A couple of days ago, I had dental work done at an overtly, Christian practice. During and after the procedure, the topic of conversation, (yes, there can be conversation even during a dental procedure where your mouth is held open by 16th century implements of torture), the topic of conversation was on matters of faith. I did not start the conversation.
As I was leaving, we had gotten to forgiveness. He had jokingly said something about how forgiveness was important at a Christian office. For some reason, this raise my pique. I told him that Christians do not have the copyright on forgiveness. Indeed, one need not believe in god or have any religion in order to understand the importance of forgiveness.
This is where things took a turn for the weird. He actually disagreed. Quite serious by now, he explained that god created the world and everything in it. Nothing exists without god. Therefore, god created and taught us about forgiveness. Without god, and by extension, Christianity, no one would be able to forgive. I let it go at that.
This is one of the problems with church/religion that has to be addressed and overcome. Last time, I talked about the inherent division and exclusivity of church. My conversation with the good doctor is a real-world example of how the problem manifests in society. In his worldview, only Christians have the true knowledge and inclination to forgive. To him, I must have seemed like a savage as I was not a person of faith. Therefore, I could not possibly understand the finer points of civilized humanity provided as an exclusive gift of god.
I don’t mean to give the doctor, who I liked very much, too hard of a time. I was once the same way. I understand where he was coming from. I believed that the unchurched were more than the unsaved; they were also uncivilized. When Christians invaded the new world that we call home, before trying to extinguish the natives, they tried to civilize them through evangelism. After white settlers enslaved and subdued the blacks, they tried to civilize them through evangelism, church, and religion. The idea has been prevalent through history. Christians in particular have been very militant about advancing civilization through evangelism, as if without church, no people could be fully civilized.
This attitude has been at the root of some of the most egregious atrocities committed by humans agains humans. Christians are some of the worst, but certainly not the only culprits. If you take the Hebrew scriptures as serious history, you will find that their entire history of warfare and war crimes grew out of their own moral certainty. They believed they were the only, truly moral people on earth. The Muslims suffered from the same superiority complex. Even empires that did not have an official religion thought their conquests indicated the god’s were with them.
To the extent that modern-day church exacerbates this problem, we need to get beyond church and its ideas of separatism, exclusivity, and moral certainty. Having read the bible many times, both devotionally and academically, I can say without hesitation that the god of the bible did not invent anything that most civilized people think of as morality. Rather than justify this statement with specific examples, just read the specifics of the Hebrew law as given by god. You will not recognize much that you consider moral, unless you are the type who considers killing your disobedient children an act of morality.
Perhaps you are the type who has dismissed all that Old Testament stuff as unimportant. You are a Christian, not a Jew. You put your trust in the loving and forgiving hands of Jesus. This conveniently ignores the fact that the essence of Jesus was there from the beginning doing all of the horrible things you ascribe to the god of the Old Testament. Jesus is the god of the Old Testament if scripture is to be taken seriously.
Secondly, you missed the introduction of eternal damnation. The god of the Old Testament never threatened anyone with such a fate. It was Jesus that brought us the promise of hell for those who did not accept his message. I would argue that there is no sin a human can commit that can warrant unspeakable and unrelenting torture. That is neither morality or justice in action. Hell, as described in the bible, and understood by mainline Christians, is the greatest possible evil. The message of Jesus is replete with references to hell and eternal damnation.
No! We must stop viewing the church as the repository of moral teaching. It is not! Rather, the church is a place where troubled humans come together to experience a lifting of the troubles that weigh them down. This is not the problem. The problem comes when the preaching starts. That is when we are told what the bible says and means. That gets translated into specific precepts that become moral certainty. The problem is that our moral certainty is different from that of another who has a different preacher with a different understanding of the bible.
One believes that it is immoral for a woman to hold authority over men, while another believes it is immoral to hinder them. Once believes it is immoral to go to war for any reason. Another believes it is immoral to avoid just war. One believes it is immoral to admit a nonbeliever into ones home and extend a hand of human fellowship. Another believes it is immoral not to do so. This is, in part, why there is a need for so many different churches. Each believes they have decoded the true morality, while the others are under grace, but misguided.
My doctor could not imagine a world where the unchurched could possibly have a reliable, moral compass. Once we start to believe this, on any level, about people outside of our particular faith circle, we have become a part of the problem.
Next time, we will conclude this series with what is good about church, and how those good things can be enhanced by moving them beyond church.