When I was knee-high to a grasshopper, I collected butterflies. In the ‘70s, when they were far more prolific, I’d enjoy watching buddleias swarming with Small Tortoiseshells, Peacocks and Red Admirals, and I’d seek out more elusive species.
I’d swoop them up in a net, kill them in a special jar using a chloroform-like substance, and set and display them, neatly labelled, in glass or plastic cases. I had all the equipment.
When I was about 13, while watching one flutter to its death in the killing jar, my developing teenage conscience was suddenly horrified by what I was witnessing and I quit the cruelty from that day.
It occurred to me recently that immature religion can be like that. A faith that hasn’t (yet) grown up has a tendency to want to capture God, to display him, neatly labelled, in its cabinets and say, “This is what God is like. These are his ways and his rules, and they are set – like this.”
When an expression of faith fails to develop out of those early stages, it inadvertently (and, of course, metaphorically) kills God. That is, it kills the wonder and the mystery and the beauty of all that is unknown and larger-than-life, larger-than-anything-we-can-know, about our Creator. It says, “We’ve got God all sewn up” and in so doing sets itself up as bigger than God.
Last year I visited a church, where I stumbled into a talk on a topical, sensitive subject. OK, I’ll tell you what it was: the talk was on gender dysphoria and transgender issues.
You see, even as I write this, I’m trying to avoid discussing the subject, because I know so little about it. But then, in a way, that’s my point.
To be fair, the speaker’s attitude was sensitive, his initial comments reflecting on the compassion of Jesus, as described in the Bible, towards people facing their various challenges.
But the content, I have to say, deeply saddened me.
The practical response the young man advocated for the church to take towards people affected by gender dysphoria was singular. Monochrome. One approach, one solution. Not a trace of nuance or room for individual difference.
(And again to be fair to the young speaker, that talk could well have been my own view 25 years ago; I have hope for the faith and wisdom of him and others to progress from such singularity to a more rounded view.)
This is the only stance Christians should take towards people who are transgendered or experiencing gender dysphoria – was the prescriptive message from this church’s pulpit.
Not only that, it was one of those 3-point sermons, so loved by preachers, each point starting with the same letter, for ease of memory.
But Jesus never trivialised the wonderful intricacy of people by reducing them to mnemonics!
Nor did he ever advocate a blanket approach to sensitive issues. You’ve only got to look at the way he healed, or interacted with people, to see a highly individualised approach, with very specific responses to people with ostensibly similar issues.
His preaching and teaching, often by way of parables and stories, opened eyes to see behind the veil, to a way of living beyond the religious rights and wrongs of his day, to a kingdom beyond the mechanistic way of thinking that dominates those who like to capture, set and display God and humanity in their glass cases, with neat labels.
My fascination with butterflies never waned, and now in my 50s I still love to chase them – with my camera.
But even photography is a form of capturing; even photography can detract from the enjoyment and wonder of the world around us. I find that being still and soaking in the sights and sounds of nature can be more worthwhile without a camera to “capture” the moment. Sometimes moments are best lived in, being present in, instead of being measured and recorded.
My relationship with religion – and ergo humanity – is something like that.
I entered a life of faith at the age of 22. In my early days as a Christian, I was happy to be taught right from wrong, not only morally but theologically too. Sound doctrine, the avoidance of heresy, seemed important. And perhaps there is a place for structural teaching in building spiritual foundations in the early years of faith.
But, as we get longer in the physical and spiritual tooth, the kind of faith that lacks nuance and leaves little room for mystery does God and humanity a disservice. Like butterflies in a killing jar, the reality of God is suffocated and the divinely-inspired dignity and diversity of human beings is reduced to a set of tightly-defined ideals.
When our religion grows up, we know less and we love more. We’re content with unknowing and yet we know.
Like ants who “know” the universe they live in, we stand and walk and breathe in God. We are immersed in him. We know little other than his love.
God reveals himself as “I am” – transcendent, indefinable being – and declares that we are made in his image. “We are.” “You are.” “I am.” How amazing is that.
To advocate a single response to a complex and sensitive issue is an insult to the breadth and depth of the challenges faced by real people. Simplistic solutions and tidy typology dumb down the reality of God and deny the complex mystery and wonder of humanity.
These days I tend not to capture or display God, neatly labelled, in glass cases, but to enjoy living in the Eternal Mystery of the I Am.
As someone who deals a lot of the time with mental health issues and other complex needs in my work, I’m also learning not to pigeonhole people, preferring instead to be present with them, sharing the humanity of another person with all the idiosyncrasies that make him “him”, or that make her unique. No glass case, no labels.
Butterflies are best enjoyed in colourful flight.
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