Molting Part (-1)
Back in the late 90s I was working in full-time campus ministry. One of the things we liked to do was invite students to study the Bible. Not surprising. This is a very common activity in campus ministry. We wanted to have Bible studies in every dorm. Every campus ministry wanted to have Bible studies in every dorm. We were in competition. And one day, while my teammate and I were studying the Bible with a student in the commons area, a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses skillfully inserted themselves into our conversation. They wanted to talk about the Bible, too. They wanted to recruit this student, too. And things quickly turned into a quasi-polite passive-aggressive spiritual-gang territorial dispute. It was weird and uncomfortable and kind of amazing. Both sides wielded their swords with equal precision. Bible verses were bandied about as if we were in an epic fencing match and the victor would walk away with the student as their trophy.
I hated it.
For the first time I realized with crystal clarity that, in that student’s eyes, there was really little difference between the Jehovah’s Witnesses and us. This was jarring and upsetting. It was bad. It was the first major crack that started me rethinking what this Christian life was all about. We weren’t really any different from Jehovah’s Witnesses! We quoted verses at people to explain our understanding of God. Our arsenal of answers was really just a bunch of verses pulled out of context, individual verses specifically chosen to rebut any question or argument a college student might have.
Now, I must stop here and tell you I was working for a ministry that is highly regarded in evangelical circles. It’s one of those campus ministries that evangelical parents want their kids to be involved in. I was working for an organization whose niche was discipleship, and we were great at focusing on the tools of walking with Christ. We were experts at Bible study and Scripture memory and quiet times and sharing the Gospel and knowing all the right answers to all the potential questions. But that was part of the problem.
We were experts on the trees but had no idea what forest we were in. And I started to see that we were obsessed with the trees, to the point of completely missing the point of the forest.
Was campus ministry really just about getting students to believe what we believed? Getting them to see the world the way we saw it? Getting them to see that they were wrong and we are right?
Was the Christian walk supposed to be a constant and sustained argument with everyone who believed differently?
I left campus ministry about a year after the Jehovah’s Witness incident. Try as I did, I couldn’t find any convincing evidence to prove that our strategies were different from the strategies of (what we were taught was) a cult. Sure we had spiritual language to make our mission sound like a great calling and commission, but all we were really doing was indoctrinating people. It slowly dawned on me that “making disciples of all nations” was code for “get them to believe exactly what we believe and get them to get others to believe it, too.”
I couldn’t do that. I wouldn’t. So I quit doing it and moved across the country… to Boulder. And for the first time in my life I was talking to people who had deeply profound spiritual insight but who were not all evangelical Christians. They were genuine seekers and God-fearers who were walking along a different but parallel path. Some were even avowed atheists. It was surprising and wonderful to realize ‘non-believers’ weren’t the bitter and angry god haters I’d been told they were. No, these people were beautiful, thoughtful, happy, and extremely generous. They happened to have different beliefs about God than I did, but I never felt like we were in a debate about it. I still had phantom thoughts that I was right and they were wrong (it’s hard to get free from indoctrination), but I couldn’t deny the love and joy and peace I saw in their lives. I couldn’t explain away their generosity and grace. I knew they had found truth even though it looked different than mine.
And then 9/11 happened.
Like everyone else in this country, I felt blindsided, shellshocked, disoriented. One of the first things I did was go and buy a book about Islam. For me September 11th deepened the cognitive crack that opened with the Jehovah’s Witness incident, but this time the players weren’t sparring Christian ministries. This time the players were deeply devout believers from completely different religions. The terrorists believed they were right. Our president and pastors told us we were. It was that same beliefs debate but with deadly and devastating consequences.
I found myself thinking things like: We know we’re right. They know they’re right. How do we get past this? How do we reconcile such opposing belief systems? How can we really know who’s right? And why is it so important to find that answer?
I’ve been chewing the cud produced by these initial post-9/11 thoughts for over a decade now. If you’ve read my other ‘molting’ posts, you know where all that chewing has taken me. Even now, I can’t pretend to have any more answers than when that cognitive crack first appeared. But I’m starting to think having answers isn’t the point. I’m starting to believe that beliefs are over-rated. I’m starting to understand what Paul was getting at when he wrote that knowledge makes you need to be right but love makes you want to embrace.
Today, when I read the Bible, I notice that Jesus didn’t want to debate people, the religious leaders did. Jesus didn’t need to be right, the religious leaders did. Jesus didn’t insist that people believe exactly what he believed, the religious leaders did. In fact, Jesus didn’t really focus on what to believe at all. He focused on who to love.
Jesus focused on the forest of people not the trees of doctrine.
Jesus said the belief system was meant to serve and protect people, not the other way around.
Jesus didn’t care about getting people to believe what he believed. He cared about getting people to love who he loved.
[1 Corinthians 8:3]