I’ve always maintained a strong Christian faith, but over my life what that faith has looked like has changed considerably. I left my Evangelical roots in my early twenties, and for a while floundered around lost and lonely in what felt like theological no-man’s land. There were a couple of books I happened across that helped root me in the more progressive mainline tradition. They took my questions and provided answers or took what I already knew to be true and provided words and structure. When I say these books saved my faith, I mean I’m not sure where I’d be without them.
If God is Love: Rediscovering Grace in an Ungracious World by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland
This book is all about how to live respectfully with other people and the unexpected ways that God’s grace appears. What stood out to me was the story of one of the aunt of one of the James Mulholland. She was not a believer, so when he was still a kid, he decided to convert her. He wrote her a letter expressing concern for her and asking Aunt Nancy to accept Jesus as her Savior. Then she wrote him back:
She spoke of her own spiritual journey, of how she had experienced and known God, of what she’d rejected as inauthentic, and of the peace she’d finally discovered. Then she challenged my motives. She suggested my concern was not for her, but for myself. What had made me uncomfortable was that she had found peace and meaning in ways different from mine. What concerned me was the possibility that there might be other ways of knowing God . . . I realized my arrogance in assuming another human being should relate to God exactly as I did. Gracious religion approaches others gently because, even if our experience is more authentic or accurate than theirs, no one can or should adopt an experience that isn’t their own. It approaches others humbly because their experience of God may be more authentic and accurate than our own. There was nothing wrong with sharing my beliefs and convictions with my aunt Nancy. What was arrogant was my assumption that my faith was more authentic.
It was this story that explained to me what it truly means to respect worldviews that are different from my own, and that knowledge led me down a path of religious pluralism where I now find God in so many new places. The book opened up the concept of what God can be.
The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg
Borg, who passed away last year, was a New Testament scholar and a prolific writer. One of his books, The Heart of Christianity, divides up Christianity into two paradigms: a conservative one which includes fundamentalist and conservative evangelical theologies, and a newer progressive one which is embraced by mainline churches and, in many ways, the Catholic church. One important aspect of what Borg refers to as the “emerging paradigm” is how the Bible can be true and guide our faiths without being interpreted in a literal-factual manner or as a black and white list of rules. Another aspect of the emerging paradigm is understanding and supporting Jesus’s political motivations:
This is what the political passion of the Bible is about. Its major voices protest the systemic injustice of the kingdoms and empires that dominated their world. They do so in the name of God and on behalf of the victims— slaves in Egypt, exiles in Babylon, exploited peasants in the time of the monarchy and again in the time of Jesus, and the most vulnerable in all times— widows, orphans, the poor, and the marginalized. And in the name of God, the major figures of the Bible advocate a very different vision of our life together.
Borg’s description of this progressive paradigm, including God’s political passion as revealed by Jesus, gave me hope that what I wanted to believe was still possible under the Christian umbrella. For years now this has been the first book I pick up when I’m looking for answers to spiritual questions.