When I turned away from the religious ideology that I had been indoctrinated with as a child, I thought I was turning my back on and denying God. I have now discovered that what I was running from was Christian fundamentalism. Here is an excerpt from the final chapter of Philip Gulley’s book, The Evolution Of Faith: How God Is Creating A Better Christianity. It describes the journey that I am thankful to find myself on.
One central aspect of Christian fundamentalism is the intense promulgation of their message these past hundred years. Their message has been widely and passionately spread, permeating our culture, giving them the appearance of orthodoxy. While the worldview of progressive Christianity is deeply rooted in Judeo-Christian history, we have not kept pace with our conservative brethren in the effort to articulate our message. We don’t spend billions of dollars a year on radio and television programs to persuade people to join us. We don’t believe those who disagree with us are lost or condemned. We don’t send missionaries forth, encouraging people to abandon their spiritual heritage and embrace ours. We don’t believe the purpose of the state is to legislate or enforce our religious beliefs, nor do we believe societies are best served by rigidity of thought, whether it is religious or political. Though our convictions are rooted in Scripture, they have often been expressed by a minority voice, overshadowed by more authoritarian images of the Divine Presence. It has consequently been an easy matter for Christian fundamentalists to counter our images and insights with biblical examples of their own that reinforce divine judgment and wrath. It is no wonder so many people struggle to discern what it means to be Christian.
Though I have never seen a study verifying this, if anecdotal and experiential evidence can offer us any insight, it seems to me a great number of progressive Christians didn’t start that way. We grew up in religious traditions much more conventional than the ones in which we eventually settled. In my years of pastoring and writing, I have met many people who’ve said something along these lines: “I grew up in a fundamentalist home . . . ” They then describe their spiritual journeys to their present faith, which is invariably more progressive than their childhood faith. Again, there are exceptions to this observation, though I have noticed the trend often enough to suspect is is common.
Our earliest experiences are often deeply imprinted in our subconscious minds. This is no less true of our religious and spiritual experiences. Even though we chose to move beyond them, traces of them still linger, still exert an influence, and still inform our decisions and perceptions. I remember, in my early twenties, while in a headlong rush toward Christian fundamentalism, having an encounter with the Divine Presence that was at once exhilarating and frightening. It was exhilarating because it opened my life and mind to a different understanding of God, a God who loved far beyond the parameters of Christianity. But I was also frightened, because I couldn’t help but wonder, despite the beauty and grace of my encounter with the Divine, that I might be mistaken. In the faith of my childhood, the consequence of wrong thinking was dramatic – eternal damnation. When I eventually concluded that God was honored by my noblest thoughts, not my fears, my worries dissipated.
Perhaps as you’ve read this book, you’ve also experienced the mixed feelings of exhilaration and fear. The traditional views of God, Jesus, and self no longer resonate with you, nor are they consistent with your spiritual experiences. But even as you evolve toward what you perceive to be a better Christianity, your doubts and anxiety, wondering if your current course pleases God. Rest assured, God is always pleased by our determination to think high and noble thoughts. It is, of this I am convinced, impossible to think too generously of God. How often God has born our mean and narrow thoughts of her, how often God has struggled to move us beyond our miserly ideologies, which only belittle her character or reputation. How pleased God must be when our minds consider the broad expanse of God’s compassion, creative energy, and commitment to our evolution.
God is creating a better Christianity. God is doing it right now, through people just like you, who refuse to worship a cultural deity whose compassion extends no further than the horizon. While this better Christianity encompasses the priorities of Jesus, he has not been the only prophet to articulate its life-giving virtues. Indeed, I have found it wherever people live with dignity, grace, and compassion. Because this better Christianity is not mindful of boundaries, it has no special need to be linked to any one denomination or religion. It will happily bear the name of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, or one of any thousand possible names, for it gladly recognizes in others the Divine Presence common to us all. It labours not for its own proliferation, but for our spiritual and human evolution, and it will not rest until all are loved and all can love. It is hope eternal; it is grace unending. And God is creating it through you right now.