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The Essence of Faith

At a storefront church in the small city where I used to live, dancing, drinking, and smoking were forbidden to members. Dating was closely supervised. Women could not wear nylon stockings, as that would be too worldly, and instead wore white socks with their below-the-knee skirts (a look I envied, since I never liked nylon stockings). Members attended long church services on Sunday mornings, again on Sunday evenings, and again on Wednesday evenings. I visited a Wednesday evening service once with a neighbor, after enjoying a pleasant afternoon talking and drinking coffee with her (the first coffee I learned to drink: Bustelo coffee made with hot milk and lots of sugar). At the church service, I learned that while secular rock music was forbidden, electric guitars, drums and amplifiers were a welcome and important element of the Wednesday night service, and lively music played throughout the evening. I joined in singing in my somewhat-limited Spanish and felt welcomed by a strong sense of community. It was a lovely evening, and I came away with respect for the church and its healthy, growing immigrant community.

More recently, I went with my daughter and others from my church to a day-long service event in observation of Martin Luther King Day. Over one hundred participants from various churches fanned out across the city in groups to do small projects in support of homeless shelters, food pantries and other programs. The day was launched with speakers and music that celebrated the civil rights and social justice message of Martin Luther King, with particular delight that during the coming week the first African-American U.S. President would be inaugurated, an exciting step toward the fulfillment of King's dream.

Religion is easily linked to moral, social and political messages. These messages are often positive, ranging from the traditional values taught by an immigrant storefront church to the social justice values promoted by progressive churches.

I was first drawn to faith by my earliest interest in "making the world a better place." In my early teens, I was drawn to the idea of a "doing-good-things" Sermon-on-the-Mount faith and lifestyle and have stayed interested ever since.

But religious messages may also be not-so-positive. Good intentions may lead to harmful results, such as if a church supports stable marriages and families through its doctrine and practice, but uses this doctrine to exclude people who are gay, or divorced, or single parents, or otherwise nontraditional. Or, for example, if a church promotes loyalty and patriotism as positive values, it may encourage the unthinking support of public policies that are wrong. And sometimes, wrong actions don't even stem from good intentions. There are many times when terrible things are done in the name of religion, and, if asked to explain, religious people have to apologize, explaining that some people attach intolerance, power, control or nationalism to religion, when those really are not part of our religious tradition at all.

I am interested in detaching religion from the many things that people attach to it and understanding the essence of Christian faith.

I have come to believe in an evolutionary view of religion, believing that the history of religion is the story of how people have worked to learn to understand God, creation, justice and faith. Through reading the Old Testament prophets and stories, I have noticed that themes of mercy and peacemaking arrived later in religious history, following after themes of law and judgment, reflecting an evolution from early understandings of God to more mature understandings of God. But I also realize that the direction of religious history is not always forward, that it is not always a clear evolution from early, primitive faith to advanced, mature faith. Instead, religious history also cycles or spirals among themes, belief in God as a mystery or God as a law-giver; God as a powerful creator or God as a personal friend; God who calls you to personal fulfillment or God who calls you to work for justice.

There are certain things that I associate with faith, including living with integrity, pursuing social justice, promoting tolerance, preserving the environment. I view God as not only creator but also a personal God, present in our lives, enabling us to live a positive life. I think that my views are a positive expression of Christianity. But can I know whether my views reflect the essence of Christianity, or reflect just more examples of what people "attach" to their religion.

Christianity - timeless - but attached to so many cultures and eras of history - draws on a tradition of both dramatic revelations and quiet discovery, and suggests we can continue to discover many layers of meaning about the essence of our faith .

February 2009