Pilgrimage Day 6: Walking home to a different Christ
I have arrived in Daventry, the town I grew up, the town in which I became a Christian, and later became a homophobe.
I made the mistake of thinking I knew the area well enough not to consult the map too often. But I came off the canal towpath too soon, spending the second half of my walk along the side of an A-road that temporarily dampened my spirits in the same way that they had been lifted by the friendliness of people around the canal. Eventually, I arrived at my mother’s house, where I’m staying tonight. I’ve already enjoyed her good and familiar cooking.
I often to come to Daventry to visit my mother, my sister, brother-in-law, nephew and niece, but my visit today seemed to bring up far more memories. This was partly because of its significance as part of my pilgrimage of repentance and partly because of the angle I entered Daventry from. I walked through the Grange – the council estate where I grew up – and passed several places I hadn’t seen for years. I was living on the Grange when I became a Christian in my late teens.
In some ways, I had a rather strange sense of coming home, both physically and mentally. I became a Christian because of a wonderfully liberating, empowering, challenging and uplifting encounter with Christ. I felt that God was calling me to engage more fully with my thoughts and experiences and to seek to live up to the challenge of following the teachings of Jesus and the spirit of Christ within.
Joining a church was also a very positive experience, but over time I accepted the church’s opposition to same-sex relationships and then get involved in more extremist forms of Christianity (mostly outside that church) that bordered on fundamentalism.
It is sometimes assumed that the more “conservative” interpretations of a religion are by definition the most authentic forms of it. This is ridiculous. Fundamentalism is essentially a modern idea, as religious groups have reacted to the diversity of faiths and cultures by insisting that no religion or worldview other than their own contains even an element of truth. As a teenager, I accepted the literal interpretation of six-day creation and denied the reality of evolution.
I didn’t realise then that literal creationism is a fairly recent idea. Prior to the Enlightenment, people routinely understood that something could convey truth without being literal fact. Rationalism and modern science changed this understanding. Fundamentalists who insist that the world was literally created in six days are thus buying into the very rationalism that they see themselves as opposing.
As I read Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (part of the New Testament) while sitting on the canal towpath today, I was reminded of the exciting Christ that had greeted me when I became a Christian shortly before my eighteenth birthday. Christ was challenging, questioning, thought-provoking. Why did I turn him into a legalist, forgetting that some of his harshest words were saved for those Pharisees who seemed to think that they could earn God’s favour by following detailed rules while neglecting love and compassion.
Legalistic Christianity is far from being the most “authentic” form of Christian faith. It is alien to the teachings of the New Testament. In Galatians, Paul expressed his fury and frustration at those Gentile Christians who had abandoned a commitment to the Spirit of Christ with a devotion to Old Testament laws.
“In Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything,” declared Paul, “The only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Galatians 5,6).
Paul would be horrified that many Christians now snatch lines of his writings out of context to justify a legalism that he wanted to free people from. Today, I was remembering the Christ I experienced inwardly as a teenager. I read Paul’s insistence that those who live by the Spirit will not satisfy the desires of their selfish nature (or “the flesh” as he puts it). He stated bluntly, “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law” (Galatians 5,18). Or, as John Henson’s translation Good As New puts it, if you are led by the Spirit, “you don’t need rules”.
Living by the Spirit is very hard. I for one fail to do so most of the time. But it is what Jesus and the New Testament call us to. It is much harder than following a set of rules, but at the same time much more fulfilling and liberating – like the Christ I encountered as a seventeen-year-old.
This seems to me to be very relevant to our debates about sexual orientation. To paraphrase Paul, in Christ Jesus neither homosexuality nor heterosexuality counts for anything. What counts if faith working through love.