Chapel Hill: Community

July 15, 2014

On Faith: Our beliefs are not as cut and dried as think they are

This week, I had an intense discussion with one of my favorite bridge players who said she was not persuaded that belonging to a particular denomination is really important for a Christian.

This week, I had an intense discussion with one of my favorite bridge players who said she was not persuaded that belonging to a particular denomination is really important for a Christian.

After all, she said, each of us has our own experience of God and probably don’t agree with any of the other members of a particular church or even with the theological statements in our particular church’s Big Book.

On this point, I totally agree:

You would be hard pressed to find two fellow church members (or even two clergy persons for that matter) who could agree exactly on a list of theological ideas that are common to most denominations.

Things like the meaning of baptism, communion, salvation, the life hereafter and God’s Eternal Plan can spark heated debate. And questioning some things like whether Adam and Eve were real or mythological characters, or whether the book of Jonah is history or myth may provoke armed combat.

Over the years as a religion writer, I got asked quite often such questions as “Are you saved?” and if so, “When did it happen?” Also, some readers wanted to know my denominational choice.

On the matter of denomination, newspapers used to tell writers not to disclose that information. I disagreed on this, along with some other newsroom practices that were considered sacrosanct.

My argument was that none of us, including editors and reporters, can claim we are totally objective, when in reality we are totally subjective, writing out of who we are and the experiences we have had. The only thing we can promise our readers is that we will make every effort to be fair.

In religion writing, this means giving the snake handlers and the man who comes in claiming to be Jesus the same time and attention we give any other group or individual who claims to represent a religious group or cult, as the case may be.

I am a Presbyterian, probably not by choice, because I grew up in this tradition. And that’s one reason for choosing a particular church. This doesn’t mean that when you find time to read the church’s theological Big Book, you won’t get a few surprises.

Hey, one time I asked my daddy, a Presbyterian elder, do we really believe this? I don’t think so!

I remember the day one of my sons, 12 at the time, said, “Mama, you say we are Presbyterians, but I want you to know I may decide to be a Catholic.”

Trying to hold the car in the road, I said something to the effect that if he wanted to talk with the local priest, I would help him arrange it. (For the record, he’s not a Catholic, but then he’s not a Presbyterian either.)

My readers have always known my religious affiliation and for the most part, nobody seems to care either way, although I sometimes get friendly teasing from preachers and religion professors about being a part of “the frozen chosen.”

Now on the matter of salvation. Here’s my answer:

Yes, I am saved. It happened about 2,000 years ago on a hilltop outside Jerusalem. (I must credit the Rev. Haywood Holderness, former pastor of Westminster Presbyterian in Durham, for this line. This was his suggestion when I asked for advice about the “Are you saved?” question.)

This may well be my very own departure from the books of theology, but I believe that salvation is a done deal and that what the church is trying to do is get people to live like the people they already are, the Children of God.

There’s an interesting online site that touts itself as “A simple, clear and accurate way to examine your beliefs and figure out which denomination would be most appropriate for you.”

This website is just for fun, but choosing a church is a serious matter and just like marriage should not be entered into without serious consideration.

Go online and search for “Christian Denominational Selector.” You’ll find a list of 24 questions to answer on basic Christian doctrine. Answer the questions, punch the button and get an answer based on the information you provided.

In my case, the answer came back Episcopal, Anglican and liberal Lutheran at 100 percent agreement. Evangelical Lutheran, United Methodist and Presbyterian USA were all 91 percent agreement.

OK, so I’m not 100 percent Presbyterian. Does anybody care?

I do believe belonging to a Christian community is important for other reasons, including the need to worship God and to share in Christian fellowship as well as to have a venue or platform from which to operate as a Christian in the world.

My ideal church never stops teaching and helping me understand what it means to be a follower of Jesus, right here, right now as an older American, greatly blessed but often challenged and tested.

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