Renewing Our Native Religion

While discussing faith with my friend Jonathan McRay awhile back he sent me this quote from Wendell Berry:
[T]here are an enormous number of people--and I am one of them--whose native religion, for better or worse, is Christianity. We were born to it; we began to learn about it before we became conscious; it is, whatever we think of it, an intimate belonging of our being; it informs our consciousness, our language, and our dreams. We can turn away from it or against it, but that will only bind us tightly to a reduced version of it. A better possibility is that this, our native religion, should survive and renew itself so that it may become as largely and truly instructive as we need it to be. 
I shared with Jonathan that I've only just begun to understand what Berry is talking about here, this embrace and renewal of Christianity, my native religion that informs my consciousness, language and dreams.

I think many of us are in an in between place with Christianity. Something needs to give. Should we stay or go? Obviously, everyone has to make their own choices. For my part, I've found wisdom in what Berry is saying here.

A lot of people who have decided to leave the faith are still, for lack of a better word, shadow Christians, still haunted by God. In the words of Flannery O'Connor, Jesus remains for many this wild, ragged figure moving from tree to tree in the back their minds.

But for others the "better possibility" has been for us to intentionally step out of the liminal space, away from the cognitive dissonance, to invest in, cultivate, and renew our native religion.

As I argue it in The Authenticity of Faith I think the cultivation of doubt is ethically important. Doubt creates an openness of heart which is a prerequisite of love. But that openness only creates a potentiality, it is not enough to pull you forward into greater love, mercy, gentleness, grace, peace and joy.

From doubt you either move away from the faith or toward renewal. This is the choice facing many progressive Christians today.

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14 thoughts on “Renewing Our Native Religion”

  1. Absolutely amazing that you have put what has been happening to me, into words. Thanks again. This is something that I will have to read several times. I'm also glad to see you quote Wendell Berry. I think he's a powerful voice that has mostly gone unheard, at least among the Christians that I read.

  2. This is such an interesting quote--a perspective that rings true. My husband and I (both raised in various Christian traditions) were very much into the fundamentalist type of evangelicalism for about the first 15 years of our marriage. I believe throughout that time we both experienced that "cognitive dissonance." He chose to leave it behind--or perhaps he felt he had no choice. While I, after taking inventory and purging much, have found a way to move forward, with the help of courageous others (you and George MacDonald come to mind) who have helped me to focus in on the beauty, truth, and goodness that is found in Christ and a vision of the Father that is quite wonderful. I have hope that one day my husband will join me--thanks to this new perspective that allows for a true and conquering goodness of God.

  3. I think I've had my time as a "shadow Christian," and now I'm hoping for that "better possibility" you describe. Thank you for the encouragement...

  4. It does ring true. And there's an element of "after having invested nearly 50 years of my life in my native religion, allowing it to inform my life and choices and perspectives, I'm not sure I could leave it behind even if I made a conscious choice to do so."

  5. Love this quote. I found the same thing. In a talk I attended with Nadia Bolz-Weber she talked about how she just couldn't 'pull off' atheism. I understood what she meant. Kudos to those who can and do. It is a lot to overcome. I also remember Reza Aslan's quote "I'm a person of faith, and the language that I use to define my faith, the symbols and metaphors that I rely upon to express my faith, are those provided by Islam because they make the most sense to me." I think elsewhere he discusses that is so because that was the faith he was raised in.

    I am interested in the part of the quote that says turning against it 'will only bind us tightly to a reduced version of it." Can you explain what that means to you?

  6. I think various forms of a/theism can been viewed as a "reduced version" of Christianity. For example, I think something like "giving up God for Lent" is only going to get you so far down the path toward being like Jesus.

    To be clear, as I mentioned in the post, the cultivation of doubt is critical for many. For them something "giving up God for Lent" may be critically important. Such a practice might help open your heart to Others. Especially if you're coming out of toxic forms of dogmatism and fundamentalism.

    But once you've been through all that you need to shift toward renewal. Concretely, I'd suggest that you stop "giving up God for Lent" and start, say, practicing the Works of Mercy during Lent.

  7. Thank you, Richard.

    Berry writes: “Especially among Christians in positions of wealth and power, the idea of reading the Gospels and keeping Jesus’ commandments … has been replaced by a curious process of logic. According to this process, people first declare themselves to be followers of Christ, and then they assume that whatever they say or do merits the adjective ‘Christian’.”

    So we should note well that, for Berry, this “renewal” of Christianity - this "better possibility" - will involve, inter alia, repentance for environmental exploitation and destruction, arms-dealing and war-making, a deregulated market economy that shafts the poor, the contamination of faith by nationalism, systemic racism, capital punishment, homophobia …

    Now you know the worst [Berry begins a poem to his granddaughters]
    we humans have to know
    about ourselves, and I am sorry,

    There is no answer
    but loving one another,
    even our enemies, and this is hard.

    But [in “A Vision”]:
    … This is no paradisal dream.
    Its hardship is its possibility.

  8. For me the sad part is that the many people I know who do doubt and leave find themselves going at it all alone. Faith communities tend to enjoy you more when you have faith, not when your uncertain about it and doubt isn't often a welcome small group topic. One day while reading Matthew 28 a verse just lept out at me. Its verse 17, "When they saw Him, they worshiped him; but some were doubtful". These guys had walked 3 years with Jesus, the last 40 days with a risen Jesus and still within those 11 there was doubt. What I thought was cool about the verse was how we don't read that Jesus halted His dissapearance in order to have another bible study in order to get rid of the doubt. It doesn't even seem to bother Him, He just encourages them to "GO" and then He goes. If God isn't bothered by our doubt/waviering then why do we get so bothered by it?

  9. Permit me to go off on a slight tangent. While what Berry says is true of people who are raised within the Christian faith, this doesn't necessarily transfer to the next generation. Being raised in a devout Christian culture (or sub-culture) marks you for life, but it doesn't mark your kids, unless you raise them in the same kind of culture. They won't necessarily be haunted by God. This is why I wonder if more open and less forcefully insistent forms of Christianity can put that kind of stamp on a person's consciousness.

  10. The issue of kids is interesting. I know quite a few people who have walked away from organized Christianity but then they had kids and faced a dilemma.

    On the one hand, if the parents don't take their kids to church there would be this huge disjoint between them. A whole world of experiences that wouldn't be shared between parents and children. So there is a desire to return to the church "for kids." But not necessary for the spiritual aspects but, rather, so that the parents and children would have a shared culture.

    But on the other hand, this seems like an odd reason to go back to church--to have your children share in a culture that formed you but a culture you've walked away from. Especially since the lame or toxic things that caused you to leave church haven't gone away and you'd be exposing your kids to them.

    So it's a weird thing. You want your kids to experience all the good things about church that formed you deeply. More deeply than perhaps anything else. And yet, its something you've walked away from and your kids won't ever know this deep part of you.

  11. "From doubt you either move away from the faith or toward renewal. This is the choice facing many progressive Christians today." --- I would contend there is a 3rd option: a movement toward institutionalized legalism, with a Rule Book Theology. They become Godslingers.

  12. Well, there are a lot of people who aren't thoroughly hostile; they're just ambivalent. Growing up in a fundamentalist or very conservative church is a very intense experiences. Those symbols, metaphors, stories and practices do something to you, especially when those things are as forcefully imprinted on you as they are in many religious communities. They really get their hooks in and you can never completely walk away. But just because you can't walk away doesn't mean you necessarily like all the stuff about your upbringing. So, you try to pass on the good things to your kids, without the bad stuff. You go to a progressive church or a conservative-lite church, where you hope you hope your kids will forge that same kind of intense bond, but without the stuff you don't like. But does that new kind of upbringing forge the same kind of intense bond that the often hothouse environment of fundamentalist churches does?

    The problem may be though that the stuff they like about their upbringing may be irretrievably bound up with the things they don't like about it. It's like Bruce Springsteen trying to raise his kids in the same blue collar culture he grew up in. To actually do that though, he'd basically have to dump his kids off in New Jersey to struggle on their own. Driving them around the docks and the old neighbourhood a few times a year ain't going to cut it. The bad things about New Jersey blue collar life were what made the culture it was.

    I'm not sure though that shared culture is what brings these people back to churches, nor am I sure that the cultural reasons can be separated from religious reasons.

  13. Interesting discussion. What I find fascinating is our craving to be decisive--to know one way or another what's true...or even what we believe.

    More and more, I'm becoming a fan of embracing uncertainty. To know that I don't know, and come to terms with it without much existential angst.

    I suppose I would consider myself a native Christian. Many things give me doubts. There are many things I don't understand. But I won't walk away, because I don't really feel the need to. I don't feel compelled to make that decision. I'm content to live in the unknown. Is there an existential/theological name for that?

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