Archive for March 6, 2011

Where Have All the Young People Gone? (part 2 of 4)

Last time, I shared some thoughts and ideas that came from Adam Hamilton’s book, When Christians Get It Wrong. Hamilton wrote that young people have rejected Christianity because of beliefs, attitudes and actions of Christians they know. Their criticism included one or more of the following five elements:1. The unchristian ways some Christians act
2. The anti-intellectual, anti-science stance of some Christians
3. Christianity’s views of other world religions
4. Questions related to the role of God in human suffering
5. The way Christians view homosexuality

The first two points were discussed last time. The third criticism of Christianity is that our views of other world religions are “un-christian.” Many of us grew up not knowing people of other religions, maybe not even other Christian denominations. It was easier to unquestioningly accept assumptions that people of other faiths were ignorant and misguided heathens and that they would on Judgment Day be consigned to hell for not having chosen the one true religion.

The GTA is a multi-cultural centre. The more people we know who are devout members of other religions, the harder it becomes to believe that all such people will suffer eternally in hell because they did not call upon the name of Jesus Christ. This is particularly true for young adults who have grown up in a more multicultural, pluralistic world than previous generations.

A soldier who served in Afghanistan saw Muslims stop what they were doing in the middle of the day and fall on their knees in prayer. He saw their devotion to God and observed how they live their scriptures. He became increasingly sceptical of Christian claims about the fate of people of other religions. He wrote:

One of the things I have always had trouble swallowing with the Christian faith is that we have a God of compassion, a God of love, a God of forgiveness, but if you don’t say, “Jesus you’re my saviour,” you’re gonna burn. Flat out …. That’s not forgiving, that’s not compassion, that’s coercion, that’s blackmail. People all over the world ….could live the best life. They could be compassionate, they could be understanding, they could do their best to help their community, to help other people, to serve their nation …. but you’re going to tell them that this person who lived an idyllic life of straight moral value is going to go to hell just because he didn’t say, “I love Jesus?” There’s something there that is not right. There is something about that puzzle piece that doesn’t fit in with what Christian faith is trying to sell.

How much do we know about people of other faiths? Some worry that if we preach or talk about other faiths, some might lose theirs. Knowing about other faiths can actually help us to grow stronger in ours. Muslims pray five times a day and give 2.5% of their income to the needy. Hindu philosophy of non-injury helps us see love in new ways. Buddha’s existential struggles relate to suffering and death and give us a deeper appreciation of Christian doctrines of redemption and resurrection. We need to better understand in order to be able to talk to our neighbours, co-workers, and friends.

Pressuring people to accept Christ seldom leads to a desire to become a Christian. There is nothing wrong with sharing our faith, sharing the good news. The problem is sharing in an arrogant, disrespectful, hurtful, insulting, insensitive way. During the first century, Christians were a minority. Paul speaks to Greek philosophers and doesn’t insult them (Acts 17). He identifies one of the unknown gods they worship with God of the Bible. Peter offers advice to Christians in how to share their faith (Peter 2:12)

….live such good lives among the pagans that …. they may see your good deeds – Show proper respect to everyone (v. 17) – Be compassionate and humble ….

Christians (conservative and evangelical traditions) answer the question of eternal fate of faithful Jews, Muslims, and Hindus by saying that such persons will be damned because they do not avail themselves of the gift of salvation offered in Jesus Christ. Humans are born into sin and sin separates us from God here and in eternity. A holy and righteous God cannot admit persons who are still sinful into heaven. God provided salvation through his Son. Salvation from sin and death are available to all. All must trust in Christ for salvation.

In the fifth century, St. Augustine championed this view. It was restated by John Calvin in the sixteenth century. In its harshest and most consistent form, it excludes even infants who die who have not received Christ. It excludes anyone who never heard the good news. It excludes those with mental disabilities who did not receive Christ. Many Christians allow exceptions in these cases, but most consistent ones do not. This is Christian Exclusivism.

The second answer to the fate of faithful Jews, Muslims and Hindus is the opposite of Christian Exclusivism. It’s Christian Universalism. The belief is that all persons, not just faithful Jews, Muslims and Hindus, will ultimately be reconciled to God and are bound for the Kingdom of Heaven. Those who hold this view also believe in hell as a temporary place, with the primary focus of redemption rather than punishment. Hell’s purpose is to lead people to repentance. They claim that many important theologians held this view. The challenge appears to remove human freedom to reject God. The Bible teaches that God has given human beings freedom to resist God’s grace, to reject God’s will, and to do what God finds abhorrent (e.g. totalitarian dictators and others who made themselves out to be gods and were responsible for the murder of millions).

The third alternative is Christian Inclusivism. This teaches that Jesus is the Son of God who came to offer salvation for the world. It teaches that salvation of the human race is made possible by Jesus. This salvation can be given by God regardless of whether an individual personally knows Jesus Christ. God can offer this gift based upon the criteria God chooses. This view notes that the Christian gospel teaches that salvation is a gift given by God. Humans can do nothing to merit salvation, they simply trust in it. They receive it as a gift of God’s grace. Our part is simply faith. The question to adherents of others religions is, do they have faith? They may not have complete knowledge of what God has done in Jesus Christ, but they can have complete trust in God.

This view offers evidence that those in the Bible who came before the time of Jesus also were saved by faith, a faith that did not include Jesus, for he had not yet been born (Hebrews 11:4-40). Inclusivism reminds us that the Christian gospel tells us that we are saved by grace. In the New Testament, grace refers to God’s kindness, love, care, work on our behalf, blessings, gifts, goodness, and salvation. It is undeserved. God’s grace is pure gift. We are saved by God’s initiative because of God’s love, God’s righteousness, God’s kindness, and God’s mercy.

For those who don’t understand or have not made sense of the gospel, but have sought God, to love God, to do what God desires, the very act of seeking God is an expression of faith. Inclusivism is the official position of the Roman Catholic church and is the generally accepted view of most mainline Protestants, including the Lutheran Church. This view maintains that salvation is by and through Christ, and that is received by faith. It makes clear that salvation is a gift from God, given and not based on human actions or even as a result of theological knowledge. It is given by God through Christ to whomever God wishes to give it to. It is based on Jesus’ ministry. God seems to desire to give salvation to all who would listen and trust in his mercy.

So why bother to share the gospel? Why have so many missionaries risked their lives to offer Christ to people who do not know him? Is the only reason we share the good news is that we believe God will eternally torment people in hell if we don’t tell them about Jesus? Is avoiding hell the only reason to become a Christian? Is Christianity really only about getting a ticket to heaven?

We tell others about Jesus because we believe that in him we see and understand who God is and who we are meant to be. We tell others about Jesus because we believe he teaches us about love, mercy, and the grace of God. From him we learn sacrificial love. We experience forgiveness and mercy. We believe he is the way, the truth, and the life. He has changed our life so that the richest and most meaningful parts of life are somehow made so by him. We want others to know that God already loves them and that Christ offers us both the truth about God and God’s will for humanity. In Christ we hear the good news of God’s sacrificial love, of forgiveness of sins, and hope of everlasting life.

We do not share Christ because we believe God eternally torments those who love him but don’t understand to call upon the name of Christ. We get it right when we demonstrate respect, humility and love. We get it right when we listen to and learn from people of other faiths while humbly sharing our own faith with them. We need to look for points of contact and commonality as we share our reasons for our faith in Christ with gentleness and respect.

In my next blog we will look at questions relating to the role of God in human suffering and un-christian attitudes in politics.

Where Have All the Young People Gone? (part 1 of 4)

Many of us are asking ourselves, “Where have all the young people gone?” This is a question all the main denominations are struggling with, one that all our Lutheran churches are struggling with. I recently finished reading a book (When Christians are Unchristian) where this question is tackled. It’s based on surveys, interviews, and discussions held with many young people (under 35) – angry young people. Those who opted out of church were also interviewed.More than ever in the past, greater numbers are turning away from the Christian faith. Young people have rejected Christianity because of beliefs, attitudes and actions of Christians they know. Their criticism included one or more of the following five elements:

1. The unchristian ways some Christians act
2. The anti-intellectual, anti-science stance of some Christians
3. Christianity’s views of other world religions
4. Questions related to the role of God in human suffering
5. The way Christians view homosexuality

When non-Christians are asked what they think Jesus stood for, most say “Love,” which is God’s will for humanity. There is a disparity between the love Christians are meant to display and what many young adults often experience. This is most pronounced when Christians speak with judgment or in disparaging ways toward others. Of course this is not unique to young adults and teenagers. For example, the minister who wrote the book wrote about a funeral he conducted for a suicide victim. The uncle and aunt of the dead boy asked the minister, “Why didn’t you tell them that their son is in hell today?” The minister replied, “How do you know the boy is in hell today? Do you know what was in the boy’s heart? Are you so certain you know the mind of God?”

Christians, including some pastors, are free with their condemnation of everyone who doesn’t conform to their very narrow view of the world, of the bible and of the truth. We know Jesus’ interaction with religious leaders pointed out that they failed to see that God’s primary concern is not rules, but people. Jesus warned the disciples about the four different expressions of hypocrisy; wrong motives, judging others, “majoring in the minors,” and being two-faced.

What are our motives when we make certain choices? Are we trying to get closer to God or are we trying to further our own status? When we point out the sins of others, we often miss seeing our own: superiority, spiritual or moral pride (I go to church every week but others don’t). We get so focussed on the insignificant, small things (“majoring in minors”), we overlook or miss the important matters; living a life of justice and mercy toward our neighbour. Christians are often convinced that they alone are right and are willing to fight over the tiniest, least consequential things, arguing over forms of baptism, interpretation of minor points of Scripture, forms of music. Entire wars have been fought over sectarian differences, all the while forgetting that the defining characteristic of a Christian’s life is meant to be love.

Being two-faced is a superficial faith which is seen in an outward appearance of religious behaviour but has not sunk into the heart. It focusses on the minutiae and misses the bigger point of faith. It is skin deep religion that does not deal with the important issues of society.

Many Christians understand how to do religious things but fail to let their religion change their values, their hearts, and daily lives. Religion is simply window dressing. The Pharisees were religious people struggling with wrong motives. They were critical, judgmental of others, yet missing the point. They were two-faced and acted in an unchristian manner. We are all recovering Pharisees – ones who fall off the wagon. We all struggle. Non-religious people don’t expect perfection from Christians, just honesty. We need to strive for love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, generosity, faithfulness, and self-control. We all know what is expected.

Many young people are turned off by the way many Christians approach modern science. One young man wrote: The whole question of creationism versus evolution and scientific theory is alway something that bothered me. People will tell you God created all of this ten thousand years ago in the blink of an eye. But when you honestly look at science and evolution – the miraculous complexity of it all and the beauty of how the system works – I’ve actually asked people, “Do you see anything divine in that?” “Oh no, no, no.” And people will pass off the creation story in the blink of an eye because it’s accepted and it’s in the Bible. Well you know that there are a lot of things in the Bible that were written two thousand years ago; and how can we honestly interpret what those men were saying in modern terminology? When people tell me creationism is in the Bible, that is just a statement to me of how exceedingly ignorant someone is. I don’t like to blatantly label people as idiots, but I think of them as less intellectually active.

The perception that many people have of Christians is that they are “less intellectually active.” In 1633, Galileo was pronounced a heretic. Many bright, thinking people are increasingly alienated by beliefs expressed by some Christians. Much of modern science is at times incompatible with Christian teaching. Galileo was the start of a process where scientific discoveries have drawn wrath of Christians.

Many complain that new ideas undermine their faith (e.g. geology and the age of the earth). They have been pushing back at advances in science for centuries. This is caused by fear. They are afraid that science will disprove or debunk what they believe. They worry that the next scientific development might decisively show that God doesn’t exist or that the Gospel is a fraud. The are afraid that the more people know about science, the less they will believe in God. They fear that science competes with faith or is actively engaged in destroying faith, or that science leaves no room for God.

We need to find a way to help people see that God is not threatened by science. If creation is the
handiwork of God and science helps us see the exquisite and marvellous workings of creation, how can that do anything but magnify God for people of faith? Scientists act as God’s teachers. They help us understand God’s handiwork. They add to the majesty and glory of creation that leaves believers with a greater sense of awe about the Creator of all things.

When some Christians add up the ages represented by genealogies and then tell us that the earth is less than 10,000 years old, why can’t they appreciate that the biblical stories of creation were written in the form of Hebrew poetry? They were not written as God’s way of giving ancient people a lesson in cosmology or biology or physics. They were written to say that behind all of the magnificent beauty of creation, there is One who created, gave form, shape, established laws and patterns.

In the 20 century, some Christians opposed evolution, saying that it undermines th the glory of God. God had to have created each species from scratch rather than overseeing a process by which simpler life forms became more complex. In the U.S., it was illegal to teach any theory that contradicted the creation of humankind as taught in the Bible. It was not repealed until 1967. The court case was won by a Christian attorney. However, Christianity lost and appeared to be backward in its thinking. In the latter part of the 20th century, the battle was on again. Fundamentalists challenged textbooks, demanding that creationism be taught along with evolution. For many Christians, evolution is simply a way of describing the process that God established for creating all the forms of life. God created processes and plans for the progression of life on our planet. God is still the Creator.

Science and faith are two different ways of understanding our existence. Science helps understand the physical process, how the universe works. It is no threat to genuine faith. Theology and faith teach us what our existence means. Science asks, “what” and “why.” Theology seeks to answer “why” and “for what purpose.” Science cannot answer the question of ultimate meaning. The Bible can’t answer the scientific questions. Christians get it wrong when they treat Genesis as a science textbook. The creation stories in genesis were not meant to teach us HOW God created but THAT God created. The stories teach us that there IS a God and God is good. Creation is good and a gift of God. Humans are created in God’s image – not in physical appearance, but in capacity to love, think, reason, make moral decisions, and to act as co-creators with God.

Christians get it wrong when they see science as a threat to faith or when they make the Bible a scientific text book. They get it right when the see science as an important companion in the quest for knowledge and truth.

In subsequent blogs, we will look at the other three criticisms.