Instead of a faith based on a list of beliefs, Dave Brown has discovered something surprisingly simple.
I grew up as a missionary kid in a conservative Pentecostal-charismatic Christian family. I attended a Christian school, then completed ministry training in Bible school; then went on to graduate with a degree from Oral Roberts University, the global epicenter for charismatic-evangelical Christian higher education.
For most of my life, I served both behind the scenes and on stage in a variety of churches. I spoke in tongues, and sometimes people were “slain in the spirit” when I prayed for them. I ghost-wrote a pastor’s books. I traveled to nearly 20 countries proclaiming the Christian gospel, and converted many, from indigenous people in the jungle to educated atheists in Europe.
But for several years now, I have identified as agnostic (for lack of a better term and for need of a label for people to understand). Yes, time changes everything. Even faith. My faith changed from a list of beliefs to, um, something else.
Here’s how it works. For me, it starts with the Christian beliefs. The simple message I gave people when evangelizing was, “It’s so simple. All you need is Jesus. Just choose to follow Jesus.” And when we would get them interested in the simplicity of the message, we’d then say, “Well, all it takes to start following Jesus is to accept him as your personal Lord and Savior, and to do that you need to say a prayer…” and so on. We did this with sincere hearts…we weren’t just trying to manipulate people. We really cared, and this was the only way we knew how to show our care and to try to make the world better.
Anyway, someone would say the prayer, become a Christian, and get involved in a church, because every Christian has to go to church – Oh yeah, that’s another guideline I forgot to mention before you said the prayer. And then with the attendance of church comes certain stipulations, and with those stipulations come others, and so on, until we end up with something like this:
My Faith, Before “What should my life be about?”
My Faith, After (for Now)
The list was something I tried to adhere to since I was a child, and throughout the times of evangelizing.
And here’s the thing. At the time, I would have said that “Christianity is not a religion; it’s a relationship (with God).” And that “My Christianity is not a dull religion… it’s more than rules and rituals, and it’s not about a list of beliefs!” Because we knew that was an opposition people had to becoming Christian, the rules. So the idea was to focus more on direct connection with God.
But even though the general idea revolved around a “relationship with Jesus,” we had plenty of rules, some unspoken and some very outspoken, for describing what that relationship should be like. And if your relationship with God doesn’t fit the expected pattern, people just don’t know how to label you. The fact is, to be a Christian — or an adherent to any religion — requires the acceptance of certain doctrines, whether that system or community calls itself a religion or not.
At some point – it really was more of a gradual process than a “point” – I threw away the list. All of it. I allowed myself to acknowledge that the list no longer felt like real truth to me. It felt constricted. And I felt that God, or whatever you want to call it, was bigger than that. Throwing away the entire list was hard, but I had to start with a blank canvas.
A blank canvas is like an ocean. Wide and deep and full of freedom and possibility. But it can also be very lonely, isolated, and empty feeling. So I was tempted to make my own list again. I needed to establish boundaries to tell me where to go and where not to go in my spirituality. And a list of beliefs opens the door to an easy pre-fab group in which I can belong. My new list started to say things like, “Those people (who I often unfairly labeled ‘narrow-minded hypocrites’) should do this…or should not do this.” And I realized that my new list was no better than the old one. It was just a sort of anti-list list.
Eventually I realized that my faith was too precious and personal and ever-evolving to boil down to any list to impose on myself or others. I realized that, for me, faith is more like a work of art. So the graphic above is what I came up with late one night.
I won’t explain it all, the current incarnation of my spirituality. I’ve scrapped many beliefs and practices, and I’m revisiting some, and newly discovering others. I love meditation. I call in the directions. I sometimes pray in tongues. I still dislike church. And I still maintain an open, agnostic position. But hey, my spirituality just is what it is, and I accept it as evolving and flawed and…perfect.
I also appreciate the fact that others’ faith is like this too. Each of us have our own expression of life, and it will help us all if we try to value each other’s individuality of faith.
Someone close to me once shared it this way:
“I was brought up in a culture where there were very distinct religious ideas on how you were created or how you should live. It was suffocating for me, and caused a lot of anger, frustration and depression. Since I left the religious institution, I’ve been able to truly experience freedom to be who I believe God has created me to be. Which is sort of ironic, don’t you think?”
There are no rules for spirituality. Beliefs sometimes change, and that’s okay! I think it’s a good thing, a sign of healthy self-honesty. And I think that God does not care what I believe, but for some reason, people do. At the bottom line, if I believe anything, it’s that my beliefs are worthless if they do not motivate me to make the world a little better than I found it. If they do not, it’s time for a change.
*Original artwork by Ren Crawford, adapted with permission.
This article was adapted from a piece previously published on the author’s former blog, TheAgnosticPentecostal.wordpress.com.