I wish you could know a few of the entirely normal people I do. They certainly don’t look any different from anyone you’d encounter on your morning commute. They blend easily, neatly into the rest of civilized society. Every now and then, if you struck up a conversation, and the subject turned to religion, they might make a Biblical allusion or two. But they’d make sure that matters of faith didn’t overstay their welcome. They are capable of speaking on a wide range of subjects, much like you yourself.
By contrast, one of my next-door neighbors growing up was an extremely observant Southern Baptist. He taught the same tradition to his two daughters, who were my age. A look at one of their blogs a few months back was rather revealing. Every third entry, roughly, was a passage of Scripture without almost no commentary or analysis offered. God was mentioned at least five times every post, which confirmed that God was at the very center of every aspect of her life. She and her husband recently adopted a child from Africa, not because Angelina Jolie did it first, but because Africans are God’s children, too. But they did, I must add, talk about it as much as Angelina Jolie.
There are Christians like her who live by the doctrine of Justification by Works. These are the ones who make many sarcastic and contemptuous. To them, their whole worth and holiness in the eyes of God is based on flawless devotion to a standard of perfection. Pity them, if you wish, but don’t hate them. If you are so inclined, consider praying for them. They bear an impossible burden. If you ever caught them in an unguarded moment, they might tell you how afraid they are of seeming somehow less than acceptable. It rarely occurs to anyone with this mindset that perfection might not be possible, or, to seek a religious explanation, that it doesn’t truly matter what anyone does. If you want to take the Word literally, we’re all saved regardless of what we say or do. Grace cannot be bought by money or by labor.
To return to how I began this entry, I wasn’t always a Christ-centered Quaker. This was an identity I didn’t firmly adopt until well into my adulthood. While it is true that I was raised in a Christian denomination, there were years upon years where I wanted no part of Jesus. I find myself sometimes surprised that the journey has taken this direction. My Christianity is that of Justification by Grace. While it is true that I do try to live a decent life, much like most of you out there, I also wish to enrich my inner devotional life more. What is more important to me is a personal relationship with God and with the Spirit. It is my belief that if I work on that aspect of my life more, I won’t have to work so hard at outward appearances.
I’ve met some wonderful people whose spiritual lives are similar to my own. I’ve read some of their blogs, too, and they sound like regular people trying to make it through life the best they can. Ned Flanders they are not. They make mistakes on a regular basis and sometimes make large ones. Even in a strictly religious context, I’ve heard stories of marital problems, chemical addiction, financial insecurity, and emotional exhaustion. More than one Christian Friend has noted to me that he or she was thought of by friends and acquaintances as the one Christian for whom they had any regard at all. That's an impossible standard of its own. Dislike the religious for whatever reason you wish, but please don’t base your disapproval on a lack of human authenticity.
We all have our identities. And underneath these identities is often the fear that we are not as we seem. The pressure we put upon ourselves is no different than the sort that the Works-oriented Christians take. We’d be better if we recognized that we’re still part of the club no matter what. There but for the Grace of God go I. No one’s going to kick us out if we don’t look impossibly enthusiastic for every measurable second. We judge ourselves more than others judge us, and the opposite side of that coin is itself the rationale for the high standards by which we hold other people. Sometimes no Christian or, for that matter, no believer can ever do any right. And if they can do no right, some can never do right enough. This is a lose-lose proposition if ever there was one.
Part of that inward reflection is an understanding that true tolerance begins with the self. The world has its villains, and we all seem to be able to identify those. What we don’t need is to create enemies where none exist. Some act as though it is their God-given duty to take those around them down a notch. But in reality, there is no need to constantly identify imperfection in others just as there is no need to defy the laws of humanity and constantly seek to be perfect. As I said, the world has enough enemies. But what it lacks are friends.