Monday, February 9, 2009

Taking the "Christ" out of Christian

A new battlefront is opening up in this war of ideals. As the Freethought Association of Canada prepares to run anti-God public advertisements declaring, "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life," the United Church of Canada is gearing up for a counter-punch with advertisements stating, "There probably is a God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

Amidst this mincing of words, Right Reverend David Giuliano made what would seem to be a rather obvious statement: "Clearly, as Christians, we most definitely believe there is a God."

Yet, appearing in the Toronto Star, came the most counter-intuitive of rebuttals:

Most of the people in the congregation I serve, West Hill United Church, will think Giuliano is probably mistaken. And most of us still call ourselves Christian. We do so because we believe the message that is the essence of the Christian story. Perhaps it's our penchant for pointing to this that allows us to remain productively within our denomination. (A poll on the UCC's website indicated Saturday that 69 per cent believe there is no God, triggering the church's leadership to send out an email with the subject line: "God needs your help," and urging members to vote in the poll and boost God's ratings.)

And yet, how can you have Christianity without God and Christ, the very cornerstones from which the word "Christian" derives its meaning and purpose? I have no qualms with non-believers attending church, and in fact am encouraged when churches demonstrate the ability to engage their community. But let us speak plain: a "Christian" who espouses the "essence of the Christian story" but rejects God is no Christian at all. Rather they are an atheist or agnostic who believes in Christian values and morality.

This difference is incredibly relevant. Anybody can strive to be moral or ethical. Christians do not have a monopoly on the desire to do good. Rather, Christianity asserts that it possesses knowledge of an important truth - the truth of salvation. Christians aspire to be moral beings in reverence of Christ, who through his sacrifice has already saved them. Morality, fellowship, and evangelism are the results of our faith, not the basis of it.


6I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.


1Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you— unless you believed in vain. 3For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures

To speak as "Christians" without faith in Christ is to speak deceit. Why is this important? I have previously expressed the view that antagonizing the homosexual community over the word "marriage" is ungracious because the word means different things to Christians and non-Christians. Why should the word "Christian" itself be any different?

But while marriage is judged differently by religious and non-religious persons, society as a whole judges Christians by those who identify themselves as being so. That 69% of those polled by the United Church of Canada identify themselves as "Christians" who don't believe in God reflects then upon the Christian community as a whole, yet it is no more valid than a circle espousing the "essence of being a shape" and calling itself a square. It can be a shape without being a square, but it's not a square because it doesn't have four sides.

You can believe in Christian institutions, but that doesn't make you a Christian if you don't have Christ - and you can't have Christ if you reject God.


10Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.

The church's response (petitioning believers to vote "yes" to God and outweigh the naysayers) is merely an attempt to disguise the problem. It does not address the problem itself - that many in the United Church congregation identify themselves as atheist "Christians," and while I am hesitant the point fingers, this may underlie some fundamental lapses in sound teaching.

People may believe what they believe - it is their right to do so - but they ought not to misrepresent themselves, and consequently the church and the Christian faith.


Another recent opinion piece was written by Michael Shermer, a Christian-turned-agnostic who now advocates the "humanist" philosophy. He designed a study which asked Christians why they believed in God and also why they thought that others believed in God.

From his results, he drew the following conclusions:

Notice that the intellectually based reasons offered for belief in God – "the good design of the universe" and "the experience of God in everyday life" – which occupied first and second place when people were describing their own beliefs dropped to sixth and third place, respectively, when they were describing the beliefs of others. Indeed, when reflecting on others' beliefs, the two most common reasons cited were emotion-based (and fear-averse!): personal comfort ("comforting, relieving, consoling") and social comfort ("raised to believe").

Sulloway and I believe that these results are evidence of an intellectual attribution bias, in which people consider their own beliefs as being rationally motivated, whereas they see the beliefs of others as being emotionally driven. By analogy, one's commitment to a political belief is generally attributed to a rational decision ("I am for gun control because statistics show that crime decreases when gun ownership decreases"), whereas another person's opinion on the same subject is attributed to need or emotional reasons ("he is for gun control because he is a bleeding-heart liberal"). This intellectual attribution bias appears to be equal opportunity on the subject of God. The apparent good design of the universe, and the perceived action of a higher intelligence in daily activities, are powerful intellectual justifications for belief. But we readily attribute other people's belief in God to their emotional needs and how they were raised.

At first glance, this seems a rather unsettling outcome: We believe that the faith of others is based on emotion, but blindly cling to the conception that our own faith is intellectual and rational. I myself, briefly considered this argument.

I do believe that my faith is rational, having spent several years struggling with my own doubts and coming to my own conclusions about my faith. However, the final leap to believe or not believe is just that - faith. I also believe that there are many believers of many faiths who have only a loose understanding of their own faith and have not made much effort to reason through it.

However, in addition to prayer, scripture, and experience, the rational and intellectual arguments that have impacted me have often come from other people - people who I could recognize as spiritually mature, intelligent, and from whom I had much to learn. That is, I don't believe that I am alone in having a rational and intellectual faith. It's not merely a deluded self-justification. There will always be those who are not looking for the truth, or who use the guise of faith to their own ends; but a recognition of this does not invalidate the vibrant, intelligent community of believers that does exist.

Read cited articles at [1 | 2]

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