From this obituary of Rachel Held Evans: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/04/us/rachel-held-evans.html?action=click&module=News&pgtype=Homepage
This is going to feel like a Sunday morning homily. Haven’t done one of those for a long time. So be it.
This person, Rachel Held Evans, seems like someone I should have been paying more attention to. Peter Thurley on Facebook speaks highly of her writing. I think my transition away from evangelicalism happened earlier, in the 1980s, and so I more or less ignored everything that came out of those circles since then. I’ve missed those voices since that time, and the loss has been mine.
She does seem to be asking the same kinds of questions I was at that time. Or, more to the point, she sees that questions actually matter, as opposed to certainties and pieties. That’s what did it for me – a stint in Bible college where all I ever heard were answers to what seemed to me to be the wrong questions, and a complete unwillingness to actually ask about anything that didn’t already fit the plan. The joke was that on tests, if you didn’t know the answer you just put in “Jesus” and you’d be ok.
Since then, I’ve stripped down what seems to me to be the significance of Christianity to one and only one thing: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbour as yourself. If that’s what being a Christian is, I’m still one. If it’s all the other stuff that has become accreted to it, I’m much more skeptical. As Meister Eckhart said, “I pray to God to be rid of God.” Not that this love stuff remains in the abstract – far from it. It needs to be lived. But a great deal of what I saw was just social control and conditioning, and every time I check back in to see whether anything has changed in evangelicalism (or in a lot of Christianity in general), I come to the conclusion that it hasn’t. And so I go back to the basics.
It’s a strange conclusion to have come to, for a couple of reasons. One is that I’m a philosopher, and in most cases philosophers really want to get into the weeds of theology. It’s where we think the intellectual stuff lives. And, to tell the truth, I enjoy that too, at least as a mental exercise. The fact is, a great deal of philosophy we see in European history is already hinted at by theologians and mystics, in some cases centuries earlier (non-European traditions are usually more complicated, mostly because the division between what Westerners think of as faith and philosophy doesn’t divide as neatly).
But I’m largely uninterested in proving the propositions about Christianity – the existence of God, the nature of God, all the rest. The problem is with the idea that any of this has to do with propositions at all, with beliefs we hold in our heads about things. That’s baked into evangelicalism, but most don’t see that it’s a philosophical commitment from the 19th century, not a religious commitment from the Bible. It’s something people brought to faith, they didn’t get it from faith.
Another reason this is a strange conclusion for me to have come to is that I’m very interested in the places we inhabit. The details of the faith are like the place of that faith. And yet, as I’ve noted before, if you go into any Christian bookstore in North America, you’ll be struck by the fact that there’s almost nothing about that place, that history of the faith. It’s been erased, it’s not part of the story. The story that’s told is one of a set of events that happened at the time of Jesus, and then nothing up until the last time your church met on Sunday. This faith comes from no place at all. It is just some interior fantasy of being close to Jesus that is supposed to cause you to be a better person. There it is again – get your abstract concepts straight, and your action will follow. Do bad things (i.e., things not legible in the script of faith as prescribed by your social control group/church), and it’s evidence that your concepts are messed up and you need to repent. It’s just bad epistemology, but it is never ever questioned. It hides behind the veil of piety.
One might think that my stripped down version (love the lord and love your neighbour) is some sort of universalized faith, something that Muslims and Jews and even Buddhists (who we might ask whether they have a god at all) might also say in their own way. And maybe that’s true, but here’s where my sense of place comes in – it does matter how this is expressed. Not because one is right and the others aren’t (that’s another propositional question I’m uninterested in). Because these stand as ways of making those loves concrete. They stand in their own traditions, and each at its best helps me to see the scope and limits of my own way of thinking about those core loves.
My own Mennonite background has its story, one of loving in the face of persecution, seeing the divine in the mundane, working for peace in its most profound sense, and making some really great food. I see God in my Muslim friends, and Jews, and every other tradition, along with those who are not part of any of these and embrace a rationalist world. I see God in the rainbow world of LGBT folk. I see God in the range of racial performances that people have, and in ability and disability.
Obviously, those in those spaces might not use the words that I do, but we all come to the world from below. We are all immanent, rooted in our places, and we bring with us a lens that allows us either to reduce everything into our own terms (that’s what evangelicals mostly do – everyone is either sinner or saint, the rest doesn’t matter), or find a way to help create what is best about someone, what is most Godlike. Peoples’ identities don’t lie within themselves, they lie between us. Loving means making the space for someone to be the best of who they are, in their own terms.
The result of not loving, on the other hand – well, we see it all around us. People forced into restrictive scripts about who they are. Racism and sexism and homophobia and Islamophobia and antisemitism and white supremacy are some of those scripts, each having many variations. They get written into our institutions and history and, yes, our churches as well. These are refusals to see God in someone, and they are the opposite of Christianity.
Someone recently called me a “nice guy”. I instinctively recoiled. I really usually go more for pain-in-the-ass, provocateur. Maybe on some days the male version of women who say fuck a lot, but mostly not (that’s usually just a social media posture, a curation of the self that seems just a bit too desperate).
Nice guy is what you say about also-rans, about people looking for social approval. I don’t want to be nice. I want to look for the image of God in people, and love that. All people, not just the ones some church has determined have earned it. Mostly I think I just see that image through a glass darkly, don’t do justice to what’s really there. The goal, though, is clear, even if the ways of reaching that goal are difficult.
I feel like Rachel Held Evans might have been a fellow traveler on this path, someone who recognized the difference between the socially constructed church that masquerades as faith and actual lived faith. I feel like she’s someone who understood what love meant. And, so, I’m sorry to see that she’s gone, and so young. I can only hope that those influenced by her, who are still invested in elements of the church she came out of, can pick up her torch and carry on her voice.