As a progressive Christian pastor and author I frequently receive critical pushback from conservative and fundamentalist Christians who adamantly declare that the only way to experience salvation is by giving intellectual assent to certain specific truth claims about the life of Jesus. Scratch that, they don’t generally care about his life, their focus is primarily upon Jesus’ death and his resurrection. Their message boils down to “Unless you believe that Jesus died for your sins and that he physically rose from the grave, you are a heretic, and will go to hell when you die.”
There are numerous problems with this line of thinking from a progressive Christian perspective. 1. The lack of emphasis upon Jesus’ 30-33 years of life – his way, teachings, and example. 2. Reducing the faith to a cerebral matter of what individuals accept as accurate information. 3. The view that salvation is largely a matter of where we’ll go when we die. 4. The idea that it is Jesus’ death on the cross that allows anyone to experience salvation. And 5. The notion that hell is even a Christian concept – it isn’t.
I addressed all of these matters in full and in depth in my book Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity. I’ve avoided addressing these matters as a blog as they frankly are complicated and require, and are worthy of, much back-story, nuance, and sophisticated discourse. However, it’s become clear that there’s a need for a briefer synopsis that’s easily accessible and shareable online.
Here we go. Re: 1 & 2, It’s a damn shame and tragedy that so many Christians focus on Jesus’ death and not on his life. Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ is a keen example of this distortion of authentic Christianity. The idea that simply accepting X, Y, and Z about Jesus’ person, death, and resurrection is what matters – and not focusing on his teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, and looking at his actual ways of practicing his religion in interacting with and relating to people – is missing the forest for the trees (and only a tiny number of trees at that). It’s an epic adventure in missing the point. One can believe “all the right things” and not be able to love their way out of a wet paper bag. It’s loving that matters. (1 Corinthians 13)
Re: 3 & 4, in Hebrew, salvation means healing, wholeness, and well-being. To remind us, Jesus was a Jew who practiced Judaism. Yet conservative Christians disregard (don’t even seem to know) that and instead distort salvation to believing or accepting certain intellectual assertions. Jesus saved (provided salvation to) numerous people long before he was killed – it’s right there in the Gospels, read them for gosh sake. This reality clearly undermines the conservative premise that no-one is saved but for Jesus’ blood shed on a cross. In the Gospels, salvation is experienced when someone accepts God’s healing, grace and love and responds in ways that show it. Jesus also referred to this state of being as experiencing “abundant/eternal life” and living in “the kingdom of God.”
Conservative and fundamentalist Christians subscribe rigidly to the substitutionary or penal theories of the atonement – that Jesus died as our proxy/substitute and took on a the violent death that each of us should receive, and/or that Jesus received the punishment that’s intended for each of us “wretched sinners.” First of all, there has never been a Church Council that has declared that any one theory of the atonement is “the one, true, right one.” Second, the theology that is associated with those theories of the atonement posits an angry, judgmental, wrathful, blood thirsty God & understands humans as incapable of anything but sin and evil. Put me on record as rejecting that pagan god – 100% percent. Yes, I’m aware that there are parts of the Bible that might suggest such a view of God. To which I’d remind us that a) God didn’t write the Bible, b) it consists of 66 books, written by many people over many years, and c) not a few of the verses within some of those books contain bad theology that reflect pagan influences of the cultures that surrounded those ancient peoples (e.g., Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman).
Finally, there are numerous other theories of the atonement that are biblically based and have been embraced by Christians since the very birth of the faith.
Most progressive Christians tend to embrace the Christus Victor or the Moral Influence/Moral Exemplar theories of the “at-one-ment.” I prefer the latter, i.e., that Jesus is our model who shows us how to truly live a Godly life and thus experience and know salvation wholeness and abundant/eternal life here and now – and beyond. It is by loving others and receiving their love; forgiving others and receiving their forgiveness; by treating others justly and receiving their just treatment; and by being reconciled with others – that we know and experience salvation. Salvation is a Divine-human co-creation that we receive and participate in.
And finally, re: hell, to hell with it.
What prompted today’s blog was my coming across a recent post on “Mars Summit’s” Facebook page. Here’s the image and the text that is part of it:
“All the religions of the world are true because they’re all basically the same.” This refrain, commonly repeated by people, reflects a fundamental ignorance of the world’s religions. The religions are not the same because their core beliefs contradict each other. Here are a few examples: -most Hindus believe in the existence of an atman (i.e. soul) that is reincarnated after death; Buddhism denies this
-Islam teaches that Jesus Christ never died on a cross; Christianity teaches that if Jesus never died and rose again, the whole Christian faith is worthless (1 Corinthians 15)
-Hinduism affirms (or permits) the worship of many gods; Judaism strictly prohibits this and requires that only one God be worshiped
Given the contradictions in the world religions, all of them cannot be true. The most important question then becomes which, if any of them, accurately describe the true nature of reality?
Mars Summit (a creation of Peter Kupisz) is an evangelical “apologetics” platform which seeks to defend and explain “the Christian faith” to non-believers. The short description on their About page humbly states “Mars Summit is a chance to explore the ultimate questions of life from a Christian worldview.” Fair enough, it is *a* Christian worldview.
And yet, the page’s true colors come out in the General Description “..defense of the Christian worldview.” Yep, he thinks he’s championing THE Christian perspective. Not so humble – or accurate.
Okay, let’s address the points made in his post. Yes, there are some factual differences among and between the major world religions. The points Kupisz chose to highlight are tellingly ones that reflect his idealized Christo-centric priorities — what various religions teach that pertains to Jesus’ death and resurrection. Sure, Muslims don’t think Jesus was killed, and Buddhists and Hindus don’t believe in resurrection. And Hindus have many gods to worship and Jews only one. So what? Those are hardly what Jesus and his message are all about. In other words, the things that conservative Christians tend to think are the essential foundations – aren’t. Christians are called to follow the religion of Jesus – not the religion about him.
The graphic featured is one that is an obvious play and attack on the many variations of the symbolic COEXIST slogan featured on bumper-stickers across the land.
Such stickers are meant to convey a sense of appreciating the diversity of world religions and a deep valuing of all of them – including the common ground among them.
Such stickers are an invitation to remind us of a higher calling to “pray well with others.”
Mars Hill Summit’s graphic, however, seeks to convey that the members of the various religions are at odds with each other and can’t play well in the sandbox of life together. Indeed, he’s saying that they’re “contradictory and in opposition to the Truth.”
And yet, many of us who live in the 21st century know full well that seemingly contradictory things can both be true – at the same time.
It’s called paradox – something that conservative and fundamentalist Christianities can’t fathom due to their still operating via the mindset of the modern era.
Light, for instance, can be understood as being a particle — or as a wave. Both perceptions are true – at the same time – even if they seem contradictory. Similarly, one can see that each of the major world religions are true, and one can understand that famous/infamous passage where Jesus is presented as saying “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6) as celebrating the uniqueness and distinctiveness of Jesus *and* also celebrating the universal common ground that exists among many religions.
Progressive Christianity is the post-modern-influenced evolution of historic mainline Liberal Christianity. While not to be equated with postmodernism, it honors contemporary people’s capacities to see and honor multiple truths at the same time.
So, from a progressive Christian perspective, Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life,” and all who follow Jesus’ way, teachings, and example — the way of unconditional love, of radical hospitality, of loving-kindness, of compassion, of mercy, of prophetic speaking truth to power, the way of forgiveness, of reconciliation, and the pursuit of restorative justice – by whatever name, and even if they’ve never even heard of Jesus, are fellow brothers & sisters in Christ and his Way.
To the extent that other world religions are about instilling, fostering, and nurturing those universal values – we see Christ in them. This is also true for secular NGOs such as Global One Foundation.
We might also say that on a surface level, all of the major world religions are the same. On a deeper level, all of those religions are very different. And on a still deeper level, all of those religions are the same.
That said, we’re rather enamored by the uniqueness of the Jesus story and we invite others to join us in sharing in that specific life-giving journey — even if we feel no dire need to convert anyone.
It is this non-exclusive approach to our faith that many young adults find compelling. So progressive Christianity is evangelistic even as it’s not.
Evangelical platforms such as Mars Summit seem to be motivated by anxiety. They’re concerned about many of the people “going to hell” and they’re concerned about Christianity dying.
Progressive Christians, instead, invite us to simply be as faithful as we can and not worry about “the Church dying.” We have no fear of death for we follow a savior who gave it all up for the sake of others – and who invites us to pick up our cross and follow him – and be willing to die. Indeed, if we do anything to “attract” people out of desperation on our part, it’ll be fruitless. It’s like dating someone who is insecure and anxious — not attractive.
Let’s just boldly (and paradoxically) be who were are — and maybe even more so — yes, more so.
xx – Roger
UPDATE: I’m adding the following as a post-script. I had posted it as a comment in the feedback thread below, but wanted to make sure every one could see it:
Rev. Roger Wolsey is an ordained United Methodist pastor who directs the Wesley Foundation at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and is author of Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity