In the first half of the 20th century that may not have been the case. However, almost simultaneous to the infamous TIME magazine article in April 1966 positing “Is God Dead?”, there was the massive paradigm shift in our culture from Modernism to Post-Modernism. People realized that science, although powerful, was too cold and impersonal to actually be God himself.
In addition, in 2011, the average person in America can have a conversation with someone on the other side of the planet, face-to-face, through a computer screen or smart phone. A century ago that would have probably been considered the work of the divine or the black arts. Technology has progressed at an incomprehensible rate. Some might argue that this truth would all the more negate the need for God, when we can produce experiences that 25 years earlier would have been deemed near-miraculous. I don’t think that’s the case though. I think all it’s done is awaken us to not ever doubt the potentially miraculous, particularly if there is a higher-power god out there who’s involved. We’ve witnessed so much incredible advancement within our own lifetimes that we almost refuse to doubt what might be possible. I think that’s conditioned us as a society to be more “okay” with the idea of the miraculous than we were 100 years ago. Consequently, you just don’t seem to hear as many arguments against God from the science department any more. Today, they seem to come more from the philosophy wing.
The more common, more intense objections to Christianity in this age are personal. “I just don’t see how/why God would….” is a popular contention of modern skeptics. You see, in a society that labels itself as “highly spiritual,” the obstacles are not as much the concept of God or the lack of need for God or certainly not that God is incompatible with the natural data we’ve collected. The obstacle is the personal character of God – is this someone who really warrants my time, attention, and worship?
As a result, my thoughts have changed somewhat on sharing Christianity. I used to try to convince people of the Christian belief system. In fact, if you read last week’s post, you know that I still do this to a great deal. However, the “convincing” comes mostly in seeking to break down the false belief systems of culture and religion, not in actual evangelism. However, if attempting to make a set of beliefs intellectually appealing to someone is my main method of evangelism, I’ve really failed to demonstrate how Christianity is fundamentally different from worldly religions.
Why is Christianity so different? Every religion of the world tries to connect you to the belief system of a dead guy. Christianity connects you to a warm-bodied, living person. The theories of religious leaders might have sounded wise. Jesus teaching was right. And the proof is in the Resurrection, a real historical event that over 500 saw for themselves, a fact that thousands upon thousands died for in the subsequent years and yet the movement of Christ’s followers continued to gain momentum at incredible rates, despite the adversity – people dying to uphold the most important of truths.
Muhammad told people to believe what he taught. So did Joseph Smith. So did Charles Taze Russell. So did Sun Myung Moon. So did Siddhartha Gautama. And so forth. Jesus didn’t tell people to merely believe what he taught, although it was true. It wasn’t just a belief system. Jesus told people to believe in HIM. He said to the Jews, “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me.” (John 5:39) John’s Gospel says that “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) Do you see what this means? Jesus is a belief system that came to life, the truth of God becoming human flesh, not having a single flaw, being rejected and deemed foolishness and cast aside into death, and then appearing again alive, showing that he really is undeniable truth. His belief system actually works. And he calls you not to merely bond yourself to what he believes, but bond yourself to him – your living God.
The conclusion I’ve stumbled upon…
While I love systematic doctrine and know that the belief system of Christianity is perfectly accurate, that which makes what we as Christians have so obviously stand out from the other dogmas of the world is that our leader proved the effectiveness of his beliefs through his Resurrection. And he now calls people to take part in his life. He draws us not just to a teaching, but to himself.
This affects church work too. As a pastor, I don’t just want people to believe like we believe, i.e. adopt the same belief system. Yes, that’s obviously an essential part of it. But even more, I want people to bond themselves to us, the “body of Christ.” See how that works? I want people to connect themselves to a person more than a belief system.
By way of illustration, historian and sociologist Rodney Stark records that when one of the more famous plagues hit the Roman Empire, there was a surprisingly high survival rate among the Christians. Can you guess why? While most Roman families would banish anyone with the disease from their household, left for dead, the Christians (who actually didn’t fear death as much because of their convictions about eternal life in Christ) took care of their sick. Their connection to Jesus was what was vital, and it led an inherently better and truer belief system – one that, as demonstrated here, actually led to the love of others.
It’s one thing to have a neat and systematized set of beliefs. But when push comes to shove, which of those belief systems actually hold up? Which system can do more than temporarily pacify some internal anxieties. Christianity contains a belief system, but it comes to life in Jesus, and tangibly expresses itself through his body on earth. Let’s not pretend that all belief systems point to the true God. Christianity is different. It is more personal.
So, my advice for others…consider your relationship with God personal
If your faith has ever felt a little cold or hollow, my guess is that you’ve probably considered it at some point more of a belief system than a connection to a real, living person. Practically, this has all sorts of ramifications. For instance, if public worship is merely about reviewing and refreshing a belief system, then yeah, I can probably take a couple of weeks off and still “pass the test.” However, if public worship is more about connection to a real person by joining with his body to communicate with him, and if personal relationships are really predicated on regular communication, than can I really have a relationship with this personal God without this sort of regular communication? Put another way, could a husband/wife or parent/child really have a quality relationship if their “quality communication” with one another is infrequent? Probably not.
Belief systems are fairly easy to adopt and leave alone without touching. Personal relationships crumble without quality communication.
Your connection with God is not ideological. It’s personal. Sometimes well-intentioned Christians talk passionately about “getting in the Word” and “connecting to the Word.” As a pastor, I certainly encourage people to be studying God’s Word as much as anyone. However, I’d always want to make sure that those I’m encouraging understand clearly that I’m not merely hoping for them to improve their belief system, but am desiring for them to know their Savior better, a pursuit through which the Spirit actually does correct our false beliefs.
I don’t just want you to know what Jesus taught. I want you to know Jesus. And that journey will invariably lead to the revelation that we’re more damaged than we ever thought, and yet we’re more loved by a personal God than we could ever imagine.