by Pastor Doug Kings
Our Zoom book group has concluded its discussion of Part 1 of Should I Stay Christian? by Brian McLaren. Each of this section’s chapters give reasons for saying “No” to the book’s title question (next week we turn to the “Yes” chapters of Part 2). One of these chapters is titled “Because Christianity Is Stuck (Toxic Theology).”
Where Christianity is stuck, according to McLaren, is in emphasizing the importance of beliefs (holding the right ideas) over the importance of faith (living lives transformed by the gospel). From the gospels we get no indication that doctrine or theology was of importance to Jesus. Yet very early on the church seized on believing the right things as the true measure of being a Christian.
Just what those right ideas were evolved over the centuries, but the principle has remained down to the present day. In the modern world, however, this has created a crisis because many of those ideas have been contradicted by science. The result, McLaren says, has been that more and more people see Christianity existing in an alternative reality from the one they live in.
Like millions of people, I’ve moved out of this universe. I was raised in it. I remember it. But I simply don’t live there anymore.
McLaren goes on to identify Christianity’s biggest failing in this regard: it’s inability to appreciate change.
I used to think that things were real, and change was something that happened to them over time. Now I think that change is real, and things are events that happen over time. Change is the constant and things come and go, appear and disappear, form and fade away.
As McLaren knows, this is science’s fundamental understanding of reality. The basic “stuff” of the universe is energy, which is sometimes temporarily expressed as matter. Or as one scientist has said, matter is “frozen” light.
I think McLaren is on to something important here. Christianity has often presented itself as the repository of unchanging truth and that is appealing to many people. But how does that fit into a world where change is the fundamental truth? Not very well, I’m afraid.
This week we have once again been shocked and saddened by a great natural disaster, the earthquake in Turkey. In premodern times, people searched for divine meaning in such events. Because they caused such human misery, God must be angry with the affected people. Earthquakes, hurricanes, plagues, floods, and droughts were all viewed as tools God had for disciplining a wayward humanity.
Such explanations are a hard sell today. The last time I heard such ideas was after Katrina, when a few televangelists said the storm was God’s judgement on New Orleans’ decadence. They were basically laughed out of the room. But silence is not of any help either. For if religion is to have value, it needs to have something to say about the turbulent, ever-changing universe we are a part of.
“Creator” is one of the primary titles of God. From earliest times people have asked, where did we and all this come from? And God or “the gods” have been the usual answer. The formula, however, works in the other direction as well. For our understanding of this world, we live in must tell us something important about the nature of this creator God. Who, then, is this God that is the source of the universe revealed by science: by particle accelerators and electron microscopes at its tiniest level, and by the Hubble and Webb space telescopes at its farthest and largest scales?
The mind-boggling grandeur of it all is certainly one important answer. Today we appreciate the Psalmist’s declaration that “the heavens declare the glory of God” in ways beyond what he could have ever imagined. But what about us? For it’s all about us, isn’t it? Or is it?
What about those people in Turkey? One day life is going on normally, and the next thousands are dead and injured, and countless thousands of livelihoods thrown into chaos, with years of rebuilding ahead. That’s the human perspective.
Yet science tells us this is simply what our planet does. On a natural global scale, one earthquake, however large, is just a hiccup. At every level, the earth is a churning pulsating ball of rocks and gases, fire and ice. The mountains and valleys, oceans and lakes we enjoy all came about through millions and billions of years of repeated jolts and upheavals.
In New Mexico we regularly walk in placid “rivers” of sand called arroyos. They crisscross the landscape, harboring countless species of plants and animals. But every few years a storm, often unseen and miles away, turns them into raging torrents sweeping away everything in the foaming water’s reach. That’s why they’re there; it’s natural flood control. And the arroyo sand beds tell another story. For though thousands of feet above sea level now, in an ancient past they were part of a sea bottom, later thrust up and up by the earth’s titanic forces.
How do we make sense of such a world? And how do we make sense of ourselves living in such a world? And how do we make sense of a God who has created such a world that eventually produced us as one of its inhabitants? A world that on an irregular but not infrequent basis seems to try to swat us like we swat a mosquito on our arm.
We all ask such questions, though often silently and even unconsciously. They make us confused, anxious, and often angry. Unfortunately, religion has stopped asking such questions, even though that’s what it’s for. Instead, is hides behind ancient scriptures, stories, and doctrines because it, too, is afraid of the world in which it finds itself.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Those unnerving questions can also move us to wonder and amazement, and for many they do. It’s what the modern world at its best has been about. In fact, it may well be that pursuing answers to those questions is what this thing called existence and life is all about. There is an ancient spiritual tradition that human consciousness is the way God experiences the universe. So the Hubble and Webb telescopes may actually be doing holy work.
The resources of ancient religion are valuable guides to how ancient people answered and lived out those questions in the world in which they lived. We can learn from their wisdom without trying to live in their world. We can’t because we don’t. Religion does us, and God, a disservice whenever it pretends otherwise.
Instead, religion needs to help us all find what Paul Tillich called simply “the courage to be”, here and now. It needs to help us rediscover the God the apostle Paul says is “the one in whom we live and move and have our being.” The God who is the “ground of being”, a phrase borrowed by both Tillich and the modern Buddhist scholar D. T. Suzuki from the medieval theologian Meister Eckhart. Religion needs to guide us to find again the God we think is still in the past, but in fact has been with us here in this amazing world all along.
Blessings in your life and ministry.