House of cards

Since publishing my post about essentials and non-essentials, I’ve been thinking further about the issue of just what our Christian faith is built on. And I think it is often built very substantially on non-essentials.

As I’ve indicated before, when I became a Christian, I came into a church culture that had a very particular and unwavering stance on all kinds of issues. From the role of Israel in the world to the rapture, miracles, the interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2, observance of the Sabbath — not forgetting, of course, a particular emphasis on and interpretation of Revelation and the end times — there was a sanctioned and acceptable doctrine on just about any question you could come up with.

With the passing of years, some things that once seemed very black and white and clear-cut now appear less so. This is both good and bad. On the one hand, life is so much easier when you have an answer and a pre-defined stance on Every Single Issue. (Believe me, that is a space I used to enjoy inhabiting.) On the other hand, the only way to begin to see the folly of the polarised thinking of what Richard Rohr calls the first half of life is to wait for a few years to go by. There are no short cuts to the wisdom of experience.

And so, as I’ve pondered on my own journey away from a kind of low-key, respectable fundamentalism, I’ve begun to try to identify just what it is that defines the type of all-embracing certainty that I now tend to see as so limiting and, ultimately, so contrary to the kind of life and message to which Jesus bore witness.

One of the things that’s dawned on me is that the kind of belief system I used to embrace was like a house of cards. Just as the carefully constructed house will collapse if you remove one card, so the carefully constructed belief system that often masquerades as genuine Christianity begins to unravel as soon as any one of its components is revealed to be unfounded.

In my far too often un-humble opinion, there are way too many non-essential things we can dogmatically believe. But I think there are often just two or three key foundations that underpin and shore up the entire edifice. Pentecostals/charismatics hold to a wide array of weird, wonderful and colourful beliefs, but I suggest that a good many of them derive from the following core convictions:

1. The belief that God minutely controls every action and reaction in the entire universe of space, time and matter. I mean, if God is sovereign, how can He not control the outcome of every single conversation, every process and every event, from decisions of global moment to the question of whether or not a parking spot will open up for me when I need to go to the supermarket and pick up some extra milk?

The thing is, I’ve come to realise that the only way for this view of God’s sovereignty to make sense is if we’re ultimately all automatons, having the appearance of free will but in reality having no choice but to think, say and do what our divine puppet-master dictates. To which I say, tosh.

God is big enough, clever enough and powerful enough and, most of all, loving enough that He can work out His eternal purposes in spite of the way that we often abuse the free will He gave us by seeking our own self-interest at the expense of others and the world.

2. The belief that God is still angry. Much of the Old Testament portrays a touchy, angry God who demands to be appeased in a variety of imaginative and sometimes gruesome ways. Very often, in my experience, we have taken that incomplete view of God, applied a veneer of Jesus-like spirituality over the top of it, and come out the other side with a God who can magically dispense born-again status but who, in essence, is still very easily offended and just itching to get on our case whenever we put a whisker out of line.

If that’s the God you believe in, let me ask you something: is that really how you perceive of someone who is defined as the very essence of love? Yes, as any parent knows, love can motivate expressions of anger. But anger is never the defining or dominant characteristic of what it means to be a loving mother or father; rather, it is the occasional expression of love-motivated frustration when a precious child insists on continuing to behave in ways that are ultimately self-destructive.

(And by the way, just in case you’re wondering, I don’t believe God was ever really angry in the first place. Not even when the Old Testament was written. We’ll have to explore that one another time.)

3. The belief in them and us. I think this is so firmly entrenched in our Adamic nature, and so encouraged by our competitive and divisive world, that it’s hard for us to shake off. The world is driven by self-preservation and self-promotion, and that necessarily means either deliberately or accidentally climbing on top of others to get to the summit of whichever mountain we happen to want to climb. The problem is that quite often when we become Christians, unless we are properly discipled in the ways of the kingdom, we take this “them and us” duality into our new Christian life – except that now, us is everyone in the safe, orderly ark of the church and them is everyone out there in the Big, Bad World. The focus of evangelism, then, often seems to be about rescuing people from the Big, Bad World that’s going to hell in a handbasket; meanwhile, the focus of Christian living is often on celebrating and reassuring ourselves as to how nice it is to be right.

I’m sure I could add to this list, but these three will do for starters.

The point about the “house of cards” analogy is that if you begin to pull out one of these three cards, the others tend to fall down soon enough. You need God to be angry in order to maintain the “them and us” dichotomy; and you need God to be a controlling busybody in order for Him to be so eternally prone to offence.

Once you begin to entertain the notion that God really is love, and that the Good News is far better than a good many Christians dare believe, you will find it very hard to maintain the house of cards. And once it has fallen, you will wonder why you ever worked so hard to keep it in place.

[ Image: Dominick © Some rights reserved ]