Ugly Christianity and Beautiful Christianity
by Jay McDaniel
Ugly Christianity and Beautiful Christianity
There are two kinds of Christianity:ugly Christianity and beautiful Christianity. It is a caricature, I admit, but please indulge me. I have written an article called Why Christians Turn to Buddhism, and a friend asked if I might write a complementary piece called Why Christians turn to Christianity. This is that article.
I know that some people turn to Christianity out of fear or habit, but I think he had something else in mind. He was wondering why Christians might turn to Christianity because they hear something attractive, something beautiful, in it. Imagine that you are taking a course in music appreciation and the different wisdom traditions of the world have been rendered into sonic form. You hear them played -- Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Jainism, and others -- and in each instance you hear something beautiful. Each has a different melody but their melodies are not necessarily competitive. For one tradition to be true it doesn't mean that the others have to be false. Different traditions can be true in different ways and about different things. That's how process theologians see things. They call it complementary pluralism.
He was asking what people might hear when Christianity is played. What music do they hear and why might they want to sing along, or keep singing along if they've been singing it for a long time. I thought of Whitehead and his idea that verbal propositions are lures for feeling. Christianity can be a lure for feeling, too: an invitation to see the world and live in the world in a certain way. At least beautiful Christianity, as distinct from ugly Christianity, can be promising in just this way.
Ugly Christianity is arrogant, imperialistic, judgmental, dogmatic, hardhearted, patriarchal, homophobic, literalistic, intolerant of other religions, insensitive to the earth, cruel to animals, obsessed with control, afraid of multiplicity, deaf to mystery, closed to reason, and preoccupied with getting to heaven. It imagines God on the analogy of a bully in the sky who always needs to be being flattered and has anger-management issues. This God is overly concerned with moral behavior and fails to understand the role that pleasure and beauty play in life. He evokes fear but not affection, awe but not intimacy. He sent Jesus to show his friendly side but will send people to hell if they don’t accept the gift.
Beautiful Christianity is just the opposite. It is humble, cooperative, merciful, generous, egalitarian, thoughtful, open to mystery, keen on justice, fun-loving, kind to strangers, open to reason, hospitable to other religions, sensitive to mystery, delighted by diversity, good for the earth, kind to animals, and not preoccupied with getting to heaven. It sees Christianity, not as a singular worldview to which all people must subscribe, but rather as a compassionate way of living in this life, capable of being understood in a diversity of ways, which is worth following whether there is, or is not, life after death.
Beautiful Christianity imagines God as a compassionate One in whose heart the unfolding universe lives and moves and has its being, or as the energy of love itself, or both. It sees Jesus, not as a gift that has to be accepted, but as an invitation to live with hope, compassion, and gratitude. It understands salvation, not as the acquisition of a happy life after death but as a fulfillment that is found in this very life -- a taste of eternity in the here-and-now of ordinary life. It is open to life after death, but that is not the point of Christianity.
In naming these two forms of Christianity as “ugly” and “beautiful,” it is clear which kind I find most meaningful. I think beautiful Christianity is better than ugly Christianity: better for people, better for the earth, better for animals, and, yes, better for God. Whether we think of God as energy, or as a person, or both, beautiful Christianity resonates more closely to a bottom-line idea in Christianity, namely that God is love.
This does not mean that people who embrace beautiful Christianity are themselves better than people drawn to ugly Christianity. From the perspective of beautiful Christianity we are all equal in the horizons of divine love and there is no need to divide the world into good people and bad people. We are all both sinners and saints, albeit in varying degrees, and God never gives up on any of us.
Still, ideas count, and today there is a battle within the Christian soul between these two understandings of Christianity. One problem is that ugly Christianity too often gets the media microphone, pronouncing itself normative and dismissing beautiful Christianity as “not really Christian” or “watered down Christianity.” Another is that it provides such a great target for its critics, and they themselves deem it normative for Christianity. There is a rather profound need for beautiful Christianity to take its voice in the larger conversation concerning Christianity and, fortunately, a fresh generation of Christians are helping make this happen. Within Catholicism, Pope Francis seems to espouse beautiful Christianity, and this is good news for all.
Happily, beautiful Christianity is embraced and practiced by Christians of many different traditions: Catholic, Ecumenical Protestant; Asian, African, and Latin American. Some people might wrongly think that only “liberals” embrace beautiful Christianity, or that all “conservatives” embrace ugly Christianity, but this is not true. Liberal Christians can embrace aspects of ugly Christianity without knowing it: its smugness, its dogmatism, its division of the world into people who are “right” and others who are “wrong,” and, not least, its intolerance of people who are more conservative. Moreover, if conservative means conserving the wisdom of the past, then, there is much in the inherited wisdom of the Christian past that invites and encourages beautiful Christianity: the teachings of great theologians, the richness of the liturgy, the melodies of the music, the depths of its mystical traditions; and many but not all strands of biblical thinking. It is in the Bible that we hear “God is Love.”
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. (1 John 4:7)
There is no single theology for beautiful Christianity, and it can be articulated with help from, and by means of, many different theologies. The theology which shapes this website – Process Theology – is an excellent means by which many Christians embrace beautiful Christianity. Part of its value is that it provides a vocabulary by which Christians can articulate and deepen the themes of beautiful Christianity and, at the same time, learn from people of other traditions, some of whom – such as Rabbi Bradley Artson – are process theologians, too. But process theology is by no means the only available theology for developing Christian thinking in, as it were, a beautiful way. The tradition of Open Theism in conservative evangelical circles is doing the same thing in decidedly biblical ways; and various forms of Trinitarian thinking among more orthodox Christians are doing the same.
A defining feature of beautiful Christianity is that it appreciates different points of view and finds it troublesome to think that there is one, and only one, right theology. Theologies are in service to life and love, not the other way around, and different theologies speak to different needs.
A Way that is truthful and life-giving
For those who are drawn to beautiful Christianity, there is profound truth in Christianity, but the truth does not dwell in ideas alone. It dwells in the friendships, in the sounds of the music, in the lyricism of the stories, in the power of the liturgies, and in the acts of love. These are not truths enunciated by hard-hearted theologians eager for debates. Nor are they truths uttered in anger; bent upon proving other people wrong so that we can feel right. The truths of Christianity are softer and more open than that, like the lighting of a candle on Christmas Eve or ringing of a bell on Christmas morning. Ultimately they are grounded in the truth of love, which is not really an idea but rather a way of living, moment by moment, in the nitty-girtty of life. One priest, Teri Daily, calls it the grittiness of love.
Paul describes this love in a letter and captures what is most important to beautiful Christianity: “Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous, love does not brag and is not arrogant; love does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered.” This patience, this kindness, this absence of jealousy and arrogance – this is the truth of beautiful Christianity and its converts typically meet this truth, first of all, not in theology but in friendships. They are drawn to the love they feel from Christian friends, and this makes them want to be Christians if they are not already. Consider Mei.
A Convert's Story
Mei, a college student in Beijing, is a convert to Christianity. Like many Chinese she grew up an atheist and thought that religion was superstitious and divisive. She remembers a teacher telling her that God was a deity in the sky and that, now that men were travelling in space, "everybody realizes this deity doesn’t exist.”
She half believed her teacher but also sensed that his understanding of God was too shallow. She wondered if God isn’t more like energy than an object in the sky. She came by this idea naturally because she had studied Daoism. She knew that the Dao is not an object in the sky but rather the Way of the universe. She wondered if God isn't like this Way, except a person, too.
She became a Christian three years ago, having met that energy – that kindness – in a roommate who was Christian. Her roommate introduced her to a new way of looking at things, a new perspective, that she finds empowering and hope-giving. When I ask her why she turns to Christianity she is honest and straightforward: “It gives me hope; it gives me friends with whom I can share my feelings; and it helps me understand that kindness – love – is the most important thing in the world.”
I ask her what she has hope in, and she has a hard time putting it into words. “It’s not hope for heaven,” she explains, “although I do believe in heaven. I think it is hope that my life can be meaningful,” she says. She explains that in China today many young people live with a sense that their destinies are predetermined by fate or by decisions made by others: their parents, their grandparents, or their government. “They don’t have hope that life can be good for them or that they can be happy. They don’t feel that they really matter to anybody.”
She explains that, as she grew in her Christian faith, she began to sense that her life matters to God and that she felt God’s love in the small group of fellow Christians with whom she prays and sings during weekly meetings. “In China people don’t have a chance to share their feelings with others. We can’t do it at work; we don’t do it at home, because relations with parents are often strained. But we can share our feelings in small groups of fellow Christians; we listen to each other and care for each other."
I ask her if she found the deity in the sky and she says: “No, I found something deeper. I found a deity in the heart -- in their hearts and my heart.” I ask her what name she has for this deity and she says love.
Mei explains that, for many Chinese, the idea that God is love seems strange at first. They have grown up thinking of God as a kind of invisible emperor in the sky who controls everything. “When they say God doesn’t exist, they mean that this emperor doesn’t exist. They don’t understand that God might be not like an emperor at all but, instead, like a companion, a friend, someone who loves them. I don’t think I could have understood this without the love of my Christian friends.”
How do we know that God is a companion? Mei says that, for her, this is what Jesus is about. “It is as if we walking in a dark forest, having lost our way, and frightened by the sounds and shadows around us, but then, all the sudden, a light appears, showing us the way. This light is the life of Jesus. His kindness, his reaching out to strangers, his courage in his death, his trust in God – that is our light.”
Is he the only light there is? No, she says. “The light we see in him is also seen in other places, like in my grandmother, who is a Buddhist, and my parents who, while atheist, have been very kind to me.”
You mean that the light in Jesus can even be in atheists? I ask. Yes, she says, "the light of God’s love is found wherever there is love.”
But what about the dark forest?. “It’s just a metaphor for the fear we carry around in our hearts, when we don’t have faith in light, when we don’t trust and love each other. When we have faith, the love casts out the fear. We are free to be ourselves, no matter what happens.”
So Christianity helps you be yourself? Yes, she says. “If I get a job or don’t get a job, if I get married or don’t get married, if I pass my exams or I don’t pass my exams, I can be free inside my heart and help others be free.
So Christianity is about freedom inside the heart. “Yes, it’s the deepest kind of freedom. There are still pressures, but you can deal with them, because you have faith in God’s love. That’s why I turn to Christianity.”
-- written by Jay McDaniel