I don’t remember a watershed moment when I purposefully let go of the basic assumptions of evangelical fundamentalism. But the fabric of that faith was beginning to show signs of wear by the time Renata and I headed to Morocco in the late 80’s to study Arabic. We ended up in Laraiche, a small coastal city, living in the rooftop lean-to of a poor but hospitable elderly couple, Mustafa and Fatima. Their only daughter, Rachida, 17 at the time, was actually their niece, given to them by a brother who had more than enough children of his own to clothe, an ineffectual attempt to cover up the broader familial disgrace of childlessness. Everyone still knew. Never mind; Rachida brought comfort to the aging couple and for herself the informal adoption was an unintended grace: her new parents were loving, gentle people; her natural father, on the other hand, was known around town for his “black heart”.
Our hosts knew next to nothing about Jesus aside from his name as one of the prophets of Islam, and so in my book they stood as people who, though good-natured and well-intentioned in their adherence to Islam, were spiritually lost, on their way to eternal damnation. Our evenings were spent in the tiny family living room, sitting cross-legged on sheepskins on the floor, drinking strong mint tea and variously listening to Mustafa tell stories from Muslim lore or watching Egyptian soap operas on their ancient black & white television until the national anthem marked the end of the broadcasting day and we all shuffled off to bed with the last line resounding in our heads: “Allah, Al Watan, Al Malik!”.
We grew to love our host family, and to see them with new eyes. In their devotion to God and their love of neighbour they were some of the purest, most peaceful and most upright people we had ever met, Christian or otherwise. How could it be, I wondered, that a loving God would frown on such faith, even send these souls to hell on a technicality so trivial as not having prayed a sinner’s prayer and claimed Jesus as their Lord and Saviour? It didn’t make sense.
And I think it was there, in that time, that I started to suspect that the framework I had inherited and then nurtured in theological college, the way I approached the reading of scripture and understood the significance of Jesus Christ, was faulty from the get-go. Change came slowly to me. Perhaps I’m a slow learner, perhaps I had too much self-interest vested in being an Evangelical missionary and then an Evangelical priest. But change became inexorable. I encountered more and more people whose lives were obviously marked by a love for God and compassion for neighbour, whose faith was deeply rooted in Christ, but whose reading of scripture and whose theological ideas I would previously have summarily written off as unorthodox, heretical even.
I rediscovered my Christianity, and along the way I met Jesus of Nazareth.