Thursday, March 24, 2011
Our Christian Controversies
Why do we dislike each other so?
The author of an article called "Bloodlust" published in The Chronicle of Higher Education states this: "The most decisive antagonisms and misunderstandings take place within a community. The history of hatred and violence is, to a surprising degree, a history of brother against brother, not brother against stranger. From Cain and Abel to the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries and the civil wars of our own age, it is not so often strangers who elicit hatred, but neighbors."
The Christian world is certainly proving this true with the word war that erupted over the publication of Love Wins by Rob Bell, a Michigan pastor. Even before publication, people who just knew what Bell would write were quickly labeling him a heretic. After publication, I'd read posts saying, "I've not read the book yet but . . . " and then the writer would go on to say how far off base Bell is.
I have read the book. I think Bell asks good questions. I have asked the same ones myself. I also spent many years in the Evangelical world and so know why Bell is having to ask those questions.
In my opinion, Bell is Arminian in theology (humans cooperate with God in our salvation) but much of Evangelicalism, especially those who have labeled Bell's views as heretical, spring from the Reformed camp (God will save whom God chooses), a much tighter place that gives less room for doubt, questions, exploration and mystery. By the way, this superficial overview of the significant differences between the Armenian and Reformed viewpoints gives only a starting point to the controversy. Key point: both claim to base their theologies on the revealed word of God, the Bible, but come up with startlingly different conclusions.
Bell sees multiple salvation stories in the gospels, more than just the John 3 narrative which speaks about being born again. There are actually four salvation stories in a row there: Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, a royal official from Capernaum, and an invalid in Jerusalem. Only Nicodemus is told he must be born again. The others receive very different words from Jesus--yet each appeared in those stories to begin their journeys to redemption. Why, if being "born again" is a necessity, didn't Jesus tell each of the others that important truth?
Bell notes something else I have often taught: if you have only the Gospel of Luke in your hands, something that would have been a real possibility in the early years of Christianity, you would be hard-pressed to find anything in there about believing rightly, but a huge amount about breaking down barriers between in-groups and out-groups and acting with justice and mercy.
Essentially I hear Bell asking this: "Is there really a wideness to God's mercy?" A valid question, indeed!
Furthermore, as Bell notes in the acknowledgments, he has read much C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia books. Lewis, a British scholar and Anglican, has often been called the darling of the Evangelical world. However, a careful reader of one of Lewis' most fascinating books, The Great Divorce, will recognize that Lewis was asking the same question as Bell and coming with similar answers: God's mercy is wide, BUT, humans are partners in the hope of redemption. We have the option of choosing or refusing.
So, why must we form these factions? Again the author of the "Bloodlust" article notes, "Unfortunately, however, our brother, our neighbor, enrages us precisely because we understand him. Cain knew his brother--he 'talked with Abel his brother' --and slew him afterward."
The ultimate hope of just about everyone I know is to be both fully known and fully loved. For the most part, we manage to do just the opposite. No wonder we need a Savior who offers a very, very, very, very wide hope of mercy.