Monday, August 19, 2013

Christianity: Just Do It

I am so exhausted right now, but sometimes I do my best writing when my brain can't rethink things a thousand times.

Which is just the sort of thing on my mind right now.

I recall clearly being a 14-year-old Lutheran. I had been confirmed, which meant I was now an adult member of the church, and in the process of being confirmed I had studied and learned all of Luther's Small Catechism, and memorized big chunks of Scripture, too. I had started Lutheran high school, where I memorized more chunks of Scripture and was busy studying the Old Testament. I had this terrible feeling that I had learned everything there was to know about God.

Now, of course, that was silly. And yet as I went on through high school I easily earned As (and even A+s) in religion class as I slammed down hundreds of memory verses and remembered obscure details from the gospels and Paul's epistles for the pop quizzes we had. I even impressed my teacher with doctrinal debates in the 11th grade class that was the reason I had wanted to go to that Lutheran school in the first place. (Well, besides that boy I had a crush on...) Even in college Religion classes (for some reason, Lutherans have a bugaboo about using the term theology) it seemed that I was never to really rise to any level of significant intellectual challenge. It was terribly frustrating.

There was one thing that niggled at me from Scripture, and that was this idea -- get that, it certainly was an idea to me at the time -- that Christianity was supposed to be experiential. Even back in my confirmation days, I had this sense that I wanted to find someone who could teach me not that what, but the how of Christianity.

My trek through the charismatic movement awakened me to experiencing God, and my introduction to Catholicism made me realize that the mind truly could be satisfied with something significant to chew on that was consistent, coherent, beautiful and true.

But there's been a certain poison that has stayed with me from my very early Christian days that always whispered that learning more about God was an intellectual pursuit.

Now, as a graduate theology student I came to see that obscure points of theology, like the precise definition of the perpetual virginity of Mary, do actually speak significantly to our lived experience. I could always intuit that kind of thing. But I also know that intellectual types have a way-over-fondness for debating fine points in such a way that makes almost everyone else stand on the outside either feeling stupid and inferior, or being put right off this whole faith in God business in the first place.

And that was me. I was "tight with God" and everyone else was stupid, or without knowing it I was poisoning their hearts against God.

Except I wasn't tight with God at all. I was tight with my love of intellectual pursuit.

There's nothing inherently wrong with being an intellectual, except that pride seems much easier to come by the smarter one is. And no one can really like a proud person, because no one is allowed access. So you also get lonely. Which you tend to hide with more pride until you can't stand it anymore.

But here's the thing that finally makes all the sense in the world: the real way we "learn" about God is not in our heads but in our lives. In experiences. In encountering Him, when He breaks through that pride and our loneliness. It is the how of living with God, and it was so important to Him that we know it that He sent His Son Jesus to walk this earth, to live, to share life with others, to suffer in the mundane, and to make of Himself a holocaust.

I had a list of theological reasons as a Lutheran why living like Jesus did was not important, not necessary, not possible, not advisable. But then there's that pesky 1 John 2:6, "Whoever claims to live in God must live as Jesus lived." This has nothing to do with earning God's favor. We have God's favor, whether we are able to accept that or not. But the point is that when we encounter God, He wants to mess with our lives. He wants to say "Watch me. I'm going to show you what to do -- and how." He is after our hearts, which is where our choices and our actions start. I always had this sense as a pre-Catholic that real Catholics had this aura about them of doing habitual good. To this day I can catch a glimpse in some people, sort of like a waft of perfume going past me, of this goodness, this imitation of Christ, this reality of Christ living through them.

Real Christianity is lived. It is a response, with one's life, to the God who comes to one.

Intellectual formation is good to the extent that it helps us live holier lives. If it makes you an obnoxious, arrogant so-and-so, it is far better to put the books away and wash feet for awhile.

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