Why I Am a Christian: Reflections on a Conversation

“I just can’t get over it,” my friend didn’t mind speaking plainly. “I just can’t help but feel you’re better than that—I mean, you’re so smart.” He was referring to my attachment to Jesus. He didn’t seem to care about offending me, which was lucky in that I wasn’t in the least and was just as glad for the candor. Whether it’s that I’m sufficiently secure in my convictions or that I’m just used to the idea of being a curiosity, like an antiquity which does not show its age and so somehow seems like it passed through time, an out-of-place relic, I don’t object to the incredulity. Though I do struggle to respond to it. I enjoy as much as anyone being an anomaly that troubles a mind, but to make something of it . . . How does one make an account to him who has relegated one as unaccountable from the first? All of my years among evangelicals have meant to prepare me for this, yet I find myself always improvising, always off-script and often at odds with myself.

As a part of the issue, I can’t but think back to an earlier moment in our conversation, when he asked, with all openness and sincerity, “What happens to atheists when they die? I mean, I know there’s all kinds of Christians, but what do you think?” Now, Jesus has generally taught me better than to answer a question directly, yet I did take the bait inasmuch as I could think to offer, inasmuch as I thought was important, a treasured quote from the film Calvary: “God is great. The limits of his mercy have not been set.” I gave one or two other such dodges, as frankly they were, which satisfied neither him nor me, and the conversation shifted away as quickly as it came. But here is what is true behind those evasions and what is very much true for me: I don’t care. I hardly ever have.

I am a fundamentally a Christian materialist. This may be an odd profession to make on a blog about Christian spirituality, but here is as much as anything a space in which I challenge myself in my inclinations toward mysticism and hold in tension my explorations of faith with my sense of security in the material and theoretical and academic worlds. I desire to grow in contemplative prayer and experience; I seek interior freedom and a deepening of my desires toward the divine; I long to know my sufferings as a mystical sharing in the sufferings of Christ. But at the bedrock of these ‘out there’ aspirations, at the core of my faith and the answer to why as a free-thinking intellectual I am a Christian, is materialism, is politics. And it is verified in that, in the times that my faith has utterly failed me, it is this foundation that I fall upon and break against and rise again therefrom.

I am a Christian because I think that Jesus the Messiah of Israel is the best hope for the world. Not merely to save souls (as though this were mere) but to set the world right, to secure and maintain peace, to restore the victim and the perpetrator, to govern with a justice that does not oppress and to grant freedom that does not enslave one to oneself. Even in recent years when I have fully doubted the goodness of Gød the Father and when I have doubted the presence of the Holy Spirit, when I have doubted my own ability and even more the grace to enable me, I have been unable to doubt the fitness of the Jesus I read about to rule the universe. Even when I have not known what all to make of the Cross theologically, as a magical totem or a metaphysical conduit, I have known for myself the goodness of the cruciform (the Cross-shaped) way, the disinheriting of power that Jesus embraced, the prerequisite of inheriting power. I am in the fullest of conviction, still precisely when I am in the deepest of my spiritual doubts and when I cannot muster the willingness to pray, when I can hardly be called a Christian as any pagan or fundamentalist would know it, that every king and prime minister and general has been deposed by the very notion that is recorded in the gospels. And it is to this ideal, as to the man I met in Matthew’s gospel 12 years ago, that I know even then that I would give my life, believing in nothing else.

I love Jesus dearly. I need Jesus perhaps, probably, even more. And I thank the Father daily and seek to know the Spirit more since, yes, I do believe in my best moments that through the power, will and love of the Trinity we may heal the sick and raise the dead and be saved from eternal places too far beyond my purview to care about. But after so much life, I am not a Christian for such reasons. Perhaps one day I can say as much. Perhaps one day I can say that I am a Christian simply because I love Jesus, personally. But now, as I speak to such friends as my friend and reflect on the fragility of my love and the greatness of Christ, I can mostly know that love as it takes the shape of a cross, which I believe redeems a violent world through absolute subversion. For as I think on this worthiness to rule, my admiration is stirred up into love, and my love at times makes me bold, and this boldness inspires me to pray to One who does not speak with sounds and to feel myself in One who does not hold with hands; my love finds me asking for wisdom, praying for healing, listening to divine Scripture as though a living word of Gød. At this the skeptics marvel, and I marvel too. For that love of the Cross makes me a Christian.

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