I have had this blog post percolating for awhile in my head but today seems like a good day to write it. It will be long and meandering so it will probably only be of interest to close friends. That’s ok because this is my blog and I write it mostly for myself.
For those of you who know me, I’m a free-thinking Mennonite, drawn to the tradition’s emphasis on Jesus’ radical teachings on nonviolence and social justice. I’m also a seminary student and work part-time at my church in peace ministry.
But I also have lots of doubts about the Bible and orthodox Christianity, especially regarding the issue of atonement and hell. In fact, I should rephrase that. I don’t have doubts anymore, I just don’t believe that way. I do not think that God has an insatiable blood thirst to kill and torture sinners that is only quenched by a substitute human sacrifice of his own son.
I remain committed to my church and faith tradition because I believe in the power of community and Mennonite ethics (as I discussed in a previous blog post) but I have felt a longing for a spirituality that I have not found there (or in any other Christian tradition).
Explorations in Judaism
My wife and I have fallen in love with Jewish faith practice over the last couple of years (something she has written about on the website Kveller.com here and here). We love the tradition’s orientation of having most of the rituals and holidays centered on the family and home, but also we love the tradition’s embrace of free-thinking and even disagreement. We began our observance with Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) two years ago, then we started celebrating shabbat (sabbath) with joyful Friday-night shabbat dinners and at least an attempt to maintain our restfulness into Saturday. Then we started doing other holidays – Sukkot, Tu Bishvat, Haunakah, Passover, Purim, and Yom Kippur. We tried to be faithful to the traditions by reading heavily from a mix of Jewish authors, but also adapted some elements to our family’s context. And then we took it a bit further by adding a nightly singing of the Shema Yisrael to our bedtime routines. And I’m working on learning Hebrew.
We of course aren’t observant in every way. We haven’t made any attempt to do kashrut (kosher) and are taking a more liberal approach to some of the prayers. And we have adopted some services which are traditionally done in a synagogue for home observance. — But this is part of the tradition too. Many liberal Jews (especially from the Reform and Reconstructionist traditions) pick and choose those mitzvot that are life-affirming and meaningful to keep, while not following those mitvot that are not life affirming. I like to think of this as being creatively observant.
It has been a joy doing these things. There of course are moments of tension — times when I wonder if our borrowing of another culture’s faith practices is a kind of cultural misappropriation or not, and times when I wonder if we are just attracted to the exotic and different (rather than the mundane aspects of the Christian traditions we grew up in). But most of the time I feel clarity that these faith practices are in fact transforming me and that God is at work in this.
Spiritual practice brings physical transformation
A recent example of this transformation is going on as we speak. It began shortly before Passover. I told my wife that I was wanting to get serious about getting in shape and losing weight (I am diabetic so this is always a struggle), so she suggested that I begin my diet during passover, by keeping the traditional rules which forbid the eating of chametz (fermented grain products like bread and beer) during the 8 day passover festival. So I decided to do this. I quickly ended up turning this practice into a low-carb diet, in which I ate lots of meat, veggies and dairy but no carbs except those in veggies and those in Matzah (unleavened bread). I also started working out most days of the week.
And then a miraculous (at least in my eyes) thing happened. My yo-yo-ing blood sugar levels evened out. My moods stabilized. I became much less irritable and generally was just happier. Certainly the better diet was a part of it, but I think part of it was also that I was really committing to life-giving spiritual practices, and that this was doing very good things to me.
When Passover ended last week, my wife made another suggestion. Traditionally Jews Count the Omer, a 49 day time of expectancy and waiting for the Torah to come. Many observant Jews refrain from certain actions during this season (not listening to music, attending weddings, etc.) as a way of making this time sacred and a time of mourning for great losses. So my wife said that I should maybe just continue my diet as my way of counting the Omer.
I decided to do this (except that I’m now just eating a limited number of carbs per day — I’m shooting for no more than 80 grams per day, rather than avoiding chametz). I’m also trying to do the daily prayer for the season and maintaining my exercise routine. I make mistakes along the way (I had one bad day when I was depressed and broke down and ate a donut) but I am resolved to keep trying. Obviously this is about my physical health, but I also do believe that our bodies and souls are intertwined and that this will do good in other ways as well.
Questions of Religious Identity
I have been thinking a lot lately about the issue of religious identity (see my previous blog post on my celebrating 10 years at Joy Mennonite Church). I feel very committed to my local congregation. It is faith community that is open to all and that has chosen to maintain its identity as being centered on a commitment to the nonviolent way of Jesus’ teachings. This is something that I can strongly affirm.
At the same time, I’m not sure that I’m a Christian, at least in the way it is often defined. Most people say that a Christian is someone who agrees with the historic creeds of the church and I don’t. I have too many issues with creeds, partly that I’m agnostic on the subjects of Jesus’ supposed virgin birth and resurrection, but also that the creeds pay no attention to the most important part of Jesus’ life: what he taught and how he lived. And most daming of all, I don’t believe that Jesus “died to save us from our sins.” Rather I believe Jesus allowed himself to be martyred (as others have in history) to show us how far one should go for one’s deepest beliefs.
In some ways I think would be more comfortable in the Jewish tradition (seeing Jesus as a great rabbi and teacher but not as a savior) but that leaves me with another problem. The Jewish conversion rituals are all very exclusivistic. So far every school of conversion that I’m aware of asks this question (with some variations in wording) of converts: “Do you renounce all beliefs you may once have held in any other religion?” (examples: here and here) This is not something I am comfortable with.
Does embracing Judaism mean that I have to forget the ethical (and arguably Jewish) teachings of the historic Jesus?
Does embracing Judaism mean that I have to renounce my understanding of the Buddha’s teachings on the way to end suffering?
Does embracing Judaism mean that I have to leave the spiritual community that has made my life so rich and full?
I don’t think so.
And so I will continue to feel more and more Jewish every day, and yet not really be Jewish. I’m praying that someday there might be a way possible for someone like me to find a universalist Jewish community of some kind to connect with. (or else that I am able to someday find that I have Jewish roots somewhere in my family tree) But I want to make this connection without severing the other God-given connections in my life.
Thank you for staying with me in this long and meandering read.