[In my initial post on why I left Christianity I stated that I wanted to discuss four core issues I have seen within Christianity. In my last several posts I have discussed how the most widespread approach to the Bible is wrong. Where the Bible is read as a Truth mine, where we hunt for timeless truths to guide Christian thought and behavior, the Bible inevitably devolves into the source of shaky rules and doctrines that are often used to bludgeon, judge and exclude other people with the full weight of divine authority.
I suggested despite the many abuses the Bible has suffered it still has a place in the life of a follower of Jesus and should be read as Revelation and Invitation. I truly believe the Bible, when read this way, can be a window into the character and heart of God, an invitation into the people of God and an invitation to participate in His ongoing story of redemption and grace through Jesus Christ.
In my next series of posts I want to discuss how Christianity is highly secular, and suggest how this was never meant to be the case for followers of Jesus.]
At its best, Christianity is a highly secularized civil religion.
What I mean by Christianity being “secularized” is that over the centuries Christianity has consistently required less faith and less God to operate. Currently, beyond a handful of miracles that are begrudgingly accepted, the spiritual realm is denied or ignored and Christianity is for the most part godless and powerless.
What I mean by labeling Christianity a civil religion this is that Christianity is now for the most part Western cultural values and beliefs that have been dressed up with phrases and concepts from the Protestant Bible. In this compromising situation cultural values, many of which are completely antithetical to direct teachings of Jesus, are given spiritual authority and approval by selectively reading, ignoring or twisting the words of Christ and the wider scripture. Instead of us joining the people of God, being personally transformed, and then transforming our culture, we have conformed the message of the Bible to affirm what is already there. While I am aware non-Western expressions of Christianity exist, I believe this deeply compromised Western Christianity is what most people are familiar with and is what has been exported for by Western missionaries for a very long time.
Christianity has been like this for centuries. I am not here critiquing just conservative evangelicalism in the United States in the early 21st century. This is the Christianity that affirmed slavery, called for the crusades, baptized colonialism, went along with Nazi Germany (80% of the Nazi’s were Lutherans) participated or ignored more contemporary genocides (the vast majority of Rwanadans were Christian as were many in the world who watched it on TV) and has been used as a tool to forward political agendas.
These are some rather large claims. I want to highlight just four major issues that have come up for me recently that have shaped my beliefs about this issue:
First, God’s power is almost completely absent from Christianity: In my reading of the Bible it seems abundantly clear that the followers of Jesus will have access to the supernatural power of God. This supernatural power is the only way followers of Jesus will be able to meet, if imperfectly, the radical call to love that runs throughout the scriptures. This supernatural power is the only way followers of Jesus will be able to heal the sick, raise the dead, and do all other kinds of signs and wonders that bring freedom and confirm their testimony to God.
H0wever, from all of my time in Christianity it appears that this supernatural power of God is almost completely absent. While many Christians may be nice to those who think and act like them most Christians fail to love people different from them, let alone their enemies. Prayer is treated as a way to wish someone well and miracles do not happen or are even directly denied.
Second, God is not required for Christianity: This brings me to my next point. Because Christianity is so powerless Christians have had to develop theology, practices and methods around their lack of access to God’s power. They either affirm their lack of power as normal or attempt to develop programs and ministries to do what only the supernatural power of God can. I am convinced that much of contemporary Christian writing, programs and thought are simply trying to equip Christian pastors, communities and individuals to live the Christian life without God.
This has led to a self-sustaining religious system that does not require the supernatural power of God. Dr. Charles Kraft once said, “Most of what we do in church is secular,” and from all my time spent in Christianity I have to agree with him or lie. Most of what happens in Christianity can be accomplished through human effort and willpower. I would dare say that if God were to vanish from the churches I have been a part of, the seminary I am at, and the lives of many of my Christian peers, all of these things could continue the next day unchanged. God may be the object of Christian worship, Christian studies, or even Christian affection and devotion, but this is not the same thing as being in a relationship with and dependent upon God and His power.
Third, there is very little in Christianity that one cannot get elsewhere: Just because Christianity is a secularized civil religion doe snot mean that Christianity does not have anything to offer. Involvement in Christianity often provides people with a worldview, a code of morality and ethics, a sense of belonging, a support system, a path to self-improvement, a sense of moral superiority, a sense of direction in life, etc. While I do not want to discount these benefits of being involved in Christianity, I also see the problem that any of these things can be found in communities, resources and teachings that have no connection to any sort of spirituality, let alone a direct connection to the one true God of Israel.
For example, in my time in the West Side of Modesto I learned that a primary draw of gangs is the fact that they provide a sense of belonging, a basic human need, to youths from broken homes and broken neighborhoods. It is no surprise then that the most at-risk youth for gang involvement are second generation immigrant children who speak their native tongue at home, English at school, and do not fully fit in either place. Gangs, regardless of the dangers and violence that go with that way of life, provide a sense of community for these rootless youth.
Yet how many Christian communities fail to provide this very basic sense of belonging? In my experience it is only a select handful of people who fit a very specific mold of race, socioeconomic status, and acceptable Christian thinking and behavior that are truly welcomed and supported at any specific church.
Fourth, Christianity often leads its adherents into lives that are all but identical to the lives lived by non-Christians: I have many friends who strive to be moral and ethical, remain faithful to their spouses, raise their children right, work hard at their jobs and provide for their family and their family’s future. The problem I am highlighting is not in these behaviors. The problem is this description fits many of my Christian friends and many of my non-Christian friends.
Let me be clear: I do not think it is wrong to have a family, go to school or have a stable job. My issue is that it appears most Christians have an idolatrous attachment to these things and pursue them more than they pursue God. Their lives are oriented around attaining comfort, respectability, family and security in worldly things. To be blunt, most Christians I know pursue the American Dream and then go to Church on Sunday. If God is in the mix at all, God is a means to the ends of attaining the real goal in mind.
I am convinced that an encounter and relationship with Jesus will lead to a life-altering transformation. I am highly skeptical that Jesus transforms so many people and leads them into lives that look exactly like people He has not touched in any way.
Indeed, even statistically Christians are almost identical to non-Christians. Why is it that people who claim to have the Spirit of God have almost the exact same divorce rates and rates of addiction to illegal drugs as people who are neither spiritual nor religious?
Conclusion: These are but four points that I have chosen to bring out to highlight how Christianity is a highly secularized civil religion. If Christianity serves a God, why is that God’s supernatural power largely absent from Christianity? If Christianity is a religion devoted to following a God, why is that God not necessary? If the Christian community claims to represent the one true and ever living God, why are they not offering anything unique? If Christians claim to have the hope of the Resurrection and the very Spirit of God in them, why do they live almost exactly like people who do not?
For my Christian readers who want to think about this issue further or would disagree with me, I would like to ask some questions as you think about this.
What, exactly, does your church do that requires God? What happened the last time your church got together that absolutely required and necessitated the power of God to happen?
What, exactly, do you do that requires God? If God were to abandon you for a day or a month or a year, what would change in your life?
What exactly does your faith offer someone that they could not get elsewhere?
What marks your life as different than non-Christians around you?
[In my next post, I want to suggest how following Jesus is radically different from this.]