The Cynic Route

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”

-Jesus when asked which commandment was paramount

It’s embarrassing to quote a book that a religion is founded on and to find such a blatant discrepancy in the actions of its participants. How many times have those of “the faith” blatantly broken that second commandment? Note that last sentence: There is no commandment greater than these. Not “greater than the first.” He specifically chose to say greater than “these.” EVEN in the original Greek this distinction is made.

Which begs the question, how on earth did people “of the faith” manage to fixate on the loving God part while forgetting about the neighbor part?

I claim no superiority for I am guilty of doing the same.

But the excuse that humans are flawed and just that: human, doesn’t quite cut it after a lifetime of seeing human corruption fester in the walls of “sanctuaries.”

I’ve spent the better part of the last six years agonizing over the discrepancy between what the Bible says the church is supposed to be and how it actually is in our modern day and age. Countless sermons about tithing and building schools to “help the youth have good solid Christian roots.” Not nearly as many sermons about depression, racism, and addictions. I’ve seen pastors give their all to ministries to be fired for ambiguous reasons. I’ve seen families that serve their churches dutifully for years be coerced into taking on more than they can handle. Haven’t heard a sermon on how people are created equal and how we need to demonstrate that, but I have heard a sermon on why it’s okay to ostracize a previously Christian artist who recently came out of the closet.

Does the church lend a hand when natural disasters strike or states of national emergencies occur? Generally speaking yes. Do they generally participate in benefitting and supporting the local community? For the most part. But if I was to tally all the times churches and faith were mentioned positively versus the times that the church and faith were used as a weapon to justify the maltreatment of people it would be a very imbalanced tally ratio indeed.


I grew up in church. The standard story of the child who attends from birth, accepts Jesus at maybe age five, gets baptized a few years later, and is the president of the Christian club in high school applies to me. In hindsight, it is truly cringe-worthy to think about how self-righteous I was when I was younger. A little background, I was homeschooled until high school so the church used to be one of the only social outlets I had. On top of that, I took Bible classes so small group time and sermons were my chance to flex at knowing all the “right answers.” In high school, I taught studies of my own. The standard don’t do drugs, sleep around, or drink because the Bible says not to, and because we all clearly want to be Christ-like. Don’t pay attention to the fact that I was struggling with a closet pornography addiction as well as dating someone behind my parents’ back. I’m the freaking Christian club president. I’m practically ordained.

It’s funny and weird that you can grow up learning all these songs about grace and mercy while never truly understanding that you need either of those things. In church, people of “authority” tell us again and again that we are “sinners” and that “we’ve fallen short” so much so that we just take it to be a given truth. Honestly, if you are reading this and you are a pastor to those in my generation, that tagline about “falling short” may be ALL that we remember.

You taught us that murder was a violation of commandment number five, while you condoned not so privately, U.S. military involvement in some far-off country. You taught us that greed was bad while somehow forgetting that every fourth sermon was about tithing because it helps us to have faith… huh. Interesting. You taught us that lust and adultery was a no-no, yet for some reason, affairs seem to flourish in two environments: the realm of politics and churches.

“Honestly, if you are reading this and you are a pastor to those in my generation, that tagline about “falling short” may be ALL that we remember.”

How were we to have faith in faith when contradiction upon contradiction piled to the sky? The worst arguments ended in church splits which tore the very fabric of the “community” that you (and maybe we at one time) held so dear.

From the day we first came to Sunday School you told us what to believe. You took our misplaced trust and you took advantage of that naivete and you told us who we were. You humbled us by letting us know that we were jacked up beyond repair and you OH SO conveniently placed yourself in a position of power between us and redemption. You claimed that it was a free gift from God, and yet a decision made that was not followed by either a: raised hand, look up, or a spoken agreement apparently didn’t count in God’s eyes.


I’ve spent a long time reading and re-reading both the old and the new testament. I’ve utilized Google to help me understand the original languages that the texts were written in, the social and political contexts in which those books were written, who was writing whom, and how it all ties together. I have literally spent three years attempting to write this specific blog post. I have agonized about leading people astray, received “rebukes” from “brothers” for voicing doubts, feared to appear too self-righteous, and deleted at least 15 drafts of this very post.

See from my research, life-experience, and in-depth studies of several churches and the themes that they herald I can’t help but notice one very important but overlooked fact: By the bookJesus should be all that is needed. To explain that, I need to provide some context.

For those readers who may not be religious or versed in Old Testament law let me do a quick summary:


Old Testament Context

God existed before time did. God created time and then the world as we know it and then man. Everything was in equilibrium. But God (being a feeling, empathetic, and loving entity) decided that He wanted man to have free will. (I’m going to have to write a blog about free will at some point, but the tl:dr is this, how would you like to be in a relationship with someone where they didn’t choose to love you, they were forced to love you? Would they saying they love you be the same as someone who chose to say that? That is why this is significant). In order to give man free will, He gave them a rule He asked them not to break. They broke it. Equilibrium was shot. There were some curses that came with this. Life moved on. Humans are actually quite fucked up. God intervenes with laws to protect people from raping and killing each other. Since humans are human, He also came up with an atonement system for people who broke the laws. (this is where all those archaic laws about nailing ears to doors and such come from) The concept of life being taken to atone for sin is introduced. God introduces a new class of people called priests. Priests sole job is to work as an intermediary between God and man. They do the dirty work of sacrificing innocent animal lives in order to atone for human sins. This class exists up until the time of Jesus.


New Testament Context

When Jesus shows up on the Biblical scene, a whole bunch of stuff I don’t fully understand happens. He is born of a woman, but half His DNA is from God. So basically God was a man (sorry Ariana Grande). He lives 30 some years as a carpenter and then for the last three years of His life starts His ministry. He is super well versed in the laws of the Old Testament, but where He differs is who He chooses to follow Him and his methodology. He picks outcasts and sinners to teach. If I was to modernize it, it would be something along the lines of picking up an IRS auditor who is the son of a criminal who went to jail for tax fraud, a potty-mouthed deep-sea fisherman, and then known associates that are prostitutes, hated minorities, and self-righteous religious people. Basically, Jesus upsets the political climate because He’s just loving everybody that the religious elite has deemed unlovable. So being good religious men of “the faith” the religious elite of the time plot to have Jesus killed. Jesus has several other experiences, one which involves Him being tempted by the devil, etc. etc. Basically, He doesn’t succumb and when He does die, he dies as the first man to ever die completely innocent. No malicious thoughts, no acted on thoughts etc. etc.

Now, this has never happened before. There has never been someone who is blameless that has died. The price of “sin” is death and so there has always had to have been bloodshed whether it be animals or otherwise. By rules that I don’t fully understand, Jesus takes all of humanity’s vice on His perfect self and serves as the scapegoat for all of humanity’s crimes past present and future in their entirety in perpetuity.

There is a symbolic ripping of a curtain in the temple which we could care less about in the 21st century. But for the sake of understanding context here is a probably super grainy picture: 1temple

Item 2 and 3 are what we are going to focus on. Item 2 is called the Holy of Holies. This is where only the priests could go and they would only survive if they were adequately holy enough at the time of going in. Fun fact, they used to tie a rope to one of their ankles so that if they died while in the room, they could pull them out and send the next priest in. Yikes. Item 3 is the veil. This is the curtain I was talking about that was torn when Jesus dies on the cross and a huge earthquake comes and causes a whole ruckus. This is very important because up until this point, God only spoke to important people but not the everyday person. If you were gonna be the father of a nation, some super crazy general, or maybe a lucky/unlucky virgin then He might talk to you or encounter you in some way. But for everyone else? You bring your quails and doves, or your calf to the priest in that courtyard and that is as far as you go. If you so much as step into the holy of holies you are literally a dead man. People don’t kill you, the presence of God there kills you because you are unworthy because of the sin in you.

That veil being torn means that God no longer dwells in that tiny room behind the veil. It means that priests and innocent blood spilling are no longer what is needed to satisfy God’s wrath. I don’t pretend to fully understand this process, but just know that it’s significant.


Okay, so the Bible recounts all of this happening. Not only that, but the latter half of the Bible talks about very real struggles that the newly formed church has: racism, self-righteousness, works based righteousness, whether tradition trump Jesus’ sacrifice, Christians adopting pagan practices and incorporating them into their faith, etc. etc. Two of the main authors of the New Testament also end up parting ways on not so smooth terms because they disagree about what people group deserves to hear the good news.

But I mean amidst all the turmoil and the growing pains, the good news is that man no longer needs an intermediary in order to approach God. He no longer has to fear being smited for being less than perfect, because the scapegoat has already taken his blame. The church exists to encourage but the church itself is no longer required for penance or atonement. All items not mentioned in the first quote of this blog are now ancillary as those two commandments take precedence.


Tribal Knowledge and Explaining “Jesus Should Be All that is Needed”

Man has taken church and made it into an exercise about tribal/travel knowledge. The church tells us what to believe and why to believe it. Doubts are taboo and questions that are difficult to answer are labeled as unimportant, trivial, or dangerous. It’s about the pastor’s story about how God told him about what direction the church should take. It’s about the small group leader and the few “elite” participants that have super holy answers and a “ton of faith.” It has turned into a “It is true for me so therefore have faith that it’s true for you.” Already I can hear the arguments about how directing people to expect a personal relationship with God may set unfair expectations that push them away from the faith.

To you I pose this question, would you prefer the alternative of someone using your past faith experience to justify their very own, very personal faith walk, and then to leave the faith when what happened for you does not happen for them because they have a different story than you?

At the heart of it, faith is something you must experience. We can talk for literal days about veils being torn, atonement, commandments, pre-destination, spiritual gifts, renditions of popular worship songs and the verbiage they choose to use, but when it comes down to it, the actual decision of whether to have faith in God or not is a personal and private decision and experience.

Man will always fail. Just look around at the mess we’ve made. If you choose to claim that your faith based upon your personal experience is the faith that we all should have then you should be ready for people to reject your faith because you are flawed and it is natural to question why reverse correlation isn’t happening.

When we instead approach faith as a personal decision that only the individual in question can make based upon his or her life experience, then we are asking God to show up to that person in ways that we can not imagine or fathom. And like it or not no one knows that person better than the Maker Himself.


One last story:

Last year I hit my all-time low. I had been (have been) struggling with what my purpose is and what I want my occupation to be. I was hurt by several relationships that I was in. I couldn’t sit in a church service without hearing only cynicism in my head. I had well-meaning friends asking how my “faith” was or what church I was going to. I would answer saying I was too busy to be going to church or that my post-grad adjustment was just taking a little more time. I love writing, but I had the worst writer’s block of my life so far. I was working a close to minimum wage food service job with a bachelors degree. One thing led to another and I ended up on rock bottom.

I remember thinking to myself that it made no sense for someone as privileged as me to be in the emotional mess that I was. I remember staring at my reflection in the mirror and hating the person staring back. There are some conversations and actions that you can never take back, and those are the ones that haunted me. I remember thinking to myself, “No one is humanly capable of loving you or accepting you for the f*cked up mess that you are. If people knew who you really were under this facade that you created they would all leave in a heartbeat.”

A strange thing happened when I was on rock bottom. I realized that I really did need grace. Ironically, grace was the key to a number of issues in my life. I could no longer sit in sermons and cynically deconstruct the private lives of the religious elite, because to do so would be to assert an air of self-righteousness that I no longer possessed. If I needed grace and I was to accept grace than I could no longer judge so harshly because to do so would be to imply that I did not need grace myself.


Faith is weird.
But I encourage you to make it personal. Don’t believe something just because someone told you to believe it. Discover it/Him for yourself. I don’t think He wants it any other way, but I contradict myself, my opinion doesn’t matter, ask Him yourself.

Cynicism isn’t all bad.
Honestly, I think cynicism allows us to see where we have our part to play. I hate seeing emotional coercion and manipulation in churches, so what am I doing about it? How am I modeling or creating something that can better that situation? When our cynicism shifts from a critical mindset to a “how do we address and fix it” mindset, I think that’s when we begin to shift paradigms.

Grace is essential.
If you don’t think it is, that’s okay. Everyone has different journeys and we are all at different stages. I know for me, that’s when my faith became the most real: when I was aware of how much I needed grace. I am super critical, but if I am aware of how often I need grace shown to me than I can much more easily be gracious to those around me.


Thanks for reading!

So much has gone into this post and I hope that whoever you are that it encourages you or makes you question certain things that you might have heard and believed. Some parts of this come off as extremely harsh and bitter, and I would be lying to say I was exempt from those feelings. But I truly believe that it was necessary to share what I shared because I know how deeply cynicism and doubt affected me and I know that I am not alone.

I firmly believe that God is a very real entity and that when we challenge him to show up that He does just that. I also believe that God cares enough about you, the reader, personally that He wants to make it very personal.

I do not claim to know the answers to any of life’s questions, but should you ever want to talk about faith or anything else my door is always open and my voicemail box is finally set up.

 

-P.H.


 

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