Christianity’s Fine (as long as you don’t really believe it)

Outside the pizza parlor last night I ran into someone who asked what our daughter’s up to now that she graduated from college.

“She’s overseas working with a Christian group,” I told him. “We’re flying over at Christmas to visit.”

“What’s she doing, some social work?”

“No, it’s principally evangelism.”

“I don’t get that,” he said. “Why do we travel to these countries and try to convince them our western religion is better than a religion they’ve followed for thousands of years?”

“Well, if one person says ‘I believe this’ and another says ‘I believe that’ and they …”

“Yeah, yeah,” he cut me off, “to each his own, I know.”

“She’s trying to reach out to women and students and build relationships with them, and then …”

He cut me off again. “I was at a funeral for one of my mom’s friends last month where the preacher talked about how the women had become a Christian before she died and was in heaven with Jesus now and the rest of us … well if we weren’t Christians too then we’re all going to hell.” He shook his head at the memory of that funeral sermon.

“That’s a hard message to hear at a funeral. The people who were there because of her probably weren’t expecting …”

“Yeah, yeah, like I said – to each his own.” Arms full of pizza, he waved over his shoulder. “Say hi to the family.”

An Old Conversation

I remember having this same conversation with a friend 30 years ago. I’d just become a Christian and was telling him about it over lunch at the university we were attending in England. I wasn’t evangelistic about it, just telling him what happened over the winter break.

“All of that’s fine, of course, as long as one doesn’t take it too seriously.”

I almost laughed. “How can you not take something like this seriously?”

“Yes, well,” he said as he bit into his sandwich, “I see what you mean.”

Not Understanding, or Not Understandable?

Getting back to my conversation outside the pizza parlor, what does it really mean to say that beliefs are fine as long as everyone lets everyone else believe what they want?

It could mean that we should allow everyone the freedom to follow their own conscience. That’s very First Amendment, with its guarantees of freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of association.

Or it could mean something much different.

“I believe that Jesus is God,” one person might say, while another says “Jesus might have been wise, but he wasn’t God.” Not a bad conversation to have, right? It could lead to rich discussion.

But what if those same two people follow up their statements by agreeing that each of them has a valid belief?

I think it means neither of them actually believe anything about Jesus.

After all, what does it mean to say you believe something and yet also say the opposite belief is equally valid. It’s not like two people discussing whether a pepperoni pizza is better with or without mushrooms. It’s more like discussing whether the earth revolves around the sun or not.

That analogy soon breaks down, though, since most people today trust the science behind calculations of the earth’s orbit around the sun, and those who don’t accept the science are mainly written off as crackpots. When it comes to faith beliefs, the basis for those beliefs are not so universally accepted.

It’s easy for Christians to write off unbelievers as the unfortunate crackpots, the ones who just don’t get it. We see verses like these to support that:

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” (Psalm 14:1.)

and,

The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. (1 Corinthians 2:14.)

Yet we also have verses like these to contend with:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
(Psalm 19:1.)

and,

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. (Romans 1:20.)

What are we to do then with people’s inability to understand and lack of excuse? Jesus said we are to be faithful in speaking the gospel and praying.

Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” (Matthew 9:35-38.)

It’s not our efforts that convince people, anyway. Not even those who walked with Jesus could take credit for their faith in him, as Jesus told Peter:

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 16:15-17.)

Peter is blessed not because he figured things out, but because God revealed these things to him. Jesus himself said so.

That’s why those conversations I had don’t get me riled. If someone discounts my beliefs, that’s not my problem. All I’m supposed to do is tell them what I believe. What they do with that is between them and God.

***

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31 Responses to Christianity’s Fine (as long as you don’t really believe it)

  1. Beth Caplin says:

    I’m going to assume what that guy at the pizza parlor meant by “valid” is that beliefs are okay until you start beating people over the head with them. Or using them as justification to crash airplanes into skyscrapers.

    I never liked the meaning behind the “Coexist” bumper sticker that guy seems to believe in. It’s really not about people having different beliefs but living together peacefully, but about all beliefs being equal in weight. Supporting the individual’s right to believe whatever he wants is one thing, but you can’t say all religious beliefs are equal if they preach different, even contradictory, things.

    Finally, the only people I think are “crackpots” are those who think science and faith can’t coexist in the same mind. They can, so long as faith isn’t used to explain science. I see faith as explaining the purpose we have in this world, while science explains how the world works.

    • Tim says:

      I like how you point out the difference between having a right to believe something and whether the belief is valid or not. Christianity’s either true or it’s not, Jesus is either God or he isn’t, we are actually doomed without a Savior or we’re not. There really isn’t room for middle ground.

      • Beth Caplin says:

        Well I wouldn’t call this middle ground, per se, but I think there’s a place for people who are Christian, but struggle to believe the basics. Not for lack of trying, but some parts are hard to get one’s head around. I don’t think of myself as a Christian skeptic, but rather a skeptic trying to be Christian.

        • Tim says:

          I totally agree, Beth. Our salvation is not dependent on understanding all the mysteries of God, after all.

        • Pastor Bob says:

          One of the strong points of the Christian faith is the lives that have been changed. Another strong point is the level of commitment, and why – not by force, but by choice.
          I would recommend a the book “Evidence That Demands A Verdict” by Josh McDowell. He spent a long time trying to disprove the Bible and certain tenets of the faith. The evidence led him in a different direction.

          The bottom line of his studies, which is the basis of this book is:
          If you choose not to believe, you will not.

          Heard today from a journalism student, “Why let the facts interfere with a good story?” I responded – Jason Blair.

          Best (and blessings) to all!!!!

        • Beth Caplin says:

          Belief is not always that simple.

        • Tim says:

          True. As a matter of fact ( and Scripture!) belief is a matter of the Spirit, not of the intellect. (1 Corinthians 2:14.)

        • Beth Caplin says:

          In fact, I’d say it shows tremendous commitment to keep searching for answers while having doubts. The alternative is giving up altogether.

    • joepote01 says:

      Beth, I like how you think.

      And I completely agree with your perspective that faith is not about having it all figured out. On the contrary, faith is what drives me to the conclusion that I will never understand it all…will never comprehend the greatness and complexity of God…yet can still trust His love for me.

      Oh, and I also like your comment, “the only people I think are ‘crackpots’ are those who think science and faith can’t coexist in the same mind.” I find that perspective very frustrating to deal with…and I run into both from Christians and from atheists. One doesn’t have to throw out reason to accept Christ in faith, nor must one throw out Christian faith to use scientific reason.

      Thanks for sharing!

  2. Jeannie says:

    That sounds like a pretty frustrating “conversation,” Tim. The “to each his own” approach is a pretty common way to weasel out of a discussion we wish we hadn’t started, which is what it sounds like that man was doing. But it’s good to know it’s not up to us to convince people; the Spirit does that. I like the Matthew reference for that reason.

    • Tim says:

      “To each his own” can be a cop out, and even when it’s not I think it’s a rather unsatisfactory philosophy to live by. It’s one thing to say preferring pizza over hamburgers is merely a matter of taste, but when it comes to the true nature of things – such as whether Jesus is God or not – it’s no longer preference but trying to grasp a correct understanding of reality.

  3. Reblogged this on multicolouredsmartypants and commented:
    My 9-year-old asked me this morning at the breakfast table whether she *had* to be a Christian when she grew up. I said no, she had to make her own choice, and that following Jesus was not easy because it means putting other people first, being kind and not being selfish. She nodded and smiled and said casually, “Well I don’t think I will be a Christian when I grow up.”
    Unfazed, I asked her why not. “Because I like being selfish. You have to be selfish sometimes, don’t you?”
    I raised my eyebrows and gave her ‘the look’. She grinned impishly and the conversation abruptly ended because it was nearly 8.30 and time to go to school. My point is that I remain convinced that what Tim says in this blog post is true: it is not my job to convince even my own child (though of course she is encouraged). It *is* my job to model my faith, to *be* my faith, unequivocally and continuously. Besides, I long ago placed my children’s salvation into God’s hands. My first and deepest desire for them is that they know Jesus. I pray that my clumsy attempts at imitating Christ prove fruitful.

    • Vashra Araeshkigal says:

      It is not your job to “convince” you own child?

      If your adult daughter brought a young man to the house and you recognized his photo but could not place it, so you did a background check and found out he’d been convicted of multiple counts of rape in another state and was fresh out of jail, would you simply let it go, or would you show your daughter the evidence of your investigation and try to convince her of the *dangerous* poorness of her choice?

      At the least, I would perhaps sit her down and have a very long discussion about the difference between being self-respecting and self-nurturing as opposed to being *selfish*. I would argue it is definitely your “job” to be certain your daughter is working with a correct definition of selfish before she embraces it. Perhaps it is true that she likes being selfish. The wages of sin may be death, but the lure of sin has always been pleasure or profit. But when she says “sometimes someone has to be selfish,” that is a repetition of a specific ideology, easily discussed. My discussion would begin with an investigation into who or what was feeding her such ideas…

      Allowing a nine year old child to inaccurately condense a decision which literally impacts the safety of her eternal soul down to a choice of lifestyles where on one side is selfish fun and on the other is (apparently) selfless drudgery is probably not going to get you the results you say you pray for and desire. God did not say “Go forth, and pray for Me to reach your friends, and family, and children.” He said “Go forth, and tell *every creature* about Me.” The language is so inclusive that it is not even limited strictly to humans….

      • I think you read an awful lot into a single paragraph, which was aimed at Tim, who knows a little of my family’s story, such that I have shared on my own blog (and occasionally here). The comment above reflects a family and lifestyle which *never* shies away from the difficult conversations. We’ve all been through too much. It also reflected the thoughts of an impish, probably Asperger’s, little girl who says it like she sees it and was trying to see what Mummy would say, which mischievous children are wont to do.
        But I stand by what I wrote here two years ago – ultimately every human has to make the decision of whether to follow Christ by themselves, through the working of the Holy Spirit.

        • Tim says:

          That’s how I took your initial comment too, Sandy. Vashra is a new believer, from what I gather, and might be coming at this from that perspective.

  4. Laura Droege says:

    I have a hard time imagining someone in my Christian circles NOT being angered and riled up by the “to each his own” rhetoric. That vague, relative phrase drives engineers nuts; everything must be precise and exact and uncompromising, including (for Christians) theology and including all the gray areas where Christians legitimately disagree. I think their struggle is to refrain from trying to pound the truth into an unbeliever’s head, as if that person’s salvation depended on the triumph of the Christian argument over disbelief. (I’m not talking about good apologetic arguments, BTW; they can be useful.)

    I have the opposite problem: I want people to not be angry with me, so it’s very tempting not to tell the truth about God at all and avoid conflict. I have to remember that their salvation doesn’t depend on my efforts, that I need to speak the truth in love even if it’s scary, and that if they’re angry about the truth, they’re probably more angry at God than me.

    • Tim says:

      I’d say they are much more angry at God than at me under those circumstances, Laura. As for frustration, I didn’t feel any in that conversation, but perhaps that’s because this was someone I’ve known since we were babies – literally, not figuratively 😉 .

  5. Pastor Bob says:

    In my youth I once responded to the phrase “to each his own” with this:
    Often the consequences are too great to turn back. Many know better and make the wrong choice. Your life could end when that bus jumps the curb, and then – well than what?

    No answer.

    I cannot make you agree with me (exception – MOVE OR GET HURT!)
    But I will insist on you thinking about what I have to say, and will answer questions later. I have answered many questions, guided many, but do not force the issue.

    A little respect can go a long way… a long, long way…………

  6. Aimee Byrd says:

    When he said “To each his own,” it was code for, “I don’t want to listen to this anymore.” After reading your post, it makes me want to do a better job at listening. He didn’t even want to hear about what your daughter was doing. Sad.

    • Tim says:

      To his credit, he later emailed and apologized for coming on so strong. I took that as an opportunity to send him a copy of our daughter’s latest newsletter, and his response was filled with how impressed he is with the work she’s doing. He really is a great guy in all the usual ways, and that’s probably why I did not get at all frustrated by the initial conversation outside the pizza place.

      • Aimee Byrd says:

        Great to hear that. And really that’s even better since you took the opportunity to send the newsletter.
        Maybe there’s hope for me for all those times I talk instead of listen…

  7. Anonymous2 says:

    Thanks for the reminder to speak the gospel and pray.
    Sometimes I give up, but I shouldn’t.
    I’m around a lot of very powerful self-confident people who seem to have no need for a god. As long as their income and health are good, all’s well.

    • Tim says:

      Jesus had a lot to say about people who mistake wealth and health for a blessing of security. Prayer is essential to our interactions with them, I think.

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  9. Vashra Araeshkigal says:

    Thank you for writing this. As a Muslim who converted to Christianity, I am constantly amazed by reletivistic “faith.” I also lack the tact to say this to others so nicely. Now I can just share this link. 🙂

  10. Gwen Acres says:

    After a lifetime of believing and living the Christian faith I have come to a place where I have uncertainties, questions and doubts. I am still a seeker and I express my concerns to God a lot. But I no longer have easy answers. Scripture I know, so quoting it to me is not the fix. I appreciated the posts of Beth Caplin.

  11. llaspalluto says:

    I often have to remind myself that all I am asked to do is to tell what I know — that I discovered that God loves me, forgives me and heals me in more ways than I can count. One of my favorite scriptures is the encounter of the blind man who’s sight Jesus has restored with the religious authorities. They demand repeatedly that he tell then who did this, by what authority, etc. Each time, he simply offers them all he knows: He was blind, and now he sees. Then as now, people will listen, or not. Either way, I’ve spoken the truth.

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