I opened my e-mail inbox yesterday to discover I had yet another e-mail from an unknown MySpace member. I’m always curious who would e-mail a blatantly schizophrenic gay boy like myself, so I follow the link, type in the password, and navigate toward another inbox. Staring at me is a remarkably average young man. The subject line of his message reads: “Hi Jeff.” Painfully unoriginal, though I stifle my judgments and open the message.
It was longer and more in depth than many messages I receive—even ones from friends. He talked about likes and dislikes, the striking similarities between us. It was all vaguely interesting, except for one powerfully striking sentence. It was the closing one, which helped tremendously when I tried to recall it. “I wrote you because you’re Christian,” he said, adding other reasons that trailed behind. Because I’m Christian.
The strange thing about this is: I don’t know if I’m a Christian anymore. Perhaps I’m a universalist. Maybe all those ridiculed UUs at seminary were onto something. Maybe the Jesuits were just jealous, muttering debasing jokes beneath their breath. All I can think after reading his message is: To be Christian is only the beginning.
I have no desire to bash Christians, so please don’t think that’s the track I’m on. Rather, I feel like Christianity is a part of who I became, who I am, and who I will be. At the same time, I feel that it has progressed in my life, from a salvific drug needed to calm my constantly frenzied nerves, to a figure of great prominence in spiritual development and genuine trust, to a facet in a much larger world of belief. Do I believe in God? Yes. Do I believe in Jesus Christ? Yes. But let’s just say I believe in them as very fluid, multi-dimensional Creators. I can no longer stomach a Buddha who is utterly inimical to a redeeming Christ, nor should I play apologist for spiritualities of the Native American cultures that juxtapose millennia-old Western religious traditions. It stands to reason that a God who is all-inclusive should also be made a part of the great world of God figures—however you phrase them, depict them, or spell them out. And know that when I use the term “God,” it by no means nails me to a Christo-centric Western faith that is predetermined and completely predictable. Language has its barriers; I know my Creator as God. But a different arrangement of letters in a different culture can be the very same Being.
To be a die-hard Christian, I feel, is to leave the endowed sensibilities of humanness behind and cling to a simple—if radical—faith that is clear, concise, and well presented. Granted, there are issues we face which Christianity offers no help on, largely because it promotes divisiveness instead of community. Yet I do not feel that we need to stay put as Christians simply because there are disagreements. Mutual understanding may not come from hashing out the details of what is already in front of us, but in what the next level of spiritual maturity holds.
If you wouldn’t mind humoring me, consider it from a Western Christian perspective. It’s cliché and at times over-bearing, but it’s what I know.
I began as a child not consciously formulating thoughts and conclusions as to what was “beyond” and what controlled the uncontrollable, what defined and ran the nebulous elements of life. How was it I loved my mom and not someone else? I didn’t think about it; I just did.
Being a human being, however, I grew to a stage where inquisitiveness was natural. Not only could I ask the questions, but I could work on the answers. Most of the answers were superficial, gained from pure sensory observation. Occasionally, I would incorporate the wise words of an elder or family member much older than I, but these often went in one ear and out the other. They seemed irrelevant for a child who was convinced that answers were found in sensory experience.
Then came the day when I was dissatisfied with my shallow answers. I discovered that many of my questions weren’t really answered at all, they were only temporarily covered. I understood that my satisfaction lay in recognizing my ability to perceive and process information—even if that processing was rudimentary. When this satisfaction was no longer sufficient, I sought out relational explanations. How did one thing relate to another? How can I relate/interact with something to make another thing happen? About the time high school rolled around, I was defining and explaining on the basis of how things interacted. It was new; it was exciting. And, being quite a bit more complicated than rote observation, it seemed to be a genuine source for answers.
But when relational understandings fell short, I slowly became frustrated. Friends would come to me with problems and I would try to help them. It seemed natural that they would seek me out—not only for a willing ear, but also for advice. More often than not, however, I found that they weren’t the least bit interested in counsel or guidance. Rather, they merely wanted to unload their problems to someone who would be genuinely empathetic. Time and time again I was waved off when the tirades ended and I began to suggest a solution to their problems. It troubled me so much, I began to doubt the efficaciousness of my own advice. Was it worth giving? This, of course, snowballed with other self doubts and coupled with a growing self-consciousness and sexual uncertainty. It all came to a head at a time when observation and relationality had failed me. They weren’t providing answers; they were giving me grief and frustration.
College came and I immersed myself in a new environment with new people away from the grounding of home and family. It was now necessary for me to understand myself well enough to relate to others. Beginning with my knowledge of relationships and interaction, I started on the right path. Or so I thought. Quickly, however, I learned that my approach to relationships was horribly one-sided. I made assumptions from my own experience, and used this to develop my interaction with others. It took a handful of failed relationships and sometimes blunt conversations for me to realize that my “relational” approach could only work successfully if I tried to understand the perspectives of other people. This came in handy quite frequently after I discovered it, and contributed to a number of very healthy relationships.
At this point in my life, I had come from a one-a-week Sunday church faith, scripted for me and without much personal devotion, to a more genuine, thoughtful approach to understanding and relating to God. Still, however, God was a person. I was trying to see where He was coming from and how best I might understand Him. Still, He was a Him.
Graduate school was a tremendously difficult—and formative—period for me. It was a true separation from all comforts, and a test of my own beliefs—both beliefs of myself, and of the world. I took with me what I had learned of relating to people and began to forge relationships on mutual terms instead of solely personal ones. The results were both wonderful and terrible. While I became enamored of many people and learned to love them because of their entire selves, I also divested the relationship of me completely. I began to fear burdening others with my own troubles. To keep relationships pure, I kept myself largely out of them. I wonder now how many of my interactions seemed dry and empty. Too much time was spent trying to please others; to little time was spent truly being with others. Because of my constant concern for others in relationships, I began to develop a terribly unhealthy view of myself. My attempts to understand others’ perspectives, particularly towards me, developed into a constant search for fault and weakness. In an effort to eliminate these blemishes before they could be spotted, I outdid even the self-flagellators of Medieval church lore. I starved myself. I over exercised. I abused myself verbally and mentally when grades came back on papers that were lower than an “A.” I truly outdid the average self-deprecator.
While I was busy scoring myself with emotional and verbal whips, I sought out the comfort of God. Who else could love me just as I was without judging the flaws? God was the only one, I thought. My relationship with Him—still very much a person—had become one of constant apology and contrition. It was so ridiculous I became obsessed with fault. No human is perfect, but no human is utterly imperfect either. And there was far too much wonderful in me to spend all my energy on lame little faults. In retrospect, I can now say that they were quite insignificant. Some were even fictitious.
Romantic relationships have come and gone since then, as have friendships and casual acquaintances. Lessons have been learned and re-learned in all the stages I have been through. I re-lived some of them, dropped some of them, and cherished some of them. And yes, relationships have been ended because of realizations that I reverted to an old self; be it the self-abasing, constantly sycophant-ish self, or the ignorance-is-bliss childhood self that lacks thought or discernment. But I couldn’t stagnate. And I couldn’t live without recognizing what I was doing. As happened to be the case for me, I also couldn’t live without earnestly working on self improvement.
Since my move to Denver, Christianity has taken a dramatic shift in my emotional and spiritual life. Catholicism, once the beacon of love and acceptance that I so desperately needed, turned quickly into an excluding entity that had lost touch with the true people of God. Affirmed in my talents by many in Berkeley, I took to developing my own theology. Garnered from observation, relationship, and concentrated discernment, I came to understand that God’s people in sum were, in fact, God. The idea of a second-coming fell away. No more coming on a cloud, no more armies of angels; God was among us; God WAS us.
Denver gave even more fodder to the fire. Embraced by a mainstream church that professed and practiced the utmost in care and inclusivity, I became free to wonder about where Christians belong. Finally, I understood that to call oneself a Christian, was to lay claim to an exclusive group—however inadvertent that exclusivity is.
And so, freed from the damage of shallow relationships, unscrutinized living, and a God who gave Himself to me in gender and personhood, I followed the path of universal divinity to where it naturally led. I listened to friends who embraced a free-flowing, unstructured spirituality. “How could it work?” I wondered. The structure for them was not external, as it had always been for me, but internal. The spirit does what the spirit does; it has its own structure. I had always tried—and still do—to direct the path of my own spirituality according to a predetermined faith and the injunctions of religion. What did I truly believe? Had I ignored my true spirit, shunned it, repressed it all these years?
The more I talked with friends, family, strangers, I began to see that relationship brings to light what reliance on the inner self cannot produce. I saw things in new ways—not because I forced a different perspective, but because I was myself and saw differently; I was myself, and saw more. Still held within the context of Christianity, though fallen away from my Catholic roots, I began to formulate a universal Deity. I understood—and understand God—to be one and only, though called by countless names, worshipped in countless ways, loved in a myriad of forms.
Michael, the 23-year-old who sent me a brief and harmless message on MySpace, sparked the clear realization that to be content as a Christian is to pay lip service to God. I do not mean to say that Christians are wrong, nor that their faiths are void. Rather, to be a Christian content only with what Christianity professes is to cut oneself off from God. It is not an end; it is not a means; it is a step on a spiritual journey that allows me to embrace all with equal love and devotion.
My Christian faith has given me more than I could ever hope for. I have found an incredible trust in mystery, a richness in being completely vulnerable, and a satisfaction in community that is unlike anywhere else I have been. It has also taught me much about judgment, love, and sincerity. I give it all that I can give it, but recognize it now as an awesome piece of a much larger whole.
“I wrote you because you’re Christian,” he ended. Yes, but not just Christian. Not hardly Christian. As Christian as I am gay; as gay as I am male; as male as I am human. And if any one of these encapsulates me, then I am far less a beautiful creation than I now believe. And truly, with all my soul, I believe.