Today I was baptized and joined the Mennonite Church. I imagine this might surprise some of you for various reasons, so let me provide a bit of background.
I’ve had a lot of people, both in person and in comments responding to my blog post, express surprise with statements I have made. The view of Christianity that many people have is of a group that devalues scientific inquiry and places a lot of emphasis on things like opposition to gay marriage, evolution, and abortion, and enjoys political leaders that say “bring it on.”
While I know some Christians that fall into that mold, there are quite a few that don’t as well. Some churches, such as the one I attend, have a surprisingly diverse set of people and yet still function and get along well.
Today they accepted me with joy. Nobody was concerned that I started my statement with a reference to ancient Greek philosophy, wound up suggesting that the church ought to make sure to make illegal immigrants, gays and lesbians, and prostitutes feel welcome, and embraced both religion and scientific inquiry, feeling them complimentary.
Mennonites practice adult baptism rather than infant baptism. A traditional age for people to be baptized is during high school, though emphasis is placed more on the individual than their age, so it’s not unheard-of for someone to do so a bit later in life as I have.
Part of the baptism involves the candidate sharing their faith story. These are typically intensely personal, widely varied, heartfelt, and honest. Some people’s stories involve struggles with depression, physical disabilities, or the place of religion in their lives, while others reflect little struggle at all. Mine involves letting go of a lot of things, and also seeing some things, such as serious intellectual inquiry or existential questions about God (such as “is there a god?”), as a positive rather than a negative feature of a Christian life. But it also involves a recognition and deep respect for those that don’t approach things in this way.
Though given publicly in a church, baptism testimonies are rarely published or shared more broadly. But I’m going to share mine here. I have edited it only very lightly to remove a few local references that wouldn’t make sense out of the context of this community. This was delivered in front of a rather different audience than is likely to be reading this post, so if you have questions, do feel free to ask in the comments.
May 22, 2011
Those of you that know me well will probably not be surprised that I will begin my Christian baptism testimony with a story about an ancient Greek philosopher, and also touch on the philosophical nature of truth. These are key parts of my story.
As legend goes, Socrates famously said, “I know that I know nothing” — in other words, he believed that nothing could be known with absolute certainty. The Greek Oracle — thought to be infallibly wise — said that Socrates, the man that thought he knew nothing, was the wisest man in all Athens. An interesting paradox, and one that sheds light on my own religious story. My story involves coming to grips with the understanding that I know very little, that no person can ultimately know much about God, and finding a way to make peace with that situation.
Growing up in this community, I thought I knew some things about faith and Christianity. At a certain age, it all seemed so simple. We took the Bible to be literally true. We marveled in Sunday School at how the apostles could sometimes appear so blind. And, modeled both implicitly and explicitly, was this notion: the stronger our faith, the fewer inner questions or doubt we have about the nature of God, the literal accuracy of the entire Bible, or our relationship to God. Those I perceived held up as examples never seemed to question any of these things, and showed — outwardly, at least — complete certainty about them. Moreover, holding certain intellectual beliefs was key to Christian identity, and even more importantly, to eternal life.
This model has quite obviously worked well for many people for many years. The good that has happened, and continues to happen, from people that have that kind of certainty is manifest all around us. And yet, it didn’t seem to work out for me.
I’m not the kind of person that accepts a lot of things at face value. It is helpful to be able to examine and challenge ideas — and even more helpful to have other people challenge my ideas. From well before I was in high school, I was questioning some things about the Bible, God, and religion in general. My thoughts ranged from the impact of evolution on religion to the apparently vengeful God of the Old Testament to the very existence of God. In the Christian context, I perceived having these questions as a personal failing, something that I ought to repress.
The more I tried to repress them, the more troublesome they became. Why, for instance, should a loving merciful God decide whether to let us into heaven based on whether we hold certain intellectual beliefs?
In high school, I participated in the catechism class here at this church, and was frustrated because it didn’t tackle deeper meanings or the kinds of questions I had. I wasn’t yet able to articulate all my thoughts and questions very well, and I probably had an overactive case of teenage cynicism. As a result, I didn’t get baptized like most others my age did. As I learned more about the early history of Judaism and Christianity, I only found more reasons to question the model of faith I thought I had received — the one in which Biblical literalism and a “divine guarantee” of sorts was key.
More recently, I gradually became aware that the model of Christianity I had in mind was one of many views. Christians, Mennonites, and even this church are incredibly diverse groups, and in retrospect, I am surprised that it took me so long to realize this. Three major steps led me to baptism.
The first step was the realization that, whatever our understanding of the literal accuracy of the Bible, literal truth is often inferior to metaphorical truth. As an example, many of us have read the works of Shakespeare. They are fictional, but the reason they have been revered for so many centuries is that they are true. They teach us things about ourselves and our world in a way that no history book can.
By placing such an emphasis on literal truth in the Bible, I was missing out on the message right there for me. By concerning myself with creationism or evolution, I missed out on thinking about what the story in Genesis meant for the Jews, and what it could mean for me. Evolution ceased to be a threat to religion; it became simply a tool for learning about a different sort of truth than we get from religion.
N. T. Wright mentions an incident that illustrates this point. A person attending a religious conference asked the speaker, a prominent theologian, “Is it true that the serpent in Genesis actually spoke like you and I speak?” The theologian answered, “It doesn’t matter whether the serpent could speak. What matters is what the serpent said.”
The second step I took towards being baptized was realizing where the real core of Christianity lies. It’s not some debate about Genesis, but rather the death to one’s old self, and the rebirth and continual remaking of oneself in the example of Jesus. Given that, a lot of questions seem unimportant or even irrelevant. Good can be expressed in many ways, and if one person achieves a remarkably Christian life via a literal understanding of the Bible, and another via a more metaphorical reading, then it is my place only to affirm both and say that they both got it right. If we say that the task of remaking ourselves is like climbing a mountain, then what matters is not how we are climbing the mountain, but simply that we are climbing it.
I used to equate faith with an intellectual belief. I have come to see that was a narrow view. Faith, to me now, is more about vision: do we see the world like Christ did? Where do our loyalties and our trust lie — in God or in human institutions? What are our goals in life?
We humans have failed to understand God, and probably always will. I too share in that incomplete understanding, but I have come to accept that it is OK. I know enough to know that I want my loyalty to lie in Jesus, to know what kind of vision of the world I want to have, and I have learned to accept that intellectual questions can even be a form of meditation, enlightenment, and prayer.
The third step toward baptism was moving past my own shortcomings. For a long time, I thought I didn’t believe the right things, didn’t believe them strong enough, wasn’t certain enough about God, didn’t pray enough, didn’t read enough, didn’t understand enough, didn’t love enough — and ultimately, that I wasn’t good enough. I request baptism today understanding that, despite the various imperfections I still have, and we all have, everyone is good enough and deserving of love and peace. God’s love is for everyone. No exceptions!
Following Jesus boils down to this: I too must be an agent of love and peace to everyone, without exception. My vision must be centered around the fact that we are to emulate the God that loves the entire world, sinners all, and therefore I should as well. I hope I can show others the kind of love that has been shown me.
I hope, too, to share with this congregation and the global church in the vision of love. I hope that we can continually strive to re-focus on Christ’s vision. As an example, we all know that many different viewpoints about whether homosexuality is sinful exist in Mennonite Church USA. These opinions are deeply held and personal for many, and have been discussed over and over and over. But ultimately, they aren’t terribly relevant to the church’s mission. The example of Jesus unites us all: he embraced everyone. He accepted criminals and prostitutes and showed them love and kindness. Our difficult task, which is also my difficult task, is to show this same love to absolutely everyone, regardless of our varying opinions about them and their conduct. The forgotten and repressed of our day — perhaps criminals, homeless, Muslims, addicts, gays and lesbians, illegal immigrants, ethnic minorities, and still prostitutes — deserve the love of Christ’s church and all its members. My hope is that any one of the earth’s 7 billion people could step through the doors of our church, or any church, and immediately feel Christ’s love, and the unconditional, non-judgmental, welcome and love of Christ’s followers, no matter what.
This prayer from Ephesians 3 sums up my hope and my vision, for myself and everyone:
I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being. I pray that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ. And I pray that you will know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (3.16-19)