“Ultimately I see Christianity and my belief as a Christian as a doctrine of grace, and not of condemnation. “
I am so sorry it took me so long to post this one! Life can be a little crazy sometimes, but that’s what makes it fun. I’ve been so excited to share this interview with you for so long, so I’m glad I’m finally able to post it!
I have known Knox since 6th grade. We went to the same private Christian school in Atlanta, and we also went to the same church, so I saw him a lot at Youth Group (where I, in my angsty teenage way, would sit seething at being forced to go) and we both went on a mission trip to Kentucky (where I actually got to know him a little better). At school, we had similar circles of friends and were in the same Peer Leadership group in the ninth grade (long story).
When I first met Knox, I kind of hated him. He is incredibly smart and talented. He was our boys’ valedictorian and one of our fastest runners. He can sing and play the trumpet. His handwriting is impeccable. Everybody loves him. But he corrected my pronunciation of the word “spontaneity” in the hallway in 7th grade, and I WAS NOT PLEASED.
Once I started getting to know him better, through Peer Leadership and the mission trip, I finally got over it. I discovered that he is his own toughest critic. And I realized that Knox wasn’t some mystical creature who knew how to do EVERYTHING, he is a person, and a good person at that.
Interviewing Knox was delightful. I wish I had recorded our entire conversation, but it was about two hours long. (The block quote below is from our broader conversation.) He is thoughtful and careful with his words, and was incredibly open and honest. Afterward, we watched some dragonflies flitting about the pond in my backyard for about twenty minutes, trying to figure out what they were doing. It was a quiet, peaceful moment. That kind of curiosity and his desire to understand the world around him are why I am grateful to know Knox.
Interview 8: Knox
“God is in the asymptotes.”
Me: We went to Methodist church together, but back then I was already agnostic, so I was probably kind of closed off…I would like to know where you put yourself on the spectrum of religious identity these days.
Knox: I identify as a Christian, but—since you mention that we went to a Methodist church together—I don’t necessarily identify as a Methodist. Technically I am still on the books as a Methodist, but starting in college, most of the churches I’ve attended have been churches where I worked. So those have included a very conservative Catholic church, a Cooperative Baptist church, an ELCA Lutheran church, a non-denominational university church, a non-denominational chapel, and two Episcopal churches.
Me: So all over the place!
Knox: So, pretty much all over the place. Participating in worship at so many different churches has been very informative for me, in terms of exposure to different traditions, and having a chance to consider the differences in theology among those denominations. I have found that I don’t necessarily identify with one denomination more strongly than another. I think the most important thing for my faith is identifying as a Christian, and I think Calvin was the one who talks about layers of doctrine—which is funny since I have not attended a Presbyterian church—but Calvin talks about layers of doctrine, and I’ve often thought about that myself. I think there are sort of core tenets that matter to me the most, and then the rest sort of gets less and less important. Obviously other people find some of those things very important, and those are why we have different denominations. Most recently I’ve had Episcopal leanings, partially from the churches where I’ve worked, and then some of my friends who are Episcopal seminarians, but while I was working at the Lutheran church I thought I might join the Lutheran church. [laughs] So I guess I’m a bit all over the map right now.
Me: That’s totally fair! I think it’s good to have shifting religious beliefs because that means you are constantly thinking about them. So what are the tenets that you mentioned? What, to you, is the most important part of your faith? What makes you define yourself as a Christian?
Knox: So to me, the central element of Christianity is my belief that Jesus was the Son of God and died for the forgiveness of mankind’s sins, and was resurrected. That to me, in a nutshell, is the core of Christianity. Now, beyond that, I think that also entails, then, that there is a God—these are the underpinning things—that there is a God, that God created the world. Obviously for different people that means different things; to me there’s no conflict between science and religion. And then I think as you expand out from that, largely, I think, I believe the Apostle’s Creed, which we grew up reciting every Sunday at our Methodist Church. I think that’s supposed to be a summary of our faith, and for me, that remains the summary of my faith. So that of course entails believing in the Holy Spirit, which I do…I do think believing in the Trinity is an important part of Christianity as well. Which of course forms one of the most fascinating paradoxes of our belief, that is something that…try as theologians have to find some way to rationalize it and make a logical understanding out of it, I think most people agree that that’s one of those things that you just have to, at some point, say, “This is what I believe, and it is a paradox,” and to me, that’s an important part of faith. While I don’t believe that my faith conflicts with my beliefs as a rational human being, I do think that there are aspects of my faith that…as the word suggests, you just have to take without proof. So then the question is, why do you believe those things? And I think I believe those things because of my experiences in the world. Paul talks, in Romans, the first chapter—and it’s also in other parts of the Bible as well—about what we call general revelation. And I think, as many people do, I’ve had numerous experiences in my life in which I feel that there’s something divine, something larger, active in my life. And then also, since I brought up science earlier, I think looking at the way our universe is structured and the marvels of everything from the beauty of nature to quantum physics, to me indicate some sort of intelligent presence. And for me that is God.
Me: Has there ever been a time when you really questioned your faith, when you felt you weren’t certain what you believed anymore?
Knox: Absolutely. I grew up in the Methodist church, as we’ve established, and church was sort of the center of my childhood. I was there all the time: my parents were very active, I went to preschool there, I was in Sunday School, we did Bible Challenge where we learned Bible verses, I was involved in choirs, in youth group, I went to camps there, I went to other Methodist camps…
Me: Mission trips…
Knox: Mission trips of course, with you and your father, and my father…. As I entered high school, I became increasingly more conservative, and ended up in a Bible study for boys that was not affiliated with any one church, that was very conservative, and I found myself very plugged into that, and very interested in apologetics, and my faith was very central to everything that I thought and did. And I thought that the Methodist church was way too liberal, and in some ways [I] may have been more conservative than my family, who are fairly conservative. Then I went to college, carrying these beliefs with me, of course, but despite my efforts to get involved with some sort of student group—I was especially interested in RUF, Reformed University Fellowship, it’s sort of out of the PCA, the more conservative branch of the Presbyterian church—I was not able to get involved in any of those groups because of being a music major and being a varsity athlete. My evenings just weren’t free. And then on Sunday mornings, I was singing at a Catholic church for pay, because from a practical standpoint, I needed money. I got involved with a sort of prayer group—there was some Bible study aspect of it, but mostly a prayer group—with guys on mostly the hall above me in my freshman dorm. And that was all very important to me for about the first semester. And then I began to sort of wrestle with my beliefs and fell out of participating in any form of worship or fellowship with other people. And the funny thing is that throughout it all, I never questioned my belief in God, and I think ultimately I always identified as a Christian and really believed in Christianity, but I struggled with how that applied to my life, because I was also wrestling with my sexuality at the time. I wouldn’t name to myself that I was wrestling with my sexuality at the time, but I was. My conservative beliefs were not compatible with who I was. Because of that, for a time, I think it was in some way necessary for me to kind of drift away from what I held so closely as my faith, in order to give myself an opportunity to explore more honestly who I was as a person. Obviously that’s only a part of my identity, but because of the conflict with my beliefs, it became for a time a very important part of who I was. The interesting thing about that is that, despite the fact that I was drifting away from the church and was less active in my faith, it was still those deep held beliefs that kept me from really coming out, until I finally made friends with a few people who helped me evolve my beliefs and come to terms with accepting who I was, and accepting that that did not have to be incompatible with being a Christian. Now, it seems kind of bizarre to me that that was such a struggle for me, because I don’t find there to be any tension between who I am and what I believe as a Christian, but it was at the time a very real struggle. Once I was able to able to really accept myself and be honest about who I was, I was able to re-enter my faith, and be more active, and I knew that I wanted to sort of come back to the church, and come back to being a Christian.
Me: I have to ask, did you feel that once you were truer to yourself and once you came back into the church, did you feel better? Did it feel different in any way?
Knox: I think so. I think as much joy and sense of belonging as I got out of my faith growing up, I got and get more out of it now, because I’m able to be fully honest about who I am—mostly with myself and with God. And so it’s a more genuine relationship with God. And there’s a sense of weight lifted off, that I can be fully who I am within the church and give fully of my being to my faith, instead of sort of having these partitioned parts of who I was—part of Knox is Christian and compatible and part of Knox is sort of out in this other, roped-off area. Instead, I’m complete.
Me: That makes me really happy for you. That’s a huge thing, especially when you grow up in the South.
Knox: Absolutely. Having spent the past two years—and expecting to spend at least several more—in the Northeast, it’s been a very different environment. And I find, for the vast majority of the people that I encounter up there, it’s just a nonissue. Which is really how I feel it should be.
Me: I agree!
Knox: I sort of hate that I had to spend so much time talking about my sexuality as it relates to my faith, because to me it should be a nonissue…which has been a wonderful way, since coming to terms with all of that, to be able to then further develop my faith somewhere where my focus gets to be completely on worshipping and being a Christian and thinking more about how my faith applies to broader issues.
Me: Since it is a nonissue, we can just talk about your beliefs! You believe in God, do you believe in souls, that we each have a soul?
Me: What is your definition of a soul?
Knox: I consider the soul to be the real essence of a person. As a Christian I believe that our souls are the part of us that really most closely interacts with God, and the part of us that continues after we die.
Me: So as a musician, would you say that your soul is affected by music? I hear a lot of people say that they feel divinity in music and so I wanted to ask.
Knox: Of course, I mentioned general revelation and that I find God present in everything. I think personally, as a musician, often I feel closest to God through music. C. S. Lewis wrote a brilliant essay in which he says:
“I think performers are the most enviable of all men; privileged while mortals to honour God like angels and, for a few golden moments, to see spirit and flesh, delight and labour, skill and worship, the natural and the supernatural, all fused into that unity they would have had before the Fall.”
I think it’s an incredibly eloquent way to sum up how I feel about music, especially as someone who is an active part of making music. I find—as so many people do—that music expresses things that are inexpressible in other ways. And I find that I can’t explain sometimes the way sounds are able to affect me. And I think that explaining vibrations and chemical responses in the brain is insufficient.
Me: I completely agree.
Knox: I think as a musician, often music is the primary way in which I express my beliefs and feel that I interact with God.
Me: My final question, which is again a question I ask everyone—you said the soul is the part that continues on after we die. For you, do you believe that there is a heaven and a hell? And how do you believe that you end up in one or the other?
Knox: My beliefs about heaven and hell have changed over time. I do believe in a heaven and a hell. I choose to focus my thought on heaven and not on hell. I take very seriously what Jesus says about coming to the Father through him, and believe that we are saved by grace through faith…but I’m unwilling to set any restriction on who is saved. Mostly I think that’s something that God will take care of, and I don’t have to spend time thinking about it. I’m not interested in passing judgment, whether it’s condemning or saying that I think someone will definitely go to heaven. Since I mentioned C. S. Lewis, I have the Chronicles of Narnia next to my bed in my parents’ house, and I happened to pick up The Last Battle and reread it the other day, and I love Lewis’s visions of heaven in that and in The Great Divorce, of these worlds that are so much better than anything we can imagine, and in a very Platonic way, that we live in a shadow world. One of the things that strikes me in The Last Battle is that admission to what is essentially heaven is not restricted to the people who follow Aslan—or Jesus, as the allegory goes. I think that’s something that I occasionally have to cling to, because to me it’s impossible to think of a gracious, loving God who would allow millions and billions of people to be damned. And I’ve avoided saying anything about hell, because I think hell is the absence of God, but I don’t like to think about that, and I don’t know what form that takes, and I’d rather focus on wishing for everyone to end up with God for eternity.
Me: That’s very positive. Do you have anything else you want to add?
Knox: I will say, that since we are talking about salvation, I know that for me, I believe the only sure way to God is through Christ. And that is the path in which I choose to put my faith. And as a mere mortal, I don’t know if there are other paths to God. While I don’t believe in pluralism, because I find it logically unsound, I also find that I have a considerably more open mind than I used to and am unsure what I think my stance would be on followers of other religions. Because I think that there is tremendous merit in the quest after the divine, in whatever form it takes, and that in some way, almost every human being is seeking for God, and that we find different ways to know God. I think of the Great Commission, in which Jesus says “Go therefore and make disciples,” in which we are called to teach and to baptize, and I have thought at different times about what form that teaching and evangelism should take. At the end of the day, I choose that I should live out my faith as best I can, and am willing to discuss my faith with anyone, and hopefully will model something that will make someone who is seeking interested and ask what it is that I believe and why I have the confidence that I do in salvation.
Me: Awesome. Sorry, I feel that I kind of caught you off-guard.
Knox: You did a bit, because I haven’t thought about that in a while. Mostly because I have not been involved lately with a denomination that’s oriented toward reaching out in a way that is evangelizing beyond witnessing through social justice—which I do think is ultimately the strongest way that Christians can witness to their faith, through helping those who are less fortunate. But it’s something that I do still wrestle with, in my beliefs: just what I think my role is as a Christian in spreading Christianity and whether that’s an important part of my faith.
Me: I can understand that. It would be tough for me.
Knox: I have certainly wondered about these issues most of all when family members who were not Christian have passed away. And that’s when I have thought the most about the destination of the soul, and have prayed often about that, and pray for their salvation, and hope and trust that they are with God.
Me: It’s a hard thing to reconcile!
Knox: At these times I choose to focus on the verse that says, “For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that through Him, the world might be saved.” And ultimately I see Christianity and my belief as a Christian as a doctrine of grace, and not of condemnation.