This article is shared by Doug Soderstrom
On the surface, Christianity is, above all things, most simple. It was Jesus who said that it could all be summed up in two rather succinct phrases: Love thy God with all of thy heart, thy mind, thy soul, and thy strength. And like unto the first — love thy neighbor (and perhaps even thine enemy) as thyself. Although “rather difficult” to put into practice, Jesus quite nicely reduces religion to its very most common denominator.
On the other hand, if one moves beyond the surface, it does not take very long to discover the utter complexity of religion. Although the command, that we should love others, forms the basis of all the great religions, the specific differences are a cause of great concern (as in the ongoing conflict of the Moslem faith with that of Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism). There is the Catholic Church vs. the Protestant Church — and then, those factors that so fiercely divide one protestant denomination from that of another in their competitive struggle to please God, a struggle so divisive that it is threatening to destroy the foundations of the Christian Faith. But now only two sides remain; the Christian Fundamentalists (the fundamentalists) and the more liberal faction of the church (the liberals) — each determined to win. Yet, we are left to wonder, in this bitter battle over “the minds of men” — is it possible for the church to survive?
It would be instructive to know where these two rather embattled foes fit into the overall ontology of life. The author has proposed that there are four basic levels of human existence, each with its own specific source of authority (the reality to which one gives allegiance). First is the carnal level of which the source of authority is one’s own (most depraved) self. This, I believe, speaks for itself. The second level is that of society. For it, the primary source of authority is the status quo — which means choosing to live the life of an obedient, tradition-oriented, patriotic American (assuming, of course, that one is an American). The third, in the ontological hierarchy, is that of the moral level. At this point (given the fact that the moral individual, in order to move to the moral level, had to reject society as a source of authority) chooses his own conscience (the highest and best values to which one can aspire) as that which is most ultimate in life. And, of course, the highest level is that of the spiritual realm, of which, God is the ultimate source of authority. At this level, the will of God becomes the primary purpose of one’s life.
So then, where do these two adversaries of The Christian Faith fit into this ontological scheme? The fundamentalists (rather oddly) seem to be simultaneously stuck at (but certainly not in between) two very different levels — that of the social and the spiritual level. And this is what, as you will see, accounts for their status quo, rather conventionalized, and very ethnocentric approach to God. It is as if they are not able (or should I say, not willing) to make a choice between the sacred (God) and the secular (mammon). On the other hand, the liberals, at the moral level, tend to be “social reformers.” Many of them would like to move to the spiritual level, however, due to their propensity for logical and rational thought, it is not an easy thing for them to do. They find it very difficult to commit themselves to something that they cannot “readily see” such as that of The Spirit of God. In terms of their relationship to each other, it could be said that: they do not understand each other; they do not like each other; they tend not to agree with each other; the fundamentalists (as good patriotic American citizens) tend to defend society, whereas the liberals tend to challenge, and therefore want to change, society; and they each tend to look upon the other with a mournful sense of disdain, scorn, and contempt. In conclusion, it could be said that they simply do not tend to get along with each other very well.
Now, concerning “their gods” — their perception of “the one” who they believe to be in charge. The fundamentalists worship a conservative-republican god, one who is committed to maintaining the status quo interests of society — one who is concerned about controlling the personal morality of men. This god seems bent on punishing those who drink alcohol, engage in illicit sex, dance, swear, and gamble, but with little concern for “the sins of society,” the sins of the rich and powerful as they continue to abuse and enslave the “huddled masses” of our world. On the other hand, the liberals worship a liberal-democratic (perhaps even humanistic) god; one who is committed to challenging the social misdeeds of society, a god of social justice — one who is interested in the social morality of men. This is a god who is inclined to punish the sins of racial injustice, materialism, greed, chauvinism, war, and the destruction of the environment, yet with “a blind eye” toward the more personal sins of men. Biased gods indeed! God’s, whose reality, exist only in the minds of men, and men, whose sins, define the reality of God. God and men “in arms” bent upon destroying each other!
The best way to explain the nature of the problem is to put it into the form of a question: “What is it that we, as Christians, must do in order to please God — what is it that we must do in order to “be saved;” is it required for us to “believe in” Jesus Christ, or, on the other hand, is it necessary for us to “live like” Jesus Christ? However, at present, there seems to be no common ground, no place to meet, no way for reconciliation to occur. Yet it is crucial that a resolution be found, for the implications (the consequences) of getting the answer wrong are beyond calculation. The stakes are indeed “very high,” for, in this contest of wills, the winner will take all. For those who triumph, the reward will be Heaven — an eternity of joyful bliss. But for those who lose, their punishment will be Hell — an eternity of agonizing pain.
So, how do the Christian Fundamentalists fit into the crisis — what is their problem? Fundamentalists believe that in order to be saved, one must “believe in” Jesus Christ — he must accept Jesus Christ as his own personal savior. And, for them, there are no exceptions — not even one. It is this that has placed them into an extremely difficult bind. Given the rather severe nature of this requirement, it has been estimated that approximately 90% of all human beings who have ever lived upon the face of the earth have gone to Hell.
Approximately one third of the world’s population is of the Christian Faith. Assuming that one third of this group has not accepted Jesus Christ as their own personal savior, then, according to fundamentalist theology, it would be correct to conclude that approximately 90% of all people living on the earth today will end up going to Hell.
One reason why many of these individuals will have ended up spending an eternity in the fires of Hell is that they did not know about Jesus — simply said, they had never heard of Him. For example, it is likely that individuals, who had, let’s say, been living in China during The First Century AD, may well have not heard about Jesus Christ, since word of Jesus probably hadn’t spread to that part of the world yet. There are others who, as a result of having been trapped (that is, culturally conditioned by the religion in which they had been raised), would likely have had little opportunity to accept Jesus Christ as their own personal savior. Many of these people may have been raised in India as Hindus, in China as Buddhists, in Iran as Moslems, or in Israel as Jews. Pairing this information with the fundamentalist’s belief that God is all powerful, all knowing, as well as all loving, places this faction into a rather precarious situation. This is the question that a skillful critic of fundamentalist theology would ask: “How is it possible that an all knowing, all powerful (yet simultaneously all loving) God would dare to create such a situation in which perhaps as many as 90% of all human beings who have ever lived upon the face of the earth (none of whom were even given the choice to be a human being) would end up suffering for an eternity in the fires of Hell?” Indeed, a very, very difficult question for which to formulate a reasonable response — in fact, a question so severe that, as of this date, as far as this author knows, no fundamentalist has been able to develop a reasonable rational response.
Based upon many years of research, debate, and personal discussion, the author has found that it is extremely difficult for the Christian Fundamentalist to respond in a logical manner to such questions. However, for those of you who believe that you are capable of defending fundamentalist thought, please feel free to contact the author. The author would love to discuss this matter with you, and if there is enough mutual interest, we could choose to have a formalized (and, of course, quite civilized) debate on the subject — with all profits, of course, going to a worthy, agreed upon, cause.
There is not time, nor is this the place, to elaborate upon those things that have thrust the fundamentalist faith into such a quandary. So allow me to list just a few of the questions that seem to be driving this group to “their knees.”
— How could a loving God allow so many of His own children to end up in the fires of Hell?
— How can you be so absolutely sure that you know the Truth of God when there are so many different ways of interpreting the Bible; how can you be sure that your interpretation is the one, and only, correct interpretation?
— How can the fundamentalist church be so in touch with the Truth of God, while, at the same time, having had such an absolutely horrid history of supporting slavery? And, even though the fundamentalists may have repented for this terrible sin, how could it have taken them such a long time to figure out what they had done was wrong?
— How is it possible that being a homosexual could be such a terrible abomination to God if, as research has shown, people have literally no control whatsoever over their sexual orientation?
— With all of our knowledge about the evolution of the earth, how can you still believe that the earth is no more than six thousand years old?
— Why do you place more emphasis upon symbolic behavior that implies salvation (e.g. a death-bed confession) than you do upon a reality such as one actually having lived a good and decent moral life; in your mind does this represent a “better ticket” (or perhaps even “the only such ticket”) to Heaven?
The author has developed an idea that explains why the fundamentalists tend to place such a great emphasis upon symbolic-ritualistic behavior such as “going forward,” baptism, speaking “in tongues,” etc. The idea, “The Deification of Symbolic Behavior,” refers to the antecedent assignment of divine qualities to volitional activity (e.g. the initial acceptance of Jesus Christ as one’s own personal savior) in such a manner that it essentially begins to take the place of what it was meant to lead toward (i.e. salvation).
— If it were possible for Jesus Christ to live upon the earth today, do you really believe that He would be a proud supporter of capitalism, capital punishment, war, racial intolerance, corporal punishment, the right of every American to carry a gun, as well as actions that seem to be destroying the ecosphere?
It is no wonder then that the fundamentalists are so often on the defensive when it comes to their faith. There is, no doubt, a lot to defend!
This is why it has been so extremely difficult to find fundamentalists who are willing to allow their beliefs to be challenged in a logical-rational manner. From my own experience, the fundamentalist nearly always ends up saying something like this; “It doesn’t matter if something does not seem to make sense, because religion is based upon faith, not facts. Anyway, the entire Truth of God is contained in The Bible and it is not something that we should question. When we come across something that we cannot understand, we should pray about it. And if after that, we still can’t figure it out, perhaps it is not God’s will for us to understand. It is important to remember that God’s ways are not our ways, and He is much more intelligent than we are. It is His responsibility to question (and eventually to even judge) us; not the other way around. My responsibility is to simply have faith in Jesus, and to leave the rest to him.”
On the other hand, the liberal Christian, as well, has been forced into a rather difficult position. The more liberal Christian tends to believe that, in order to be a Christian, one must be willing to “live like” Jesus. Now that is all nice and good, however, what if it turns out that the one who decides to “live like” Jesus is a Jew, a Hindu, a Buddhist, or even a Moslem? It is quite likely that any of these fellows could go a long way toward emulating the life of Christ without ever once having expressed a belief in (or even a knowledge of) Jesus Christ. For example, look at the life of Mahatma Gandhi. There can be no doubt about the fact that this was a man of outstanding moral character. Surely, if anybody were to end up in Heaven — it would be Mr. Gandhi! But we must remember that, as far as we know, Gandhi never did accept Jesus Christ as his own personal savior. So where does this leave the liberal Christian?
The skillful critic of the liberal Christian would ask this question: “If you believe that all that one needs to do in order to be saved is to “live like” Jesus, then why is it necessary for anyone at all to “believe in” Jesus, since anyone of any religion is quite obviously capable of such a feat?” A very good question indeed. So good, in fact, that most liberal Christians today are trying to figure out if there is any good reason for anyone to be a Christian — since “it obviously” makes no difference “in who” or “in what” one believes, because all that one needs to do in order to go to Heaven is to live a half way decent life. And since Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Moslems, and, for that matter, even agnostics or atheists, are obviously quite capable of doing such a thing, why all “the rush” to convert others to Christ — and even more importantly, why “do I,” as a liberal, need to be a Christian? As one who has studied this question for going on four decades now, this is what I hear the liberal Christian say: “I have come to the point that a lot of this “Christianity stuff” just doesn’t seem to make any sense any more. How can anybody say that their religion is the one right religion, and that all the others are wrong? I have studied all of the great religions, and to me they are all just fine. And when you really get down to it, they are all saying just about the same thing. As it turns out, all that is really important is to love your neighbor, and maybe, if you can, your enemy too. Basically, it can all be summed up in one simple phrase; “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And that’s just about all there is to religion. So I have come to the point that it really doesn’t make any difference to me what religion I, or anyone else, believes in, because, in the end, all that matters is if you have lived a good life or not. If you have, then you will probably go to Heaven, and if you haven’t then you might perhaps go to Hell — that is, if there is a Hell, which I really do sincerely doubt.”
Benton Johnson and his colleagues decided to survey church members in order to see if they could figure out why the more liberal protestant churches were losing so many members. They concluded that the primary reason for such a loss was the fact of “lay liberalism,” of which, the defining characteristic appeared to be a “rejection of the view that Christianity is the only religion with a valid claim to truth.” In order to avoid the nihilistic implications of such a view, many indicated that they felt that there was an element of the divine in all of the major world religions — that other faiths such as Buddhism, Judaism, and Hinduism were just as likely to embrace elements of the truth. Their findings tend to reinforce the author’s thinking in regards to why liberals have been leaving the church. Johnson, B., Hoge, D. R., Luidens, D. A. (1993, March). Mainline Churches: The Real Reason for Decline. First Things, 13-18.
But, not to let the liberals off the hook, a couple of questions do need to be asked.
— What are you going to do if it turns out that the task of pleasing God was as simple as the fundamentalists had claimed, that all that was required was to simply accept Jesus Christ as your own personal savior?
— What are you going to do if, after having demanded that religion must make sense, you are left with nothing in which to believe, and even worse, if your skepticism leads you to Hell?
To summarize, in relation to what they believe, it seems that the fundamentalists are at war with the rest of the world, whereas the liberals are on the verge of leaving the church. There is no simple solution, and no matter how you cut it, there are big problems in “the River City” of The Christian Faith. At this point then, I suppose that it could be said that the fundamentalists are fed up with all of the questions that others are asking about their faith, while the liberals have yet to begin to ask all of their questions. It would be nice to believe that there is room for accommodation, some place for them to meet, something upon which they might agree, some way for them to get along — but, at least at this point, there isn’t. The gulf is just too great. There have been too many wounds; too many bruises and too much hurt. The time for healing has not yet come, and unless things change, it may never come.
But now, in order for you to internalize, perhaps even to deepen, the ontological significance of this rather difficult problem, take a look at the characterization of three different individuals; Charles, Chep, and Chowyan. Then, after having read them, try to figure out which of the three God would be more likely to allow into the Kingdom of Heaven (and conversely, who He would allow to descend into the depths of Hell).
Charles: An individual who, for the first 75 years of his life, was very selfish, greedy, unkind toward others, and prejudiced, but then, after having discovered that he had contracted a fatal disease and would therefore die within a month or so, decided to accept The Lord Jesus Christ as his own personal savior.
Chep: Having lived his whole life in a small village hidden deep within the rain forest of Brazil, this 75 year old Holy Man and healer of the sick, although once having had an opportunity to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ presented to him by a Christian missionary — was unable to make a personal commitment to Jesus Christ as The Lord of his life.
Chowyan: A Buddhist Priest, having lived the entirety of his life in a communal setting in the back country of China, was very loving, extremely kind toward others, and always ready to forgive those who would do him harm. He spent the final sixty years of his life dedicated to helping those less fortunate than himself — however, he ended up dying at the age of 75 without ever having had the opportunity to hear about Jesus Christ.
So, what do you think? Who would God be more likely to welcome into His kingdom? And which, of the three, would He allow to descend into the depths of Hell? How would God go about making such decisions? What factors might He take into consideration? Would His decisions be a matter of “black and white,” or would there be various “shades of gray” that God would have to contend with?” What do you believe God will take into consideration when it is time for Him to figure out where you will spend eternity? And finally, given the way that you have chosen to respond to these questions, what does this have to say about the kind of person that you have chosen to be?
How we choose to think through such questions will enable each of us to better understand who it is that we, as a human being, are and what it is that we believe. Dealing with this dilemma will enable us, as Christians, to better understand the depth of our confusion, as well as, the depth of our division, concerning what it means to be a Christian, what it means to follow in the footsteps of Christ, what it is that we must do in order to go to Heaven and thus avoid the horrors of Hell.
Clearly then, the Christian Church is beset by conflict, a mighty chasm that has risen out of the diverse complexity of a simple need to worship God. Each party wanting to worship God in its own chosen way, yet a way that the other does not, and perhaps may never, be able to understand. A diversity of worship that is beginning to destroy the church from within — unless a path toward reconciliation can be found. However, it is the author’s opinion that the seeds for reconciliation can be found within the very ground of contention that, at present, divides the one from the other. These two (the fundamentalists and the liberals) are at war simply because neither one of them is whole. What the one needs, the other one has. What could have made one strong has been used to make itself weak. What the one knows, the other cannot seem to understand. A solution can be found, but it will take everything that each of the two adversaries have to offer, absolutely every single ounce of honesty, integrity, understanding, courage, and humility that each possess. Just as a coin must have each of its sides in order to be whole, it is no different for the church. In order for The Christian Faith to be restored to wholeness, to move toward a singleness of spirit, it must allow The Spirit of God to transform “its swords of hate into the ploughshares of love,” to convert its adversaries who choose to hurt into allies who want to help. So that each might have the humility to accept for itself what it needs from the other, just as each must have the courage to give to the other from the strength that it has.
Pragmatically, and more specifically, there are two things the church can do in order to heal.
First, it is important to recognize the simple fact that most, if not all, of us have developed some sort of political bias. Some, like the fundamentalists, have become rather conservative in their thought. On the other hand, there are liberals who may be to the “left of center.” Given the fact that our political opinions are likely near the center of how we tend to think about life, there is little doubt that such thoughts can skew our efforts to understand The Truth of Scripture. Indeed, it does little good to have available “a source of truth,” if we approach it with a preconceived state of mind, if we are essentially unable, or perhaps even unwilling, to take an honest look at it. Clearly, neither Jesus Christ, nor His followers, were, what we conceive of today as being, biased toward a more conservative or liberal political agenda. The Truth of Christ, of course, stands far above “the puny wisdom” of our political ideologies. Rather than choosing to see only what we want to see; rather than choosing to modify Scripture to conform to the ignorance of our own petty biases — rather than allowing our biases to distort our capacity to understand the Truth of God (The Truth of Scripture, as well as, The ascribed meaning of Jesus’ life), it would be a far, far better thing for us to invite The Holy Spirit to change (even perhaps to radically modify) how we think, in order that our thinking, might once again, be brought back into one accord with that of our Heavenly Father. Then, and only then, will the church be in a position to learn from itself. Until that time arrives, it will simply be a matter of “the blind leading the blind!”
Second, if there is to be reconciliation it will originate out of strength. So then, what is the strength of the church? Concerning the fundamentalists, their strength seems to lie in their capacity to “believe in,” that is, to accept, the divinity of The Lord Jesus Christ. Whereas the strength of the liberal church seems to be rooted in an assumption that a God who is truly divine will, out of necessity, be one who is rational and moral; one who would be described as being loving, caring, kind, forgiving, understanding, rational, and fair. Such a synthesis would yield a much kinder God than that in whom the fundamentalists believe, and, on the other hand, a God much stronger than the God whom the liberals follow. If such a transformation could take place, what might the “faith-works” continuum look like? “Faith” would begin to be conceptualized as The Power of God’s Love living within us, and “works” understood as The Power of God’s Love moving between us. Not two dichotomous entities, but rather one continuous reality; one as a natural extension of the other — faith as the empowered reality upon which works are based, and works as the inevitable outcome of a spiritually empowered faith. If such were the case, I believe that we, as Christians (those who wish to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ), would begin to realize that it is The Power of God’s Love within us that makes it possible for us to have the capacity (an authentic desire) to emulate the life of Christ, so that we, as a church, might eventually become able to love others in a manner that would truly please God. If each of these two “rather embattled forces of god” could find the courage to confront the weakness “of their own footing” before the presence of God, perhaps “the miracle of two having become one” might enable The Church to once again “stand tall” as a mighty force for God. However, if such a transformation fails to become a reality, the church will remain a kingdom divided, a church unto itself, a group of “mere mortals” fighting for “the leftovers” of a world without God.
But, regardless of the outcome, even if the church does not survive, we can rest assured of one thing — if we, as individuals, remain true to The Holy Spirit of God, He will, in all of His greatness and glory, welcome each of us home, and in the end — His Love will make us whole.
G. Doug Soderstrom, Ph.D.