It’s Not What You Think!

On Palm Sunday, the New York Times Magazine carried an interesting article about a woman who identified herself as a “prodigal child,” when it came to churchgoing. As she began, in her adult years, the process of weaning herself away from the Finnish fundamentalism of her youth, she promised her parents that she would at least go to church on Christmas and Easter. On this particular Easter, she returned to the church of her youth, eager to see, in the eyes of the members of the congregation, “What unbelieving had done to me.” In the process of not listening to the sermon that morning, she noticed an African-American man, who had sat down beside her in the pew. To her, this was a truly a first, having grown up in this very homogeneous, white congregation.

Suddenly she was gripped by a deep desire to convey to this man the message that she, “was not one of them,” that she was, “no longer a part of this stringent faith.”  When she had the opportunity to introduce herself, at the end of the service, she quickly identified herself as the black sheep of the family.

When it comes to religious belief, or non-belief, in America, a common way for many people to identify themselves on the religious spectrum is to take the via negativa, to begin to understand and explain themselves to others, or even to themselves, in terms of what they are not. “I’m Christian, but not in the way you think,” “I’m spiritual, but not religious,” or, “I’m not into institutional religion.”

As churches of many different denominations promote themselves to the general public, the trend is to play down a denominational connection, or even the fact that they are a church at all. In some cases, this is for very good reasons—religion has done a lot of harm to many people. In other cases, I believe it has to do with a real struggle to articulate what one believes to a culture that is quick to portray religious people as close-minded, rigid, dogmatic, or doctrinaire. A lot of believers end up identifying and explaining themselves in a way that seems decidedly on the defensive. Either that, or they are eager to avoid being overtly identified as religious in any way. As a former student in college told me, “I am very reluctant to tell my friends that I am an active Roman Catholic, because they immediately assume that I believe this or that, and I find myself having to justify my beliefs to them.”

Not that being challenged on one’s beliefs is a bad thing. Yet in a culture that understands less about the nuances of religious belief, and the wide variety of belief that comes under the umbrella of any denomination or religious tradition, it is not hard to understand why people struggle to convey the impression that they are not “that type” of churchgoer or believer, or even elect to keep their beliefs under wraps. What’s more, as the media portrayal of religious belief tends to gravitate toward the “good stories,” of conservative beliefs clashing against an increasingly relativistic culture, a faith that allows for doubt, reason and questioning does not get much in the way of headlines.

In her book, Christianity After Religion, Dianna Butler Bass reports on a conversation she had with a young Presbyterian pastor in Washington DC, who made this observation:

People in my congregation tell me that when the others know that they are going to church, they always have to qualify it by saying, ‘But it is not like that.’…There are some assumptions in our culture about what kind of person a Christian is, or what kind of person goes to church and still has the nerve to talk about it, and it is frustrating to be lumped in together with them…You can almost see them stepping away from Christianity in their reply. It’s their way of saying, ‘It’s not what you think. I’m trying to do something different. I’m trying to be something different.’ (p. 58)

Episcopalians, including those in Episcopal schools, are often caught in this dilemma. We go to great lengths to explain what we are not, and as our schools speak about their religious mission or Episcopal identity, it can often have the tone of, “But it is not what you think.” Some of that explanation is inevitable; more and more people who are looking over our schools or our parishes simply do not know what “Episcopal” means. The question becomes, do we ever get beyond the “what we are not,” to speak in a positive and vibrant way of the beliefs we maintain?

One of the ways that we can understand Jesus’ post-resurrection words to Thomas, “Do not be faithless, but believing,” (John 20:27), in our modern context, is that Jesus is challenging us to be confident in our faith. This is not to say that we should write off our doubts—indeed, Jesus makes it very clear in his encounter with Thomas that doubts are not only acceptable but a path to a fuller faith. Rather, what can we say about what we believe, what our schools stand for, in ways that tell the world something more than what we are not?