Why Church is Difficult (Again)

by Elias Blum

You know how dogs are supposed to have seven years for our one, so that a dog that’s one year old is equivalent to a seven year old human child?

Well, I think there’s something like that in ‘christian years’. I’ve been a christian for twenty years, but in terms of my actual spiritual maturity I feel about four or five. Not quite a ‘babe in Christ’, but certainly not where I should be at this point.

I’ve had lots of interesting experiences, yes. Lots of philosophising and arguing and exploring, testing, pulling it apart and putting it back together again, going down side roads and getting lost and turning around and retracing steps. But actual growth into christian maturity has been slow. I was pretty clear in my commitment, after a period of real doubts and wavering, when I finally got baptised in 2011 – but even since then I have mostly seen christianity as an intellectual puzzle to be solved, not a life to be lived.

I’m not sure I’d change it. I have broader, deeper, less brittle foundations now, and in that sense it has been worthwhile. But I do think it’s time to bear fruit in some more direct way – to ‘go back to basics’ in developing some rudimentary spiritual discipline and focus in my life: I’m going to aim for daily bible reading and weekly communion in 2018. And, as I mentioned in a previous post, one of my new resolutions is to try to connect again, in a more regular and committed way, with a local church.

Yet still I am wary of getting too relationally involved. The sad truth is that I’ve never really found a church where I can be comfortable and honest. I’ve found that it is best to hang around at the edges, keeping a safe distance and not let one’s guard down. Keep up appearances, don’t draw attention, and don’t – whatever you do – speak your mind.

Part of the problem is that, while I no longer accept the ‘Unitarian’ label, and have moved towards a more orthodox and mainstream Christology (accepting the Trinity and the dual nature of Christ), I’m still quite theologically liberal on lots of issues:

  • I don’t believe in a literal reading of Genesis, accepting modern science and fitting my theology around that framework. 
  • I have very mixed views about the whole homosexuality issue (I certainly don’t see it as straightforwardly ‘wrong’, although I can see both sides of a very complex argument). 
  • I don’t believe in an inerrant view of scripture; I see it more as a record of dialogue between God and his people, in which revelation comes piecemeal and indirectly, amongst particular times and contexts – so it has to be read and applied accordingly. 
  • I believe in universal reconciliation – that God will restore and redeem all things, and that none ultimately will be lost forever. 
  • I don’t understand salvation in the way evangelicals do (much closer to Eastern Orthodox view). I certainly don’t think that the cross, in itself, was what bought salvation; although it was the means by which God declared it. The resurrection is far more central to our salvation than the crucifixion. 
  • I don’t accept the medieval / Platonic view that salvation is about ‘going to heaven when you die’ – I have been convinced by N T Wright’s argument that salvation is about being ‘put right by God now so that you can contribute to God’s work of putting the world right’ – it is intrinsically linked to the Kingdom of God. Jesus did not come so that we could ‘go to heaven’, but to launch the project of ‘creating a new heaven and a new earth’.
  • I’m convinced that the practical response to all of this much necessarily involve Christians in social and political action on behalf of the poor, oppressed and dispossessed. Christianity cannot be just a nice hobby: it invariably puts one against ‘the principalities and the powers’ and against the ‘rulers of this age’. The last shall be first and the first shall be last.

I could go on.

So what I have to guard against, in seeking to engage with a local church, is letting any of this out. The result of doing so, I have found to my cost, is almost always to be horribly and sometimes quite brutally rejected. It leads to being ‘anathematised’ or treated as ‘apostate’. Apparently, you are not a ‘real Christian’, in the eyes of many, if you hold such views.

Of course, that’s nonsense. Over the last twenty years, I have learned that there is much more to being a ‘real Christian; than holding to a narrowly conservative-evangelical understanding.

I know I am not alone in that. But I have never found a church where it is actually safe and acceptable to express such views.

There are perhaps two reasons why this should be so. Firstly, for a lot of people Christianity really is a crutch – and I don’t mean that in a bad way. They used to be alcoholics, or homeless, or on drugs, or came from a bad situation – and meeting Jesus turned their life around – but they experienced this within a fairly narrow, hard, brittle framework. They don’t want that framework to be challenged, explored or expanded. To do so is interpreted, often, as a personal attack – it shakes the basis on which their life has been built, and they just cannot engage in an open discussion of these things.

I had a particularly nasty experience of this on Iona, where some guy threatened to punch me, simply because in the course of what had until that point been a relatively civilised conversation I let it slip that I believe in universal reconciliation. This was beyond the pale for him, and he was so angry and confused by it that he became violent.

Secondly, for others Christianity is more like a tradition, a tribal identity, a way things are and have been. This tends to affect those from relatively more privileged and prosperous backgrounds. Often they are not very interested in the radical elements of Jesus’ teaching; they like religion, but are wary of the Kingdom of God. They, too, are difficult to engage in open discussion. They are much more interested in making sure that Things Stay Exactly As They Are.

Between these two extremes, it’s hard to find people who come into the faith with an open and enquiring mind. There are some, of course, but they are the minority in any church. It is easier to interact with them in other settings – like online. I miss the Ship of Fools website for that reason.

As I seek, this year, to develop a more active church connection and a more stable and disciplined spiritual life, I will have to find ways to navigate these difficulties – to keep my views and my questions to myself while just joining in with the worship and the sacraments, or else to find spaces in which they can be explored in relative safety.