As I was writing The Constant Choice, I began to wonder if my tolerant, ecumenical views on religion would disqualify me as a Christian — at least in the eyes of many readers. In my appreciation for what all the great religions have in common — God, obviously, but also the Golden Rule — I wondered if maybe I’d become generic in my faith to the point where I could no longer count myself among the bona fide faithful. It didn’t help matters when one publisher (who liked my book and was considering publishing it) wanted me to attest to the fact that I accepted the Nicene Creed. I had to be honest. I couldn’t accept that pledge for a number of reasons, not least of which is the line: “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” I simply didn’t believe that, nor did I think faith amounted to the acceptance of various doctrines or propositions or membership in any church or organization. For me, it’s simple. You walk in the footsteps of Jesus. You love others as you would have them love you. End of story. But, still, I wanted to hear from one of my most trusted spiritual guides — Albert “Penny” Pennebacker — to see what he thought about the simplicity of my approach to faith.
I met Penny many years ago, when I first started spending much of my summers in Chautauqua, which is where I heard him speak about God. Karen Armstrong introduced me to him, along with Joan Brown Campbell. Almost immediately I thought, “He’s the country priest!” I meant the unrecognized saint who plays the central role in Diary of a Country Priest, by George Bernanos. The fictional character quietly, without reward, serves his small remote parish, being a true Christian, even when he was misunderstood or ignored.
So I called Penny to see if he thought I was still on the right path. My faith had become quite simple, but I wanted to make sure it wasn’t too simple. To be a Christian, I needed to get to know Jesus and learn how to treat others with love rather than lead a self-centered life. I didn’t think this required belonging to an organization. As I describe in greater detail in The Constant Choice, I asked Penny what he thought of this approach.
“Let me tell you a joke,” he says. “Jesus asks, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ ‘Some say you’re Elijah. Some say John the Baptist,’ Peter says. ‘You are the Christ, son of the living God, light of light…’ and he goes on to quote the whole Nicene Creed. There’s a moment of puzzled silence and Jesus said, ‘Huh?'”
When I’m done laughing, I asked him to explain his views about the essence of being a Christian. He said that the point of Christianity is simply to follow the example set by Jesus, not to live in a house of doctrines built around what he said. His teaching was his character, the sort of person he was.
Through Jesus, we know what God is like: kind, loving, forgiving. I love the Palm Sunday story. Here is the new Messiah, the new King of the Jews. But he’s riding on a donkey, not a white horse. He was followed by fishermen and tax collectors, the worst of the lot in that age, and some who had collaborated with Rome, a really ragtag bunch. Wait a minute? This is the Messiah? He overturned expectations with a radical simplicity and humility. He was living out the love of God for all people.
I asked which was more important: the rules that have been built up around his teaching or the way he lived as an example to others. Penny suggested that dogma “kills Jesus.” Being a Christian wasn’t about being religiously perfect, living by the rules, and it wasn’t about trying to impress God for the sake of some reward.
“My job in life is to embody and act out the love of God as I understand it. Love your neighbor. Love your enemies. Love everybody. Pray for your enemies..”
So far so good. But I was still worried about whether or not Christianity is has an exclusive claim when it comes to aligning oneself with God and what God wants. I was almost hesitant to say what I was thinking, because I didn’t want to disappoint Al Pennybacker.
“I don’t see Christ as the only… messengers. Buddha, Mohammed, Moses, and many others have the same role. For me, Jesus was the supreme embodiment of God. But that doesn’t mean a good Buddhist or Muslim is on the wrong path.”
“Absolutely,” he said. “The key word in the Bible is the Hebrew word for love and loving kindness. Whoever is preaching this principle is essentially a Christian.”