I have been a practicing Christian most of my adult life and to the extent I’ve been aligned with an institutional church, it has always been with a congregation of the progressive United Church of Christ. I often wonder why.
In a conversation with a new friend recently, she told me that she lost her Catholic faith when as a child her dog died, and the next day she asked a priest if dogs go to heaven. “Of course not,” the grumpy priest replied, and the woman, then very young, never went to church again.
(She added that a friend of hers told her that just recently the current Pope made a different claim, stating that animals can and do go to heaven.)
I’ve had my rebellions with my adopted church denomination, too. I originally chose the UCC while in college because I believed it allowed its adherents the maximum ability, and indeed responsibility, to arrive at “answers” through faith on their own. Having been exposed to fundamentalist religious strands that demanded loyalty to this or that creed or doctrine, I definitely preferred the UCC approach.
So, with no formal churching in my upbringing, I actually desired an adult baptism, at age 20, very unusual for UCC churches.
My initial experience that led me to seek that baptism came during my second year in college when I took a course in comparative religions. It was in the second semester, following a first semester devoted to a history of philosophy. In the religion class, we were exposed to all the great world religions, and I tried my mental hat on them all. Buddhism, Hinduism, Tao, Islam, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity — they all had a lot going for them, I thought as the class progressed.
For the final exam, we were all told to take a blue book into a carrel in the library and were given two hours to write an essay on which religion we most preferred and why. None of us expected this to be the assignment.
I remember vividly sitting there and thinking, and then beginning to write what I in no way would have predicted I might say. I chose Christianity and for what seemed the most unusual of reasons (at least to me). I chose it because it was the only one which did not try to conform its tenets to rational thought in the normal sense, but in its myths — stories of creation, the nativity and the resurrection — reached beyond the usual way of thinking with the astonishing proposition that the universe is governed by love.
I became so moved by my own words that they became more and more impassioned, and by the time I was done, I’d converted myself!
I subsequently became baptized and entered graduate theological seminary, where I graduated with honors, being the only New Testament major in my class. In seminary, I worked for three years as a youth minister at a UCC church in Oakland, Calif.
It’s easy to get discouraged by hateful and prejudiced fundamentalists who claim that Christianity is theirs. They’ve been so aggressive that it seems to many who still adhere to a more loving version of the faith that we almost need to ask permission of somebody to quote the Bible or recite the Lord’s Prayer.
For me, the points at which I tended to fall away from my church were when I felt it didn’t stand up strongly enough for social justice. The sermons of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were a source of great strength for addressing this.
Now, with a nation and world so torn by division and hate, my church is finding many, including many young adults, are wandering through its doors seeking an alternative, coming just as I did with no previous doctrinal religious exposure.
So I am feeling more emboldened than ever to claim the Biblical tradition for love and all that forms the basis to bind, and not separate, humanity on this planet.
The Bible presents a God who is far from perfect, but who is faithful to creation, and who issued it forth, including us, from the beginning by the power of love.
Nicholas Benton may be emailed at [email protected].