By Erik Reece
God may have struck down Paul of Taursus on the road to Damascus and turned him into the world’s first Christian. But unlike the “conversion experience,” I have found that losing faith is not a cataclysmic event. It’s more like watching mist rise off a river in the morning. You can’t say exactly when it disappeared, but you know it is gone for good.
My father and grandfather were Baptist preachers. I spent the first 18 years of my life in the compulsory service of the church, and the next 18 years trying to extract myself from its long tentacles. After that, I spent a few more years writing a book about losing faith, and searching for something to replace it.
Growing up, I had been too sensitive to the fundamentalist message of guilt and sin. It did not, let us say, have the intended effect on me. Whereas my well-adjusted mother believes that the sacrificial blood of Christ “set us free,” all I could see in Christianity was dogmatism, intolerance, and an unhealthy hatred of the flesh.
My father and grandfather have since passed away. And my mother has patiently, with some understanding, watched me drift away the church that still means much to her. But when my book, “An American Gospel,” came out last week, she still seemed startled by how far I had drifted.
The basic premise of “An American Gospel” is that the kingdom of God lies all around us, not waiting in the sweet hereafter. Therefore, we must conduct our lives in ways that honor — and will make more manifest — this immanent kingdom through stewardship, empathy and a very real sense of the just.
My mother could, for the most part, sign on to that program.
“But you still believe in the resurrection don’t you?” she asked. An uncomfortable silence followed. How was I to put this? I could have taken the route of many New Testament scholars and said that I believe in the symbolism of the resurrection. But that wouldn’t have satisfied her anymore than it does most Christians. Finally, mercifully, she said, “Well, we can talk about it all later.”
The fact is, American Christianity has historically been focused so obsessively on the Nicene Creed — which says Jesus was the son of God, who was crucified for our sins and rose from the grave three days later — that it never made much room for the actual teachings of this radical Jewish street preacher.
This is why I’m against Easter. It celebrates the death of Jesus nearly to the exclusion of his life. If the Easter miracle can save us from this life, then why bother with the harder work of enacting the kingdom of God here? It is, after all, much harder.
Which brings me back to that word faith. I believe it plays such a disproportionate role in mainstream American Christianity, be it in the rock and roll mega-churches or the humbler places were I worshipped as a child, because it is a belief in what one cannot see. But that belief — that faith in a salvational Christ — is what will guarantee everlasting life. But when such faith is lost, as in my case, what am I left with?
I’m left with the teachings of Jesus — words so radical, they got him killed, words so radical, they might still bring about the end of empire and the beginning of the kingdom of God.
Erik Reece is the author of “An American Gospel: On Family, History and the Kingdom of God.” He is a writer in residence at the University of Kentucky, where basketball is the true religion.