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“The quest to feel certain becomes an idol when a person’s sense of significance to God and security before God is anchored not in their simple trust of God’s character, as revealed on the cross, but in how certain they feel about the rightness of their beliefs.” – Greg Boyd

SOURCE: Faith, Doubt and the Idol of Certainty: An Interview with Greg Boyd.

Greg Boyd Book on DoubtI can say with some certainty (pun intended) that Greg Boyd is one of my favorite Christian authors.  I think I have read almost all of his twenty some books on the topic.  Greg was one of the first to let me know that it was alright to have doubts about how my then church dealt with various matters.  One of the most poignant quotes from the interview above follows. I would highly encourage you to read the entire interview and even pick up a copy of his new book about doubt. I just downloaded mine into my Kindle.

On top of this, those who embrace “certainty-seeking faith” tend to become narrow-minded, for honestly trying to see things from other peoples’ point of view might lead them to question their faith and thereby jeopardize their “salvation.“ In fact, this model can easily lead people to develop learning phobias, for if you dare to read broadly and learn to see things from other people’s point of view, you might uncovering facts that could shake your certainty and thus displease God. I’m convinced this explains why Christians, especially conservative Christians, have a well-deserved reputation in the broader culture for being narrow-minded. – Greg Boyd

I have indeed been directly exposed to many in this mode. They absolutely refuse to look at anything that might jeopardize their supposed certainly that their version of Christianity is the only true one.  At first this fact surprised me when my pastor basically refused to read a book by Shane Claiborne that I gave him. But later I realized that he by choice chooses to be narrow-minded in this and many other topics of the world.  Unlike my previous friends I have no doubt that God welcomes questions about him and what he expects of us. I pray that some day my “certainty-seeking” friends will open up their hearts and minds to the questions that other have about their beliefs.

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Bass Book

Abelard rejected the idea that Christ died as a result of God’s vengeance for human disobedience. Abelard was horrified by the novel teaching of his fellow theologian, Anselm (1033–1109), who proposed that Jesus died to satisfy the divine justice of his Father, as a payment of a legal debt required as recompense for sin and to restore God’s honor. Abelard exclaimed: Indeed, how cruel and perverse it seems that [God] should require the blood of the innocent as the price of anything, or that it should in any way please Him that an innocent person should be slain—still less that God should hold the death of His Son in such acceptance that by it He should be reconciled with the whole world.  Who, Abelard demanded, would forgive such a God for killing his own son?

Later theologians refer to Abelard’s idea as the moral influence theory of the cross, and it would eventually, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, shape liberal Christianity. The theory, however, was rejected by many of Abelard’s contemporaries. Anselm’s idea of blood sacrifice eventually won the day. Although some in the church attempted to have Abelard tried for heresy, the charges never stuck, and Abelard died in communion with the medieval church.

A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (Bass, Diana Butler)

This is a continuation of my off and on again review of the book above. As I have mentioned before it was not until the 10th century that our current idea of atonement was solidified. The above quote gives some details about that. Anselm was one of the first theologians to suggest that Jesus dies to satisfy God’s wrath and distain for humanity. Abelard was one of the few who dared to question the concept. He was quite startled by this claim but since he was eventually on the losing side of this doctrine little is mentioned about him or this conflict in today’s churches.

The idea of sacrificial atonement as cited above has always troubled me but since it is so deeply embedded in much of current Christian theology I dared not think too hard about it or question it too vocally.  To do so might have threatened my membership in the Lutheran denomination that I currently belonged. Now that I have declared my independence from that body I can ask questions like Abelard did centuries before me without a sense of retribution.

My major take from Jesus’ teaching is about a God of love, not one of vengeance. Jesus told us that the most important thing to take from his teachings was to love God as he loves us and to love each other.  To me I see little space for a vengeful god in those words. Blood atonement simply makes no sense to me.

Abelard was more fortunate than many in the church who disagreed with beliefs that won out. Many were murdered as heretics and all their works burned. For that reason we will really never know the actual extent of disagreement in much of church history.  As Mrs. Bass goes on to mention beginning with the twentieth century these questions have again risen with some seriousness. Thanks heavens for that.

Bass BookI have been studying the history of the church to try an understand how we got to where we are today. An important book in that investigation is entitled “A People’s History of Christianity, The Other Side of the Story” by Diana Butler Bass. This is not the first book I have read by this author and it certainly won’t be the last. With this post I am starting another book review series around this book. Here is a little about what Wikipedia says about her:

Diana Butler Bass is a historian focusing on the history of Christianity and the author of six books on American religion, three of which have won research or writing awards. She earned a Ph.D. in religious studies from Duke University in 1991, with an emphasis on American church history where she studied under George Marsden. From 1995–2000, she wrote a weekly column on religion and culture for the New York Times Syndicate that appeared in more than seventy newspapers nationwide. Currently, she is a blogger for the God’s Politics blog with Jim Wallis at Beliefnet [1] and is a Red-Letter Christian.

Being a U.S. history buff, when I see a title that starts with “A People’s History” I assume that it is more about what happened to the common people rather than the dominant leaders of those time. Many times the two are very different. A history of the depression as seen from the eyes of Roosevelt or any of the Washingtonians is very different from the history as seen by a dust bowl farmer or someone out of work for a long time. That is what I expected when I started this book and I was not disappointed with what I found.

The history of the church most often is around the predominant saints and theologians of the times. Or maybe it is about some of the shakers such as Luther, or a pope. What happens in the rank-and-file of the people often is unreported. There is an old saying that “history belongs to the victors” and the church is certainly not immune from that concept. Very little seems to still exist about those who had different views than the ones who won the individual battles.

Mrs. Bass spent I think three years researching this book. I personally have tried to study some of the early church writings but quite frankly they are difficult to understand given the different use of language of the periods. This book is well written and to the point.  Most of the posts in this series wills start out with a given idea and a quote, or quotes, from the book. I will then add my personal observations and thoughts.

The posts will not be in a chronological order, nor will they be complete. I would highly encourage anyone looking for that depth to get a copy of the book and read it in its entirety. Since this review is being written as it is posted I don’t know exactly how many posts will be involved but I imagine it will be more than ten but less than twenty.  For those who really want to understand how we got to where we are it is important to realize that there has never been a totally homogeneous period in the church where differing opinions were lacking.

Here we are at the end of my study into universal salvation as presented by Philip Gulley in his book “If Grace Is True”. It took a lot longer to get here than I originally thought but this is a very serious subject so I shouldn’t be surprised. I am still not totally in the camp of universal salvation but I am definitely leaning pretty severely that way. I guess the lingering doubt has to do with all the years that it was drilled into my head that Jesus’ sole purpose for coming was to die for me a sinner. That type of guilt trip is hard to counter. As I am reading  the Bible going forward I will do so with universal salvation in mind and see if that affects my thoughts.

On reason I am leaning toward universal salvation is I’m sure a push back against being told all those years that God viewed me totally as just a poor miserable sinner. I know the apostle Paul almost fixated on that but I really don’t remember many words from Jesus emphasizing it.  I grew up with a very low sense of self-esteem and I’m sure the “poor miserable sinner” mantra  being drilled into me contributed toward that feeling of incompetence. I have eventually come to see God not as a wrathful being but a God who has agape love for all his creation. Yes, he is likely disappointed in our obedience to his demand to love each other but since agape love is all encompassing he loves us despite that falling. Why shouldn’t God’s total and unending love be the primary lesson for all who grow up in a Christian family? Why do we need to fear God when He says he is all about love?  I wonder how much different the world would be if more Christian kids were taught that God loves them and wants them to accomplish great things in their lives?

What if universal salvation is true? What are the consequences? To me they are many and significant. Christians spend so much time trying to get sinners to come to Jesus but if that has already been taken care of then we seem to be wasting our time doing something that is already a done deal. If we want people to understand who Jesus was then the best way to do that is to live our lives as Jesus taught us. He gave us that message more time than I can remember.

Of course if universal salvation is true then we can no longer believe that we will be the only ones in heaven. We can’t believe that the other 39,000 versions of Christ are wrong. We can’t make enemies of those of different faiths. Universal salvation makes the crusades and all the other murderous ventures that occurred in the church’s history totally senseless. It also takes  power away from the myriad of “fire and brimstone” religious leaders and put it back on God and His love where it belonged all along.

When it comes right down to it God said he wants everyone to come to him. Who am I to try and deny him that power??

Atonement….

April 18, 2013 — Leave a comment

One of the current foundations of the Christianity is the atonement. Generally that is thought to be Jesus taking the wrath of God for us with his substitutional crucifixion in order to appease God wrath toward man’s sinfulness.  I, like many others I’m sure, thought that atonement was a foundational issue with Jesus and the early church.  In reality it was post-Constantine theologians who gave us the doctrine of original sin and the blood atonement, the belief that Jesus came to earth solely for the purpose of dying for our sins, was a doctrine not fully developed in the church until the tenth century.  It was almost upsetting to me to learn this fact since so many of my gathered beliefs hinged on it.

We all like to think that the things we are told to believe about Jesus  were established by him.  In reality the idea of atonement was not settled until centuries after his death. Yes, Jesus mentioned here and there about dying for us but I don’t now believe it was ever a central theme. Even the concept of man’s innate sinfulness is still a matter for disagreements.  Are we born bad and must be saved, as some assert, or are we born good, as others maintain, but have forgotten where we came from, where we are going, and to whom we belong? Was the death of Jesus on the cross necessary for the salvation of the world or was he here for other, or maybe additional. purposes?

Many think that if we disregard sacrificial atonement then we must throw Christianity out the window as Jesus’ death meant nothing.  To those the idea of universal salvation is pure heresy. But to others, like Philip Gulley who we are currently studying, it meant no such thing.  They believe that while it was unnecessary for God to come in the form of Jesus to kill himself, Jesus’ time on earth was to among other things to teach us how to live and how to love. While that purpose is very encompassing he also physically conquered death by his resurrection. That is no small thing!

Sacrificial atonement is something that I have always had trouble understanding. Why would God need to take on another form and kill himself to satisfy is own wrath?  Robin Meyers in his book entitled “The Underground Church” stated:

It is no coincidence that it took as long for the idea of the blood atonement to be fully formed as it took for Christians artists to begin to show us an image of the corpse of Jesus hanging on a cross.

No dead Jesus for a thousand years. This is not to say that the suffering of Jesus is unimportant; indeed it bears witness to the depth of his capacity to Love

It is not widely acknowledged in many Christian churches just how unresolved the issue of atonement is. It continues to be widely discussed even today.

Emptying Hell…..

April 16, 2013 — 2 Comments

If Grace is trueIt’s taken me many years to empty hell. As a child, I was taught only Christians would be saved. Billions of non-Christians would crowd hell. The thought of non-Christians in eternal torment didn’t disturb me because I’d been told Christians were good people and non-Christians were bad people. Since I grew up in a Midwestern American town where nearly everyone belonged to a Christian church, I had little opportunity to test this assumption. Non-Christians lived in the big city or in foreign countries—the places where we sent missionaries. I remember the first time I seriously questioned this worldview.

I was in college when I saw the movie Gandhi. I walked out of that theater forever changed. In Gandhi, I encountered a good man who was also a non-Christian. In fact, his commitment to love and mercy far exceeded that of many Christians. While he never acknowledged Jesus as Savior, he lived the way Jesus commanded us to live.

Gulley, Philip; Mulholland, James (2009-03-17). If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person (Plus) (pp. 162-163). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

After finally accepting God’s love I find it strange to believe that he is going to damn the vast majority of those he loves to an eternal anguish.  We spend less than a century on this earth in one degree of happiness or another and then billions, if not trillions of centuries in total misery and anguish. That is just not the God that I have come to know.

I too grew up in a very sheltered life in a small midwest town. There were no visible minorities there and there certainly were nothing but Christian churches of one flavor or another in the area. It was not until I went to college that I was exposed to anyone outside my usual cliche. Things would change rather dramatically for me during those years.  I learned that everyone who didn’t go to a Christian church were not bad guys. Many seemed to share the same level of morality that I did during those years.

It was later in my life than it was for Mr. Gulley that I saw the movie Gandhi but it also affected me greatly.  I went on to learn more about the man and the religious stands of his version of God. Gandhi was a man of infinite morals. He understood thing about loving your fellow man that I still can’t fathom. Why would God send him to hell while giving me a place in heaven.

I like the idea of emptying hell. Is God really going to eternally condemn those stubborn souls who fail to recognize him during their utterly brief time on this earth?

If Grace is trueI discovered the meaning of salvation. Salvation comes with believing God loves you unconditionally. It is abandoning the misconception that you are rejected because of your bad behavior or accepted because of your goodness. Only when we repent of this self-absorption and focus on God’s love can this love alter us. Then and only then can God transform hearts darkened by sin and soften hearts hardened by self-righteousness. It is from this self-absorption that we must be saved. Often, when I speak of my belief in the salvation of every person, someone will object that without the threat of hell, people would sin wantonly. They consider the possibility of eternal punishment as the only deterrent to human selfishness…..

The message of Jesus—that salvation is a matter of abandoning self-absorption and being transformed by the love of God—became obscured. Within two hundred years, salvation would mean believing “Jesus was the only begotten son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made” (Nicene Creed). We were no longer saved from our self-absorption. We were saved from the sin of not believing certain things about Jesus. Those who believed these things were saved, and those who didn’t were damned. Whether people lived the way of Jesus became irrelevant to some and secondary to many. Salvation became a status, easy to achieve and verify. This misunderstanding persists.

Gulley, Philip; Mulholland, James (2009-03-17). If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person (Plus) (p. 154). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

I very much like what Mr. Gulley says is the meaning of salvation and that is to believe that God loves you unconditionally.  The meaning of salvation has come to mean too many different things for different Christians. There are many denominations including the Lutheran ones I have recently been a member of who says that our salvation is a gift from God but then, contrary to their own dogma, go on to put conditions on salvation. They say if you don’t jump through all their “belief” hoops then your salvation is not assured.

As Mr. Gulley mentioned in the book many believe that only the threat of hell will keep us from going to the dark side of life. They consider  eternal punishment as being the determining factor of sticking to our faith.  I love the saying that our self-absorbed choices by their nature separate us from God and our fellow human beings. Sadly our obsession with self is very contrary to Jesus’ basic message to us.

I am a major advocate that the church rather quickly turned from our faith in the words of Jesus into a set of beliefs about him is the major problem with the fractured church of today. We are all so convinced that we alone have the only path to salvation figured out. Everyone else is wrong outside of Christianity and even within it to one degree or another.  As Jesus himself said his command to love God and to love each other trumps everything else in the law or the prophets. It is the totality of his message he brought to earth with him.  Why do we continually put obstacles into that simple path to understanding? Why do we want to obscure the real meaning of salvation?

If Grace is trueSince the very beginning, the disciples of Jesus have tried to destroy the opposition. Instead of patiently awaiting the transformation of others, we’ve quickly divided the world into “us” and “them.” We haven’t even reserved this distinction for those of other religions. We’re intolerant of any deviation from the party line. Catholics thought Protestants apostate and damned. Protestants returned the favor, then splintered into a variety of denominations. Many of those knocking on doors and sending missionaries overseas remain convinced their version of the Church is the only true Church.

This exclusive understanding of salvation has its comforts. It allows us to feel special, righteous, and part of the “in” crowd. However, in an increasingly pluralistic world, remaining comfortable with theological exclusivity is more and more difficult….

More disturbing are encounters with gentle, humble, compassionate people who understand salvation differently. What if they’re right and we’re wrong? Most of us ignore that question.

Limiting our interactions to those like us is one cure for discomfort. Another is to redouble our efforts to recruit more disciples to our group. There is strength in numbers. When denominations announce their membership or religions count their adherents, they imply numbers are an assurance of salvation….

We are uncomfortable with the thought that God might be at work in all the world, in all people, and even in all religious systems. Sadly, I’ve discovered that traditional Christianity, Islam, and Judaism share one common belief—they are certain God won’t save everyone.

Gulley, Philip; Mulholland, James (2009-03-17). If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person (Plus) (pp. 157-159). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

The fights within the Christian church are the most troubling to me especially those over what to believe and that is almost all of them.  We have drifted so far from Jesus’ teaching to be one and he and the father are one.  Are there really any real Christian churches among us?  This troubling doubt about the homogeneity of the church has caused me to gradually migrate over into the spiritual but not religious category. The zeal that we all use to differentiate ourselves from other Christians, let alone those of other faiths, totally turns me off.

As Mr. Gulley says above I think a primary cause for this division within the church is seeking a cure for discomfort. We just don’t like to believe things that we are uncomfortable with. We want to be with others who think like we do; we just don’t like conflicts in our lives and particularly in our religious lives.  Counting membership is very important to every church I have been a member of. It is not good enough to call someone to Christianity but  instead they must be a part of our sub-sub-sub set of Christianity.

I’m sure it terrifies many Christians to think that maybe God will save everyone in the end and that what we believe in not as critical to our salvation as how we live out our faith.  Being a follower of Christ is not about getting more members, it is about loving each other and loving God.  I like the Lincoln quote about whether God is on our side or are we on God’s side. As for me and my house we will let God be God and not try to take any power from him. If God wants to save us all by one method or another it is certainly not my place to question it.

The one thing I like about the emergent trend now taking over the church is that they say they might not have it right about everything they espouse. Admitting that you could be wrong about some things is the beginning of bringing Jesus’ church back together.

A Simple Truth….

April 8, 2013 — Leave a comment

If Grace is trueI once considered human freedom the most persuasive argument against the salvation of every person. My friend asked, “How can you believe God would send his children to hell?” I replied, “God doesn’t send anyone to hell. They send themselves. God simply respects their freedom.” Human freedom was the linchpin of my theology. We were saved not by grace, but by our decision to accept God’s grace. I argued that though grace is a gift, it must be unwrapped. Though God’s grace was for all people, only those who accepted the gift could enjoy its benefits. I thought God’s mercy and compassion were reserved for those who, like me, responded quickly and correctly. Grace, when rejected, was withdrawn.

Gulley, Philip; Mulholland, James (2009-03-17). If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person (Plus) (p. 103). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

I must admit that I too hinge much of my theology on human freedom. I often say that the bad things that happen to man are the result of his previous poor choices and they are not the will of God.  I rail against those who claim that everything that happens on earth is God’s will or that every baby born of rape was God’s will. I absolutely disagree that every baby that dies in childbirth is what God wanted. Free will is indeed a lynchpin of my theology. I put everything back on me. It was my choice.

I totally rejected predestination as much as my Calvinist friends cling to it. They think God has chosen them to be in heaven but generally damns most to hell.  But I did believe that somehow God hides his grace from those who don’t work hard to find it and personally accept it. I believed that God is only gracious to those who have been baptized in his name.  He would be gracious to me if I jumped through all the hoops that my clergyman put in front of me. If I didn’t do that or failed to say the right words that God would turn his back on me and  push me into hell. In other words I put condition after condition on God’s grace.

It was only after much prayer and meditation that I come to the conclusion that Jesus didn’t come to give us a magic formula for salvation that he hid away for us to discover. Jesus told us that God loves us all and the only thing he asks is that we love him back and to love each other as he loves us. Given the hell and damnation that many of us grew up with this simple lesson is hard to accept.

I have come to apply Occam’s Razor to my beliefs in this area.  We tend to try to complicate everything we touch. We add conditions and rules to everything. But as Occam said oftentimes the simplest solution is the best one.  God told us through Jesus that He loves us all and wants all of us to be with him. Why shouldn’t I accept that simple statement as the real truth? Why do I insist on taking that power away from God?

This is a continuation of the previous post about being afraid of God. It is a precursor to undertanding the underlying message of the book we are reviewing:

If Grace is trueOf course, her final question reveals the deeper issue hidden in any discussion of ultimate human destiny. Who is God? Is God a gracious, loving father waiting long through the night, with the light lit and the door open, confident his most defiant child will one day come home? Or is God a harsh judge eager to pass sentence, eager to punish and destroy all who do not satisfy him?

I hope you will consider the possibility that God is gracious beyond your expectation. I hope that in reading this book you’ll have an experience with God that will transform you. I hope you’ll hear God’s voice. I hope you’ll believe the very best about God. I hope you’ll not be so afraid you’ll shut this book and read no further.

I assure you that since I have come to believe in the ultimate triumph of God’s grace, no lightning bolt has struck me, no plague has cursed my children, and no earthquake has destroyed my home. But then, the God I’ve experienced never does such things.

Gulley, Philip; Mulholland, James (2009-03-17). If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person (Plus) (pp. 46-47). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

The idea of universal salvation strikes fear in many clergy leaders in the church today. They believe that if you take away God’s anger and replace it with his love that they will lose control of their congregations.  So, to me much of this fear is the fear of humans losing power over others.  Being afraid of God is so endemic in too many churches.

I read the words of Jesus on a daily basis and in those words I see God’s love  much more so than His wrath. As Mr. Gulley states in the end it comes down to who is God?  I will put my eternity on the line to align with the God of love who wants us to experience his grace first-hand. He has an agape love for all of us and I do mean all. I believe the very best of God.

While I am not done with the review of this book I think I have given you enough to pray that you get a copy and consider the idea of universal salvation. It is not as radical as some of your clergy will try to convince you it is. God doesn’t take pleasure in cursing his children but in loving them. If agape love and grace is true then why wouldn’t God have a plan to save every person?

Many mock the idea of universal salvation but I think maybe they do that out of fear rather than sincerity. God clearly said he loves all of us and wants all of us to be saved. I am beginning to understand that he is capable of doing just that if we humans quit trying to put conditions on him.