Christianity as an invitation to see “from below”

When I teach, I tend to sideline my own religious and theological views, especially with a new group of students. I do this for a few reasons. First, while I do teach at a private Episcopal school, and therefore lack the constraints that a public school teacher would face when teaching religion, I’m not there to make duplicates of myself. I change my own views on matters of greater to lesser importance so frequently, that if I tried to make a disciple one semester, they’d find themselves out of step by the next semester. Second, I’m not trying to make disciples; I’m trying to provide students with the necessary tools to think about their world critically as they emerge into adulthood—and it so happens that my area of expertise and gifting has to do with exploring our world through the lens of religion. Third, there remains something about teaching adolescents rather than young adults, or high schoolers rather than college students, that requires you to recognize that you’re educating people who are part of an intrinsic relational web that includes their parents, extended family, and possibly their religious community. I take that complexity seriously aiming to be more of a tour guide to the world of critical thought than a polemicist for my own views.

That said, there are matters about which I’m passionate and they rarely have to do with the things that traditionally divide religious communities. I’m not deeply concerned with the theology proper of my students. I’m probably more influenced by Indian monism or Benedict Spinoza than the Cappadocians. Often, I tell them that theology is partially aesthetics so that the theology that makes me feel alive isn’t necessarily the theology that will satisfy the analytic mind but instead the theology that will make me see the beautiful potentiality of the world. (I think I got this from Tripp Fuller, mentioned below, but I listen to a lot of podcasts on my commute, so I can’t remember exactly who planted that thought in my brain.) When students read the Bible in my classes, I try to get them to think about the text from a variety of perspectives, introducing traditional “academic” approaches like reading as historians, literary critics, or philosophers while also trying to push them to think about how this text has been, currently is, and might be received by various readers and communities of readers. I don’t have a bibliology that I push, though they can tell I’m not an evangelical and I embrace critical scholarship. When it comes to ethical hermeneutics, I tend to preach that the Bible is like a mirror—whatever parts of it resonate most with you probably tell you more about yourself than they do about the Bible which is a diverse library, not a monolog of a book.

But when pressed, once I have established rapport with my students and they know me, my teaching style, and that I care not just about their grades but about the formative potential that critical thinking and liberal studies offer them, I may open up a little more about my views on matters, if it’s safe. For example, eventually, students ask me which religion it is with which I identify. I’ll put my cards on the table and tell them (a) I’m a Christian; (b) that many Christians may reject my claim and that doesn’t bother me; (c) and that my Christian identity is analogous to my identity as an English-speaker. Christianity is my religious “mother-tongue,” if you will. As an English speaker, I wish I was bilingual or trilingual, as many people are. (In fact, this analogy works better in the United States than it would in many other parts of the world.) As an English speaker, I can learn how to speak another language pretty fluently, though I’m prone to learn a second or third language through English. And just because I speak English, and understand the world through English, doesn’t mean speaking Spanish, French, Russian, or Japanese is “wrong”. Similarly, I speak “Christian”. It’s my religious-language that helps me symbolize the world and decode it. I can speak some other “languages” fairly well, like Judaism and Buddhism; there are other “languages” with which I lack fluency and my speech needs work, like Shinto and Indigenous American religions/spiritualities.

Some people are raised bilingual. I say this literally, as in you may have grown up speaking English and Spanish, and I say this metaphorically, as in you may have been raised in a family that’s part Hindu, part Christian, as a few of my students have been. You may create a pidgin language but when you do, observe that fewer people can communicate with you in your new Judaism-Buddhism hybrid language than if you spoke Judaism to some people and Buddhism to others. Anyway, you get the linguistic analogy. The point is that I’m not going to sidestep being Christian once my students push me to tell them where I stand (especially once they start guessing and asking if I’m everything from an atheist to a Buddhist, which I understand to mean I do such a good job of trying to teach about various religions truthfully and fairly that they don’t know my own views). But I don’t see my Christianity as something at which I arrived objectively, or that I see as “right” over against religions that are “wrong”. I see my Christianity as the symbolic system that informs my embodied hermeneutic. And even then, in the words of May Angelou, “I found that I really want to be a Christian” but this doesn’t mean I’ve arrived at whatever it looks like to be a Christian in a way that benefits the world around me.

This can be dangerous though because my Christianity has a specific white American accent and with that accent comes ways of seeing and explaining the world that can be unhealthy as my “worldview” may be informed by racist, colonizing, patriarchal, etc., presuppositions of which I need to be aware. I’m not objective. I stand in a place and a time. I recognize this and this means I also need to hear not only how people speak about the world through other religions but also, to continue my flawed metaphor, how other accents from my own religion may help me see the world differently.

I wish there was a transcript of the recent Homebrewed Christianity podcast where Tripp Fuller revisits 01/06 with Adam Clark and Jeffrey Pugh because there’s something Clark said that has stuck in my head for several days now but that may not be word-for-word accurate. Clark said something about defining Christianity as “an invitation to see ‘from below'”. Why has this lodged itself in my brain? Well, I admit I’ve always had an uncomfortable relationship with the institutional Church, in spite of having received all my education from places that identified as “Christian” and even now working for an Episcopal school. I’ve been uncomfortable not only because one of my first memories of visiting the Church that raised me was a kid saying something to the extent of “you don’t belong here” (I was five and that comment stuck) but because time after time, especially since the election in 2016, but now reinforced during the pandemic, I’ve begun to wonder if Christians and Christianity, at least in the United States, might be one of the least-Christlike identities one can hold. It’s Christians who are willing to bury our democracy in order to create a theocratic ethnostate that appears to have emerged straight from the imagination of Margaret Atwood.

One trap into which I’m prone to fall is to accept the monopolizing claims of the white Church in America as the true representatives of Christianity. This leaves me with a decision—accept what they’re selling or distance myself from Christianity. This is a false choice because the white Church isn’t the only witness to the Gospel, and in spite of their institutional power, publishing houses, colleges and seminaries, etc., all that makes them appear to be everywhere, there’s the voice of the Black Church, the Latino Church, the Asian-American Church, et al. There’s the voice of Christians who have been living their Christianity without power and support of the state, or the ways of seeing the world, normalizing the world, and universalizing our own subjectivity, that comes with being in the majority.

But back to Adam Clark‘s comment. Christianity from a certain place isn’t this type of an invitation. The Christianity represented during the January 6th Insurrection isn’t this type of Christianity. That’s the type of Christianity that embarrassed me and makes me want to never identify as a Christian again. But those aren’t the only Christians. For every John Piper and Mark Driscoll-type who make god out to be a violent monster who wants us to all burn eternally because of divine arbitrariness or whatever, and who needed Jesus to die because he was thirsty for blood and violence, we have a James Cone whose The Cross and the Lynching Tree will have forever altered my view of Jesus, the crucifixion, and what it means for our theologies. If there’s a god, and I hope there is, then this god must be a god like the one envisioned by Cone—a god who suffers with us not who created us to watch us suffer; the loving and overcoming god of the Black Church and not the triumphalistic deity of Christendom and of many in the white Church.

This is why I need to read the Hebrew Bible alongside Jewish exegetes (because Christian-hermeneutics go off the rails when we don’t listen to Jewish thought) and Black womanist theologians like Wil Gafney and her Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne. I need to hear not just Martin Luther King Jr. interpreting the Gospel but also the voices that make white America less comfortable, whether Christian or not—the Malcolm X’s; the James Baldwins; the Octavia Butlers; the Cornel Wests. I don’t read them virtuously; I read them in desperation. I need to hear a voice that helps me understand how I can salvage my Christianity and because I need my religious-language to understand the world, and I don’t want to start from scratch as I near age forty, I look for people who live Christianity in such a way that I can imagine Christ entering their Churches.

Now, all of what I said is extremely selfish. I didn’t say I read these authors for their sake or for the sake of their communities. I don’t think they need me. They may need me to get out of the way, to learn to listen, but that’s it. I need them. If I’m going to avoid the vacuum that would form by abandoning Christianity altogether out of shame then I need someone to show me how Christianity should and can function. (Not to fetishize the Black Church, or the Latino Church, etc., as if they are problem-free, but to recognize where they do Christianity rightly.) I need to see from the perspective of those who read the Bible from a place where they can identify with Jesus; I need to learn how to see “from below,” as Clark said, rather than from the triumphalistic perch of a crumbling, racialized Christendom. I need to read the Bible and hear the Gospel in such a way that I recognize I’m the Romans in the Gospels, not Jesus’ closest disciples. And I need to try and repent and humble myself before the Galilean.

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