David Borger Germann is a pastor at an eclectic nondenominational church in Iowa City, Iowa. Josh Bard is a God-curious, sometimes-practicing, frequently-questioning Jew. Below is an edited for time email correspondence they had for The Prompt Magazine’s Preach! prompt.
Hey David! I thought we could have an interesting conversation about religion, coming from not only different religious beliefs, but also different beliefs about religion, in general. I think one of my biggest hang ups is that religion often seems to cause more harm than good. How do you approach that as a pastor? And does it ever make you question your faith?
To clarify, I don’t think we can make a wholesale argument about “religion” (which may include beliefs, doctrines, rituals, spiritual practices, institutions, and more) being harmful or good because I think the various aspects of religion become good or harmful depending on how they are used. Some use Christianity for good, some for harm. Having said that, there’s no doubt that many aspects of Christianity have been used badly. We can see a toxic form today in the white Christian nationalism that played a crucial role in the January 6th insurrection attempt where many in the crowd weaponized Christian prayers, songs, and symbols in support of their violence. Sadly, using Christianity to justify violence fits well within a long history of such horrors.
As a pastor, I see my role as helping create a community that practices Christianity in helpful, life-giving ways, not just for our own sake but for the flourishing of our neighbors and the world. If a belief or practice doesn’t produce human flourishing, we acknowledge it and leave it behind. For example, the overwhelming majority of Christian traditions still do not allow women in senior leadership roles (senior pastors or priests). This is harmful, so it needs to go. At my own church, our senior pastor is a woman. We also fully embrace LGBTQ people in every aspect of church life and leadership, which departs from the vast majority of Chrisitan traditions.
In a way, the answer to Christianity’s harm is simple: Practice it differently.
That makes sense to me. I imagine it is constantly infuriating to be giving people tools to help others flourish and then see people take those tools and weaponize them or turn them into something so selfish.
I remember a (very smart and advanced) high school classmate explaining to the class that the horrific transgressions in the Catholic church in regards to the minors working with the clergy didn’t change her belief in religion, just in the men who held power in the system. I always remember that because I thought it was so profound and interesting.
Yet, just like when it comes to politics, I often exhaust myself chasing down the hypocrisies of the system, and shouting “AH-HA!,” and ignoring all of the tangible benefits along the way. Obviously, it’s a lot easier to find the glaring inconsistencies than to challenge myself in a more introspective and spiritual way. Maybe I just wonder if religion, or the people who say they speak for religion, takes credit for the good stuff and passes the buck on the bad stuff.
I resonate with all that you’re naming. Your high school classmate isn’t wrong to separate her faith from the abuses in the church. At the same time, it’s hard to watch Christians do exactly what you say: claim special access to God and “Truth” without taking full responsibility when that “Truth” produces awful systems and people.
This dynamic is one of the most frustrating parts of being a person of faith (besides the fact that God doesn’t take my advice and recommendations on how to run everything). A regular part of my job consists of meeting with people to help them heal from the wounds that they have received in former Chrisitan communities. Christianity is supposed to be a faith that contributes to liberation and healing. And yet it just as frequently delivers the opposite.
What do you think would be the characteristics of a good religion?
OOOH, good question! For me, the things that I think about as the characteristics of a good religion often overlap with the things that I think make for good philosophy or moral code. Those traditional tenets like doing good for others before yourself, being thoughtful and understanding (to yourself and others), creating an inclusive community, and keeping any “rules” simple and logical. Ideally those rules would be incorruptible, but I don’t live in a fantasy world so, as incorruptible as possible.
In Judaism, I feel like rules are SUCH a big part of the learning. You can do this. You can’t do this. You shouldn’t do this on this day. You can eat this, but you definitely can’t eat that, and this, you can eat only outside the house. And for reasons that might have made sense in the times of the first people, but today have no basis in logic.
I don’t know if my religion needs to have a god, or to be steeped in some of the miraculous lore of biblical stories. I think asking people to suspend disbelief of the things they can’t see or will never see gets to this murky place where we need to take someone else’s word for it, and then we are prone to falling back down this hole of potentially being taken advantage of by the bad players. I want to value critical thinking and not just accepting passed-down groupthink, which seems to plague so much of the religions I have encountered or read about.
Do you ever feel like you wish you could pick and choose pieces of Christianity, without taking all of it on?
First, let me say that I share your concern about groupthink. At its best, religion can foster a healthy sense of belonging and security that all humans need. But that can come with a risk of the community turning towards ideological extremes. One of the things my own church does to lower that risk is that we explicitly identify doubt as an inherent aspect of faith. Every Sunday our announcements include the line, “We welcome belief and doubt, devotion and exploration.” Creedal consent is not a requirement for participation or membership at my church.
As far as picking and choosing from the tradition, every Christian is a cafeteria Christian. In part this is because no one gets to decide what must be on the menu. Protestants and Catholics can’t even agree on what is scripture, for example. Theo bros on Twitter will argue endlessly about the minimum requirements for orthodox Christianity, but there’s no real basis for their argument. They may as well be arguing about the best Ben & Jerry’s flavor of ice cream. (It’s Coffee Toffee Bar Crunch).
I have happily come to embrace the reality that faith is grounded in preferred values and feelings, not facts or objective truth. All of us adopt the faith that suits us. All of us choose a god that could be real to us (to borrow a phrase from Nancy Ellen Abrams). Some prefer a god who saves them but sends unbelievers (the vast majority of humans) to hell, for example. They choose fidelity to that god because it makes them feel special, like they are part of the elite ingroup that has a backstage pass to heaven. I do not prefer to worship that god, nor do I hold that view on the afterlife. It doesn’t work for me. Am I wrong about that? Could the god who sends billions to hell be the one true god? Perhaps. We have no way to verify who’s right or wrong about matters of faith. So in the meantime, I’ll keep going to a different part of the cafeteria for my preferred beliefs and values.
Let me ask another question about the good stuff religion may offer. For me, my faith helps me tap into the spiritual, or transcendent, qualities of human existence. When I pray, I feel infinite. I feel bliss. What does that for you?
Well, besides Toffee Bar Crunch, hmmm… For me, I get that invincible feeling and total bliss from quality time with loved ones. Seeing the successes of loved ones. Consuming inspiring art (for me, most frequently TV and movies). Athletic and physical achievements. Direct sunlight. Creative collaboration with others. Surpassing goals. Evoking a smile. A compliment of the highest order.
Maybe because I am not a particularly spiritual person, but my list is (unintentionally) quite disparate from traditional aspects of religion and faith. I wonder, though, if people with more moments of bliss gravitate more towards faith, presumably to thank a higher power for their gifts, or if people with less bliss gravitate more towards faith, trying to find or appeal to a god who can bring them the successes they are seeking.
Thanks, I appreciate all you’re naming. I can’t tell if there are common characteristics in humans that make them turn towards the spiritual or religious. I just wish that those who did make that turn would treat those who didn’t with all the generosity and compassion they themselves would want to receive.