Liberated from religion and waiting for reality at a manger that remains empty
It strikes me as giving up steak for sugar-free, unflavored cotton candy, or giving up Guinness for the lite-est of lite beers, or having mastered chess whiling away the hours playing tic-tac-toe. You gain something, I suppose, but the thing you gain is freedom from substance and the demands anything of substance puts on you. You also lose all the pleasures of substance. You give up the richness of Guinness for urine-colored water.
I’m thinking of the modern narrative of liberation from religion. I’ll be making a point about Advent, in case you’re wondering.
The Huffington Post’s religion pages love the modern narrative of freedom from oppressive religion, and their readers clearly do also. The writer, usually in his twenties or thirties, saw through traditional Christianity and freed himself. This I can understand. “I’m not putting up with this any more” may be justified or not, but it’s a normal human impulse. It may often be admirable.
What I can’t understand is how happy they are with where they wound up, because they almost never wind up anywhere. They simply find themselves “not there.” The language they use is completely open-ended. You could never tie it to any reality you could recognize.
You can find thousands of these stories on the web, and probably hundreds on the Huffington Post website alone, but the one that sparked these thoughts was titled My Emancipation From American Christianity, by a “pastor and writer” named John Pavlovitz. “I have simply outgrown American Christianity,” he says.
In a kind of litany typical of this kind of writing, he explains: “I’ve outgrown the snarling brimstone preaching that brokers in damnation,” “I’ve outgrown God wrapped in a flag and soaked in rabid nationalism … the vile war rhetoric that continually demands an encroaching enemy … violent bigotry and xenophobia disguised as biblical obedience … the incessant attacks on the gay, Muslim and atheist communities,” and so on. Of course he’s outgrown God-in-a-box, because they always outgrow God-in-a-box.
It seems to me that even had he experienced the kind of Christianity he described, and I have my doubts, he’s throwing out the baby with the bathwater. But I understand the impulse. It’s where he wants to go that leaves me baffled. I am, he says,
creating distance between me and a system that can no longer accommodate the scale of my God and the scope of my aspirations. Jesus said that the Spirit moves where it pleases, and with it go those in its glorious grip. In my heart and in the hearts of so many like me, that Spirit is boldly declaring its emancipation from the small, heavily guarded space that wants to contain it, and taking us out into the wide, breathtaking expanses of unfettered faith. Every day people tell me that this great releasing is happening within them too; that they are finding freedom beyond the building and the box, and rediscovering a God right sized.
That “right sized” God must have a lot to do with it, since the newly liberated one gets to decide how big (or small) God should be, and what could be more useful than that? If only we had the same ability to right-size our children and our friends.
This is where the liberated lose me. I think — and this was true of my experience as a not instinctively religious youth — you seek freedom to find something more real and truer than you had. Except in the rare occasions when you simply have to escape, you shouldn’t go anywhere unless you want to get somewhere. Chesterton wrote of his friend H. G. Wells: “I think he thought that the object of opening the mind is simply opening the mind. Whereas I am incurably convinced that the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”
To get to the point, you move to find a baby in a manger. If Christians are bad examples, and most of us are, Christianity still shows us the fundamental things, from sin you can’t ever shake to the sacrifice God made to heal you. You can’t get realer than the Incarnation. As the Anglican poet John Betjeman ended his poem about walking around London just before Christmas:
And is it true, This most tremendous tale of all, Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue, A Baby in an ox’s stall ? The Maker of the stars and sea Become a Child on earth for me ?
If it’s true, he writes, nothing of the usual Christmas spirit matters.
… No love that in a family dwells, No carolling in frosty air, Nor all the steeple-shaking bells Can with this single Truth compare — That God was man in Palestine And lives today in Bread and Wine.
And if that’s true, then the moral order he created, and what his people did, and what his prophets said, and what his disciples said and did, and what his Church has said and done — that all matters too. And leads us to many of the things from which the liberation story seeks liberation.
Advent points us not to “wide, breathtaking expanses,” whatever that means, but to reality. It expresses the emptiness about to be filled. It’s the season of waiting for substance. It’s like sitting at your dining room table on a day you’d skipped breakfast and lunch, smelling the cooking meat and the roasting vegetables and the pie in the oven, and hearing from the kitchen the noises of someone putting meat on platters and filling bowls and pulling corks from wine bottles. Just a few minutes more and you’ll be feasting with family and friends.
And the great thing? That God became man means God put himself in a box.