I know many of my friends who will look at me with a side-eye for discussing my thoughts on God, but it is what it it is. I do believe in God, albeit not some bearded old white man looking benevolently upon us from on high. Here are three pieces I’ve written outlining a few things I believe.
This post is however a culmination of thoughts I’ve had over the years regarding my relationship with Christianity. Think of it as a new relationship with it.
Kobby vs. Christians
It was recently brought to my attention by someone dear to me that I speak with a degree of bitterness when it comes to Christianity.
I have heard this before: once or twice right here on this blog. But there was something different in the way in which she said it to me. She spoke in a tone devoid of the kind of self-righteousness, arrogance and judgment that made me leave Christianity behind in the first place.
She spoke with Love.
I try to live my life guided by Love and when I am addressing Christians on this blog, I try to speak with Love. I do not apologize for my criticism of Christianity (especially here in Ghana): I humbly suggest that such criticism is both healthy and necessary. Who the cap fits, let them wear it. I do not always hit the mark however, and I would like to apologize to anyone who has ever been hurt by my tone.
Kobby the Christian
If I do feel bitterness towards Christianity, it is for two reasons: my experience of Christianity as a young believer and my observations of Christianity today as a not-quite-believer. Both are linked. I’ve spoken about my past before, but what I haven’t spoken on much is my own journey.
I was raised, baptized and confirmed Methodist, and I was what I would call a ‘cultural Christian’ by the time I was a teenager in Ghana. I talked the talk (said things like, ‘have a blessed day’), regularly attended church, prayed, fasted, sang in Joyful Way, attended Scripture Union, etc, etc.
All these things are things you cannot really avoid as a Ghanaian Christian though: society expects them from you. They do not require a genuine, deeper understanding of your faith. You are taught them since before Sunday School, all the way into your adulthood. I see many young people today engaged in such ‘Christian culture’. You see it all over their social media.
Those things do not Christians make though. At best, they are a foundation. A shaky one at that. Too many cultural Christians are not driven by the kind of Love that was so compelling that Jesus replaced the entire ten commandments with it. Rather, they wear their spirituality for all to see. It is something that they perform. Mostly in public. They judge. They are holier-than-thou. In short, they become the very Pharisees they were taught to despise.
Love is… HARD!
In my experience, Love is kind… but it is also difficult. It requires hard things of its advocates in real life situations. It requires you not to judge but to be tolerant of people who do not share your faith. Show them love and – who knows – they may actually come to faith. If not? That’s between them and God. It’s not for you to advocate against them, gossip about them, judge them or feel better than them. Who are you anyway? By the standards of Christian faith, your goodness is like a dirty rag in the eyes of God. I don’t care if you are even a pastor: who are you exactly to judge?
Love requires us to make peace with those who would argue with us. To not cheat in a society in which it is made very easy for people to have flings and affairs. It requires us to be kind to those who are unkind to us. Basically, it requires the practical application of everything in Galatians 5:22-23
‘But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.’
My foundations in faith were cultural. They were not personal. Yes, I prayed and such. But I hadn’t engaged with God as much as I thought. All those churchy things were for society. They were not for God. They were not even for me, really.
Leaving Faith Behind
In the end, I grew bitter about my experience of faith. My growing contempt for Christian hypocrisy lead me away from Christianity – from Christ – as a whole, especially as I started engaging with the world beyond faith. I discovered people of other faiths and what they believed and I realized that their faiths made sense too. Far beyond signs and wonders. I came to understand – for example – from a Jewish perspective why Jesus was not the Christ, in a way that no pastor had ever explained to me without putting a Christian spin on things without knowing it. I dated a Muslim girl I fell in love with because she was one of the warmest, most kind, most loving people I had ever met. I learned about her faith and I discovered that much of the hate-and-fear-fuelled things I had heard about Islam were gross simplifications.
Meanwhile, so many people told me that the problem was that I was going to the wrong church. So they would always invite me to their church. But in between the good, I would see the same things over and over. Judgment. Hypocrisy. Arrogance. Self-righteousness. Fear. Hate. Xenophobia. Again and again and again. Wrapped up in the clothes of faith and love.
Eventually, I attended Bible classes: such was the extent of my desire to return to faith. The Alpha course helped a little. The first time I attended, I met people who did not judge me for having doubts and for having some very troubling questions. Questions that asking in Ghana had people looking at me funny. About Paul. About original sin. About the Fall. About the translation of scripture. About books left out of the Bible. Et cetera. It helped a little. I decided to attend a second time. This time, I met judgment. People looking at me funny. I left and never looked back.
At that moment, I decided that I had been praying for years for clarity in my soul and I realized that I had been ignoring a message that I had been receiving again and again and again. All the people whose faiths I admired – Christian or otherwise – were defined by their capacity for Love, above and beyond that of the average man or woman on the street. The moment I decided to start living a life guided by the kind of Love that we instinctively know without reading books about it, I experienced peace. A real peace.
Returning to Faith
However, I always suspected that it would all eventually lead me back to faith. I don’t know why. I remember reading Brian McLaren’s ‘A New Kind of Christian‘ – given to me by a friend in Geneva – and feeling incredible excitement. Here was someone expressing my doubts and yet who had managed to stay within the fold. I devoured everything I could find online about things like the Emerging Church movement and the house church movement and so-called progressive Christianity:
- A spiritual vitality and expressiveness, including participatory, arts-infused, and lively worship as well as a variety of spiritual rituals and practices such as meditation
- Intellectual integrity including a willingness to question
- An affirmation of human diversity
- An affirmation of the Christian faith with a simultaneous sincere respect for other faiths
- Strong ecological concerns and commitments
Yes, please: I’ll take two.
Ultimately however, I still could not describe myself as a Christian because I could not think of Jesus as ‘the way, the truth and the life’. I read ‘Mere Christianity’ and admired CS Lewis’ attempt, but found flaws in his lines of logic by chapter three. I have heard no argument that makes me feel that there is something inherently superior about Christianity as a religion to any other religion. After having actually engaged with them, I find it hard to take seriously any religion’s claim to exclusivity over the truth. Importantly however, I am committed to keeping an open mind, an open heart and open ears. I could be wrong.
So Why Engage?
Part of my continued engagement was because I missed two things about Christianity: ritual and communion. I don’t believe in being passive about what you believe in. Love in particular requires you to be active. This means being constantly reminded about it and challenged and such, and organized religion – at its best – has a great way of doing this. It keeps you on your toes. Or – at least – it can. The other thing it is great at is communion: connecting you with people with whom you share faith. Maybe its my Christian upbringing, maybe its human instinct, but I need these things. I miss them.
Ghana: Religious or Hypocritical?
By the time I moved back to Ghana from London, it became even more difficult to find a foothold on any kind of path back to faith again. Simply saying you do not go to church here is such taboo, much less asking the deep kind of questions I have. At least, it seems that way from the outside.
One thing that I humbly think needs to change in Ghana is how conservative we are about Christianity. I know there are those who would disagree and argue that ‘you can’t avoid the Cross’. The problem is that that is exactly what loads of people are doing here. Ghana is supposed to be the most religious country in the world. Yet – beyond church attendance – you cannot see it in our lives as a nation at all. Which suggests that we are the most hypocritical nation on earth. For me, I have always said that I will believe that Ghanaians are really imbibing faith when i see it on the road: when I see people drive in respect of the law and in respect of the dignity and humanity of their fellow man. No more blowing your horn as soon as the light turns green. No more forming third and fourth lanes. No cutting people off. No being on the road without a license. No hurling abuse at people. When we are so soaked in our beliefs that you can see it in the way we drive? Then we can talk about being religious beyond simply going to church.
There are so many different types of Christianity. And I don’t mean different kinds of churches all preaching what is ultimately the same conservative Christian message. I think it is very damning of us that the prosperity gospel is what we seem to have taken to rather than something as pro-poor as liberation theology. Both have their flaws but I don’t even see us critically engaging enough to discern something for ourselves. As Africans. At all. I intend to personally challenge this, especially if I find my way back to faith but even while I haven’t. I apologize in advance to anyone who may take offence, but I think it is the least I can do.
So Where Next?
A few of the things my friend told me – and the Love with which she told them to me (reminiscent of another friend of mine actually) – have helped me to course correct my journey. I have started discussions with people whose opinions I value whose faith I admire too. This new year, as part of a broader set of resolutions, I have decided on a few things:
- A fresh start: I will recognize and shed the bitterness of my previous religious engagement.
- Make more time for reflection, meditation and prayer.
- Commune with fellow truthseekers.
- Actively explore the Bible as imperfectly written but ultimately containing a Thread that I must find, pull out and follow
- Read not around the Gospels but the Gospels themselves.
- Give Paul a chance (this will be very hard)
- Actively encourage critical engagement with faith in replacement of mere faith culture’ at Ashesi
Happy new year, everyone.