The State of Christianity

I thought this article from the Barna Group was interesting and a worthwhile read. They discuss the 6 reoccurring themes within Christianity that emerged from their research in 2010.

1. The Christian Church is becoming less theologically literate.
2. Christians are becoming more ingrown and less outreach-oriented.
3. Growing numbers of people are less interested in spiritual principles and more desirous of learning pragmatic solutions for life.
4. Among Christians, interest in participating in community action is escalating.
5. The postmodern insistence on tolerance is winning over the Christian Church.
6. The influence of Christianity on culture and individual lives is largely invisible.

I view most of these themes as negatives and find them to be a cause for concern. But other may have a different view of them.

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96 thoughts on “The State of Christianity

  1. I think the worst on the list, by far, is #1. I think that if you fix #1 then #2, #3, and #6 would take care of themselves.

    As for #4 and #5, I see those as being a net neutral for Christianity. Christians can swing it in a positive way or they can let it swing in a negative way. However, because of the other four items on the list, the possibility of negative outcomes is increased.

  2. I agree with David Clark’s assessment for the most part: work on #1, and the others will probably fall in line. There’s a balance to that though; I wouldn’t spend all my time addressing theological literacy and risk creating a generation of insular, do-nothing no-it-alls. (And I’m sure that’s not what David Clark is suggesting.)

    1. I wasn’t clear how they conducted the survey. It seems like, at least for #1, they should have only polled self-identified Christians, but they don’t specify that—they just say “adults.” I hate to assume….

    2. “…most Americans are unimpressed with the contributions Christians and churches have made to society over the past few years.” Ouch!

    4. “Christians are more open to and more involved in community service activities than has been true in the recent past.” Is that connected to #2 in any way? Namely, have Christian churches slacked so much in service and outreach that Christians today feel they must go outside their church in order to satisfy their desire to serve others? If so, then double-ouch!

    5. I see that as a good thing (probably; I’d have to see the actual questions that led Barna to this conclusion).

  3. I agree with BrianJ (except that I tend to think #5 is a decidedly negative thing which is more-or-less directly caused by #1). With the exception of #4, I don’t think any of this is good news – and even the reasons underlying #4 might be cause for concern. Of them all, I think #1, #2, and #6 are all quite devastating, and it’s difficult for me to decide which of them is worst; perhaps each of them is worst, simply taken from a different perspective. But yes, if #1 and #2 were remedied, then I think the other issues would at least become much easier to resolve.

  4. Its hard to see how theological literacy is going to make a large difference on #6.

    Don’t the Amish have substantially the same “theology” as the Anglicans?

    I think you could argue that by stripping the religion down to “mere Christianity” as some Evangelicals do, it may not allow for as large of an effect on culture.

    Mormons may have a bigger impact on individual lives because as a practical matter the religion may demand more specific things of individuals.

  5. Two steps in the right direction:

    1. Pray and fast for revival.

    2. Spend some $$ to see C. S. Lewis’ movie “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.” I’m going to see it tomorrow. It’s an outreach.

  6. I agree that taking care of #1 will relieve the other problems. Despite Brian’s concerns, Christian doctrine properly understood will NEVER created “do-nothings”. It calls for the exact opposite.

    I think Biblical tolerance is worthy of all esteem, but post-modern “tolerance” is something all together. Particularly if it proves to be the cause of #2.

    I didn’t look into their methodology enough to figure out if they’re describing self-described Christians (78% of the country), Born-Agains (36%) or Evangelicals (13%).

  7. “Christian doctrine properly understood will NEVER created “do-nothings”. It calls for the exact opposite.”

    I worry about people who can answer every theological question—even cite original sources—but still don’t know what it’s like to visit the widow, etc. You know it’s a very real possibility.

    (and sheesh! I can’t believe I wrote “no-it-alls” instead of “know-it-alls”!)

  8. …more likely, of course, is that people who do not experience what it means to be Christian will continue to leave the church(es) because they have nothing compelling them to stay.

  9. Not sure what #3 means (spiritual princilples?)? But I think they are right abou the pragmatic solutions part?

    I do think the two (these days) are tied together.

    “If you just learn these biblical principles…then your life will work a whole lot better.”

    Maybe…maybe not. But what does our lives “working” have to do with the gospel?

    I thought the gospel was about forgiveness and salvation.

  10. Preliminary note: For the purposes of this comment, I will use the word “Christian” and “church” as the Barna Group seems to, to refer to the American religious movement and churches that are broadly Protestant evangelical in character. By using the term in this way for purposes of this discussion, in no way whatsoever am I suggesting that Mormons, Catholics and mainline Protestants are not Christian nor that somehow their churches don’t matter.

    My comments and observations on the six points:

    1. Lack of theological literacy: Well, yeah, what do you expect when you adopt a consumer-driven approach to church membership and participation?

    The last two times I attended an evangelical church, you know what surprised me the most? Each time I went somewhat looking forward to going to a Sunday school class, getting a flavor of what the people in that church believe and maybe even learning something about the Bible or getting some ideas about teaching approaches for my class. But in one church (and I’m talking about one with attendance in the hundreds) there were no adult Sunday school classes, and in the other there was one adult class, but it took place during during the worship service I attended.

    I don’t know how typical that is. But when I look at the image the churches put forward to the community — they have great facilities, wonderful music, friendly people — I don’t see much emphasis on theological education. Many of them also emphasize how you can come to church as you are, that you aren’t committed to being more involved than you want to be and that sort of thing. This sort of approach simply isn’t conducive to any sort of rigorous theological teaching, and my guess is that it often doesn’t happen.

    2. Less outreach-oriented: This is probably the result of growing secularization in society, one expected result of having a professional clergy that is expected to do the heavy lifting, and a consequence of the consumer-driven approach.

    3: “Less interested in spiritual principles and more desirous of learning pragmatic solutions for life”: That’s not all bad — if our faith doesn’t say something to us about how we live our lives, does it really mean anything? On the other hand, we live in a society where there are all sorts of self-help approaches, and in some ways many churches have become reflections of that. There are Christian 12-step programs, Christian weight-loss programs, Christian day-care centers, Christian financial seminars and on and on. I see this as something of a mixed bag; while it’s good to apply our faith to all aspects of life, merely putting a Christian label on some approach doesn’t make it so.

    4. Community action: I remember the days when religious involvement in many types of outreach, such as serving AIDS patients or feeding the homeless, was limited mostly to the mainline denominations, but that’s no longer the case. It’s good to see Christians not shying away from this sort of thing as much as they used to.

    5. Tolerance: Books could be written about this subject. But Christians, probably because they’re human, can talk all they want about hating sin and loving the sinner, but they have a terrible time of putting it into practice. So what ends up substituting for tolerance often is moral relativism. This, I believe, poses a major problem for churches, especially in the area of sexual morality, where actions traditionally seen as sinful by Christians are becoming not only tolerated but praised in society.

    6. Less influence on our culture: Well, yeah, when you take the consumer-driven approach you inherently end up buying into the culture, and that’s probably not the best way to influence it. Many churches intentionally imitate the culture — and do a good job of it, with rock bands for worship and espresso stands in the narthex (I’m not saying these things are inherently bad, as I’d like a little bit of rock in my worship services, just that they seem to be drawing on outside sources for inspiration). But to look at change in the opposite direction, Christians’ influence on culture these days seems to limited largely to the political realm — where they fight battles (such as against homosexuality) that have already been lost or focus on things (such as opposition to Obamacare) that don’t really have much of anything to do with Christianity, making themselves just another political lobbying group and distorting their churches’ theological message.

    There’s also a significant anti-intellectual sentiment in much of evangelicalism, as well as some sentiment that the best thing a talented Christian can do is devote him/herself specifically Christian service. As a result, Christians seem to underrepresented in academia and the arts, both of which have substantial influence on society.

  11. 1. Lack of theological literacy: Well, yeah, what do you expect when you adopt a consumer-driven approach to church membership and participation?

    The last two times I attended an evangelical church, you know what surprised me the most? Each time I went somewhat looking forward to going to a Sunday school class, getting a flavor of what the people in that church believe and maybe even learning something about the Bible or getting some ideas about teaching approaches for my class. But in one church (and I’m talking about one with attendance in the hundreds) there were no adult Sunday school classes, and in the other there was one adult class, but it took place during during the worship service I attended.

    I don’t know how typical that is. But when I look at the image the churches put forward to the community — they have great facilities, wonderful music, friendly people — I don’t see much emphasis on theological education. Many of them also emphasize how you can come to church as you are, that you aren’t committed to being more involved than you want to be and that sort of thing. This sort of approach simply isn’t conducive to any sort of rigorous theological teaching, and my guess is that it often doesn’t happen.

    I think there is something to this. For all its drawbacks, an advantage to the Mormon approach (seminary, institute, sunday school, priesthood and relief society meetings, sacrament meetings that are primarily oriented towards instruction rather than worship, missions) is that it is not difficult for a regular joe Mormon to become relatively well-versed in Mormon theology.

  12. is that it is not difficult for a regular joe Mormon to become relatively well-versed in Mormon theology.

    Until he/she stumbles on the bloggernacle and Mormon apologetic message boards and discovers that none of that was ever “doctrine.”

    Joking aside, you do make a good point.

  13. Knowing a little bit about The Barna Group, and looking a little closer at the report, I think these findings are about self-described Christians. If it were about Evangelicals specifically they typically explain how and why they classify someone as an Evangelical.

    This is a broad overview of American Christianity.

  14. Which is not that surprising. Despite the fortress mentality groans and chicken little nonsense of a lot of American Christians, the fact is that “Christianity” is the default religion in the US and the religion of the dominant culture. That means “self-described Christians” is going to include a lot of nominal Christians-by-default, who are not going to give the same answers to these kinds of questions as passionate, involved, religious Christians of any denomination are going to give.

  15. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader was constantly entertaining, didn’t bother my spirit, action-packed, clean, intriguing, awe-inspiring, and had a somewhat hidden Christian message.
    Ye all watch it now, heah?
    And Tim, I now know how to solve all 6 issues: find the seventh sword!

  16. Kullervo said:

    That means “self-described Christians” is going to include a lot of nominal Christians-by-default, who are not going to give the same answers to these kinds of questions as passionate, involved, religious Christians of any denomination are going to give.

    Exactly. I grew up with a mother who self-identified as Nazarene and a father who self-identified as Baptist, yet we never read the Bible, prayed, talked about God, or went to church.

    I would like to know how these answers correlate with church activity, and I don’t just mean Sunday attendance.

  17. Tim said:

    Knowing a little bit about The Barna Group, and looking a little closer at the report, I think these findings are about self-described Christians. … This is a broad overview of American Christianity.

    Looking over things a bit more, I think you’re probably right.

    These trends are evident among most types of Christianity. I think that in some (not all) ways, evangelicals are where mainline Protestants were 20 or 30 years ago. A lot has been written about the graying and declining membership of mainline Protestantism; numbers the past few years show that similar things could be happening in some evangelical denominations (notably Southern Baptists), although it’s unclear how much of that is due to people switching denominations without leaving evangelicalism.

    I don’t know enough about Catholicism in practice to comment intelligently about sociological trends, although it’s difficult for me to see what cultural influence the Catholic church has beyond playing a major role in the abortion debate.

    As to Mormons: The trends affect us too. Although theological illiteracy isn’t the problem that it is in many other types of Christianity, and we actively resist some cultural trends more than other churches do, we aren’t immune to changes in society. Our participation numbers probably aren’t as robust as official membership statistics may indicate, and church higher-ups have expressed grave concern about the number of young adults who are abandoning church activity.

  18. I don’t see what would be a problem with #5. I thought that the great commandments were to love God and to love your neighbor. And that means loving your neighbor even if they’re (gasp!) gay or even if they’re (gasp!) living together without being married, or even if they’re (gasp!) insert-your-own-thing-here. I try really hard to treat other people with kindness and respect regardless of what I think of their lifestyle, because I think it is God’s job to judge people, not mine. It is God’s job to change their hearts, not mine.

    And people are more likely to be open to God and to Jesus and to becoming better people if they see that God doesn’t hate them or teach his servants to hate them. That was my experience, at least. When I went searching to figure out who this Jesus guy was, I went to the only person I knew who believed in Jesus but who loved me for me, faults, sins, and all. (And that’s how I became a Mormon.)

    I do think that the most concerning one on the list is #6. Following Jesus should radically change your life, your perspective, and the way you look at the world. Drop your nets at once and follow him. Don’t put it off until you’ve figured other stuff out. I think a lot of people make time for God when it’s convenient. And it really never is.

  19. I do think that the most concerning one on the list is #6. Following Jesus should radically change your life, your perspective, and the way you look at the world. Drop your nets at once and follow him. Don’t put it off until you’ve figured other stuff out. I think a lot of people make time for God when it’s convenient. And it really never is.

    Well-said.

  20. Regarding the whole “postmodern tolerance” thing…

    1)–I really liked the discussion on Jack’s post about “tolerance” vs. acceptance and respect. I think that’s an important distinction. As Eric said there, tolerance often devolves into moral relativism. But acceptance and respect can and should be applied to everyone, regardless of what sins plague their lives.

    2)–I admit I’ve been influenced by Brian McLaren and some of his cohorts, but I think that in order to survive and thrive, Christianity needs to embrace (or at least figure out how to operate within) the shift into postmodernity.

    While not everything about the postmodern movement is good, the fact is, we live in a global world where people are more aware than ever that different cultures and beliefs exist — and that their culture’s way of doing things isn’t necessarily “The One True Way.” I think Christianity has had some terrible things done to it as a result of being entrenched in the modern worldview, the most awful being a)–that we can define (and therefore, in a sense, control) God with almost “scientific” accuracy; and b)–the pervasive idea that it is more important to be right than good.

    Conversely, by embracing something of a more postmodern perspective, maybe Christianity can recognize that God is infinite layers deep; that there are many ways to approach Him and think about Him; and that maybe we don’t need all these denominational separations and theological wars. Maybe we all have some things right and some things wrong and maybe God is okay with that — it’s not like He’s down here teaching Systematic Theology 101, after all. And maybe, just maybe, that frees us up to focus our energies on clothing the naked and feeding the hungry — something, it turns out, He did emphasize when He was down here teaching lessons.

  21. “Maybe we all have some things right and some things wrong and maybe God is okay with that — it’s not like He’s down here teaching Systematic Theology 101, after all. And maybe, just maybe, that frees us up to focus our energies on clothing the naked and feeding the hungry — something, it turns out, He did emphasize when He was down here teaching lessons.”

    Amen

  22. These trends are evident among most types of Christianity. I think that in some (not all) ways, evangelicals are where mainline Protestants were 20 or 30 years ago. A lot has been written about the graying and declining membership of mainline Protestantism; numbers the past few years show that similar things could be happening in some evangelical denominations (notably Southern Baptists), although it’s unclear how much of that is due to people switching denominations without leaving evangelicalism.

    If you haven’t already read it, the Internet Monk wrote an excellent series of posts on that subject a while back.

    Also in that series is the interesting idea that Catholics and Orthodox will be beneficiaries of the evangelical collapse. I think this is plausible. Now that post-modernity has allowed people to embrace tradition and culture as pointing to truth, people may flock to where tradition and culture has always held sway for religious meaning and experience. And the Catholics and Orthodox have that in spades.

    As for Mormons, I think it could go either way. In one sense, a Mormon collapse has already happened. Outside the U.S. the church has collapsed as fast as it could be built, at least in the fast growing areas. It seemed that on my mission for every person who came in the front door, someone left through the back door. While the church has made some positive moves to try and deal with this, I don’t think it is even close to solving the problem.

  23. I think Christianity has had some terrible things done to it as a result of being entrenched in the modern worldview, the most awful being a)–that we can define (and therefore, in a sense, control) God with almost “scientific” accuracy; and b)–the pervasive idea that it is more important to be right than good.

    Amen.

  24. Also in that series is the interesting idea that Catholics and Orthodox will be beneficiaries of the evangelical collapse. I think this is plausible. Now that post-modernity has allowed people to embrace tradition and culture as pointing to truth, people may flock to where tradition and culture has always held sway for religious meaning and experience. And the Catholics and Orthodox have that in spades.

    I think you are absolutely right about this.

  25. I do think that the most concerning one on the list is #6. Following Jesus should radically change your life, your perspective, and the way you look at the world. Drop your nets at once and follow him. Don’t put it off until you’ve figured other stuff out. I think a lot of people make time for God when it’s convenient. And it really never is.

    Ultimately this is probably the most important. The issue is that you can’t just tell people, “follow Jesus” without telling them what it means to do that. The obvious rejoinder is that “it’s not that complicated to follow Jesus, you don’t need all the fancy theological rigamarole.” The problem is that I think this leads to people following a Jesus that very suspiciously acts and believes the same things they believe by default. In other words, Jesus doesn’t end up converting them, they end up converting Jesus to what they want him to be. People on both the left and right are equal opportunity offenders here.

    That’s why I think the only way to truly solve #6 is by solving #1 first.

  26. I think that very nature of Christianity is why it is not really suited to be the dominant, civic religion. It makes sense as a mystery religion or an underground, rebellious new way of life, not as the default religion of a culture.

    The dominant civic religion is never going to be transformational. Most people are simply not looking to be transformed.

  27. As for Mormons, I think it could go either way.

    I agree. Right now, Mormonism’s main narrative is tied to the idea that we are God’s Only True Church and that this is our primary purpose for existing. That just doesn’t resonate with post-moderns. More and more, people don’t believe that there is a reliable way to find “Absolute Truth,” especially when it comes to matters metaphysical, and are increasingly suspicious of people and organizations who say they have it. Add to that some of Mormonism’s more challenging historical problems that are suddenly a Google search away — but that contradict what the church says about itself — and you find yourself right in the middle of a major crisis, especially with potential converts and the rising generation.

    Fortunately, the tools are there within Mormonism to make its way through it: ongoing revelation, rich and compelling rituals and ordinances that could prove quite meaningful in a post-modern world, and an especially unique “covenant” theology that emphasizes being a blessing to all of mankind. I guess if we really are meant to play a pivotal role in establishing God’s Kingdom on the earth, we’ll figure it out and survive. If not…? Well, the alternative would be quite a shame. But I believe we’ll make it. 🙂

  28. Katy, I think what you are describing is Biblical tolerance as opposed to Postmodern tolerance.

    If we have to abandon the Absolute Truth that Jesus is THE one and only Messiah in order to be known for tolerance, then Christians can’t be “tolerant”. But if we have to accept and love people even though they act or believe differently than we think they should in order to be tolerant, then we should be all over it.

  29. To put it another way, Christians can’t believe “all ways are God’s ways”. We have to reject any definition of tolerance that includes that belief.

  30. David Clark said to me:

    If you haven’t already read it, the Internet Monk wrote an excellent series of posts on that subject a while back.

    I just read his comments and found them quite interesting. I think he overstates the case more than a bit, but many of his points are well-taken.

    I don’t have time to comment now, but there have been some excellent comments during the past two hours. Thanks, all, for some interesting and enlightening reading.

  31. Eric said
    Our participation numbers probably aren’t as robust as official membership statistics may indicate, . . .

    Ya think? If “off by 75%” falls into the “probably” category.

  32. To put it another way, Christians can’t believe “all ways are God’s ways”

    Except when it comes to the government right? as per Romans 13:1. 😉

  33. “If we have to abandon the Absolute Truth that Jesus is THE one and only Messiah in order to be known for tolerance, then Christians can’t be “tolerant”. But if we have to accept and love people even though they act or believe differently than we think they should in order to be tolerant, then we should be all over it.”

    I don’t believe that Absolute Truth as you stated it. I believe that Jesus is the one and only Messiah for me. But I also believe that God speaks to Kullervo through the Greek gods. And I’m cool with that, because it means that both of us find spiritual fulfillment, and we respect and admire each other’s paths.

    The way to the grocery store from my house is to drive down Nelson Street, turn right on Greenview, turn right again on Oakley, and then cross Ashland.

    The way to the grocery store from my house is also to drive down Nelson street, turn left on Greenview, turn left on Barry, turn left on Ashland, and turn into the grocery store.

    I don’t worship any other gods, and I follow and believe in Jesus. I accept that other people might come to God from a different angle, and that God might actually be cool with that. I don’t know enough about God to say what He insists we believe in. But as He is a personal god, I believe that he probably knows each of our hearts well enough to know if we are sincere and genuine, and He will do with everyone individually what makes sense within His rules, guidelines, and grace and mercy.

    And I can deal with the cognitive dissonance that comes with me believing that Jesus is The Way, and that Kullervo doesn’t, and that we might both be right.

  34. A question:

    If you died and went to heaven, and found out that God had in fact decided to forgive everyone, and Heaven included heretics, atheists, Evangelicals, Mormons, Jews, Hindus, and pretty much everyone… would you be upset or angry?

  35. If you died and went to heaven, and found out that God had in fact not decided to forgive everyone… would you be upset or angry?

  36. David–nope. It’s up to God. And if it turns out that I am dead wrong on everything, when I find out I’ll apologize. I am an imperfect person with an imperfect understanding, and will inevitably make mistakes.

    God can do what God wants. I just follow Him.

  37. If you died and went to heaven, and found out that God had in fact not decided to forgive everyone… would you be upset or angry?

    That’s not an answer. Grow a pair.

  38. Katy, what do you do with Jesus saying “I am the Way, the Truth and the Light, no one gets to the Father except through me”?

    If you can dismiss him when he says that kind of thing, you’ve got a different kind of Logos (life ordering principle) than I understand Jesus to be presenting himself as. Do you follow him even when he says some people are going to be excluded from Him?

    To answer your question. I’ll refer you to Jesus’ parable about the vineyard owner who pays everyone the same wage. I’m not going to be upset if anyone (much less God) decides to be generous. I’ll still get what He told me I’d get (Himself). But I don’t know why he would tell everyone there’s only one way to the Father, and I don’t know that it would be wise to just anticipate him changing His mind.

  39. If you died and went to heaven, and found out that God had in fact decided to forgive everyone, and Heaven included heretics, atheists, Evangelicals, Mormons, Jews, Hindus, and pretty much everyone… would you be upset or angry?

    I am going to be upset if He forgives the following (not a complete list and in no particular order):
    Milli Vanilli, Paris Hilton’s parents, Benny Hinn, all those who have participated in a lynching, the group of people who decided to nominate Sarah Palin as vice presidential candidate, strict constructionists who are only strict when it benefits them, those that diss Justin Bieber in public but secretly like his music. . .

    Actually the list gets pretty long.

  40. If you died and went to heaven, and found out that God had in fact decided to forgive everyone, and Heaven included heretics, atheists, Evangelicals, Mormons, Jews, Hindus, and pretty much everyone… would you be upset or angry?

    I am going to be upset if He forgives the following (not a complete list and in no particular order):
    Milli Vanilli,
    Paris Hil-ton’s parents,
    Benny Hinn,
    Benny Hill,
    all those who have participated in a lynching,
    the group of people who decided to nominate Sarah Palin as vice presidential candidate,
    strict constructionists who are only strict when it benefits them,
    those that diss Justin Bie-ber in public but secretly like his music. . .

    Actually the list gets pretty long

  41. “Katy, what do you do with Jesus saying “I am the Way, the Truth and the Light, no one gets to the Father except through me”?”

    First, as I said, I live with a pretty strong okay-ness with cognitive dissonance.

    But also, and bear with me here, because I don’t know that this is what I believe, but one of many possibilities that could be true.

    When Kullervo approaches God, he’s not looking at Him as God the Father. So, perhaps God has many facets, and you get what you worship. I worship Jesus and thus get to have God the Father. People who are looking for something else in God, get that. And maybe you only get to God the Father through Jesus.

  42. Or maybe everyone gets to meet and understand Jesus in paradise after death before they are finally judged, and you get as long as it takes to recognize him as the Savior.

    Do those outside Mormonism consider this within the realm of possibility, and why not?

  43. Or maybe everyone gets to meet and understand Jesus in paradise after death before they are finally judged, and you get as long as it takes to recognize him as the Savior.

    I already recognize Poseidon, Zeus, Athena and Hekate as Σωτήρ.

  44. Jared, I certainly think that’s within the realm of possibility.

    And I think that anyone who rules out possibilities is fooling themselves, honestly. Because the fact of the matter is that we can’t KNOW until it’s over and done with.

  45. Katy, what do you make of the early disciples’ efforts to put Jesus in direct opposition to Kullervo’s gods? Did they just not understand Jesus as well as you do?

    Are the efforts of religious zealots on 9/11 an equally valid ‘way’ to God as any of the paths to your grocery store?

    Jared, it’s in the realm of possibility (as are any number of things). The question is, where did you get the idea from? Why should I rely on the supposition as a reliable back up plan?

  46. Are the efforts of religious zealots on 9/11 an equally valid ‘way’ to God as any of the paths to your grocery store?

    You may be putting words in Katy’s mouth here. I may be wrong, but I’m not sure she’s saying all ways are equally valid.

  47. Tim said, “Jared, it’s in the realm of possibility (as are any number of things). The question is, where did you get the idea from? Why should I rely on the supposition as a reliable back up plan?”

    I just want to stress that Tim makes a very good point here.

  48. Wow, Tim, thanks for the patronizing tone of voice. Because obviously I think that I understand Jesus better than the early disciples. /sarcasm (PS… interfaith dialogue SHOULD mean being respectful of each other, even when we don’t believe the same thing, right?)

    I’m not saying that I have it all figured out. I don’t know what the early disciples did or didn’t do, or why. They WERE reformed Jews, and the Jews were strongly opposed to the pagan gods. Perhaps it was cultural? Perhaps at the time the distinction was critical but is less so now? I don’t know. I don’t care.

    Another way to get to the grocery store from my house is to leave my house, drive right to Ashland, and cross over to the store. However, my street is a one way street, and that way would be breaking the law. So, I would say that’s the wrong way. Perhaps the religious zealots belong in that category.

    I never said that all religions was right or good or anything like that. So please don’t put words into my mouth.

    “Why should I rely on the supposition as a reliable back up plan?”

    Nobody is asking you to rely on it. However, you asked what to do with “I am the Truth…”, and I gave an answer and Jared gave an answer. In other words, there are potential answers, and you can’t say without a doubt that those are not the case. Nobody is saying that those are definitely the case. But they do answer your question as to what to do with that statement you presented.

  49. Katy, what do you make of the early disciples’ efforts to put Jesus in direct opposition to Kullervo’s gods? Did they just not understand Jesus as well as you do?

    Honestly, you are being extremely patronizing here, and Katy’s done nothing to deserve that. If treating people like they are stupid is what Evangelical Christianity is all about, I think you shouldn’t be baffled as to why the Barna Group shows that fewer and fewer people are interested.

  50. Tim and Brian

    “Jared, it’s in the realm of possibility (as are any number of things). The question is, where did you get the idea from? Why should I rely on the supposition as a reliable back up plan?”

    Going back to the issue of tolerance. We are not really talking about a backup plan, we are talking about how to view those who did not take the Christian option for whatever reason (and there are a lot of good ones.) I think the evidence about the fate of those that don’t accept Jesus in this life due to for good reason is a bit cloudy, even if you do believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. I also think that universalism is not an unreasonable interpretation of scripture.

    There is also a mountain of extra-biblical evidence that non-Christians have very Christian-like experiences with God.

    I think that tolerance in the reasonable Christian context is about acknowledging that you walk by faith, and there may be other ways God has presented truth to the world, without diluting the fact that God has revealed to you, through the bible or otherwise, that Jesus is the ultimate way truth and light. It seems to me that its a very reasonable conclusion is that God so loved the world that he gave his Son to save the world, not merely the lucky minority. I think this conclusion is at least as sound as believing all non-believers will end up in hell for eternity.
    The fact that the Bible didn’t absolutely spell out how this will happen outside the confines of the Christian church is no reason not to accept this sound conclusion. There is no indication that this sort of explanation was ever part of the purpose of Biblical texts.

  51. Sorry for being an ass-hat. I probably explained the idea I was wishing to express, so I won’t restate it. To clarify I don’t think you’re at all stupid. Rough day here.

  52. Jared: I was supporting Tim’s comment on two points:

    1) I don’t think there is a strong argument or even hint within traditional Christianity to believe that people will get a chance to meet Jesus, etc., after this life. (Rather, I think the stronger argument is that people who didn’t ‘meet’ him in this life will just be judged on what they did know.) Mormonism provides a compelling “afterlife meet-and-greet” argument, but other Christianity does not.

    2) I liked his meta-point: There are endless possibilities when it comes to God, but why should we even entertain one in particular?

  53. I liked his meta-point: There are endless possibilities when it comes to God, but why should we even entertain one in particular?

    For most people this isn;t even a relevant question. Most peoples’ particular religions are just the default religion of their culture. Those who seek something deeper and more spiritually fulfilling either do so within their own religious tradition, or if they don’t find it there, they seek until they do find it somewhere. I don’t see why this is a problem.

    Except for religious traditions that insist that they are the exclusive, universally applicable way. But then they have already rejected the premise.

    “There is not only one right answer” doesn’t mean every answer is right, or that there are no wrong answers. It also doesn’t mean every answer is equally right, or equally appropriate for all circumstances.

  54. Brian,

    I see your points.

    With regard to “limitless possibilities”. I actually think that there is empirical evidence for some spiritual truths (love, forgiveness, charity, freedom, justice, mercy, etc.) This limits some of the possibilities when it comes to God.

    I think that the spiritual evidence condemns elements of religions that involve ritual human sacrifice, misogyny, judicial injustice, genocide, slavery, general intolerance of difference, etc. This is probably why lots of these elements have been dropped from Judeo-Christianity.

  55. I’m the one who first introduced “all roads lead to God” into the conversation, so I took the liberty to bring in Muslim zealots. If we’re going to presume universalism though, I don’t know what actual basis we’re really using to say Osama Bin Laden is out though. “We think he’s not very nice.”? Plenty of Philistines could complain about the treatment they got from Samson.

    Jared said:

    There is also a mountain of extra-biblical evidence that non-Christians have very Christian-like experiences with God.

    So. There’s a mountain of evidence that, for the most part, totalitarian governments operate just as well as democratic governments. It doesn’t mean they’re equal. It’s the particulars and the unique teachings that set religions apart from one another.

    I think this conclusion is at least as sound as believing all non-believers will end up in hell for eternity.

    I’m not rejecting universalism because it’s not an appealing idea. It is really appealing. But I don’t see the clear teaching of the Bible supporting it. The Bible teaches the opposite. Most Christian-Universalist don’t use the Bible to support their case. They make appeals to the ongoing inspiration of the Holy Spirit but they’re quick to get out of the proof-texting game because they get overwhelmed with contrary passages.

    I’m not going to accept an spiritual idea just because I like it better. It’s not a game of who can come up with the best version of Heaven that tastes good to everyone.

  56. For most people this isn;t even a relevant question. Most peoples’ particular religions are just the default religion of their culture.

    Much like Jared is expressing the post-Christian, crowd-sourcing, democratic culture that surrounds him. =P

  57. Brian said:
    I liked his meta-point: There are endless possibilities when it comes to God, but why should we even entertain one in particular?

    I Corinthians 15 has some ideas about why we should accept the stuff Jesus said.

  58. Eh, your decision to believe what you think the Bible says is just as arbitrary and ultimately groundless as an aBiblical universalist’s ongoing input of the Holy Spirit.

    The fact that you are more comfortable pretending there’s a knowable, objective spiritual reality doesn’t mean there really is one.

  59. Kullervo: “For most people this isn’t even a relevant question. Most peoples’ particular religions are just the default religion of their culture. Those who seek something deeper…. I don’t see why this is a problem.”

    I think I may have been responding to something earlier that wasn’t really on others’ minds. Here’s what I was responding to: I see on a lot of Mormon blogs the kind of deep thinking you’re getting at—and I hear it at church too. What I’ve noticed is that there is a lot of pondering in the “realm of possibilities”; i.e., someone will start up a line of thought that is only considered possible because it isn’t explicitly refuted by some canonical source. Or, if is refuted, then they may even use the work-around that perhaps that particular verse in the canon was mis-translated or the author was a mere mortal so may have made a mistake. (And don’t get me wrong: those are very good questions to ask about scripture, but they need to be asked and not just used as an “excuse.”)

    So, I read Tim as suggesting that we need to ask whether a question/line of pondering has any basis—some reasonable reason to be asked—before we get all into it. But now as I re-read the thread, I think I am the only one who read it this way.

  60. 1) I don’t think there is a strong argument or even hint within traditional Christianity to believe that people will get a chance to meet Jesus, etc., after this life. (Rather, I think the stronger argument is that people who didn’t ‘meet’ him in this life will just be judged on what they did know.) Mormonism provides a compelling “afterlife meet-and-greet” argument, but other Christianity does not.

    Matthew 25:31-46

  61. Wow, Tim, thanks for the patronizing tone of voice. Because obviously I think that I understand Jesus better than the early disciples.

    FWIW, according to the gospel of Mark, the disciples didn’t understand him at all.

  62. Last post, I promise.

    Regarding the “all roads lead to God” argument. I think the truth is that a Christian has to acknowledge that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. I’m certain that God uses other religions to speak to people, the question is, what is God saying? I’m also certain that people experience God in other religions, but again the question is what does that experience mean? Neither implies full acceptance and approval of the religion in which a person finds him or herself.

    Take two examples. St. Augustine clearly says that neo-Platonic philosophy prepared him for Christianity. In other words, he found something deeply good and divine in neo-Platonism. However, the lesson St. Augustine drew was not that he should call neo-Platonism is home and stay there because he found lots of good in it.

    The second example is from my own life. I have had some profound experiences with the Book of Mormon in my life. But, I’m not LDS anymore. God was speaking to me through that book, but that did not mean that it guaranteed that the LDS church was God’s church.

    God continually speaks to us, the post modern fallacy is that as long as we can hear his voice we are o.k.. That’s what my kids do, they hear my mouth making noises, but listening, interpreting, and acting are what they need to work on. Maybe that’s what Jesus was getting at when he said, “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” They are listening, even if they haven’t found, and may never find their home in that one flock.

  63. Much like Jared is expressing the post-Christian, crowd-sourcing, democratic culture that surrounds him. =P

    I don’t think my views on Christianity are at all crowd-sourced. I think that few really get what Jesus was saying and even fewer really endeavor to practice it. Most are just fine with comfortable the inanity of many Christian churches.

    I guess I just don’t find the support inside or outside the scriptures for a belief in the condemnation expected by many who rely on their lip service to what they think the bible means in the big picture.

    I believe in spiritual truth that reveals itself in transformed human beings. And I believe that this sort of love is supernatural. I think the crowd doesn’t really understand this at all.

    I don’t really think there are many paths to the truth on some level. There is one path, but that path probably doesn’t depend on any creed or theology.

    For example:
    http://www.cnn.com/2010/LIVING/04/01/cnnheroes.krishnan.hunger/

  64. I like some of the things KatyJane and David Clark have said, but in the discussion above I identify with Tim the most—him being the straight-laced evangelical.

    No one ever seems to represent the charismatic viewpoint, so maybe God has assigned that job to me.

    Eric said:
    “A lot has been written about the graying and declining membership of mainline Protestantism; numbers the past few years show that similar things could be happening in some evangelical denominations. . . . As to Mormons: The trends affect us too.”

    I read in “The Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements” that while mainline Protestant churches have been slowly losing members over the past 100 years, charismatic churches have been slowly gaining. Now, charismatic churches are in the majority.

    While lots of legitimate criticism can be laid at the feet of a typical charismatic church, I believe they are gaining members for a good reason: Miracles are important. The gifts of the Spirit in 1 Cor. 12:8-10 are important. We find miracles and the operation of these gifts recorded quite frequently in Matthew through Acts. They attract the lost. They help bring the reality of God—his love, forgiveness, and authority—down to the level of our everyday practical needs.

  65. FWIW, according to the gospel of Mark, the disciples didn’t understand him at all.

    That was my New Testament final exam question last night, “trace discipleship in the gospel of Mark.” It actually might have given me a post idea that I’ll get to when I’m not so busy.

  66. Cal (and anyone else) —

    Here’s an article about church membership statistics, based on the numbers reported by various denominations showing growth or decline in their U.S. membership reported in 2009:

    Catholics, Mormons, Assemblies of God growing;
    Mainline churches report a continuing decline

    The numbers show significant growth among Catholics, Mormons and Assemblies of God. However, it should be noted that much of the Catholic increase can be attributed to Hispanic immigration rather than new Catholics, while much of the LDS growth can be attributed to its members’ high birth rate rather than to conversions.

    The numbers show slight losses for the South Baptists and huge losses for some of the mainline churches, on the order of 3 percent for Presbyterians (USA) and the United Church of Christ.

    Unfortunately, comparable numbers aren’t available nondenominational churches or churches in small or local denominations, which make up a huge chunk of evangelical megachurches.

  67. God continually speaks to us, the post modern fallacy is that as long as we can hear his voice we are o.k.

    I don’t know that this is the post-modern believer’s position at all. I think what the post-modern recognizes is the objectively unprovable nature of spiritual and metaphysical truth. Therefore, while you might genuinely believe that the position you have taken is “correct,” you recognize in the same breath that you could be wrong, since there is no way to know for sure. At its laziest, I suppose it can lead to the kind of complacency you mention here; but at its best it leads to a continual search for useful and meaningful ways of interacting with God, and a willingness to examine different perspectives and narratives while withholding judgment.

  68. I cannot speak of the other denominations but the decline in the PC(USA) is partially attributed to the departure of a significant number of congregations to the sideline Presbyterian denominations.

    Also in the PC(USA) there is a financial reason for reporting accurate numbers. Each congregation is required to pay a per capita fee for each communicant member ranging from $5 to $30. Sessions generally ensure that they scrub their roles prior to reporting the per capita.

  69. Eric, thanks for the stats. Very interesting. You probably know that the Assemblies of God is Pentecostal/charismatic.

  70. When discussions like the one above about whether the different ways we approach God, or don’t even approach Him at all, but approach other gods, are valid, I tend to think of what a modern Christian philosopher wrote on the matter. I reference the teaching by CS Lewis in The Last Battle a lot because it resonates strongly with my understanding of God’s understanding of us, and of His love and mercy.

    In one of the final chapters, we have the scene of a Calormene soldier who has spent his entire life worshiping Tash, but this soldier was a good, honest, decent person. He is the first one to volunteer to go through the door of the stable to see if his god would be there waiting for him.

    When he goes through, he meets Aslan and fears, at first, because he knows that he has always worshiped Tash. Aslan calls the Calormene soldier his son and explains that all people who do good, regardless of the name by which they do it, are doing it in the name of Aslan. He then further teaches that all who do evil, regardless of the name by which they do it, are doing in the name of Tash.

    I believe that when Christ stated that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and that no one can come to the Father except by Him, He spoke the truth. But I am also willing to believe that God allows us to approach Him within our own realm of understanding and that maybe, just maybe, He is okay with people using the wrong name(s) and the wrong methods. Yes, I realise that this ignores the importance of ordinances, but as a Latter-day Saint, I firmly embrace my church’s doctrinal belief and practice of proxy ordinances that overcome that.

    I also believe that Lewis’ approach is in harmony with what Mormonism teaches in Moroni 7: Everything that is good comes from God. So when my friends of many different faiths, or no faiths at all, are good people who do good things, even though they (like me) also screw up all the time, too, I believe that they are approaching the Divine. I’m cool with that.

  71. I don’t know that this is the post-modern believer’s position at all. I think what the post-modern recognizes is the objectively unprovable nature of spiritual and metaphysical truth. Therefore, while you might genuinely believe that the position you have taken is “correct,” you recognize in the same breath that you could be wrong, since there is no way to know for sure. At its laziest, I suppose it can lead to the kind of complacency you mention here; but at its best it leads to a continual search for useful and meaningful ways of interacting with God, and a willingness to examine different perspectives and narratives while withholding judgment.

    I don’t see how you can not recognize that without seriously deluding yourself.

  72. I agree, Kullervo, but I think that just goes to show how thoroughly enmeshed we are in the post-modern worldview.

    From what I understand, generations of people who have gone before us didn’t seem to think this way. Even today, I know many people who seem completely convinced of their own “rightness” to an extent that I simply cannot understand.

  73. If you died and went to heaven, and found out that God had in fact not decided to forgive everyone… would you be upset or angry?

    I’d forgotten I wanted to answer this question earlier.

    If I die and get to heaven and find out that God is a god who damns people who sought truth as sincerely as possible but got some things wrong about Him, I think I will be pissed…because I don’t understand how a god like that could ever be called good.

    And if God isn’t good, then yeah, I’m totally irritated.

  74. And defining “good” by reference to “God” is BS. Saying that “whatever God wills is good” means “good” is just God’s arbitrary whim.

    If that’s the case, then there really is no good at all; there’s just the mandates of an all-powerful divine bully. No thanks. Especially since there’s no compelling evidence that such an all-powerful divine bully even exists anyway.

  75. Why are the two necessarily inseparable? What if you are wrong about the nature of the divine? Certainly if you have defined “god” to mean “good” then a non-good god would be something other than a god. But that’s just as arbitrary as defining good as “the will of God.”

    What if there really is a divine, omnipotent, omniscient eternal being who created the universe and reigns supreme over it but sometimes he is a little bit of a dick? And there’s nothing else in the universe that could be reasonably called a divine being?

    What then? It’s meaningless to say he’s no god at all, because he is clearly a supreme being in function if not 100% in morality. If you say “to be a god, you must be good,” but the only divine being in existence is not good, claiming that he is therefore not a god doesn’t change the substance of what he is. Its fiat by definition. I would argue that the problem lies in your definition of the category of “god,” not in the moral failings of this hypothetical supreme being.

  76. From a Christian perspective, I think its appropriate to consider God only good. He self identifies with the good. Therefore, my conclusion is that finding the good is equivalent to the process of finding God. Fear and trembling, i.e. not being quite sure, seems to be a part of the process.

    From a non-Christian, pantheistic or Monistic perspective I think you are right, there is no particular reason for considering god either good or bad. In fact, much of the difference between the two may be illusion.

    I think the difficulty and understanding what is “really” good in all cases is a problem from both the christian and the non-Christian perspective. But i believe God makes some things clear, the unclear things don’t matter as much.

    Perhaps I get this perspective from Moroni 7:15-20

    However, even if part of God is not good, I personally just want to worship the good part.

  77. Katie: fwiw, I believe that God derives his power by being good. Thus, if he ceases to be all-good then he ceases to be god; also, something isn’t good just because he says so.

  78. If that’s the case, then there really is no good at all; there’s just the mandates of an all-powerful divine bully. No thanks. Especially since there’s no compelling evidence that such an all-powerful divine bully even exists anyway.

    From an LDS perspective, Lucifer’s aim was to become an all-powerful divine bully. That is the explanation for why he wanted to take away Agency. God, on other hand, is so determined to not become an all-powerful divine bully that He allows His children to bully each other, and He tries to teach the better way through ancient and modern prophets, through the ministry of His Only Begotten, and through the lives of those who choose to not live by compelling others to do their will by holding a gun to someone’s head.

  79. Right, but Mormonism also belives that there are eternal principles that even God is bound to obey, i.e., that there is an external standard of “good” that is more than or different than merely the arbitrary dictates of a supreme being.

    Mormon god may be completely and totally good, but that’s because in Mormonism being completely and totally good is a requirement for godhood. Mormon god could theoretically choose to cease to be good, but then he would cease to be God.

    If you assume such a god exists and that those are the qualifications for being a god, then Jared’s method of “seeking the good and finding the god” is sound. But that’s begging the question. You have to assume the god that is to be found before you can conclude that the method for finding him is sound.

  80. You have to assume the god that is to be found before you can conclude that the method for finding him is sound.

    Well, followers of revealed religion don’t assume there is a God, they base his existence on what he has revealed of himself.

    To a Christian, God tells us that He is good, that there is another being that spreads evil, and that he is not OK with the evil.

    This understanding of God is, of course, 100% dependent on a certain interpretation of the phenomena surrounding revelation and its content. The assumption is that the interpretation of the phenomena is correct. in this sense Christians are not reallyassuming that there is a God a priori.

    When I hear a voice and I can reasonably assume that there is a speaker.

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