For almost a decade now, I’ve been thinking about the concept of ‘redeeming my roots’.
Please let me explain what I mean.
Before I became a Christian, I was a reasonably open-minded individual. Working from the foundation of a basic liberal worldview, I was an advocate for freedom and equality and the necessity of a good classical liberal arts education as the corner stone of a strong society. From that foundation, the framework of my political and philosophical outlook on life was built around a fairly strong suspicion of authority, taking the shape of anarchism.
Rage Against The Machine’s self-titled debut album became the soundtrack of my political journey. This worldview was predominantly furnished in the style of libertinism, with a few somewhat awkward hints of humanitarianism thrown in the mix.
I may not have been able to explain how all of this fit together, but I was only about 17 or 18 at the time.
Now, obviously, not all of this was good.
My relentless pursuit of pleasure meant that I spent most of my time drunk, about to get drunk, or thinking about getting drunk, and my inclination towards anti-authoritarianism was polluted by my own pain and anger in regards to my then lost relationship with my father. This was made manifest in some less than helpful ways.
The problem, though, is that the whole construct was pretty much swept away by a certain fundamentalism when I became a Christian.
Please let me be clear: the people who walked beside me in my formative years as a Christian were (and are) some truly wonderful people. I remember clearly the love that was shown to me in the small country town church that I started to attend on Sunday mornings after spending the previous night out on the town. With little or no sleep, and either very badly hungover or still drunk, I would walk into this small congregation – reeking of Jim Beam – only to be hugged warmly on arrival by a woman who must have been about 135 years old and who needed to stand on a chair to reach me.
The problem was not at all the people themselves. They were very well meaning, dear people. The problem was, rather, that the predominant theological influences on me at this time were all pretty much fundamentalist.
Under the guise of ‘submitting to authority’ (and being warned more times than I care to remember that “rebellion is witchcraft”), I moved strongly, yet always uncomfortably, towards authoritarianism and anti-intellectualism. The pinnacle of this sort of anti-intellectualism, I recall, was trying to have a conversation with a really good highschool friend about 6-Day Creationism. I remember seeing the alarmed look in her eyes that moved from astonishment to pity through the duration of the conversation. I (sadly) read Left Behind, and somehow became convinced that ‘good’ Christians never questioned support for Israel and were uncompromisingly conservative in political affiliation. I began to believe that homosexuality was somehow like a toxic gas that corrupted everything it touched and was the arch-enemy of ‘decent’ family values.
I threw away all my formerly-favourite CDs, including Rage Against The Machine.
Worst of all, I began moving towards a position that regarded my former humanitarian inclinations as some kind of bankrupt emotional drivel. ‘The Gospel’, I was told, was about ‘getting people saved’. What good would feeding the hungry be if they were destined for (a literal) hell, after all?
Now, not all of this was bad.
Before I became a Christian I guess I was a bit of a no-hoper. I remember my friends’ parents (who often randomly found me passed out on their floors on a Saturday morning) rebuking my friends when they laughed at me for getting a part-time job as a night-fill worker at Woolworths. Their argument, it seems, was that this would probably be the high point of my life and I should be affirmed in reaching my fullest potential.
When I became a Christian, I started getting my act together. I finally found direction in my life and started working hard and saving for theological college. I had goals. I had purpose. I found some discipline.
The problem was that I quickly began to lose much of what made me me. I started conforming to some kind of cookie-cutter Christianity that wasn’t so much concerned with me as an individual but was rather more focused on spitting out good little conservative automatons who wouldn’t question what they were told and would become engaged in the valiant work of defending the Truth against all manner of immorality and heresy, with fingers firmly implanted in ears so as not to be polluted by such things.
And thus, since about 2004, I have been on a quest of working through all of this and [re]discovering what it actually means for Josh “Jack” Dowton to be a Christian.
This journey was, in part, kicked off by my theological studies where I was fortunate enough to be guided by some extraordinarily intelligent and faithful individuals who encouraged me to think again. I was also helped by the work of N.T. Wright (who showed me that ‘the Gospel’ is much broader, and much better news, than is often portrayed by conservative Evangelicals), and by groups such as the Micah Challenge. I remember in 2004 putting up a Micah Challenge poster in the room that the church youth group I ran met in, which spoke of the Millennium Development Goals and the need for Christians to be involved in this cause. I remember also copping a bit of flack for it, but nevertheless remaining convinced that this sort of thing was central to being Christian, even if I wasn’t exactly sure how it all fit together.
What I’ve been trying to work out, then, is what needs to be ‘redeemed’ from this former me, and what needs to be thrown away (both from the ‘old’ [pre-Christian] me, and from the ‘mindless conservative Christian’ me).
It has been, and still is, an interesting journey.
While I am still very much convinced that a certain transformation must take place in the process of becoming a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, I am nevertheless convinced that this transformation takes into consideration what truly makes someone themselves and is not about simply producing clones. While I am convinced that, for the Christian, there needs to be a process of ‘dying to oneself’, I am nevertheless convinced that this does not mean a total disfiguring of one’s identity, but is rather about putting off the selfishness that plagues humanity and embracing self-sacrificial love that is best illustrated in the life and teaching of Jesus.
This is a difficult process, but I think it is also a rewarding one.
As such, I have entered into this process over the last 9-or-so years, and I think the process still has a fair way to go. In some ways, it’s almost like a second ‘conversion’ experience, though it has taken a lot longer than the first one. I have realised that some of my pre-Christian impulses were very good ones and have, for example, ‘redeemed’ my humanitarian tendencies through the belief that all of humanity somehow bears the ‘image of God’ and each individual is thus deserving of respect and dignity. I am convinced that poverty causes this dignity to be diminished, and that where this image is disfigured in one we are all implicated. I have re-embraced my inclination towards freedom through the lens of the prophetic impulse that weaves throughout the scriptures and which strives towards liberty and fullness of life. I have even allowed myself to listen to RATM again, even though my philosophy these days can more more accurately be described as grace against the machine.
I am sure, though, that many people would simply suggest that it is a slow move to theological ‘liberalism’. Perhaps it is. Perhaps, though, there is far more to this Christianity thing than being worried about the labels ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’.