Today’s guest post is from Simon C.

It was mid-March 2020 here in the UK when the message came through that in-person church meetings were being suspended, a week or so before the country headed into its first COVID lockdown. To paraphrase the conversation I had with a close friend at the time:

“When do you think we’ll be back at church?”

“I don’t know. Maybe the end of April or early May?”

“End of April?! Six weeks off church! This is crazy!!!”

We never went back.

Why? Everyone is different, of course. Some friends, stepping away, slowly had a change of perspective about the church and its truth claims, and about religion in general. The Mormon faith simply doesn’t offer much for them anymore. Others have landed as atheists after experiencing a painful faithcrisis which was heart-breaking for them and for those who witnessed their suffering. And me? I realised I just didn’t miss church. Not one bit. And it got me thinking: if I don’t miss it and I didn’t really enjoy it most of the time anyway, why should I go back?

To give some context: I was born and raised in the church, served a mission, went more-or-less consistently over 38 years. But having strong introvert tendencies, being part of such an involved institution and community never really sat right with me. I always felt more comfortable on the periphery. Being single also meant I was never as invested in the religious and social culture as perhaps others were. But at its core, I loved the basic principles of the gospel, the figure of Christ, and the scriptures. I was fascinated by the Restoration. I have always been inclined toward my own study (being a graduate of Ancient History helped with this), and a more nuanced take on my faith and my religion had been developing for a decade, in many ways running parallel to the church’s own tentative (and seemingly short-lived)progress in this area. But I never imagined I would end up where I am now.

Stepping away opened the space for new perspectives and to re-assess old assumptions. I have realised more than ever that faith is, largely, a choice. You choose to believe in certain things or you don’t. Once those choices are made, paradigms shift and the world suddenly reorganises itself into new patterns of understanding and ways of seeing. The more I thought about things, the crazier most of it sounded. Is there a God? Depends on which day of the week you ask me. Is this the only true and living church? Probably not. I don’t think God (if there is one) would work that way. Besides, the answer isn’t important to me anymore. Is the Restoration a real thing? I’m interested from a religious history perspective, but again the answer is not important.

And on it goes.

There are many things in flux right now, but one thing I feel strongly is that I am over institutional religion. Was this a faith crisis? No, not for me. It’s been a faith journey. Many in the church will insist I am going backwards right now or have ‘fallen away’. I disagree—we are only ever moving (sometimes falling) forwards in life, developing in certain ways and directions. I go where my mind and heart takes me. This isn’t a bad thing. This is just how it goes.I have developed a ‘freelance faith’ (I’m copyrighting that) and have landed for the time being as—how to describe it?—an agnostic, non-denominational Christian. Catchy, I know.

But still a Christian, you ask? Well, yes. Whether any of it is true or not (and what do you even mean by ‘true’ anyway?), I still feel that religion can contribute meaningfully to society, and faith and spirituality can contribute meaningfully to our lives. At least, I still feel they can contributemeaningfully to mine. I was raised Christian; it’s ingrained in my worldview and part of my identity. God and Christ still loom large in my though patterns. I am still comfortable speaking the language of Christianity and spirituality. I still pray—but whether someone is listening is anyone’s guess! The question, then, I wrestle with the most is what do I do with Jesus?

But which Jesus am I talking about?The historical Jesus of Nazareth, the Jew? Jesus the moral teacher? Jesus the Christ, the Redeemer, the Saviour? A bit of all of them? I don’t know where I land on the issue of who Jesus really was and is. I do know that the idea of Jesus is stunningly beautiful and moving. In recent years Easter had become by far the most important festival to me personally, as I take time to contemplate what it all means to me. It is always powerful. I’ve become indifferent to temple covenants and the ‘covenant path’ but I return often to baptism and the covenant we believe we make. Its symbolism is beautiful and its promises simple but deeply profound.

And then there is the New Testament. We will be studying it again next year in the correlated program; but I never left it from the last time and am still there. In the New Testament I met a Jesus in all his historical and religious complexity, encouraging his people to reinvigorate and renew their faith; to reorient themselves by re-emphasising the basics. A Jesus who kicked against binaries and highlighted contradictions and nuances in living faith. I also met a Paul who likewise sought to redefine faith in new, more expansive and inclusive terms. Scholars now largely agree that to think of Paul in terms of stark opposites of grace vs. works, faith vs. ‘the law’, Jew vs. Gentile, etc, etc, is to do the man a grave disservice. Paul was on a faith journey, a dramatic faith transition. It was complicated for him. Very complicated. What Paul really disliked were impermeable, set-in-stone boundaries being put round religious identity. I wonder what Paul would say today about the new era of church retrenchment we are seeing? Like Jesus, Paul shows us that the life of faith and its interplay with identity are not as straight forward as many want it to be. I doubt the church would promote Paulas an example of someone in ‘faith transition’ (or even crisis?) where those who struggle can go for answers or to witness the experience of a fellow traveller. But I believe he is. (I could write a whole post about Paul, if you’ll have me back.)

So where does this leave me? I cast my net far and wide now to read the religious experiences of others. Here are just two perspectives of those outside our faith tradition which have resonated with me:

“The whole aim of Paul and the early Church was not to tell men about Jesus Christ, but to introduce them to Jesus Christ, and his presence and his power. In the early days—as it should be now—Christianity was not an argument about a dead person, however great; it was an encounter with a living presence”

–William Barclay, The Mind of St Paul (1958) p.87

“Maybe there never was any love behind the universe. No creative intelligence that brought it into being in order to love it and be loved by it. Maybe it all just happened because it happened. An effect without a cause. Nevertheless, in time love also happened. Another effect without a cause? Who cares? Wherever it came from, it is the most beautiful and revolutionary force in human history. And it asks each of us a question. Jesus posed it long before Auden, but Auden’s version will do: why can’t the more loving one be me? I am a Christian because this is the story I try to live by. I am not suggesting that this way of following Jesus should convince you or anyone else. I am no longer in the convincing business. It’s just that this is the story I now try feebly to live by. And that makes me a Christian. It’s just that I am a Christian without God. I follow Jesus etsi deus non daretur

–Richard Holloway, Stories We Tell Ourselves (2020) pp.225-6

Are these approaches at opposite ends of the Christian spectrum?Does it have to be one or the other? Can it be a bit of both and everything in between? Our religious lives ebb and flow and overlap. I know that Marcus Borg’s book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Timehas been referenced in previous posts. I look forward to reading it and am excited to find out which Jesus I personally meet, whetherit’s the historical Jesus of Nazareth or the theological Jesus the Christ. Regardless, the ideas at the heart of the Christian message, ideas of love, forgiveness and redemption, healing and reconciliation, still resonate deeply for me. If God is just a projection of us and our relationships with one another, then these concepts still hold.

This post has been full of questions. And that isn’t by accident. I am a ‘more-questions-than-answers’ kind of person now. This has been good spiritual therapy for me. I’m beginning to realise that transitioning away from an institution and faith tradition after nearly 40 years will carry with it an awful lot of religious baggage: the question is, do I start unpacking some of my baggage now, at this waystation, as I rest for a time on my journey? Or do I wait until I feel more settled? But unpack I will need to do.

Here are some more questions to get you thinking. I would dearly love to read your thoughts:

  • What have you done with Jesus in your own personal faith journey? Have your experiences brought you closer, taken you further away, or redefined your relationship in some other way?
  • The core values of the message of Jesus are not unique to Christianity. But what does Christianity’sperspective on these things bring to the table? What damage does it do?
  • Do you think that Jesus and religion in general has a positive role to play in society today? If so, why? If not, why not?