Rather more than a year ago, whilst I was applying to train as a lay minister, I was asked to write a brief account of “Why I Am A Christian”. I came across the document yesterday whilst looking for something else, and wondered how I might – or might not answer it differently now. Here’s what I wrote then, which (perhaps inevitably) involves some quibbling about the meaning of the word “why”…
Why I Am A Christian
In one sense, I’m a Christian because I believe certain things. I believe that the ultimate reality, which underpins everything we see around us, is God. That God is not an impersonal force, but loves and cares for us. That the historical human named Jesus revealed, in his teaching and in his death, something essential about the nature of God’s love, and therefore God’s self. Believing those things, though, is not a matter of simply agreeing when they are read out in church, or happening to think they are accurate descriptions of certain facts. It means trying to live those truths. It involves trying to act towards others, towards myself and towards the world “in the knowledge and love of God”.
That might mean considering the natural world as a gift to be cherished not a set of plunder to be exploited, or looking to find the image of God in every person I meet, or seeing injustice and deprivation as a failure of our collective response to God’s generosity. It should mean that these are not isolated issues or opinions for me, but part of a whole way of life in which I deliberately turn myself towards God and allow myself to be caught up into God’s continual, creative outpouring of life. I am not a Christian because I agree with enough of the same statements as other Christians to make it worth identifying myself with their set of facts. I call myself a Christian because I try to respond to the mystery and glory of God, and because I believe that by doing so, I will become more and more like my truest self.
I’m also a Christian because of a lot of people who’ve influenced my life so far. I was brought up in a Christian family who attended a local Evangelical Anglican church, and I went to a Roman Catholic prep school. I was used to the surroundings of church life: the cupboard at home with craft materials for the Sunday School my Mum taught, the round of fetes and youth groups, and the tunes of hymns. But I left that world behind for many years. I stopped being a Christian as a teenager, and it took a long time for me to find my way back. That journey back (as far as I can work out) started in earnest when I was a postgraduate student, and teaching a module where the students had to read the Book of Genesis. A senior colleague lent me her notes on Biblical Studies, and they sent me into the library on a jaunt which lasted years. I became fascinated by the scholarship of the Christian tradition, from church history to theology and Biblical criticism, and worked my along the shelves week by week. Every book I borrowed, to read in various corners of the local pubs, brought me a bit closer back to the church, though I didn’t know it at the time.
Then I met a group of Christian feminists, who helped me further along the way. They were friends of people I’d known at college, and I was fascinated by the casual way they talked about both faith and social justice. The religion they professed, it seemed to me, was both fiercely intellectual and fiercely committed to the real world. One of them was the woman I later married, and when we first met we spent hours upon hours talking about religion and literature. As we got to know each other I asked if she’d take me along to church one Sunday. I was drawn into the liturgy and the life of that community, and I was baptised a couple of years later. I had found my way back to the church, though it looks and sounds very different to me now. None of these people preached to me, or tried to argue me into agreeing with them. They didn’t threaten or brow-beat. They showed me some of the possibilities of the Christian life, and offered me the love and learning it can involve. In large part I am a Christian because of them, but none (I think) ever quite tried to make me into one.
From day to day, I’m a Christian because it provides me with an intellectual system and an emotional world which keeps me going and helps me make sense of things. Reading the Bible offers thousands of years of wisdom and reflection, as well as a set of narratives which encompass the life of the universe and my own life. Attending church services gives me a way to connect with a community where people share their faith, and in doing so shape each other’s faith. Participating in the sacraments brings me closer to the mysteries which I can sense at the very heart of reality, but which I cannot articulate or explain.
All these things aren’t the whole of “being a Christian” for me – even when put together – and I could probably be a Christian without them, but they give me a pattern and a rhythm within which I can live. They connect with the emotions I feel in everyday life, like excitement, guilt, anxiety, hope and frustration, and offer ways to recognise them honestly and keep them in balance. The Christian life feels to me like a real life, a life which is rooted in the physical sensations we have every day, but which can satisfy the most abstruse and cerebral tastes. It does not deny either the pain or the glory of the world, and it is always calling me deeper into the mystery of everything.