That They May Have Life

prayer imageI came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

~ John 10:10b

As the religious news services and others trumpet the latest survey results about religion in America, showing a decline in the number of people who say they are Christians and a significant increase in those who claim no religious affiliation at all (something that now describes 25% of the American population), I am reminded of how complicated being Christian in America has become.  Now, let me be clear:  I am NOT joining the bandwagon of those who want to claim that American Christians are being persecuted.  They are not, and it is ludicrous to even make such a claim (and an insult to people elsewhere in the world who truly do experience persecution).   No, when I speak of the complexity of being Christian in America, I am not talking about cultural shifts of the type that the latest survey reveals.  I am talking about the complexity created by Christians themselves.

That quote from John’s Gospel at the top of this post — “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” — has for me become the thing that defines what I believe Jesus was really aiming for in his life and ministry.  The essential message and meaning of Jesus was of God’s desire to liberate people from everything that prevented them from living a deep, abundant life.  Abundance, from the perspective of the Gospel, is not an abundance of things or wealth, but rather an abundance of meaning.   That abundance was to be found in a deep, abiding grounding in God that revealed love as the organizing principle of the universe and overflowed into relationships of compassion and justice that liberated people from whatever prevented them from experiencing this abundance in their own lives.  Jesus was always about setting people free.  Liberation is the basic theme of the Hebrew Bible and of the New Testament.

But any encounter with the dominant forms of Christianity in American culture — and probably most other places in the world — would probably not leave people with the impression that liberation lies at the heart of the Gospel.  From the time Christianity became powerful as the official religion of ancient Rome, it began to lose its liberating message, as it began to take into itself and replicate the cultural biases of the societies which it “converted.”   Rather than liberating people into a transformative relationship with God, Christianity became more interested in enforcing a moral code which became the definition of righteousness and holiness.  In this paradigm, there were kinds of people who were definitely other:  sinners who displeased God, and in some theologies, so thoroughly displeased God that they were rather beyond redemption.

This moralism continues to characterize the dominant forms of Christianity in America.  Too many churches continue to confuse morality with righteousness, and proclaim a twisted “gospel” which has nothing to do with the life and teaching of Jesus and everything to do with trying to preserve a way of life (and a way of thinking) that is changing.   So desperate are the acolytes of this gospel to hold onto their world view that they lash out in increasingly hateful ways, and presume to do so in the name of God.

It’s little wonder, then, that people are becoming less enthusiastic about Christianity, as Christians appear more and more in the public arena as conservators of a disappearing era rather than as serious spiritual explorers who have something to offer humanity in our common search for meaning, liberation, and transformation.  Rather than inviting people into an abundant life, as Jesus did, too many Christians are trying to push people into a narrow, limited life that weighs people down rather than freeing them up.  Ironically, this was exactly the criticism that Jesus leveled toward the religious leaders of his time, accusing them of laying burdens on people that were too heavy to bear, rather than inviting them into a transformative relationship with the living God.

The bottom line is that the Gospel has ceased to be good news for increasing numbers of people.  And the fault does not lie with them:  rather, it lies with us who fail to the Gospel compellingly both in word and action.  And that is a betrayal of Jesus, and of the mission and message he entrusted to us.

Intelligent Religion

ignoranceProbably since the very beginning of American life, there has been something of an anti-intellectual streak running through our culture.  There has long been a distrust of people who are considered experts in any particular field, and a  kind of suspicion of the highly educated.  The heroes of American culture are almost never people with advanced degrees.   America has a bit of a love affair with the idea of the “common” person and the “self-made” man, and we have a tendency to think that the average Joe or Jane really knows just as much about things as someone who has studied them for years academically.

On the one hand, there is something attractive in this.  It is connected to the idea of America as a land of opportunity, in which anyone can make something of themselves regardless of education or background.  Of course, it’s never as simple as all that, but I have heard a number of people from foreign places affirm that this country allows for a mobility that their places of origin did not — and so there is, I think, something to it.

On the other hand, the anti-intellectualism that dominates American culture has created a great deal of havoc, as people and institutions, including governmental and religious institutions, put themselves in a place of denial about dangers that experts in various fields seek to point out with absolute clarity but which are frightening or unsettling.   The ability to occupy that space of denial is enabled in large part by a deep conviction that experts in any given field don’t really know what they are talking about, and their opinion shouldn’t really carry any greater weight than anyone else’s.

I am particularly aware of this, of course, in the area of religion.   At one time, in the Western world, Christianity helped to preserve the intellectual heritage of earlier generations.  The most educated people in society were quite often to be found in various ecclesiastical offices.  And while doctrinal commitments sometimes were allowed to trump studiously arrived at conclusions, particularly in the areas of biology and cosmology, on the whole these were the exceptions rather than the rule.

Today, however, religion in general — and Christianity in particular — has an increasing reputation of being the bastion of anti-intellectualism.  Large numbers of Christians believe that their literal reading of the Bible trumps studied scientific conclusions.  Many people have erected a wall between science and religion, seeing them as enemies that offer competing truths.   Some Christians go so far as to home school their children in order to prevent them from being taught anything that disagrees with their parents’ interpretation of the Bible and their faith.  Materials produced for these people, and for many “Christian” schools, even go so far as rewriting American history so that the founders of the country are depicted as understanding Christianity in the same way that modern evangelicals understand it.

We sometimes fail to realize that this is a relatively new development.  There is nothing inherent in Christianity that is opposed to intellectual inquiry, nothing inherent in Christianity that pits religious truth against complementary truths discovered in other fields.  The fact that so many Americans don’t experience Christianity in this way is testament to the degree to which the anti-intellectual bias of American culture has insinuated itself into our religious life.

Of course, there are many Christians who don’t subscribe to this anti-intellectual version of our faith.  There are plenty of faithful people out there who don’t see any opposition between science and religion, understanding that (at a basic level) science is about discovering the way things work and religion is about meaning.  In terms of biology and cosmology — the two places where science and Christianity most frequently are made to clash in our culture — science is able to tell us about the “how” of creation, while the religious traditions are interested in the “why” of creation.

There is such a thing as intelligent religion.  Faith can and should be informed by other fields of human endeavor and inquiry — that is one of the ways that faith is deepened and matured.   Too often in our culture we carry with us this idea that faith means to believe something regardless or despite any information to the contrary.  Such a view would say that we should cling to the idea that the earth is flat, even though we know that is not the case.  But faith is not meant to be a belief system that ignores everything else.  Rather, faith is meant to be a path for integrating all that we know into a meaningful whole.  Sometimes, that integration can be challenging, to be sure.  But that challenge is part and parcel of the journey of faith, and is, for me, part of what makes life exciting and wonder-filled.