I have a friend who cannot reconcile my faith with what she knows of me.
She hates religion in general, and hates Christianity in particular. But she knew me as a colleague and came to like me as a person before she realized I was, to her horror, one of those people. Now, when we chat or spend time together, I watch her engage in a sort of mental gymnastics over this quandary.
A few weeks ago, she was ranting about something and uttered, “It’s because of those religious people—” then glanced at me, stumbled, and sought words. “No offense to you. I mean, you’re spiritual, not religious, so—”
“No,” I corrected her, “I’m both.”
I wouldn’t have said this a decade ago. It was in vogue for a while for evangelicals to eschew the term religion at all, to say something like, “I don’t do religion. I do relationship.” It was an attempt—however ham-handed—to point out the unique aspects of the Christian faith, to center Christ in the conversation.
But we live in a much different world now. And I am wary of defining myself as “spiritual” in opposition to “religious.” This is firstly because “spiritual” in that context often refers to a Christianity stripped of its defining characteristics: a Christianity that means “I believe in a God-sort of person or energy that I call Christ” or “I believe in the general concepts of Christianity but they do not order my life” or “I believe in Christ as a figure, but not in any Christian doctrine” or even “I grew up in the Christian tradition and don’t want to take it seriously but still find value in it.”
I am also wary of defining myself as “spiritual” (as opposed to religious) because that word often brings us into the world of metaphor.
Richard Beck in Chasing Magic Eels—a most excellent book—points out that our modern world has shifted in a profound way since earlier eras. Where once it was commonplace to believe in angels, in demons, in the supernatural, in outside cosmic forces that could act upon human beings, the modern self “turns inward” and dismisses such outward forces. In this sort of a world, for modern believers, Christianity ceases to be a supernatural miracle—ceases to become about God’s supernatural, love-driven engagement with man—but rather about, as Beck puts it, “being a good neighbor and voting well.” All the wonders and acts of God become relegated to the realm of metaphor, like self-help stories in a book meant to make us into good people.
It has become commonplace in many modern expressions of Christianity to de-emphasize the—well, the weird parts of the faith. The supernatural parts. The strange and enchanting parts. We’ve lost our own sense of how unusual all this is, to possess a literal belief in a virgin birth, in the death and resurrection of God who chose to incarnate and suffer and die as a man, in the indwelling Holy Spirit. To believe that there is a heaven and there will be a redemption of creation and of my body and that I will have a home there. To act in the now as though I believe those things are true.
I do not want to become the sort of believer who minimizes the stories of Scripture into instructive tools, spiritual metaphors, to help me live a better human life. That’s too small. It’s not enough. For good or for ill, I want my skeptical friend to know me as a person who, in her parlance, really does believe those things, literally. As the kind of—to her—crazy lunatic who genuinely believes God will hear her if she talks to Him, who believes that she has in her the enlivening Holy Spirit of God, who is able to endure affliction because she anticipates the very real time when God will in concrete and marvelous ways set creation back to right and redeem the ones who love Him. I want my friend to side-eye the fact that I love the man hanging on the cross in all that Christian art, that I believe He is real and resurrected and He loves me, that we have a relationship, that He has defeated death to reign over all things.
I want her to know that I am owned by something outside myself.
It can be so difficult to live the literality of our faith. To really truly live knowing it is not just a metaphor. Peter did, briefly. After freaking out at the sight of Jesus walking on the water—another one of those deeply supernatural, divine moments—Peter finally understands what it is he’s looking at. And then he does something impossible: he walks on water.
Everyone focuses on the moment he falters. But I wonder for that brief, dizzying moment what it must have been like to defy every law of the natural world. To recognize that the man you loved and served could do this, that He was really God, and that through your faith you could join in his purpose. For the briefest of moments, Peter got deeply literal. He saw Christ walking on the water and he understood: this is real. This is possible. And I am a part of it.
This is real. This is possible. I am a part of it. Every believer is a part of it.
Don’t grow disenchanted with your faith. Don’t let the wildness and fierceness of who God is and what God has done be lost on you. Don’t neuter it. Remember it again to yourself in all its wonder. This is real. This is true. This is happening.