What does it mean to be human? [Questioning faith #26]

Ted Grimsrud—May 25, 2023

One of my favorite theologians, Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish thinker who died in 1972, wrote a profound little book called Who is Man? back in the 1960s. In that book, Heschel laments the negative view of humanness in our modern world. The human being, he writes, “is being excessively denounced and condemned by philosophers, theologians, and artists.” Heschel asks, what does the modern worldview say about us? “Humans are beasts. The only difference between humans and other beasts is that humans are beasts that know they will die. …You must cling to life as you can and use it for the pursuit of pleasure and of power.” Heschel concludes that human beings have “very few friends in the world, certainly very few in the contemporary literature about them. The Lord in heaven may prove to be humanity’s last friend on earth.”

While some Christian thinkers do agree with Heschel’s own positive humanism, a great deal of Christian theology—academic and popular—more likely reinforces the problems Heschel laments. In its actual view of humankind, Christian thought often has differed little from secular philosophy in its hostility toward humanity.

Hostility toward humanness

The roots of this hostility toward humanness go back a long way, perhaps at least to the fourth century, to the theology of Augustine and his powerful doctrine of original sin. This doctrine evolved into John Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity. Human life, in the immortal words of a later Augustinian, Thomas Hobbes, is inevitably “nasty, brutish, and short.” We are born sinful, rebellious, and basically despicable.

It is highly ironic though, that these views commonly led to strong support for violent governmental control over the general population. I have never understood the logic. Why does belief in human depravity lead to trust in people with power? Why do we think rulers will transcend their own depravity and use their monopoly on violence in undepraved ways? Tying together negative views of humanness with support for domination systems has a long and still vital history. We’re all pretty bad, we’re told. That’s why we need so much military and police violence, to keep our human proclivity toward evil in check. But what about the human proclivity toward evil of those building, buying, and wielding the guns?

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What (if anything) is special about the sacraments? [Questioning faith #25]

Ted Grimsrud—May 19, 2023

Probably the places in Christianity where the “sacred” and the “mundane” intersect the most directly are the churches’ sacramental rituals, particularly the observance of communion. Views range from the Catholic notion of transubstantiation, where the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Jesus—and where the actual attainment of salvation depends on one’s participation in (and belief in) the miracle of the Eucharist, to some “low church” views wherein the communion ritual is strictly mundane and symbolic. Even more extreme is the Quaker understanding where there is no communion ritual at all.

As one whose views are decidedly low church, I have not experienced the communion ritual as being very important or meaningful. However, I have thought about it quite a bit and have found my general idealism about the importance of the way of Jesus to be something that informs my views of the sacraments (in this post I will only reflect on communion and will not address the practice of baptism).

I do feel reluctant to take up the issue of communion. It’s not so much that I have personally had negative experiences with communion—actually my experiences have mostly been positive. But I do know people who have had hard experiences: the denial of participation in the Lord’s Supper for my friend’s father back in the 1930s for owning life insurance, a trauma that still haunt her; the gay man who was refused communion when he returned to his home congregation hoping to rebuild a sense of connection; the teen-ager who was told she was too young to take communion, making her feel like a second-class Christian even though she deeply desired to follow Jesus….These exclusions have bothered me.

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Should we bother with church? [Questioning faith #24]

Ted Grimsrud—May 16, 2023

I did not grow up with churchgoing as part of my identity. My family did go to church regularly until I was eight years old, but I don’t think it was that important for us. When their Methodist congregation folded, I don’t believe my parents grieved much. Then, for nine years I rarely went to church. At the age of 17, by my own choice, I began attending a Baptist congregation. In the 50+ years since, I have always felt that going to church was my choice, and when I have had extended periods of not going, I did not feel guilty or unhappy—unlike many of my friends over the years for whom churchgoing has been part of their identity. These days, as I think about church, I have a lot of mixed feelings.

In the Bible, human beings are given salvation so that they might embody God’s will in this life. From the calling of Abraham and Sarah to the final revelation of the New Jerusalem, the Bible portrays lived salvation as community centered. Faith communities provide the context for human flourishing. However, in our fallen world faith communities also in practice have often not actually been that healthy for people. Their legacy is ambiguous. So, when I think about the Christian church, the questions come pretty quickly—especially one set of questions: The church, comforter or afflicter? The church, a place that heals or a place that hurts? The church, oppressor or liberator? The church, a blessing or a curse?

I have an answer to these questions: “Yes!” What I mean is, in my experience, the church has been both a blessing and a curse. We invest ourselves in this community, we make ourselves vulnerable to each other, we care deeply. The rewards can be great—but so too can be the disappointment and hurt.

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Is Christianity the only way to God? [Questioning faith #23]

Ted Grimsrud—May 11, 2023

A number of years ago, my wife Kathleen and I visited a Sunday School class in a large Mennonite congregation. The speaker was a member of the congregation who had just returned from a year in the Far East, and he was reporting on the experience. He talked about how he found the religious beliefs and practices that he had seen so interesting. He then told how he tried to encourage his new friends to be the best Buddhists (or it could have been Hindus) they could be.

I learned later that this comment caused a bit of a furor. People who believed that faith in Jesus as Savior is the only way to find salvation were distressed. The speaker’s embrace of religious pluralism, his implied belief that any number of religions can lead a person to God, raised concerns.

Religious pluralism as a fact of life

This issue of Christian faith in relation to other religions grows ever more challenging for Christians in our globalized world. Here in the United States, we can no longer avoid asking about different religions. Many of us travel around the world, doing business with people from many cultures and religious traditions, and, if nothing else, rub shoulders in grocery stores, ethnic restaurants, and even in our own neighborhoods with other-than-Christian religious folks.

I taught for many years at a tiny Christian college in small, fairly remote town in Virginia’s Shenandoah valley. I had students who were Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and Buddhist. Our favorite places to eat in town have included restaurants operated by recent immigrants from Nepal, Vietnam, China, Indonesia, Germany, Thailand, India, El Salvador, Mexico, and Ethiopia. A few years ago, I heard that our local public high school had students from sixty-four different countries who spoke forty-four different languages—and represented many different faiths. Religious pluralism has become part of our everyday life, like it or not.

So, what do we think of the various religions of the world? How do we relate our own Christian faith to Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, and so on? How does our understanding of the religions fit with our broader theological convictions?

Continue reading “Is Christianity the only way to God? [Questioning faith #23]”