This I Believe: To Believe in God is to Believe in People
When we study literature, especially poetry, I always teach my students about denotation and connotation. The denotation of the word is what it actually means-if you look it up in the dictionary, you will find a precise definition of the word along with where it came from and other uses. The connotation of a word is what it actually means to us. The connotation of the word evolves and is defined over time through usage and through cultural applications of the word. Normally, the connotation of a word allows for a lot more possibility than the original definition. For example, “gay” used to just mean happy – now it has a different meaning for most people, one that encompasses a lot more. For me, “Christian” is a word that has evolved quite a bit.
I grew up with very religious (Southern Baptist) grandparents, and my first understanding of what it meant to be a Christian came from them. My mom was not too strict about taking us to church, but whenever we stayed with my mom’s parents, we did the whole thing: Sunday School, morning worship, Sunday evening services, and Wednesday night prayer services. Mostly being a good Christian meant being still and quiet in church so my grandmother didn’t get upset. My grandfather sang in the choir, so he didn’t really sit with us. If we were good, we could have gum. I never really considered church that much when I wasn’t with my grandparents – until high school. When I was in 8th grade, my stepfather got assigned to Andrews Air Force Base in Camp Springs, Maryland. After learning that the schools in Prince George’s County weren’t too highly regarded, our parents decided to put us in private school, a religious school. Having gone to public school all my life, it was quite an adjustment.
Since I was a small child when I went to church with my grandparents, I really learned what Christianity was about in high school. Through a consistent Bible-tinted filter, we were taught basic subjects and how we were supposed to view the world. We attended chapel sermons a few times a week. We had an active youth group, and we were strongly encouraged to attend church every Sunday. I did go to church – first at my school and then at another church down the road. Initially, I was drawn to the compassionate message of Christianity: that God is love, that he made the world for us, that he died for us – and that we should spread that message to others. I loved coming together to worship. But we were also inundated with the messages that hell awaits us with fire and suffering. There is no such thing as a good person, only sinners who need redemption. Nothing you can do in this life is good enough to save your soul. And weirdly, it is a sin to vote for the wrong person. The longer I was involved, the more I began to notice that in church people judged other people based on their clothes and other superficial things. I learned that it was important to have the right costume, say the right things – as if being a good Christian was like acting a part in a play. I was totally immersed, and it gave me a somewhat hard view of the world – so much of the dialogue in church was “us against them” and what base creatures we humans are and what judgment awaits the world. But I was a full participant. I passed out literature to strangers in shopping malls inviting them to “Consider Eternity” and things like that. I shared my testimony with others, implored them to accept Jesus, and I even told people that I believed they would go to hell if they didn’t.
When I first went to a secular college and got out of the Bible Bubble I had lived in during my high school years, it was a culture shock to learn that other people didn’t see the world exactly as I did. I mean, what could they be thinking?? But it helped me to start to consider the things I had been taught and to consider what Christianity looks like from the outside.
Sometimes people ask me if I consider myself a Christian anymore. This is a hard question because of the connotation the word Christian has acquired and how my belief in God has evolved. I still believe in God, but I don’t believe what I grew up believing. My faith has gotten bigger than that. I think God is bigger than that. We are the ones who limit him because we are limited by language. When we can name something we understand it. We want so much to understand.
When it used to thunderstorm outside when I was a kid, my great grandmother said it was God moving furniture in heaven. She could have said that it was the sound made by the electrostatic charge of lightning, but she didn’t have that vocabulary. Instead, it was God moving furniture. It reminds me of Greek Mythology. The Greeks made up myths because myth is what we tell ourselves about our world so that our lives make sense. Rough seas mean Poseidon is restless. Thunder means Zeus is angry, etc. We do that too – we have given God a human face: a large, old white man with a beard. We do that so we can understand him. He’s a father. He cares for us. The Bible itself is full of metaphor – the King James Version of the Bible was transcribed by poets commissioned by King James I of England in 1611. It has come a long way from its original language. It’s fair to think that some things have been lost in those translations. Have you ever played the game of telephone? Whisper a phrase into one person’s ear in a group of people, and by the time it gets whispered around the room, even in a room of people who all speak the same language, it will be a different phrase, maybe even unrecognizable. How can we expect the Bible to remain the same through hundreds and hundreds of years, many different languages, and several translations? How can we cling to every word of it literally when we know poetry isn’t meant to be literal?
Today we have reduced Christianity to a set of political views on what we should be allowed to do with our bodies and our guns. I don’t see those things I was first drawn to: compassion and love. This is what I mean when I say that God is bigger than we have described him. We ourselves have created rules in God’s name, but we ignore some of the logical inconsistencies of those rules. Jesus said help the poor, but many people who claim to be Christians look at the poor as “moochers” who don’t deserve compassion. In the book of Matthew Chapter 7, Jesus said that we should not judge others – we are not worthy to do that, but there is a lot of judgment going around. We have created a framework that we are comfortable in, we use it to hide behind and condemn things (and people) we don’t understand or are afraid of. We have taken the poetry of men and made it our absolute North Star.
The word “Christian” has a decidedly un-poetic connotation now. Too often in today’s society, to be a Christian means to deny, to reject, and even to hate. It means being a part of a narrow political group or being proud of the things we don’t do, what we resist, and who we exclude – that is not something I want to be associated with. The sad thing is, the negativity is the result of the loud mouths of 1% of people who call themselves Christians. There are many Christians who aspire to live a life of love, peace, and tolerance. I know some wonderful Christians who don’t resemble the Mike Huckabee/Pat Robertson/Duggar Family mainstream connotation of that word at all. But their message is not the one that gets played and replayed. I want to be associated with a way of believing that measures goodness by what we embrace, what we create, and who we include.
These days, I guess I prefer to think of myself as a spiritual person. Our faith matters because what we believe is a fundamental part of our identity and self-concept. Our religion is a public profession, a badge of courage that announces what we value and what we live for. I don’t belong to any particular denomination and I accept that there are more possibilities than I was originally taught. To be a spiritual person is to let things into my world, not leave things out. I do believe in God, but this is what I believe: to believe in God is to believe in good. To believe in God is to believe in people, to choose to believe that people have the capacity to do and be good, not believe that people are inherently bad or that those who are different should be feared and shunned. To believe in God is to believe in what is possible. In that way, maybe there is some poetry in the idea if we can, as Emily Dickinson wrote, learn to “dwell in possibility / a fairer house than prose.”
© 2015 Ryna May