What Embarrasses me About Christianity

What Embarrasses me About Christianity

A discussion has been raging over on the Religion Forum, and Tom Sims has taken it up on his blog regarding Bishop Spong and a quote (Rochester, MN Post-Bulletin) in which he says:

“Religion in America today embarrasses me,” said Spong, 75, who will speak in Rochester next week. “If that’s what Christianity is all about, then I’m not really interested in that.”

Of course the question is clearly just what Bishop Spong thinks Christianity is actually about. Frankly, while Spong is one of the more popular characters in modern liberal Christianity, he is by no means the most thoughtful, in my view. In fact, when it gets right down to it, I don’t find his historical reconstructions I find him one of the least credible of the writers on the historical Jesus.

He makes one excellent point, however, in the interview I cited, when he tells us that the problem comes in when someone claims that their way is the only way it can be. I’m one of those “embarrassments” who believes in the resurrection. Once I’ve swallowed a doctrine like the incarnation, it hardly seems a matter of concern. Could I be wrong? Of course I could! I’ve been wrong before, am quite probably wrong about many things right now, and I suspect I will go right on being wrong until I die.

Especially in matters of theology we do well to walk and talk humbly, simply because when dealing with the infinite we are by definition infinitely ignorant. We have to recognize that very often the more rational option is to simply admit that we don’t really know. But I, and others like me, have a category of experience to describe, and it is religious language and even religious doctrines that describes it.

For Bishop Spong, however, and for many in the Jesus Seminar, one has to ask just how Christian their Jesus actually is. I do not arrogate to myself the right to judge whether they are Christians or not, or what their relationship to God might be. My question is simply one of picking up their views and making them my own.

I recall the series of stories by Isaac Asimov which are set at the dinners of the Black Widowers. Each guest was asked one major question: How do you justify your existence? I think the question that needs to be asked of Spong’s Jesus is the same one: How do you justify your existence? When one limits oneself to a purely historical reconstruction, and one done with a seriously skeptical turn of mind, then the resulting “Jesus” is often rather weak, and one has to wonder why anyone should care whether such a person lived.

In the historical sense, one might make the question instead whether the Jesus one has discovered by historical research would be likely to have had the impact that he had. The one thing I always find when I think about Jesus in purely historical terms is that in the end I’m certain that Jesus must be more than what I can prove him to be historically, otherwise there is an excessive effect for the cause involved. In some ways, however, the Jesus of Spong fits well with American Christianity–tepid and not terribly challenging.

There are a number of things about American Christianity that do embarrass me, though they don’t primarily have to do with doctrinal beliefs.

I’m embarrassed

  • that we have so many buildings and so much real estate that tends to be idle during the week. I believe we could improve our use of that property for building up our communities.
  • that we now have almost as many definitions of heresy and orthodoxy as there are denominations. At least the inquisition worked from one script. Now I can be fundamentalist, orthodox, heretical, and an atheist all at the same time. Just ask my critics!
  • that we still permit discrimination and even foster it in our society–any discrimination that considers something other than the ability of the person in question.
  • that we are depending more on political and temporal means than on the transforming power of the gospel.
  • that for so many Christians church is just a social club. We debate the spiritual gospel and the social gospel, but while we do so the “comfy chair” gospel is often winning in churches.
  • that so many of us couldn’t even discuss the issues that Spong is raising, because we have no clue what we believe or what our church claims to believe in the first place.
  • that our faith is so weak and so poorly grounded that we have to get into a real tizzy about every new book that comes out about Christianity.

I’m embarrassed, but I don’t dwell on it, except for posts like this. Mostly I just try to help alleviate that situation in the little corner where I am.

8 thoughts on “What Embarrasses me About Christianity

  1. Hi Henry,

    I’m curious to know more about what you think the “Jesus of Spong” is that you mentioned here. I’ve read a lot of Spong’s work, and I’ll grant that Spong sometimes doesn’t delve deeply into some aspects of his point, and therefore is a bit of a lightweight, but I don’t see him as suggesting that Jesus was “tepid and not terribly challenging.”

  2. “Religion in America today embarrasses me, … If that’s what Christianity is all about, then I’m not really interested in that.”

    For once I agree with Spong, even if the specific embarrassments are very different. But my embarrassment would also include Spong’s version of religion, and no doubt vice versa.

  3. This sentence just grabbed me: I’m one of those “embarrassments” who believes in the resurrection.

    I just don’t get how a person can call themselves a Christian but not believe in the resurrection. There are objective, foundational truths in our faith, and it shouldn’t be “a problem” to say so. I’m perplexed at why anything should think it would be a problem. There are things that, if you don’t buy into, you’re just not practicing Christianity, but something that has been created in it’s stead. There’s plenty of room for debate within Christianity, but the very foundation is Jesus’ death and resurrection, else why do we bother? How can we know that our sins are forgiven if our Redeemer doesn’t live? What, then, was the difference between Jesus and the thousands of animal sacrifices that came before Him and were a temporary salve? Inasmuch as you can apply to logic to faith, failing to believe in core doctrine like the resurrection is completely illogical if you continue to call yourself an adherent of the faith. Even groups as opposite as Catholics and protestants agree on the basics of Christianity. Jesus was born, lived a sinless life, died on our behalf, and was raised from the dead. You can renovate and decorate the house however you choose, but the foundation stays the same. Failing to believe in the resurrection is like picking the house up and moving it to another foundation; it’s a whole other religion at that point. And it should not be a problem to say so.

    As to the list of embarrassments – those are not embarrassments of Christianity but of people – human, flawed, frail people. Nothing is going to change it except continuing growth in our faith. It’s the watering down of the Christian faith – paying more attention to what people write about the word, than to the actual word – that exacerbates the problem.

    One more thing, about the first item on your list. If a church isn’t using it’s resources wisely, people should either get going on finding new ways to serve, or find another church where people are better stewards, where faith is living and walked out daily. Let the dead bury their dead. Our church building, when we had one pre-Katrina, was used 7 days a week, on average 8-10 hours a day. And I’m not talking about people working in the church office, I’m talking about ministry. This is a church of about 600 people, not a mega-church where you would expect something to always be going on just by virtue of sheer numbers. Even now, when we’ve basically been nomadic for a year and a half, we’re still actively serving the community, gutting and cleaning houses, mowing yards and cleaning up neighborhoods, serving food and the gospel to people who need it.

    I’m perplexed why you are embarrassed by Christians who are not doing their jobs as Christians, (service, charity, educating themselves in the faith, spreading the gospel, etc.) but are apparently unbothered by those who call themselves Christians yet deny a core doctrine of the faith.

  4. Laura,

    Two points:

    1. Aren’t all embarrassments of Christianity really embarrassments of people?

    2. It’s really a shorter than your comment deserves, but I think I am more outraged about what people do than about what they think, though I can see the basis for your question.

    I would add that I also belong to a church whose facilities are used 7 days a week, and we are trying to make them even more available. The problem now is finding space for any new activities. Many community groups use our Community Life Center as a meeting place. So all is not dark!

    I do hope that I might have spurred someone to make more use of the resources God has given them.

    I grew up overseas with missionary parents, experiencing churches that met without any building at all. I really have a hard time bringing myself to vote to change the carpet that looks good to me, but others say is past its prime.

  5. I’m glad you’re in a good church. 🙂 Didn’t mean to imply you weren’t, just that *anybody* in a church that only gets used a couple of days a week ought to rethink that. And I do understand your point, that what we actually do is critically important, but a truism in my family is, “where your mind goes, your body will follow” or at the very least “may follow.” Actions flow from thoughts, so Christians who aren’t behaving as Christians ought are quite likely driven by bad theology.

    Agreed about the carpet – we used to go to a budding megachurch (at the time about 4000 members) where there was much discussion about strategies, marketing, and appearances. Frustrating!! I hope your list challenges people to make more of what God gives them, too. 🙂

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