What's Tony Thinking

Believing or Belonging?


I had a chat with a newish friend the other day about matters of faith, religion, God, Jesus, etc. It is a conversation that I have had with lots of people over the years. Sometimes I feel like a “father confessor” to the disenchanted. While each person and conversation is unique, there are some common patterns and themes.

It starts this way. “I’m not religious (Christian), but you are and I respect you . . . can you tell me why, or what it’s about for you?” Or, the opener may be, “Can I tell you about my not-faith/ nagging questions/ bad experiences of church?” Usually we move back and forth between the two — my story and their story.

One common thread is that most have had some religious background/ upbringing which they rejected during their teenage years. It may have been that they experienced whatever religious community they were part of as hypocritical. Or they were part of a fear-based church that essentially said, “Believe this/ act this way or you’re going to hell.” Sometimes church/ religion were the focus of an on-going disagreement between their parents, making religion/ church a matter of choosing sides and extension of family conflict.

I was, in retrospect and by comparison, very fortunate to have a positive experience in a liberal Congregational church with people I loved and respected, and who loved and cared about me. That had two consequences. One, church was for me a good place and good people. Second, being a liberal church (or maybe because I wasn’t paying attention) I learned almost nothing about the bible or Christian theology there. We were more the “nice people doing good things in the world,” type of church.

In any event, one common thread is that the religious education/ faith formation of my conversation partners, whether good or ill or in between, ended in their teenage years. What they knew then, or thought they knew, was “the Christian (or Jewish) faith.” Though the teenage experience may have been 30 or 40 years in the past, what they were taught, or what they had caught then, was all they knew of the faith and defined it for them. 

For example, in one recent conversation, my friend said, “The whole God thing, I just don’t get it.” She had no idea what it would mean to say, “I believe in God.”

I confessed to her that even as I was going off to seminary, I was pretty much in that same boat. I believed in some kind of transcendent mystery and experience. I didn’t believe God was an old man in the sky with a long white beard or a puppeteer pulling the strings. I wasn’t sure if I really believed in God, which bothered me and made me feel a little guilty as I entered seminary. What in the world am I doing here? Did I belong here? Was I an imposter?

But once there I realized I had almost no content to give to the word “God,” and not much more for “Jesus Christ.” “God” was a vague concept, a kind of sacred blur. Study of Scripture and theology began to give content to “God,” “Jesus Christ,” and “the Holy Spirit,” and much more. Over time and with study I could, in good faith, say, “I believe/ trust in the God of creation, the God of exodus, the God of crucifixion and resurrection.” “I believe/trust in this particular God defined by a particular story, and not in just some sacred blur or amalgam of God and Country.

The people with whom I am in conversation have rejected the understanding of God they had at age 14 or 16, and they stop there, that’s it. They were not blessed, as I was, to have a chance to go deeper, to correct mis-perceptions, and to be guided by teachers and mentors I respected and loved.

In this particular conversation, my newish friend was really stuck on what she called, “the dogma.” “I just don’t buy it.” As noted, she was rejecting her childhood/ teenage understanding of “the dogma.”

I said, “I wonder if that’s really the place to start?” I went on. “Maybe it doesn’t start with ‘believing,’ but with ‘belonging.'”

I continued, “If you are interested in religious faith or Christianity, maybe don’t start with ‘do I believe?’ or ‘I don’t believe’ what I think Christians believe or are supposed to believe or what I think they believe.

Start, by finding a congregation, a community, where you find joy and love, where people love one another (inevitably imperfectly), where it’s okay to have and to ask questions, and where there are people whom you respect and admire. See if it’s a place/ people where you find a sense of belonging, of community. Let the other stuff come gradually and organically.

In other words, don’t start by asking yourself “do I believe Jesus is my Lord and Savior,” (you have no idea what that even means, I certainly didn’t), or “do I believe the Apostles (or some other) Creed?” which would at this stage be crazy. You don’t start with believing, but with belonging. At least that’s how I think it works for most people. I’m sure there are some exceptions.”

To be a Christian is to be part of a congregation, a community. That’s the form Christianity always takes. Start there. Find a community that feeds you, that feels right. And see where that takes you. That isn’t to say that “Belonging” and “Believing” are wholly separate domains. It’s all kind of mixed together in real life. But it starts, I’d say, with community and relationships.


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