The New Reformation

I’m generally always game for a visit to a sacred sanctuary, no matter the particular predilections of the faithful found within. But the effect such tours have on me tend to vary widely, depending on whether or not I happen to be inside America’s territorial boundaries. In Japan, for example, I found myself once in a small Buddhist temple just outside Kyoto, with an enclosing courtyard isolating me from the entire world; coins glistened in the sunlight on a rock nearby, folded prayers fluttered in the breeze, and I was struck with a sense of intense transcendence that flowed up from the Katsura River into the hills above, drawing me along with it. In Istanbul, I was transfixed by the main dome of the Blue Mosque, the intricate patterns weaving in and out of each other, intertwining with verses of the Qur’an laid out with calligraphic grace. In the adjacent park, tourists and locals mingled at dusk as the ezan rose up and floated out into the city, calling the faithful to prayer; it stirred something deep inside me as well, echoing subtly off the walls of the Hagia Sophia and stretching East, following the dimming sunlight across the Bosphorus. And in Geneva, I found myself wandering into Saint Pierre Cathedral, an historical microcosm of the Protestant Reformation. An ancient site of religious worship, its highest tower looms over the lakeside city, following the example of its former adopted pastor, Jean Calvin. All the typical vestments and embellishments of Catholic cathedrals have been long stripped away, leaving only a simple Bible on the altar, with Calvin’s chair still adjacent. In the solemn midday hush of the nave, made more pronounced in contrast to the chattering of schoolchildren circumnavigating outside, I touched the chair and examined the book, reflecting on the intense intellectual work that twisted the city, and indeed the entire continent, around itself. I could feel it still twisting me around myself, after all these years.

In these places, with my senses and mind aglow with wonder, I can feel a memory of God so intimate and precious that I often don’t want the moment to end, although it invariably does.

In America, I feel quite differently. There are, to be sure, a handful of ancient beautiful churches that draw me in, but “ancient” in America is always scare-quoted and asterisked when compared to the rest of the world. Usually, I find myself drawn more to newer people-filled buildings; not to Saint Patrick’s in Manhattan for example, but to Redeemer Presbyterian. Whereas the holiest of holies elsewhere are imbued for me with a sense of spiritual significance, a kind of cosmic intensity that resonates through the very foundation stones themselves, I don’t feel the same kind of gravity pulling me in when I visit American churches. That is not to say, of course, that I don’t feel anything – to the contrary, when I am around American believers I feel strongly attracted to their engaging personalities, their love for community, and their hope for a better world to come. In short, I find myself drawn to their Humanism, not their Christianity (such as it is).

But I am simultaneously repelled by the religious systems in place that Europe has buried and we Americans have inherited, and which we have been seemingly incapable of reforming. We need a New Reformation, a willingness to fix the things that are broken, to set aside the things that cannot be repaired, and a courage to make orthodoxy subservient to truth.

Five hundred years ago, Luther’s theses on the selling of indulgences (among other troubling matters) ignited a fire that had been smoldering at least since the time of Jan Hus. Though argued in theological language, the problem was also political and economical, as the Roman Catholic Church built its influence and power quite literally on the coins thus collected. The proverb was often repeated and wonderfully effective: “as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” But the problem was also clear to many, including to an Augustinian monk in Wittenberg with a confrontational streak. Half a century later, beginning at the Council of Trent the Roman Catholic Church did begin to rein in the practice, and Pius V effectively canceled the kinds of financial transactions that had so provoked Luther. Still, it remained a powerful and global institution, and as such it needed a steady supply of coin from Catholics who remained faithful to the Magisterium.

Half a millennium later, I happened to visit my local parish with my father-in-law, a lapsed Catholic who had recently begun rewarming towards his childhood faith in the wake of some family deaths. Near the end of his homily, the priest began reflecting on the financial needs of the parish, taking on a surprisingly stern tone. He lectured the gathered faithful on the importance of their pecuniary responsibility, and explicitly charged each family with providing an equal portion of the established annual parish budget: a sum totaling millions of dollars that would burden each and every family by nearly five figures. Smiling sweetly as he concluded, the priest noted that worksheets had been provided in each pew to help all gathered redesign their family budgets to meet their ecclesiastical obligations. My father-in-law sat in stony silence, then marched out as the mass concluded. His initial enthusiasm had been quenched, his religious hopefulness replaced with outrage that a specific dollar amount had been laid at the feet of these Catholic families as, if not an indulgence per se, at least a spiritual obligation. To this day, he stands by his decision as we left, to never attend Mass again. The Reformers might sympathize with his anger, but I’ll note that he hasn’t instead chosen to visit the Lutheran church across the street.

I have visited, of course, that church and others, to my continued disappointment.

There are glimmers of hope, islands of truth amidst the sea of confusion that is the American Christian landscape. But it is largely a slow slide into illusion and irrelevancy. Aside from the Catholics, the historical denominations, the so-called “mainline” Christians, are suffering stagnation and death. Among the spiritual descendants of Luther, Calvin, and Wesley, the number of adherents has dropped by at least five million over the last decade1)Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” May 12, 2015. http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/; their most substantial demographic are people born prior to 1945, their least substantial are younger Millennials born after 1990. I’ve met some wonderful people among these mainline congregations, particularly among the Methodists and some liberal Disciples of Christ. People who want their doctrine to be in the service of truth and love, and not the other way around.

In contrast, the so-called “evangelical” Christians, though they’ve also begun experiencing a slow retreat, have mitigated some of these effects, at least for the time being. Evangelical Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Calvinists continue to be a steady minority of this group (as are the more excitable Pentecostals), but the loss in numbers seen in the Southern Baptist Convention is potentially balanced by the growth in the nondenominational Evangelical churches.

It is particularly in these Evangelical congregations, most commonly seen in the form of megachurches (more than 2000 attending weekly), aspiring megachurches (those who ape the practices and systems of megachurches), or pseudo-megachurches (more than 2000 combined attending across several campus locations), that I typically see the most confusion, the least value for truth, and the most pressing need for reformation. Nearly every new congregation formed within the past decade fits this model, and without a clear denominational structure or history, there is a conspicuous blank right in the heart of each church’s identity. I sometimes call these the “Blank Churches,” since they seem to be created with a fill-in-the-blank identity. The blanks always seem at first glance to be named at random, although there is usually some kind of post-hoc rationalization from Scripture applied. “Wellspring Church,” or “Capstone Church,” or “Life Church,” or Compass Church” are all on the table, and all tell you absolutely nothing about what the church is like or what they believe. It’s a solid marketing strategy, of course, followed religiously by all the dominant megachurches in town. In fact, if you’re a successful (read: popular) enough congregation, you can even drop the word church from your name! Thus, Fellowship Church becomes “Fellowship,” Gateway Church becomes “Gateway,” and “Prestonwood Baptist Church” becomes simply “Prestonwood.”

At these congregations, my disappointment begins nearly as soon as I walk in the door. The entire logistical plan of each building is such that visitors are directed toward a conveniently-positioned welcome booth or table. I typically ask two questions of the people who have volunteered to be the first face I see: 1) why are you a member at this church, as opposed to the church down the street? 2) what kind of theology is taught here? The answers are virtually always the same. In response to the first question, I’m told that the people are so nice here and the pastor really teaches from the Bible. In response to the second, I’m told most commonly to check the website or sometimes what is ‘theology’? Occasionally I’m referred to a member of the pastoral staff, and at that point it’s even odds that I’ll get a more substantial answer than what I’ve already received. Often my interactions with the pastor will deepen my disappointment, such as the time I visited a local pseudo-megachurch and the head pastor bragged during his sermon that he will happily delete any email from one of his congregation that is more than six sentences long. Or the time I visited a dominant megachurch and had a casual conversation with a subordinate pastor who freely admitted that Christianity might very well be untrue, but he still valued the happy and comfortable life it had provided for him and his family. To say nothing of the pastors who spend their spiritual sanctimony on political advocacy, endorsing candidates for office as well as political parties, and exhorting their congregations to render their souls unto Caesar.

It is a normal aspect of human psychology to look to a leader for guidance and advice, but far too often I find the office of pastor, particularly among American Evangelicals, to have become a kind of miniature Pope who operates with the equivalent of ex cathedra authority in the lives of his church members. Especially for those pastors outside the domain of denominational oversight, they are accountable ultimately to those self-selected elders that they attract to their orbits, and who have every vested interest in establishing and maintaining a Holy See of their own. Every 100-acre campus once began as a basement Bible study; every multimillion-dollar endowment started by passing a single plate. In the old cathedrals, the architecture positioned the parishioners to focus on the altar, overlooked by Christ crucified. But the Reformation stripped that out, and Evangelicalism replaced it with audio-visual equipment. Instead of a tabernacle, Evangelicals have a drum kit. Instead of Christ, they have a pastor.

This is not to say, of course, that there aren’t good men and women who respond to a calling in good faith – far from it. This is merely to point out that when these men and women go into the Evangelical landscape to learn how to respond, they are presented with a system that has not been critically vetted against the best interests of the people they want to reach. It is a system forged by the orthodoxy of an early Church that sought to consolidate power and leverage it against the pagans who had previously dominated religious practice. It is a system built up by a power- and money-hungry institution that sought and claimed the right of kings over an entire continent. It is a system that has been predominantly interested in the right hand of God, not in the rights of man. And it is a system where faith is taken as allegiance, whereas doubt is taken as treason.

It is also a system with significant blood on its hands. Long before the Reformers, the Roman Catholic Church sought to wield the power of the sword to reclaim the Holy Lands from Muslim rule, or to stamp out beliefs proclaimed heretical. Through this, the Church linked genocide with divine salvation, a blemish that only grew in Europe as the centuries marched on, and was championed by the Reformers in turn, as well as echoed by Luther’s condemnations of the Jews. Indeed, this stain spread throughout Protestant Christianity and was exported to the Americas and to Africa, where countless Christians happily slaughtered and enslaved so-called savages thinking it was the will of God. It is the same system that Calvin established as a civil authority in Geneva, where opponents to his rule were tortured and beheaded, and the Christian heretic Michael Servetus was slowly burned alive at the stake.

Good Christians and good pastors deserve a better system than this. They deserve a sanctuary unmolested by and unencouraging to the base desires of power and authority, or pomp and popularity. They deserve a home that doesn’t fetishize faith to the point of suffocating reason. They deserve a community that welcomes all, with the goal of moving collectively closer to Truth. And they deserve a God that provides those things for them. In the spirit of the Old Reformers, I propose a collection of newer principles to help guide the New Reformation on this task:

Per Veritatem: through Truth

Per Æquitatem: through Equality

Per Caritatem: through Love

Per Fraternitatem: through Brotherhood

Per Deum et Humanitatem: through God and Humanity

It is imperative that Truth be placed first. Without a primary commitment to Truth, the Old Reformation fractured and fought, splitting into opposing camps as quickly as Luther met Zwingli. The Old Reformation also played one camp against each other, setting up state churches in positions of dominance that ended only when Thomas Jefferson and John Madison built a wall of separation in America. The New Reformation must treat all people as equals, no matter the nature of their religious opinions. By extension, love for fellow human beings, and a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood should not cease at the church door, but should be promoted throughout all of human society. The Christian in the New Reformation should strive to love all people as one would love a member of one’s own family. And finally, the New Reformation must seek to bring the realm of God back into that of Humanity, so that both may work together to effect the salvation of us all. For too long the sacred has been lost from the world, glimpsed furtively only on Sunday mornings before being chased away by the glitter of a disco ball and driven into hiding from a thumping bass.

It is easier to tear down than to build up. But the modern Christian Church, and particularly the modern Evangelical Church, is built on an increasingly fragile foundation, and if we are being honest, the cracks have been showing for some time. If it is not demolished from without, it is unlikely that it will be kept upright by the superficial efforts being made from within. The new Church, and the New Reformation, may very well be the providential step forward.

References   [ + ]

1. Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” May 12, 2015. http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/

A New Apologetic

Guest post by Brandon Tejedor

I’m very much convinced that there is a need in the church for Apologetics. I am equally convinced that the field of Apologetics needs major reform. I don’t have it figured out, but here’s a few things:

  1. As Zach has pointed out, there is little-to-no room for doubt in most churches. I believe this is horrible. Doubt is not the bane of faith. My faith was and IS forged by my doubt more often than not. And it doesn’t come from reading catchy phrases that win arguments, but months and years of wrestling with challenges. In this I believe churches have failed me miserably, though great Christian academics and scholars have made up for that failing to some degree.

    A church that can not engage doubt honestly in both intellectual and existential ways is not one likely to flourish, and is simultaneously failing and pushing away today’s intelligentsia.


  2. Christian Orthodoxy needs some serious refocusing. I don’t know how Young Earth Creationism, Capitalist Economics, Plenary Verbal Inspiration, and the right to bear arms all became nearly as important as “Jesus is Lord” but the list of requirements to be a Christian, especially a “good” Christian have grown so long that I’m worried about tying my shoes correctly. Now many of us do have firm conviction on many doctrinal matters, and I think that is no bad thing. But the requirements to get in under that umbrella are in my opinion far greater than need be and it sows unnecessary levels of discord. Augustine and Calvin wrote about non-literal interpretations of Genesis centuries before Darwin wrote about evolutionary theory. C.S. Lewis was most likely an inclusivist (even Billy Graham has made comments before that suggest inclusivism). And those are just a few people that have been hugely influential to historical and modern Christianity.

  3. There needs to be a greater distinction between Christianity and Politics. This goes for both left- and right-leaning Christians. Christ commanding us to take care of the poor does not automatically mean supporting welfare though many make it out to be such. The only thing the New Testament seems to teach about property is that we should be generous with our possessions, yet some treat higher taxes as if they mug God himself. I think it’s great to be politically involved, and I think it’s great to have your politics informed by your religious beliefs. I don’t think that political beliefs are equivalent to religious beliefs though, and many seem to make it out that way.

  4. The discussions we have on these issues, and the “Apologetics arena” in general, need to be infused with a greater abundance of grace. This means not just respect, but genuine care for the fact that many people who disagree with us do so with genuine and non-malicious intent. This means patience needs to be employed, as too many Apologists expect people to immediately change their minds as soon as they hear “good reason.” The fact is that beliefs, save when based solely on demonstrably false information, generally are very complex with countless influential factors informing them, and they rarely change quickly one way or the other save through powerful events (not all that often do lectures and debates count as powerful events, though at times and for some they do). Most idea shifts are gradual, yet all too often there’s this unspoken expectation that an altar call should follow every presentation of the Kalam Cosmological argument.

  5. The greatest Apologetic is love. When speaking specifically of the apologia, we are commanded to gentleness and respect, but as Christians we are commanded to love in all things.

    “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

    –1 Corinthians 13:4–7

    Any Christian apologetic which lacks patience and kindness, which displays envy, boasting, arrogance, or rudeness, irritation or resentfulness, any apologetic which celebrates some wrongdoing in some ends-justify-the-means sort of way, that shuns truth or fails to bear the worst and fails to believe and hope for the best, is a failed apologetic regardless of its intellectual content. This, THIS!, above all else I think is the failure of many of my peers and predecessors in the field of Apologetics. It is a failure I have often been guilty of, but strive to improve in my constant interactions with Christians I don’t agree with (as they make up the majority of my tense relationships), as well as non-Christians.


That’s my thoughts on it at least.

The Simplified Christian

n.t. wright

The retired Anglican Bishop N. T. Wright is highly regarded in educated conservative Christian circles, lauded by Catholics and Protestants alike (such as Tim Keller, whose work I’ve reviewed previously). Wright’s work as a scholar and popularizer of Christianity evokes the legacy of C. S. Lewis, another Anglican who cast a long shadow on the American evangelical community, in particular. His opinions on sexual ethics in the Church (especially the acceptance of homosexuality) has placed him more than once in the middle of cultural conflicts, and he has defended his conservative views with vigor. His writings for the lay Christian audience have sought to make a convincing argument for his conservative beliefs, without sacrificing the theological weight of their implications.

In his book, “Simply Christian,” Bishop Wright seeks to create an abstract of sorts, which the unsophisticated but earnest Christian may use as a framework for her beliefs until further details are accessible, and which the curious unbeliever may approach for a rough but comprehensible sketch of the religion which has dominated Western thought and culture for the past two millennia. That being said, Wright readily admits that this work can in no way be taken as a comprehensive assessment of the Christian faith; it is no exercise in systematic theology.

What Wright has clearly not anticipated, however, is the wondering gaze of the Christian apostate. One might similarly experience some level of bemusement at reading the realtor’s description of one’s former domicile. “Convenient parking, breathtaking views, and new appliances,” reads the sales notice. Ah, but not mentioned are the faulty plumbing in the guest bathroom, the pervasive weeds in the ill-tended garden, and the HVAC system one or two seasons away from shutdown. There’s a reason the former tenant abandoned the premises, after all, but Wright seems blissfully unaware (or unconcerned) about such readers.

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Like C. S. Lewis before him (whose model he clearly emulates), Wright also makes every effort to ecumenize his portrait of Christianity. As he says, “the book isn’t ‘Anglican,’ ‘Catholic,’ ‘Protestant,’ or ‘Orthodox,’ but simply Christian.” Though attempting anything else would make the book a complicated mess, I worry that Wright with a wave of his hand brushes aside too many of the differences between the various forms of Christianity. The variances between Protestants and Catholics are not trivial, neither in their experiences of the faith nor in the particulars of their respective theologies. Further, the intense and continuous fracturing of the Christian tradition is an important consideration for anyone interested in exploring the religion, believer and unbeliever alike.

Bishop Wright builds his case for Christianity carefully, progressively, and with the practiced technique of someone who has been enthusiastically engaged in the evangelism of his faith for decades. Yet the bricks he uses are mortared with generous assumptions, not wholly inappropriate given his assumed audience, but taken without proof by the author nonetheless. Assumptions like the objective nature of moral claims, the existence of the immaterial supernatural, and the impossibility of beauty and complexity to exist in a purely materialistic world. Many times also, Wright stops himself from making overt assumptions, but merely raises a question and considers the various responses, before moving forward taking for granted that the explanation which best points the way to God and Christianity should be taken as the assumed conclusion.

For example, Wright attempts an entire chapter outlining the Christian conception of the deity, without actually explaining why Christians are Theists in the first place, nor why they have decided that the ancient semitic god Yahweh is their God the Father. Similarly, later in the book he brushes past the most central and integral doctrine about the nature of the Christian god, Trinitarianism:

“The church’s official “doctrine of the Trinity” wasn’t fully formulated until three or four centuries after the time of Paul. Yet when the later theologians eventually worked it all through, it turned out to consist, in effect, of detailed footnotes to Paul, John, Hebrews, and the other New Testament books, with explanations designed to help later generations grasp what was already there in principle in the earliest writings.”

This is, quite simply, promoting theological poverty among Christians. I can’t imagine how Bishop Wright (or his publishers) were able to to pass this off, but he continues:

“Indeed, some have suggested that one way of understanding the Spirit is to see the Spirit as the personal love which the Father has for the Son and the Son for the Father.”

Not the Spirit as Person, but the Spirit as “personal love.” I’ll grant that it’s a pretty thought, but the good Bishop travels too close to Binitarianism with this kind of talk. After this, Wright encourages his readers to celebrate the “divine Trinity” doctrine as fact, but one wonders if any reader has any better sense of this core doctrine (or indeed, Wright himself) after completing his book.

Wright’s rationale when it comes to his assumptions about sex and gender are similarly opaque. He seems to have no understanding of the sociological relationship between the two concepts, how fluid they have always been throughout human society, and indeed the mixed messages of the Bible with regard to human relationships. Instead, he appears to insist on precisely the kind of inflexible, undeviating, restrictive view of sex and gender that his generation of Christians grew up with, unaware (or uncaring) that this is precisely the kind of attitude that younger Christians are objecting to, and which has already succeeded in alienating many of this generation, if not outright evacuating them.

“At one end of the scale, some people try to pretend that for all practical purposes their gender is irrelevant, as though they were in fact neuter. At the other end, some people are always sizing others up as potential sexual partners, even if only in imagination. And, again, we know in our bones that both of these are distortions of reality.”

“Today’s parents, however impeccable their idealistic credentials, have discovered that most little boys like playing with guns and cars, and that a remarkable number of little girls like playing with dolls, dressing them up and nursing them.”

“The trouble is that the modern world, like much of the ancient one, has come to regard what is sometimes called an active sex life as not only the norm but something nobody in his or her right mind does without.”

However, for all these missteps, Wright does do justice to his explanation of the Bible and its composition. His conservative conclusions regarding authorship and historicity are fully on display, but his summary of the “Book God Breathed” is a fair account that is likely to surprise with new information the average “pew potato” Christian who only follows along with her pastor during the Sunday sermon. Likewise, his distinction between inerrancy and infallibility is made with a subtle yet careful assuredness that would likely assuage the most conservative and the most liberal readers, alike.

Where Wright succeeds best is in making plain the contrast between three different forms of god-belief, and how they might lead to different interpretations of Christian history. These are Pantheism, the belief in a god which is unified with the Cosmos throughout the fabric of space-time; Deism, the belief in a god which is separated from the Cosmos (though the Creator of it) and does not operate in space-time; and Theism, the belief in a god which intersects with the Cosmos at various points in space-time. Christianity, as a form of Theism, is put forward by Wright as the most satisfying explanation for various phenomena, such as the complex beauty of nature, as well as the particular themes and implications of Biblical stories.

This is a significant success for Wright because the popularity of Theism is on the wane, even among some Christians. The implications of a personal deity, as well as of the theological, behavioral, and cultural implications of Christianity’s truth are dulled significantly if God is not personally present and active in our world. A Pantheistic or Deistic interpretation of Christianity helps avoid some of the most troubling issues with their faith with which many Christians simply don’t want to engage. An absentee god cannot condemn, cannot distinguish between believer and heathen, and thus must provide for some kind of universal salvation or risk moral irrelevancy. An impersonal god cannot intervene to save a baby from being drowned in a flash flood, cannot stand between a young child and a diagnosis of terminal cancer. It is important for Wright to make the case that to be a consistent Christian requires a clear acceptance of Theism, and I believe that he manages this task.

Yet for all his promotion of Christianity, Bishop Wright takes an opportunity to criticize the modern church as someplace that for many “carr[ies] the overtones of large, dark buildings, pompous religious pronouncements, false solemnity, and rank hypocrisy.” And in his description of the best aspects of church, I feel that we can find some agreement:

“It’s a place of welcome and laughter, of healing and hope, of friends and family and justice and new life. It’s where the homeless drop in for a bowl of soup and the elderly stop by for a chat. It’s where one group is working to help drug addicts and another is campaigning for global justice.”

I’ll see you in that church on Sunday, Bishop.

The Reason for God

LackOfFaith

Skeptics, beware.

It takes a certain kind of apologist to quote the Dark Lord of the Sith extolling the virtues of faith. It also takes a certain kind of apologist to compare the nature of doubt with the protective effect of the immune system. Tim Keller is that kind of apologist.

Though raised in Lutheran and Methodist churches, Keller was drawn to Calvinist theology after college and joined the conservative wing of the Presbyterian church. His Manhattan congregation (a sizable cohort of 5000-odd young Christians) receive from him equal measures of Reformed teachings and pop culture references. Indeed, if William Lane Craig has been relegated to the role of awkward, out-of-touch, and slightly embarrassing uncle of apologetics (especially after this incident), then Keller is the cool, confident, and entertaining uncle of apologetics, equally capable of discussing the finer points of soteriology as well as Star Wars.

In his recent book, “The Reason for God,” Keller engages with seven of the more common skeptical complaints he encounters from his parishioners, and follows them with seven attempts at evangelism. He acknowledges without grumbling that the trend of religious participation in the United States is following the example of Europe (at least with regard to Christianity), and that the demographic shift is heralding a new rise in apathetic irreligion, significant skepticism, and outright atheism.

Keller’s primary apologetic thesis is that doubts advanced by skeptics of Christianity are themselves indicative of an alternative faith-based worldview:

All doubts, however skeptical and cynical them may seem, are really a set of alternate beliefs. You cannot doubt Belief A except from a position of faith in Belief B.

One or more variations of this thesis are both common among traditional apologists who seek either to 1) minimize the role that faith plays in the formulation of their own worldviews, or 2) drag their skeptical opponents down to their own epistemological level, thus offsetting any rhetorical advantage. But in his endnotes, Keller adds a substantial caveat, exempting both self-evident facts and scientifically-determined conclusions from his recontextualization of “doubts.” For good reason too, as these underlie a significant amount of skepticism with regard to Christianity and other religions.

But Keller is less concerned with these, and more concerned with responding to facile complaints, such as the post-modern “there can’t be just one true religion,” or the tedious “Christianity is a straitjacket.” In responding to “the Church is responsible for so much injustice,” Keller employs the No True Christian defense as he neatly divides the history of violence into that committed by other religions, that committed by godless Communists and their ilk, and that committed by Christian fanatics, not proper Christians like Bonhoeffer, Popieluszko, and King. On “science has disproved Christianity,” Keller clings tightly to Gould’s NOMA and leans heavily on metaphorical interpretation; though neither dismissing creationism outright (lest he anger his colleagues at Westminster Theological Seminary), nor embracing modern science, he meekly settles on theistic evolution as a compromise consistent with his faith, and attempts to give his Christian readers sufficient license to follow him to that conclusion. When responding to “you can’t take the Bible literally,” Keller wisely and pointedly avoids any discussion whatsoever of the Old Testament, and makes his best attempt to historicize the Gospels. One wonders how well Keller would fare when confronted by a skeptic who was familiar with ancient Sumerian, Egyptian, and Babylonian history, or especially the archaeological conclusions of Finkelstein and Silberman.

Lastly, Keller splits the Problem of Evil into two sections, one focusing on the Problem of Suffering and the other on the Problem of Hell. Throughout his book, he borrows heavily from C. S. Lewis, but nowhere more heavily (and with more futility) than here. Suffering, Keller tells us, is evidence for God, since the very concept would be meaningless without His existence. But he somehow fails to grasp that there is no moral outrage from atheism at instances of natural evil, and anthropogenic evils are explainable within natural psychological and sociological paradigms. Keller goes on to explain that since Jesus experienced the ultimate suffering, we all can take some measure of comfort by identifying with Him during even our deepest melancholy. However, Keller admits that even this rings a bit hollow, and notes that:

I think we need something more than knowing God is with us in our difficulties. We also need hope that our suffering is “not in vain.”

Here Keller hits on the crux of the Christian response to the Problem of Evil: the unflappable conviction that God will make all things right in the end; that the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ will restore harmony to the Cosmos. But Dostoyevsky put it perfectly when he wrote:

I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.”

In the second half of his book, Keller largely dispenses with apologetics and instead invites his readers to “put on Christianity like a pair of spectacles and look at the world with it. See what power it has to explain what we know and see.” His first step in this direction is an appeal to teleology and aesthetics; a wise move, and indeed I’ve confessed to many Christians that these represent the emotional Achilles heel of atheism. Conceiving of a Cosmos apathetic (and even hostile) to my own existence exposes the raw nerves of my apostasy, even as it fosters and encourages my Humanism. But Keller stumbles hard when he claims that morality without God implies that “whether we are loving or cruel in the end would make no difference at all.” And this is where Christian conceptions of morality always fall short, in linking the concepts of good and evil to some arbitrary cosmic judge, rather than in terms of human suffering and flourishing. Keller (and indeed, nearly every apologist like him) fails to realize that he can’t have his cake and eat it too; if morality is a function of an extra-dimensional intelligence, then “good” and “evil” are still no more than subjective opinions. For morality to be truly objective as he desires, it would have to be completely separate from the mind of God, thus making Him irrelevant to the issue (aside from perhaps acting as a messenger).

Keller finishes the rest of his book with standard conservative preaching about the nature of sin, the message of the Gospel, and the promise of salvation. Throughout he waxes eloquently and enthusiastically; it is clear that this is his element. For example, when discussing the most intellectually problematic concept in all of Christianity:

The doctrine of the Trinity overloads our mental circuits. Despite its cognitive difficulty, however, this astonishing, dynamic conception of the triune God is bristling with profound, wonderful, life-shaping, world-changing implications.

And finally, Keller invites his readers to repent of their skepticism and accept Christ as savior. One wonders if he truly understands what it means to be a “skeptic,” or if he simply has overwhelming confidence in the persuasive power of his writing (or the Gospel message he attempts to convey), but I suspect most self-styled skeptics will chuckle at his earnest if naïve offer.

DoNotThink

Not all that surprising coming from someone who talks about taking a “leap of doubt.”

At the end of it all, I appreciate Keller’s attempt, if not his execution. He is consistently as humble as his theology allows him to be, winsome, and above all else sincere. If Generation X was the generation obsessed with irony, then the Millennials are the generation who desperately seek sincerity. I suspect this is why Keller’s church has been so successful at bringing in new members in their 20s and early 30s; in an environment like Manhattan, where everything is a performance (and indeed some churches have legitimate audiences), I’m sure someplace like Redeemer Presbyterian Church seems like an oasis of candor. Were I still a Christian (and living in NYC), I daresay I’d be calling Tim Keller my pastor. Hell, even as an apostate, I would have a hard time finding someplace else I’d rather be on a Manhattan Sunday than listening to one of his sermons.

Like the New Atheism, Keller’s New Apologetics offers little new from a theological or philosophical context. But I truly do appreciate the difference in tone and approach, and am hopeful that his example is followed by other young apologists seeking to build their own ministries. Even if his reason for God isn’t reason enough to change this skeptical apostate’s mind, I have faith that Keller’s approach will be a positive force for the New Christianity.

Room for the Universal

“If others go to Hell, I will go too. But I do not believe that; on the contrary, I believe that all will be saved, myself with them—something which arouses my deepest amazement.”

–Søren Kierkegård

My theological and exegetical training afford me myriad tools with which to address the question of Universal Salvation. The expectation amongst many of my friends is that I will put forth clear, black-and-white interpretations of the Bible, replete with conservatism-friendly apologetical strategies that play properly into our agreed upon dialectic.

A recent gathering of some Houston and Dallas friends for a short summit on the topic of Universal Salvation all but destroyed such a strategy from my plan, and here’s why: we all realized that anyone can play that game. The appropriation of this or that text to suit my theological needs is not going to settle the matter for me or anyone else, because we don’t make theological decisions that way. Certainly, we want to treat the Bible fairly, giving it enough of its own voice as we can, working hard to ensure that our philosophical and theological desires don’t interfere with our interpretations; but how successful are we at doing this?

What highlights this problem very well is asking the question itself: Is Universal Salvation a live option for Christians? The most accommodating response I received thus far has been a smirk, with a head toss, followed by a “I don’t know, man…that’s a tough one.” Other responses range from “Does it really matter? Just follow Jesus.” to “There’s no way, and here are all the reasons John Piper knows that can’t possibly be what God would ever do.” It wasn’t until I visited my summit friends that I heard more than one person admit the possibility. One thing on which we all agreed: you can read nearly any salvation text in a Universalist way, giving a perfectly reasonable interpretation, and being justified in doing so. The summit was set up so that I defended the Universalist view, while a good friend argued against it. He had made up his mind beforehand, but even he admitted that things were not as cut-and-dry as he previously thought. Questions were raised that stumped all of us, and we could not give a good reason why Universalism should not be a live option for any and all Christians.

Indeed, I have yet to hear a good reason why not. Every person who has had a ready-made answer thought they said something novel, made an objection no one had thought of before, and had an emotional reaction to the very idea. But why? What is so objectionable? The problem with deciding beforehand is difficult enough to swallow, but to have such a strong reaction against the idea raises another very troubling issue: why do we seem so opposed to Universal Salvation? It’s one thing to say, “You know, I wish it were true that everyone went to heaven when they died, I just don’t see it in the text; but I’m willing to change my mind in light of better evidence” and another to say, “No way. There’s no way. That’s heresy, and it’s not biblical, and it’s spitting in Jesus’ face.”

So, before we even consider the texts, the philosophical arguments, the theological discursive strategies, we need to decide if we’re willing to have our minds changed. If not, then there’s no point moving forward. If not, I’d really love to hear a good reason why not. What are we so afraid of? What do we really lose if we change our minds? Can we imagine that there might be more to gain than to lose?

A Universal Solution

“And Yahweh restored Job’s condition, while Job was interceding for his friends. More than that, Yahweh gave him double what he had before.”

Job 43:10, NJB

 

“For just as in Adam’s wake all die, so in Christ’s wake shall all be restored to life.”

1 Corinthians 15:22, PNT

saddam_heaven

Looking forward to spending eternity with Mormons and dictators? Yeah, me too.

More than anything else, the doctrine of Hell reverberates throughout the Christian cultural experience, destabilizing the foundations of a religion that purportedly seeks to elevate the God of Love. As a young child, the calculus was laughably simple; the worst place and the worst fate imaginable were the inevitable consequence of rejecting the gracious offer of the smiling felt-board Jesus, and so of course anyone would do anything possible to avoid the realm of H-E-double hockeysticks. So obvious, I thought it was, that I truly could not imagine anyone being aware of this situation and not reaching desperately for Christ’s outreached hand.

As I grew older, I became aware of non-Christians around me, and though I could not muster the evangelistic spirit to dialogue with them, it became apparent to me through my understanding of Christian theology that they were bound for a balmy clime. I’ve spoken with other Christians and apostates who reflect back on similar realizations and note their adolescent horror, their growing metaphysical anxiety when the fates of their unbelieving friends and family were made apparent. I felt no such trepidation, although I can recall a deadening of my empathy for those who rejected the Blood of the Lamb. They weren’t deserving of His Grace, I told myself, they were sinners and reprobates who warranted punishment, regardless of my personal esteem. I didn’t feel sorry for them because I couldn’t, and so I couldn’t care less. It wasn’t the first time that my Calvinist upbringing inspired apathy, and it wasn’t the last.

Though my apostasy wasn’t a rebellion against these moral strictures, it did allow me the freedom to reexamine the theological assumptions of my youth. Reading the sacred scriptures now without devotional context was a transformative experience. Suddenly the Fall was evacuated of its moral urgency, and Paul’s insistence of its salvific repercussions seemed like an exercise in analogy-stretching at best. My development as a freethinking atheist since then has led me to make light of this “pernicious doctrine,” to point out the fractures it makes in the foundations of Christian theology, and when necessary, to use it to publicly beat Christians about the head and neck. Some of these are adversaries who, like apologist Matt Slick, are comfortable enough with it that my blows rain down with all the ferocity of styrofoam. Others, like my friend John, live their lives at Peniel, the noise of my criticisms deafened by their own.

Annihilationism is one proposed solution to the problem of Hell, traditionally a minority view although advocated now by liberal Christians like Greg Boyd:

While more attractive than eternal torment (what’s a couple thousand years of excruciating pain between friends?), this solution still insists on punishment for its own sake, without hope of redemption or restoration. I suppose that the saints and angels would be able to take some solace from the expectation that after some undetermined number of aeons the crackling of reprobate skin and sulfurous smoke of imperishable flame will cease to provide a pleasing smell to the heavens, and they can enjoy their Kool-Aid and harp music in peace. But what a waste!

Universalism provides the goal that annihilationism avoids: restoration of the reprobate to full communion with Christ. Though the scriptural support for this position is sufficiently weak (or sufficiently challenges orthodoxy) to bring charges of heresy against Christians like Rob Bell who tread close to its edge (or dip a toe), it should be noted that it largely neuters the criticisms that freethinkers have levied against the doctrine of Hell for centuries. I say “largely” because it does not dismiss this concept altogether, nor does it quench the flames and dull Satan’s trident. Indeed, these tortures now become corrective, instrumental, and necessary for the restoration of the sinners through the Grace of God.

I don’t know how my theology would have developed had I remained a believing Christian. It’s possible that I may have entrenched my traditional Calvinism, smothered my empathy, and focused only on the glory and sovereignty of God. I suppose it’s also possible that I may have moved in the same direction as John, although I hesitate to give myself that much credit; Christianity has not historically been kind to the heterodox. As a freethinking atheist and a Humanist, I’m still confronted by the moral failure of the Abrahamic god, and I don’t know that I could in good conscience accept the offer of Universal salvation even if extended. Despite the lowered gate of Heaven, I would still be one of those that walked away.

“It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only that I most respectfully return Him the ticket.”

Dyostoevsky, The Brothers Karamozov

A Universalist Prolegomena

Intellectual honesty offers little comfort when faced with the possibility of estrangement from the vast majority of people one knows. To consider the marginal theologies of Christian history viable means to challenge the popular opinion, the “traditional” view, the “biblical” or “orthodox” position. One’s church options shrink, particularly in the Bible Belt where conservative perspectives rule, and the last comment on “liberal theologies” is laughter—the marginal is also the joke. If one has been trained at an evangelical seminary, the move into adopting a different theology relegates one to the number of graduates who have either abandoned the faith or, at least doctrinally speaking, “gone astray”.

The climate continues to change, of course. Many I know are sympathetic to various theological niches, and most have lightheartedly entertained my willingness to bend, flex, and change. My move from angry Arminianism to compassionate Calvinism proved moderately difficult. Then came a more drastic change: abandoning the traditional view of eternal conscious torment for the Conditionalist/Annihilationist view, which states that, after allowing for some period of conscious punishment, those who do not belong to Christ will be completely destroyed—the utter elimination of opposition to God’s redemptive, restorative purposes. This view draws a fair amount of criticism, with some even considering the view heretical. Our family’s movement away from an Anabaptist understanding of baptism to a Presbyterian (paedobaptist) one raised a few eyebrows, but did not cause much of a stir otherwise.

My most recent exploration is quite different. Evangelical Universalism is the doctrine that all will eventually be saved, will enter into God’s kingdom because Christ paid the price for all people, every individual. Not to be confused with religious pluralism (any and all religious paths lead to God), in Evangelical Universalism there is still no salvation apart from Christ—He took on the sins of the world by dying on a cross, and was raised to life three days later, which conquered death in our place and secured the salvation of the entire world. The major difference between this and traditional belief is that Hell is a place where punishment still takes place, but for the Universalist it is restorative, corrective, purposeful; not ultimate and final. Hell still exists, but those who go there eventually see the full impact of their sin and are able to repent, praising Christ, and rejecting opposition to Him.

The doctrine of Hell is what makes this brand of Universalism evangelical: there is still reason to preach repentance here and now because Hell is not a place anyone wants to go. The objection that Universalism removes the urgency to preach the Gospel is false: if my wife is using a chainsaw in such a way that, though she won’t kill herself with it, she will cut off an arm, I would still warn her and help her use the chainsaw correctly. Just because Hell will not last forever does not mean we should cannonball into the Lake of Fire. The punishment is not the ultimate point anyway. Christ is. If our humanity functions at its best when it properly worships and obeys its Creator, then that is our task and our song regardless of whether or not punishment will result from disobedience. This objections runs the risk of making avoidance of Hell, instead of the beauty of Christ, the reason why someone should repent—the very reason why Jonathan Edwards threw away his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” after only a few preachings. He was no Universalist, but he knew the dangers of emphasizing Hell in quickening sermons instead of emphasizing Christ.

This exploration of mine has several movements that I will develop in the posts to come. Feel free to interact and ask questions as much as you wish. I have not finished this exploration, and much is at stake, but I am looking forward to the rest of the journey.