By Christopher Cruz
If you have heard any kind of discussion on God in the public, you’ve probably heard the adage, “I don’t really like religion, but I believe in God.” It is one of the many hackneyed responses to religious discourse that actually traps theological discussion into a sort of box, ironically.
This was my disposition around five years ago, when, after years of being involved in evangelical circles, decided to leave. I hated the rules that held me bound. Like the protagonist of “Pilgrim’s Progress,” I was held by an unreasonable burden. They clamored for my “service,” for my leadership. It became too much. My girlfriend and I had just broken up, and I wasn’t going to allow myself to be held down any longer. So I left the Church.
I found myself waving that saying around quite a bit. It wasn’t that I disliked theology, as an idea, it was that I didn’t want that to translate into the hierarchy I had seen expressed in the church. So I sought God, but hoped to find him outside of the congregation. But I found that it was a lot more difficult than I thought.
I fell into one of two traps. The first one was that I could look at God as part of creation, a sort of pantheism, that never destroyed structures. The structures remained; they just looked different. I also had to do something with why the world was so broken. That isn’t evangelical-speak; it is borne out of empirical evidence. Go watch “The Wire” and tell me things are the way they should be. Human beings would make terrible gods. In a world that is incredible broken, the question deserves to be asked: What is the point? Pantheism is just another version of atheism, which already believes that everything that exists, well, exists.
The other trap is looking for God outside of creation. This was prevalent in the 18th and 19th centuries, in a movement called deism. In this specific theological persuasion, God is really an idea. He doesn’t act in creation. He never speaks any kind of definitive word in creation; he simply lets it be. This is a common way of thinking about God, even in our modern context. One of my favorite shows of all-time, “How I Met Your Mother,” falls prey to this. God is commonly referred to as the “universe.”
But even they let go of the universe as “blind justice,” and recapture a deity with a mind. God is someone or something that “wants” something for you and I. That might be a variety of things. He may want our happiness, or for us to find our spouse, or for us to please pass that test that we kind of studied for. Regardless, he recaptures a mind, and acts in creation.
Thus, within all of this, the only thing that I couldn’t help thinking was, “What’s the point in believing in a god if I was all alone doing it?” The whole adventure became an exercise in loneliness, with me constantly yearning for some kind of community. I know, the next words from your mind are probably saying, “You don’t need religion for that. There were probably tons of people to hang out with.” I was hanging out with a lot of people. I went partying with people; I smoked my first joint with someone. But these weren’t lasting relationships. I couldn’t even tell you most of their names right now. They were people I met in passing. Community is much more than hanging out with people watching “Girls;” it is deep friendship striving towards something. The striving between two people creates a lasting bond, because the two have experienced life together. And in my endeavor to find God during that time, nothing and no one lasted.
One day, I happened to be watching a video from a pastor that I followed, and saw missionary trips that they had taken to Haiti. This wasn’t simply proclamation, although it was, but it was also a trip that materially helped the country (they would continue to go back after the earthquake of 2010 devastated the country). They built schools, provided medical care and spent time with the children there. Then a verse popped up that is ingrained in my memory. It comes from James 1:27, and says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained before the world.” Maybe my preconceived notions of religion were intolerant of religion itself. Maybe I allowed culture to infiltrate what I thought about God. Maybe the structure of the church bothered me, but the essence of it drew me. I hated the Church’s sins, but loved beauty and togetherness. I hated terrible Christian music, but I loved the Lord’s supper, the centerpiece of Christian worship. So I caved.
Finding God outside of religion wasn’t about finding God; it was about running away, and loving myself. The problem was, I already loved myself. In fact, I loved myself too much. I needed something else. I needed to realize that I wasn’t the end for which God created the world.
The sentences that I read about us all singing kumbaya and loving each other are the biggest lies being perpetrated to millennials. I don’t want to sing kumbaya for the rest of my life. I want to love God with all I am, and love my neighbor as myself. These, Jesus said, were the greatest commandments.
Christopher Cruz is a freelance writer based in New York City. He graduated with a degree in English and is currently en route to graduate school in the field of theology. Finding meaning through art is one of the things that Chris wants to do for the rest of his life, and that includes binge-watching through shows on Netflix. So he argues that when he watches television while drinking a beer, he is enculturating himself.