Last year April Kelsey wrote a viral post for this blog which played off the phrase “deeply held religious belief.” I’m sure we all know Christians who seek to justify injustices and prejudices on the basis of their deeply held religious beliefs. I suspect we are all guilty of this to some degree.
I would like to suggest that the two people most responsible for our Christian faith today, the historical Jesus and the Apostle Paul, were first and foremost shaped by deeply moving religious experiences that in turn helped form their deeply held religious beliefs.
Many of us learned of the story of Paul’s conversion (scholars today opt for the word “calling”) to the living Christ in Sunday School. Paul mentions it in at least three of his authentic letters (Galatians, 1 Corinthians, Philippians) and Luke imaginatively offers his take on the encounter in three separate places in Acts (9, 22, 26).
Before this encounter there is no question that Paul clung to some deeply held religious beliefs. Unhealthy, life-diminishing beliefs are held by their adherents just as strongly as those who hold to healthy, life-affirming beliefs. My point here is that Paul’s transformation was the result of an encounter with the unconditional forgiveness and love of God expressed through Christ. His experience served to reshape and reform what he believed about God.
According to the Synoptic Gospels, it was a divine experience that sent Jesus out healing, preaching, and teaching about the kingdom of God. At his baptism by John, Jesus experienced the Spirit in a way that sent him forth as God’s agent bearing good news to the poor and marginalized (Mark 1:9-11; par. Matt. 3:13-17, Luke 3:21-22).
Who can doubt that Jesus’s practice of welcoming all to an open table, his indiscriminate healing of all kinds of people, his readiness to confront the status quo, and his challenge of a tit-for-tat holiness system based on worthiness were rooted in his experience of God as Abba?
For both Jesus and Paul, their experience of the Divine trumped religious beliefs based on tradition and scripture alone. Their first-hand encounter with God’s love and grace compelled them to live lives of compassion and service for the good of others.
The only hope we have that Christian faith might be transformed today lies here. We will not by reason, logic, intuition, and common sense persuade people to be more inclusive, equitable, gracious, and just. God knows I’ve tried!
The only thing that will ultimately transform any of us into more forgiving, compassionate, inclusive, and self-giving people and communities will be first-hand experiences of God’s rich, magnanimous, persistent, and unconditional love.
Chuck Queen is a Baptist minister and the author of Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith. Chuck blogs at A Fresh Perspective, and is also a contributor to the blog Faith Forward and Baptist News Global.