life and take the trek up to the city of God.
Those two examples were just my freshman year. I remember going home at some points throughout college and talking theology with my mom and dad, who worried about having sent their son to "that liberal school," but who nonetheless were the best parents one could have and entrusted me to God's care, I think for the better.
Anyway, there is a lot here and there is a lot more beneath the surface and there isn't much explanation, so you'd have to read A New Kind of Christian to get more of what I'm talking about. I'm just left in wonder about my life and finding myself in this different place. I mean I was always questioning, growing up. But after college, I found that I had changed, and I don't think I saw all the changes happening even though I was thoroughly aware of the controversies as they happened, I just didn't see it as an overarching push toward a whole new perspective. If someone told me I'd be here, believing these things or not believing others, when I was in high school, I don't know what I would say. I think I had a relatively open mind at that age, for I was able to carry on conversations with people of other religions or no religion at all, without offending them. That in itself I think proves something good about where I was. But life is strange sometimes, and we end up in places we'd never thought we'd be, and sometimes it's better than the places we had dreamed for ourselves.