“Holy jamoley,” writes the friend who sent me this essay, in which Ana Marie Cox, the snarktastic liberal blogger known as Wonkette, comes out publicly as a Christian. Excerpts:

The only place where my spirituality feels volatile is in my professional life; the only time I’ve ever felt uncomfortable talking about my faith is when it comes up in conversation with colleagues.

It does come up: Since leaving Washington, I have made my life over and I am happier, freer, and healthier in body and spirit and apparently it shows. When people ask me, “What changed?” or, “How did you do it?” or, sometimes, with nervous humor, “Tell me your secret!” I have a litany of concrete lifestyle changes I can give them—simply leaving Washington is near the top of the list—but the honest answer would be this: I try, every day, to give my will and my life over to God. I try to be like Christ. I get down on my knees and pray.

The last time I tried giving that answer was in the Fox News green room and it stopped conversation as surely as a fart, and generated the same kind of throat-clearing discomfort.

She says that living in the closet as a Christian might strike conservatives as evidence of “a liberal media aversion to God.” In fact, she says:

I’m not scared that non-believers will make me feel an outcast. I’m scared that Christians will.

This, because of the recent foofarah in which some prominent conservatives publicly doubted the Christian faith of the president. Cox goes on:

Here is why I believe I am a Christian: I believe I have a personal relationship with my Lord and Savior. I believe in the grace offered by the Resurrection. I believe that whatever spiritual rewards I may reap come directly from trying to live the example set by Christ. Whether or not I succeed in living up to that example is primarily between Him and me.

My understanding of Christianity is that it doesn’t require me to prove my faith to anyone on this plane of existence. It is about a direct relationship with the divine and freely offered salvation. That’s one of the reasons that when my generic “there must be something out there” gut feeling blossomed into a desire for a personal connection to that “something,” it was Christianity that I choose to explore. They’ll let anyone in.

To be clear, I don’t just believe in God. I am a Christian. Decades of mass culture New Ageism has fluffed up “belief in God” into a spiritual buffet, a holy catch-all for those who want to cover all the numbers: Pascal’s wager as a roulette wheel and not a coin toss. Me, I’m going all in with Jesus. It’s not just that the payoff could be tremendous, it already has been! The only cost is the judgment that comes from others, from telling people that my belief has a specific shape, with its own human legacy of both shame and triumph.

Here’s where her essay really connected with me:

One of the most painful and reoccurring stumbling blocks in my journey is my inability to accept that I am completely whole and loved by God without doing anything. That’s accompanied by a corresponding truth: There is nothing so great I can do to make God love me more.

Because before I found God, I had an unconsciously manufactured higher power: I spent a lifetime trying to earn extra credit from some imaginary teacher, grade-grubbing under the delusion that my continuing mistakes – missed assignments, cheating, other nameless sins – were constantly held against me.

And I knew in my heart that failure was inevitable.

I thought when I read this, You too? I say that as someone who had found God in his twenties, but who didn’t have this particular burden lifted from him until just over one year ago, thanks mostly to reading Dante. I tell this story in my forthcoming book How Dante Can Save Your Life, so I don’t want to spoil it here. In broad outline, though, even though a professed Christian, I had never really believed that God loved me, except in a dutiful way. He is God, after all, and God is love, therefore He is compelled to love me. But He is not compelled to like me very much, or to approve of me. And, as far as I was concerned, He did not. I constantly worked on making myself acceptable to Him, knowing all the time that this wasn’t going to work, but not knowing what else to do.

This wasn’t a matter of having bad theology in my head. I knew perfectly well that one could not earn salvation. It was a matter of having a broken heart. Reading Dante unmasked within me the particular quality of the brokenness, and led me to turn from it. And then a mystical event happened that cracked a heart hardened by self-loathing and unknowingly worshiping a false idol. It’s all in the book.

Anyway, read all of Cox’s essay here.  It’s important that you do, especially if you are, like me, an orthodox, traditional Christian. It shows why we should be very reluctant to proclaim someone not a real Christian.

Should we refrain from criticism of beliefs and opinions a publicly-identified Christian holds? No, not normally. Cox says in this piece that she is pro-choice. I find that position impossible to square with my understanding of what Christianity teaches about the sanctity of human life. Pagan writings from the first centuries of the Christian faith tell us that one of the distinguishing marks of the Christians were that they did not kill their babies, born and unborn. So I think Cox is wrong here, and I pray that she will come to see that she is wrong.

But do I think she’s not a true Christian? Of course I don’t think that. What right do I have to make that judgment? I think her belief about abortion is irreconcilable with true Christianity, but that’s a different claim. It is right, and often necessary, to examine our beliefs in light of what we know to be true from authoritative sources: the Bible, first of all, and for most Christians in this world, the teachings of the Church, either Roman Catholic or Orthodox. We should not assume that because we have been baptized, or have had a born-again experience, that our baptism therefore baptizes everything we believed prior to our becoming a Christian. Being a Christian requires not only conversion of the heart, but conversion of the mind.

And yet, one of the plainest lessons of the New Testament is that it is impossible to know from one’s conduct who really knows the Lord in a saving way. The Pharisees, after all, prided themselves on following the Law — yet their hearts were corrupt. It is possible, I think, to say, “This is what Christians believe,” and to judge the public statements of others, and to be prepared to have our own beliefs judged, by that objective standard.

But there are very few of us who don’t struggle with this or that doctrine, and almost none of us who put all Christian beliefs into action consistently. When I am in church, I can’t know the hearts of the people around me. I don’t know how the others have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and how they continue to sin, in thought and deed, despite themselves. I only know that they do, and that I am just like them. The only heart I know is my own, and that is the one for which I am responsible. Every Orthodox Christian publicly calls himself, with St. Paul, the “chief of sinners” before he receives communion. What this means is that as far as you know, God sees you as the worst sinner in the world. Worse than the infidels, the thieves, the drug dealers, the wife beaters, and so forth? Yes, as far as you know, because only God can see their hearts, and only God knows how responsible they truly are for the darkness they harbor there.

It’s a difficult thing, because not judging whether or not one is a Christian can easily lead to indifference to what one believes. I think Martin Luther King Jr. was a Christian, and a great one, though he was a philanderer. I think the white pastors of the South who preached segregation, or who kept silence in the face of injustice against black people, were also Christians, though their failures were acute.

I just don’t see any up side to looking at someone and saying, “She’s not a Christian, because she believes (or does not believe) X.” I would say, “That’s not a Christian belief,” or, “That belief is irreconcilable with Christianity.” I think that’s true about abortion, and I think it’s true about same-sex marriage. (It would be interesting to see how Cox’s progressive friends would treat her if her Christianity caused her to oppose either abortion or same-sex marriage.) And I think it is important to say that.

But it is also important not to say that people who believe those erroneous things lack an authentic relationship to God. How would you know, anyway? Salvation is free; sanctification — or, in Orthodox terms, theosis — is a lifelong process. We are never perfected in this life, and are always moving towards or away from full communion with God. To be a Christian is not to hold the right doctrine, though right doctrine is important. To be a Christian is not to put doctrine into practice, though right practice is important. Being a Christian isn’t a matter of picking a set of beliefs that “work” for you, and taking emotional and psychological comfort in them; rather, it’s dying to yourself, repenting constantly, opening your heart to the healing grace of God and being made into a new creature — and that is sometimes excruciating.

A Christian is one who conforms herself to Christ. I did not realize until I read Dante how much I still had to repent of — that is, what structures of sin buried deep in my own heart kept out the unmerited grace of God, and kept me mired in my own self-hatred. Was I not a Christian all those years prior to this repentance? Of course I was. But I was a flawed one. I still am. If I’m doing this right, I will be searching my heart for the rest of my life, removing everything in its depths that is not of God, and that keeps Him from shining transparently through me. This will continue up to the point of my death. As Dante shows, anybody who stops on the journey and satisfies themselves that they have done enough repenting is in danger of Hell.

So yes, I take Ana Marie Cox — and President Obama — at their word that they are Christians. But they are bad Christians, and so am I. We are all called to turn from our sins, to be more Christ-like. Being a Christian is not the same thing as being a good Democrat, or a good Republican. And — this was a hard thing for me to learn — being a good Christian is not merely a matter of holding the right doctrines in your head. You can be certain that if there’s nothing about your faith that contradicts party orthodoxy, you are not taking your faith seriously enough. We are commanded to love each other, in spite of ourselves. Sometimes that love requires telling the other, “What you believe is wrong. What you’re doing is wrong.” But we must never lose sight of the fact that people are not simply the sum total of their beliefs, and that if we dare to call someone who professes Christ “not a true Christian,” then we bring down judgment on ourselves for falling short of God’s commandments.

The Shepherd knows his own, and will know His own. Our primary task is making sure that we ourselves know Him.

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