What the Hell is a Christian Agnostic?
Catching Your Breath is the first time I've openly described myself as a Christian Agnostic. Of all the stories and tough questions I shared in the book, it's the one thing everyone seems to want to know more about. So, what the hell is a Christian Agnostic?
The definition I use for "agnostic" in the book is this: a person who holds neither of two opposing positions on a topic.
I guess I also need to define "Christian," since we all have a different opinion on what that actually means. To me, being a Christian is holding the example of Jesus at the center of your life. And what is that example? To me, it means having Love as the motivation for everything you say and do.
And what is Love? The Bible defines love this way:
Love is patient and kind. It isn't consumed with jealousy or bloated with ego. Love isn't disrespectful. It isn't only out for #1. Love celebrates the dignity of each human being who was made in the image of a God who loves us all without condition. Love is slow to anger and quick to forgive. Love doesn't rejoice when evil happens, but chooses to celebrate when Truth prevails. Love is a safe place. You can't love someone you don't trust. But love believes the best of us, even when we aren't quite showing our best self. (Obviously, my paraphrase.)
The Bible also says God is Love. So when you begin to see a combination of patience and kindness, respect and forgiveness, safety and dignity, it's likely you are in the presence of Divine Love.
To me, being a Christian is following the instructions Jesus gave as "the greatest commandment": loving God, myself, and my neighbor to the best of my ability.
I understand Jesus as the ultimate example of Love. Love makes room for others. The love of Jesus was bold, unafraid to speak truth to power. Jesus showed us a kind of love that consistently drew the circle larger, ever-inclusive of outcasts and misfits. The love of Jesus was never based on labels. Jesus was far more concerned with meeting physical needs, rather than debating matters of theology or man-made religious constructs.
So what does "agnostic" have to do with any of this?
I'm glad you asked.
To me, being a Christian Agnostic means I do my best to follow the loving example of Jesus, but as for the ins and outs of Christian history and theology: I don't know. (And to be clear: I'm resting in the I-don't-know-ness of my spiritual journey.) It’s why I love this line by Bob Goff in Everybody Always, “God is less concerned about the people who admit their doubts than the ones who pretend they’re certain.”
I’m more certain than I’ve ever been about this one thing: when it comes to theology, I’m completely uncertain. It's doctrine and dogma that are my struggle, not Love. It's all the other stuff that muddies the water for me.
To me, Love is Divine, and God is Love. Where you find one, you find the other. I see Love as Universal. I've known Buddhists who embody Love. I have Jewish and Sufi friends who are filled with patience and loving-kindness. I even have Atheist friends who lead their lives with Love far deeper than something mere mortals can cook up.
The first inklings of writing Catching Your Breath began at the home of some friends, where a retired Episcopal priest would be talking about oneness and the 8 Habits of Love. I'd been warned that he was one of those "Oprah people," so I knew I was in for a treat.
The Reverend who shared his story that evening wore no collar. A son of south Georgia, his drawl was as familiar as the kindness in his eyes. As he spoke, my mind began to fire on all 8 cylinders, and I wondered if my soul might explode from the compassionate sense of belonging that reverberated in every syllable of this conversation.
Much of what I heard from Ed Bacon that night sounded like a combination of Brennan Manning's Ragamuffin Gospel, Paul Young’s The Shack, and Rob Bell's Love Wins. As I sat on the couch, listening to this dynamic storytelling, I could feel myself being held by the Loving One.
I couldn't get away from the idea that Love is far too great a thing to limit to only one religion or group of people - I had a soulgasm, to put it lightly. Or as Ed says, "a glory attack."
For so long, I had been desperate to believe in the possibility of a God of love. A God of redemption. A God who is more passionate about reconciliation than anything else.
Love is a Crushing
Last week on social media, I shared these lyrics from Ronnie Freeman, "Love has crushed the prison doors."
For the first twenty years of my life, I would have heard that a certain way (with language around sin and freedom). These days, I still connect strongly with the imagery, but I think about it in a slightly different way.
And it still gives me chills.
I'm learning that Love does crush whatever prison we find ourselves in. Either prisons of our own doing, or prisons of pain and woundedness others have tried to build around us.
Love crushes prisons of self-preservation.
Love removes masks of shame.
Love shatters walls of fear.
Love destroys certainty.
It's a paradigm shift for me to think of Love as crushing. I'd much rather think of Love as only kind and comforting, compassionate and tender. And while that is true, Love is also willing to crush anything in its way to get to our hearts and transform our lives.
Daily, consistently, I need Divine Love to come in and crush the fear-based notion that there is anything that could ever separate me from the Love of God. As a Christian Agnostic, I need the crushing weight of Relentless Love to come in and tear down toxic theologies, rooted in fear, shame, guilt, and certainty.
For the first three decades of my life, my hope was built on my ability to out-perform the competition. My constant striving was exhausting, leaving my soul depleted to the point of desperation, resulting in a suicide attempt at the age of 29. In my effort to be perfect in hopes of earning the approval of God and other broken men, I ended up in an ICU hospital room, longing to die.
The truth was staring back at me: the only way I could heal and move forward was for everything to change.
I had to allow the waters of Love to come in and crush my need to perform. Love had to squash my constant striving. I was desperate for Love to wash over my tired soul, pulling the shattered pieces back with the tides.
These days, Love continues to crush me.
Each time I place the unrealistic expectations of others over the truth of my being, I hear the tides drawing closer. Whenever I begin to hustle for my worthiness, I feel the waters lapping against my ankles, begging me to live from my true self, rather than my ego. As my pride swells, Love raises up a mighty roar and brings me back down to earth, back to humility and a place of service.
Love is the great equalizer, reminding us that on our best or worst day, we are all standing on level ground. The ultimate message of Divine Love is this: everyone belongs.
For the longest time, I couldn't understand how one strain of religion could hold the corner market on Divine Love. I saw how my evangelical Christian friends used divisive language, fear-mongering, and shame-based theology to keep us all separated. It never made sense to me that one religion (supposedly based in Love) could set itself up above another. These days, I'm calling bullshit.
I think Jesus is a most excellent example of Divine Love. But I also find that same balance of Love and Truth in the teachings of the Buddha, Gandhi, Rumi, and Mr. Rogers. The difference is that these days, that no longer confuses me. My faith is more full of holes than ever, but I don’t think that makes me less of a Christian.
I'm fully aware that people will read this kind of confession and commit to pray for me in my "struggle," but the truth is, there's no struggle here. I'm perfectly comfortable and confident that Love cannot be labeled as either sacred or secular, "Christian" or not. This is actually the place I've been all along, I'm just finally finding the freedom and courage to admit who I am: uncertain of many things, and desperate for Love's crushing.
So what the hell is a Christian Agnostic? It looks a lot like me.
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Steve Austin was a pastor when he nearly died by suicide. A second chance, a grueling recovery, and years of honest conversation allowed Steve to find healing and purpose. It’s evident in his writing, speaking, podcasting, and coaching: he helps overwhelmed people get their lives back.