by Jim Burklo
Senior Associate Dean, Office of Religious Life,
University of Southern California
All of us at some point will be approached by evangelical Christians attempting to convince us to become their kind of Christians.
What’s the most Christian way we can respond to them? — whether we are Christians or not?
I’ll share here an outline of how I respond to the evangelical efforts to convert me, a Christian pastor for over 40 years, to Christianity. I imagine myself and an evangelical Christian having a chat while taking a walk together. Here I share my side of the conversation:
“I really sense the depth and significance of your faith in Jesus, and also the sincere concern you have for me. I can at least begin to imagine how it must feel for you to believe that I am in danger of eternal damnation. To think that I and so many other people you genuinely care about might experience such a horrible future – that must be deeply disturbing to you. How do you cope with such a huge concern? Tell me more about how that feels…
“Is it okay for me to respond? I may say some things that could disturb you even more, though that is not my intention. My goal is not to weaken your faith, but just to share what my faith is like. I do hope that what I have to say might be helpful to you. Should I continue?…
“It seems to me that our conversation about faith in Jesus involves some initial assumptions that we might best explore together before going much further. Tell me, what do you mean by the word “God”?….
“My understanding about God resonates with 1 John 4 in the New Testament: “God is love.” It seems to me that this statement has very big implications. Love is real, it is powerful, it is everywhere. But the nature of love is that it does not force itself on the world: it is attractive, not controlling. It invites us to do good, but can’t prevent us from doing wrong. If God is love, then God is natural – not supernatural or omnipotent. If God is love, then God is a quality of personal relationships, so it is natural that we would use the language of personhood to talk about God, even though God is not a sort of “person” like you or I….
“You’ve quoted the Bible to me quite a bit as we’ve started our conversation. What do you say the Bible is?…
“I read the Bible as a collection of ancient writings by people about their spiritual experiences. I see it as a language of faith, rather than as a prescription of what we’re supposed to believe or do. Its writings come from times and circumstances that in many cases are far removed from our own. Its myths, stories, and poems have always been precious raw material for Christians to use in creative ways in expressing their journeys of faith. That’s the way Jesus used the Hebrew scriptures, and that’s the way I read the Christian scriptures. So for me it does not make sense to take the Bible literally, nor does it make sense for me to “believe” the Bible. Instead I seek inspiration in it where it is to be found, seek to understand its historical contexts, and make creative use of it in expressing my faith and growing in it. There is deep truth in many of the Bible’s myths, even if they are not based on facts. So when you use passages from the Bible to “prove” your points, that approach does not fit my understanding of what the Bible is nor how we best can read it and use it….
“Yes, I understand that you believe the Bible to be the word of God, even though the Bible doesn’t refer to itself at all, since its writers didn’t know their writings would be gathered together later into what we now call the Bible. The Bible does not say or even imply that the Bible is the word of God. So clearly, much later than when the books in it were written, people decided what would be included in the Bible and what would be left out. And then they came up with the idea that the Bible was the word of God. I respect that idea as something important in the history of Christianity, but I don’t find it to be a useful idea today. I treasure the Bible as a human record of human experiences of spirituality over thousands of years. It is the language of myths and story and poetry that I use to express my faith. What is the most meaningful part of the BIble for you?…
“I understand that you believe in the miracle stories in the Bible – that Jesus was literally born from a virgin, that Jesus literally walked on water and literally rose from the dead. I take these stories seriously but see no point in taking them literally since they don’t fit with our modern understanding about how the world works. There was nothing like science, nothing like history in the modern sense of the word, in the time of Jesus and the early church. People believed that the Roman emperor was born from a virgin. Lots of stories circulated of people rising from the dead and performing miraculous healings in the first century. To me, it seems like a cruel threat to say that to avoid hellfire in an afterlife, we must accept stories as factual that were much, much easier to believe in the early days of Christianity than they are for us to believe today…
“I understand that you believe human beings are hopeless sinners who deserve eternal punishment for their sins, and that you believe that God sent Jesus to die on the cross as a sacrifice to pay for our sins, and that if we believe in him the way you do, then we’ll be saved from hell in the afterlife. Is this what you think is the central “take-away” message of Christianity?….
“For me, Christian faith is the practice of compassion here on earth, while we’re alive. So “heaven” is giving and receiving the unconditional love that is God – and “hell” is a metaphor for what life is like when we fail to give or receive divine love. When have you experienced that kind of heaven? and that kind of hell?….
“I understand how important you believe the message of blood atonement for sin to be. In the context of first-century Israel, that theology would have had a cultural context that made it deeply meaningful. For instance, all meat that people consumed came from animals that had been ritually sacrificed to establish or maintain a relationship with various supernatural divinities. So the idea of blood sacrifice was universal at the time. Today, we buy meat in shrink-wrapped packages in grocery stores, with no rituals associated with the process. So we are culturally very distant from the idea of blood atonement for sin. I don’t find it to be the most compelling or meaningful message of Christianity. I see the cross confronting us with human suffering, making us look at the ways we impose suffering on others, and pointing us toward reconciliation and forgiveness and compassion….
“The take-away message of my faith is this: Rabbi Jesus discovered that the center of his being was not his body or his ego, but God, who is unconditional love. He taught people to discover this for themselves, and to practice the radical compassion that follows from this awareness. He organized the church to cultivate this awareness and put it into action in the world. He demonstrated unconditional love so profoundly that the Roman government considered him a threat to its authority and killed him on a cross. Out of love he forgave the people who crucified him. Jesus’ followers turned the cross into the symbol of his unconditional compassion, and his church has strived to follow his way ever since. How do you practice Jesus’ way of compassion?….
“I hope that our conversation leaves us both with deeper understanding of each other… and that we can keep on sharing love – who is God – with each other!”
(See more of my “musings” here…)
The “evangelical” Christian – or let’s call him/her for what he/she really is – a fundamentalist Christian is indicative of those, found in every religious tradition, that take their religious beliefs and duties without waver or, what some would call “flexibility.” One has to admire them for the strength and stamina of their belief. The “progressive” Christian tends to try to fit the mold of his/her belief and practice into the context of contemporary thinking, social development, and perceived exigencies that take seriously the day to day call on them to respond to daily needs according to understood Gospel values.
But is there a “middle path” between these two approaches: that is, taking the scriptural teachings and imperatives seriously, while also endorsing a pastoral approach to persons and situations that call for empathy, consolation, and care. i certainly understand the dogmatic tensions that may exist between these two types of Christians, one seeing the primacy of dogmatic teaching while the other sees the individual imperative that calls for love and discerned concern.
There obviously is a dichotomy that may need to be overcome. As a Catholic theologian, I take the Creed seriously, acknowledging both the perpetual virginity of Mary, the resurrection of Jesus, and the promise of the eternal life to come. Yet, if I do not have love, then what is the worth of any belief? Does it really matter that one professes a “strong faith” if one is not guided by the principal of charity to all one encounters? And is the imperative to love any less for the “progressive” theologian even if he/she disagrees or is challenged by particular dogmatic pronouncements? So we find agreement in focusing on the pastoral needs of the other without compromising our approach to one’s accepted belief. Nevertheless, there is an obligation for both the “fundamentalist and the progressive” theologian, pastor/priest to further one’s intellectual, moral and spiritual growth, and to be open to the continual insights and graces granted to them by the Holy Spirit.