10.06.2011

Religion Matters



As a Bible-believing Christian living in the year 2011 in a big cosmopolitan city and a left-leaning neighborhood, the notion of Christianity being close-minded and arrogant is ever about me. In contrast, religious pluralism seems so much more friendly and copasetic. What could be wrong with letting everyone believe whatever they want? If you're wondering what this fundamentalist thinks, read on.

First of all, of course people are free to believe whatever they want. Certainly there have been dark and unfortunate episodes in Christian history when people did in fact have a certain religion forced upon them, upon penalty of death or excommunication. But that's not where most of us Bible believers are today.

What we really believe is that there really is one way to God. There are at least three alternatives to this, so let's talk about them. First is that there are no ways to God, which is pretty depressing, although completely consistent with any belief systems that don't believe in any God and that consider us humans simply animals that are born, live, die, and then returned to the ground. Second is that no one knows how to get to God, or that no one can know how to get to God, which has some level of presumptuousness to it. (I realize that some people don't believe this as much as that they themselves don't know how to get to God or if anyone can get to God, which is a much humbler posture.)

Third is this notion of religious pluralism, which says there are many ways to God. Although, unless I am mistaken, it goes a little farther in its inherent beliefs.

First, there is a sense that man is at the center of the universe, and it is his right to choose his own way. This may seem obvious to many, but it is likely only because we were raised in a modern-day Western culture that exalts the self above all else. Not everyone believes man is in control of his own destiny; in fact, in the world and in history, I would venture to say it is a minority opinion.

Second, and related to the first tenet, there is a sense that man is pretty much alright. I'm OK, you're OK, we're all OK, and it's those darned Christians preaching about sin and redemption and atonement that are putting the fizzy in the drink of life.

If you believe that man is at the center of the universe, and that we are all pretty much OK, then multiple ways to God are just fine and dandy. Because "ways to God" is no more important than, say, a hobby or an allegiance to a sports team: we all have different interests and preferences, but even if we are passionate about them, we don't need to intrude on those of others.

But what if man is not at the center of the universe? What if there is more to the universe than just our existence in it? And what if we are not in fact OK? What if we all have some very real need for atonement or heaven or nirvana or whatever you want to call it?

In fact, much of the world holds some belief like this. Whether it is Christianity or Judaism or Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism or any number of thousands of other world religions, most have some sense of something bigger than the self, and some sense that all is not necessarily alright with the world as it relates to our existence and our souls.

To believe so is in direct conflict with the very basic tenets of religious pluralism, which puts man at the center and seeks to deemphasize any divisive beliefs about higher beings or paths to eternal fulfillment. Even as it prides itself on respecting a diversity of beliefs, it doesn't in fact extend respect, because it asks each belief to be defanged of its fundamental principles.

Even if you say something like, "I respect your belief system, and your right to have that belief system, because that works for you, but it doesn't work for me," consider what is presupposed in such a statement. First, that man chooses what path will work. And, second, that my path necessarily doesn't work for you.

I recall being confronted by someone who knew I was the kind of Christian that wants to tell others to become Christian, who essentially said, "I can't stand how you Christians say there is only one way to God." Ah, but that statement came from a fundamental disagreement we had about the world. She didn't believe man wasn't at the center of the universe, and she didn't believe man wasn't basically alright. If instead you believe in a Higher Being, and in the need for some sort of atonement, and if in particular you believed in the Christian narrative about God and mankind and sin and judgment, then you are marvel that there is a way at all. Far from "one way to God" seeming arrogant and restrictive and bad news, it is welcoming and expansive and incredibly good news.

Indeed, it is no coincidence that the greatest Christian revivals in our history have been preceded by a great movement of conviction of depravity and lostness, and an intentional confessing and turning from sin. Even we who say we are Christians can easily fall into thinking that we are at the center of the universe, and that we are basically OK. And when that happens, it takes a posture of acknowledging your sinfulness and publicly expressing a desire to turn from it to make room for God to move as He desires to, to draw people to Himself and to redeem lost souls.

Alas, we Christians spend far too much time either boasting about our righteousness or engaging in sinful behavior ourselves, and far too little time being honest with God, ourselves, and others about our lost condition, and imploring God to save and change us. You may mark me as arrogant for making such a sweeping statement, but I really do think that most people's hearts have buried in them a deep longing for atonement. Whether that guilt is directed at self, others, or God, there is a sense that in fact all is not right. And, when we Christians act like the forgiven and reconciled people that we truly are, that ought to be a compelling witness to a world around us that may think it thinks that all is alright but deep down senses that atonement is in order and wonders if there is a way to attain to it.

I've thrown around a lot of terms that I realize in retrospect may have been lazily used and therefore potentially misinterpreted, so perhaps this post has offended some, confused others, and left still others totally unimpressed. But I hope I've made some point in all this dreck. Religion may be unpopular to hold fast to in such a secular and pluralist-seeking society, but it does matter what we think about God and man, and I challenge myself and others who believe what I believe to live out our take on it, for the sake of our souls and the souls of others around us.

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