I’ve been asking a troubling question of myself over the past few months: why am I still a Christian?
On the tail end of a seminary career, serving at a parish–now is probably not the best time to appear to be reconsidering my identification as a Christian. I’m not reconsidering my identification, so everyone relax. To be honest, much of my discomfort is not with Christ himself but rather with the forms of Christianity that are predominant in American society. Much has been made about this by other progressive Christian writers, and many of their judgments are accurate: Christendom is tragically alive and well in America, and so frequently the good news of Jesus’ triumph over death is twisted through the dark arts of punditry and apologetics into an instrument of torture for people who don’t conform.
Adherence to a certain doctrinal statement becomes the measure by which we separate the pure bloods from the mongrels, allowing us to encase those who are unlike us in the psychological concentration camp of “conscious eternal torment” so we can gloat alongside a God whose love is clearly limited for those who think and do exactly like him. A God who doesn’t seem to care about those outside the “in crowd,” or even a God who would destine half of his creation for destruction for his own glory. Such a God is no loving Father; such a God is a crazy drunk uncle at best, a narcissistic monster at worst.
I stopped believing in that God around my second year of seminary.
But I still believe in God.
I’m still a Christian because I believe in the uniqueness of Christ. I’m not a Christian because I feel as though Christianity is morally superior, or politically advantageous, or some kind of hypermetanarrative that explains every particle in the universe. I believe in science; I believe in the cultural conditioning of certain moral strictures; I believe in one commandment: “Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
And I believe that the uniqueness of Christ and the uniqueness of his commandment is embodied in the language of signs and symbols that have been handed down in the Christian tradition through the past millennia. As Tillich asserted, a symbol is a sign that participates in the thing which it represents. And so for me the symbols like those of Virgin Theotokos, the Eucharistic Feast, the Crucified God, and the Risen Christ are all symbols that speak to and participate in the reality of a God who loves us madly and wants to live with his people. Our creeds are a symbol of our shared tradition. Our liturgical colors, feasts, and fasts are symbols of the opportune moments in which God acts in history. Jesus himself is a symbol of the creating, redeeming, and sustaining God.
And that same network of signs and symbols as a means to understanding God is what gives me cause to believe that those who do not think and believe exactly as we Christians do will still find themselves awash in the love of a gracious God, because each person is born into a time and context with a pre-established network of symbols. I do not believe that all symbols equally point to a loving God; obviously a network of religious symbols that glorifies violence and self-aggrandizement can have nothing to do with the true God. But I do believe that God will both work within a present network of symbols, or even work in spite of those symbols, to reach all his children with his parental love.
The symbols of the Christian tradition, chiefly the symbol who is Jesus Christ, point to and participate in that kind of God. And that’s why I’m still a Christian, even in spite of the Christian family who is both maddening and endearing in spades.