I am not perfect which is probably the first and foremost reason I call myself a Christian. I am just beginning this journey and I will not pretend to be more learned than I am. I strive to speak from a place of honest reflection and genuine experience with God. In Ragamuffin Gospel, which I highly recommend to the weary soul, Brennan Manning cites the philosopher Jacques Maritain as saying that the culmination of knowledge is experiential. See, I won’t pretend I have read any Jacques Maritain, but the idea that my knowledge of God could at least begin, if not culminate, in my experiences of him, opened up a tiny crack in that door that I always felt locked outside of.
I was five years old when I remember first hearing about Jesus. We were a family that was big on the, “how much do you love me?” and then you would have to say “this much!” and spread your arms as wide as you could. One evening I was with my grandparents, the Cunningham side, and I asked my grandfather how much he loved me. He said to me, “Now, you know, Jesus Christ is the only man who can ever truly love you”. Looking back, I am sure that these aren’t even the exact words he used, and I’m sure he told me he loved me and kissed me and hugged me and never thought twice about what he had said. But I don’t remember those parts. I do remember the confusion. This isn’t how we played this game grandpa; you can’t just throw someone else into the mix. In the mind of a five year old there are only extremes, the grays in the middle haven’t quite worked themselves out yet. His response led me to believe my grandpa did not love me, that my dad did not love me, that my brother did not love me. I never wanted to know Jesus because in that moment all I knew was that whoever he was, he took something that was certain in my world and rocked it.
We all have memories from childhood of things said to us that stuck. Of words spoken too quick or without context that rocked our world. I think about this much too often. As an adult, it often horrifies me to know that at any moment I could lob a potential lifelong therapy grenade into the young minds around me. I fear for those young minds that soak everything in as an opportunity to build the world around them into something that they can hold onto for dear life. I do not blame my grandfather for what he said to me when I was five years old. Twenty-one years later, I acknowledge that God is with us in those moments when we are tiny and our hearts are confused. I acknowledge that, per the poet Christian Wiman, I think it may be the case that God calls some people to unbelief in order that faith can take new forms. My years of wandering served a purpose for my heart and for my faith.
I don’t think I ever needed convincing that there was something beyond us, beyond this. I stopped praying when I was a young girl but I spoke to God a lot, in the darkest moments and in the moments when I could not believe how lucky I was. I could never quite call myself an atheist no matter how en vogue it seemed, so I went with agnostic because it is fantastically non-committal. More importantly, it did not discount the eternal feeling, deep in my stardust bones that we were made out of something by something else and we are loved beyond comprehension by that divine that made us something out of nothing. I do not believe the problem was the concept of a God existing; the problem was absolutely the American God and the God I was fed everywhere I thought to look.
One of my favorite things about theology is that we embark on this journey of discovering God and in the process we discover each other. Our questions we have had about the possible existence of an all-knowing, all-powerful, wrathful and merciful divine being are not new and in fact, some of the most brilliant minds have pondered them before us. To me, that is radically life changing. It opens up this world of possibility in which we are all free to chime in on the nature of God, and who we understand Him to be. In doing so, we inevitably look inward at what we understand ourselves to be and then we look around ourselves to understand our place among each other. In seeking to understand the nature of God we walk a beautiful tightrope in between human nature, human knowledge, human experience and the overwhelming implications of grace. I have come to understand that my grandpa was trying to point me to what Chesterton calls the “furious love of God”, the entity whose arms could never stretch wide enough.