Are We Pretending?

An Opossum playing (pretending) possum

He replied, “Isaiah really knew what he was talking about when he prophesied about you hypocrites. He wrote,

This people honors me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far away from me.
Their worship of me is empty
    since they teach instructions that are human words.

You ignore God’s commandment while holding on to rules created by humans and handed down to you.” (Mark 7:6-8, Common English Bible)

A few weeks ago I happened onto a website I had not known before. Medium.com claims itself as a publishing platform that features articles from writers from various perspectives in theology, politics, and more. I have opinions about its various perspectives but that is not what this post is about.

Yesterday I read an article that has given me cause for thought and concern. The article’s title is, “Let’s Stop Pretending Christianity Is Even ‘Christian’ Anymore.” The author’s name is (and beyond this article I know noting of him) Benjamin Sledge. The title got my attention.

In the article Sledge says Western Christianity has become a modern deism. He calls it, “The Cult of Feel Good Deism.” He argues that modern, western Christian beliefs have become “whatever makes you feel good or makes you happy.”

I haven’t really looked at deism since graduating from seminary 20 plus years ago. And considering most of my books that would be useful on this subject are at the church and I am not, I have tried to use the internet to be a quick refresher course. I was looking for a dictionary definition but before I found that, I found the following definition on the deism.com website (something else I learned today, I had no idea such a site existed).

Deism is the recognition of a universal creative force greater than that demonstrated by mankind, supported by personal observation of laws and designs in nature and the universe, perpetuated and validated by the innate ability of human reason coupled with the rejection of claims made by individuals and organized religions of having received special divine revelation (https://www.deism.com/deism_defined.htm) (Italics mine)

There was a great deal I found on the website that I find troubling but I will save that for another time. I did find a dictionary definition.

“A movement or system of thought advocating natural religion, emphasizing morality, and in the 18th century denying the interference of the Creator with the laws of the universe” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/deism?src=search-dict-box).

So, we have a deity who went to the trouble to create the world but has since taken a hands-off approach to everything that happens here? Deism claims to have its basis in pure reason, but that does not seem reasonable to me at all.

Back to Sledge’s post. Sledge references the writings of Sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton after interviews with 3,000 teenagers. They found that when it comes to views on religion and Christianity the following four criteria seem to be present in their core beliefs.

  1. God wants people to be nice and fair to one another.
  2. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  3. God doesn’t need to be involved in your life, unless something is going wrong and you need it resolved
  4. Good people go to heaven when they die

The article has a great deal more in it, but this is more than enough for this post.

“God wants people to be nice and fair to one another.”

OK, this first one I won’t argue with, except that it doesn’t go far enough. If we love our neighbor, I would say that being nice and fair to each other is probably a minimum requirement. But really, I can be pleasant to people I don’t care for. I can avoid business transactions with people I don’t like or even to say, that I don’t love. If I avoid certain people it becomes easy to not be mean to people and not treat them unfairly. Love is more than that. Love says I am not just going to be nice. Love says I am not just going to be fair. Love says I am going to place myself and and what is good for me behind what is best for you. That is more than being nice and it is more than being fair.

The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

First, let me get this out of the way. There is nothing wrong with being happy in life. Likewise, there is nothing wrong with feeling good about oneself. Now that I have that out of the way, what is wrong with that statement of words two and three, “central goal.” When Jesus was asked about the most important commandment he said:

28 One of the legal experts heard their dispute and saw how well Jesus answered them. He came over and asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?”

29 Jesus replied, “The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, 30 and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. 31 The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.”

32 The legal expert said to him, “Well said, Teacher. You have truthfully said that God is one and there is no other besides him. 33 And to love God with all of the heart, a full understanding, and all of one’s strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself is much more important than all kinds of entirely burned offerings and sacrifices.”

34 When Jesus saw that he had answered with wisdom, he said to him, “You aren’t far from God’s kingdom.” After that, no one dared to ask him any more questions (Mark 12:28-34, Common English Bible).

The only statement Jesus makes about how we should feel about ourselves is in how we love our neighbor. We should love our neighbor as ourselves. In the story of “The Rich Young Man,” an argument can be made that Jesus was saying the opposite to this young man:

16 A man approached him and said, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to have eternal life?”

17 Jesus said, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There’s only one who is good. If you want to enter eternal life, keep the commandments.”

18 The man said, “Which ones?”

Then Jesus said, “Don’t commit murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t give false testimony. 19 Honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

20 The young man replied, “I’ve kept all these. What am I still missing?”

21 Jesus said, “If you want to be complete, go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come follow me.”

22 But when the young man heard this, he went away saddened, because he had many possessions. (Matthew 19:16-22, Common English Bible)

Sell whatever you own, and give the money to the poor vs. be happy and feel good about yourself??

Well, I will say that when we serve others we do feel good about ourselves and it is in doing what Jesus says that we find joy, but I don’t really think that is what the deists mean.

God doesn’t need to be involved in your life, unless something is going wrong and you need it resolved.

Wait a minute. On the one hand, God created the world and has since taken an hands-off approach. On the other hand, God doesn’t need to be consulted unless you are in a bind and then you can ask God to intervene. I know we all have holes in our theology but I can’t help but think, some folks just walked off into a gigantic hole.

On the other hand, too many of us, who claim to have a faith rooted on orthodox Christian understandings, are much the same way. We pray. We tell God all the things we want God to do for us, but too much of the time we don’t stop and listen to what God may want us to do.

Good people go to heaven when they die.

“I am a good person, I just don’t believe all that stuff about Jesus. But, I am a good person. I am kind to people. I don’t cheat people. I don’t cheat on my taxes. I don’t… I don’t… I don’t… I am a good person. God won’t keep me from heaven.”

That is part of a discussion I had many years ago with a co-worker shortly before entering ministry. As we talked further, it became clear there were many things missing.

Number four on Sledge’s list shouldn’t surprise me but it does. When Jesus had his encounter by night with Nicodemus, Jesus did not say, “Nick, you’re a good guy. You don’t need to worry about such things. Just keep being a good guy, have yourself some fun, be nice to people and it will all be OK.” If Jesus would have said something like that he probably wouldn’t have said anything about passing through the eye of a needle. What Jesus said was:

16 God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. 17 God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him isn’t judged; whoever doesn’t believe in him is already judged, because they don’t believe in the name of God’s only Son (John 3:16-18, Common English Bible).

14 “Don’t be troubled. Trust in God. Trust also in me. My Father’s house has room to spare. If that weren’t the case, would I have told you that I’m going to prepare a place for you? When I go to prepare a place for you, I will return and take you to be with me so that where I am you will be too. You know the way to the place I’m going.”

Thomas asked, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

Jesus answered, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you have really known me, you will also know the Father. From now on you know him and have seen him.” (John 14:1-7).

In both these passages, Jesus tells us it isn’t about being a nice person. If that was the case, it would be about us. What it is about is, God wants a relationship with us. To have that relationship isn’t something we can beg, borrow, steal, buy, or whatever other verb you want to place on it. Grace is a free gift from God and to get that grace means we accept Jesus Christ.

Before I bring this to a close, Benjamin Sledge’s point in his post was not to speak in favor of deism. He simply believes that Christianity in an orthodox understanding is, if not dead, at least on life support. Is he right? I would like to think not but there is plenty of evidence to say such ideas are at least nearer than many of us have thought.

In his 1987 book, To Spread the Power: Church Growth in the Wesleyan Spirit, George G. Hunter says (and I am paraphrasing as my copy of the book is at the church), people have come to church seeking their booster shot of faith and it has served to leave them immune from a full dose. Could this new deism be the result of the insight Hunter gives in this book?

It is a deep subject for this Friday but I also believe it to be an important understanding for our consideration.

What should the traditional Church have to say to this new deism?

Have a blessed day in the Lord.

In search of the genuine,
Keith

Copyright 2020, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved

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