I was always taught that the most significant difference between Christianity and every other religion is that Christians serve a “risen” Savior; that unlike other gods ours is the true living God in the person of Jesus Christ.
However, throughout the past 20 years, various ministerial contexts have demonstrated something quite different. It seems for many Christians, particularly evangelicals, God is a construct of their imagination. In other words, instead of being a Holy God who has indwelt us through the Holy Spirit, He is instead some imagined being with whom we consult at various times and whose service demands ethical perfection.
For years I have been trying to pinpoint the primary difference between the progressive and evangelical worldviews outside of issues related to social justice. The world of philosophy offers us some useful categories for doing this. What I think it boils down to is that evangelical Christians have an idealized version of God while Progressive Christians tend to lean towards Christian Realism.
Christian Idealism (borrowed from Philosophical Idealism) is just a fancy way of talking about the mental constructs that we as humans develop about reality. These constructs are idealized versions of what is real. These oftentimes lead us to create an inaccurate picture of reality.
Because we are human all of us begin in this idealism. That is, many of us have an idea in our minds of what we think God is like, how we think He will/would act, and in far too many cases what we believe He thinks about certain things. The problem is too many people stay in this idealized imaginative state of belief and fail (or refuse to) take the next step (or as Kierkegaard would say “taking the leap of faith”) into the real.
The problem with this is what we believe, what we preach, and ultimately what we worship is NOT real – just an idealized version of the real. Therefore, the Jesus we preach to others is not any different than any other god from any other religion.
Idealistic faith is more about the ability to construct an idealized “truth” about God rather than an actual truth. It’s a faith that has more to do with us than God. We read Scripture and formulate our beliefs through the lens of this idealism. Ultimately, if what we construct either by scripture or through our “experience” of God, does not properly comport to our image of Him, then we cast it aside for what we believe to be more suitable to our preconceived ideas.
This helps to explain why a progressive and evangelical Christian can both look at the same passages of scripture and come up with two radically different conclusions. That is, one is importing that information into an idealized worldview, where anything is possible. The other is operating out of a realism worldview making what they understand to be true limited by only those things that are realistic.
This idealization creates an inaccurate framework from which to import information into reality. This may provide insight into why evangelicals take such a strong ethical approach to scripture. Their idealization framework makes it impossible to accomplish that which is only supernaturally attainable. In other words, we can never attain ethical perfection.
Christian Realism is the projection of the Christian faith based upon our experience of it. This means that if God is alive and true, then the product of realism is what makes Christianity different than other religions. Realism allows for the demonstration of a faith that is authentically “real” instead of idealized.
This “leap of faith” is difficult because it requires a type of vulnerability that projects the Christian life in light of weakness instead of strength. It takes the power away from those who use their own “divinity” (idealism) to make others feel less than because they cannot live up to some impossible ethical standard (think about the traditional Romans Road approach to witnessing that focuses solely on how sinful humanity is). Christian Realism takes the clarity of “certainty” and casts it aside for a life of grey blurry lines. It takes the shine out of the product that idealists like to sell.
Why does Christian Realism seemingly create something diametrically different than Christian idealism?
Because in reality, Christian Realism is NOT glamorous. Because to live authentically in the world is to display before the world all of the ups and downs of the Christian faith. It shows the world that sometimes prayers don’t get answered; that sometimes bad things happen to good people; that sometimes there is no answer!
Some Final Thoughts:
If we truly believe that Jesus is the real living Savior, then what we project must be consistent with what we believe. Despite popular opinion, the point of being a Christian is not the attainment of moral perfection in order to escape the fiery pit of Hell *he says in an ever-increasing deep raspy voice, followed by a sinister laugh*.
When we decide to follow Jesus we are making a commitment. The commitment is to get rid of our selfish ambitions (like those in the Garden) and become a walking testimony to the love and grace of Jesus. We are to “be” as Christ was. No…scratch that… We are to “be” as Christ IS.
I think many Christians forget that at the most basic level we all share one common trait – our humanity. We all have goals and fears. We all love and experience loss. We all search for meaning in this world. And we all hope that one day, this world will be transformed into something better. That, my friends, is the hope of the gospel…