Sayeth Kirk Cameron: “Only God can take the sinful heart of a man or a woman and cause them to love that which is right and just and good.”
Sayeth Melissa McEwan: Utter fuckery, that.
I’m certain there are people in this world who are better people because of their belief in God. In fact, I’m sure there are denizens of this very community who would say that very thingâ€”and more power to them. I don’t begrudge anyone their own experience.
My point is only this: It is not the universal fact so many religious people assert it to be. You see, I am a better person as an atheist than I ever was as a Christian.
It’s a good post, as Melissa’s invariably are. Of course, this might be a good point to remind folks of the Reformed principle of “common grace“, which suggests that even those who don’t believe — and from a Calvinist standpoint, aren’t saved — receive the unmerited gifts of God. My friend Richard Mouw wrote a wonderful little book about common grace, He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace. So when Christians imply, as Cameron does, that only folks who believe in God can display real goodness, they make a grave theological error. On the other hand, if Christians take the more subtle tack that all goodness comes from God, but God empowers even those who deny Her existence to practice goodness, then they’re on firmer ground. Somehow, I don’t think the former child TV star knows a lot about common grace, but I could be wrong.
But that’s not really Melissa’s point.
Melissa writes that when she was a Christian:
God may have loved me, and sent his son to die for me, and forgiven meâ€”but he taught me diddly-shit about being a privileged person with internalized prejudices. Love one another. Well, swell. Except loving someone doesn’t always prevent me from hurting them. And getting right with God didn’t get me right with the people I’d hurt. The message of the savior was that I could sit back and be saved with minimal inconvenience, not to mention negligible self-reflection. I could be stingy with my willingness to admit to anyone other than God my wrongdoing, my mistakes. If it was selfish to let other people live with the pain I caused them, it didn’t matter: I needed God’s forgiveness alone.
I was learning how to get into Heaven. I wasn’t learning how to be a good person.
I wasn’t kind; I was judgmental, which is the poisonous soil in which a lack of kindness grows. Giving myself permission to let go of the judgment that was such a fundamental part of god-belief has been one of the greatest gifts I’ve given myself, and the people around me.
I know many folks, raised in the church, who would nod their heads in agreement. I’m lucky, in a sense, as I became a Christian as an adult. My conversion happened after my work in Twelve Step programs and therapy; I was able to come into a church experience with the capacity to discern between the heart of the message (love, forgiveness, radical transformation) and the trappings of tradition that included so much bigotry, hypocrisy, and exclusion. I never saw pastors or priests as Godlike figures because my relationships with them were formed after I was already more or less a man; had I encountered the church in my impressionable childhood, my faith might indeed have been warped in precisely the same way Melissa describes. This is not to say that all adult converts necessarily have a more nuanced and loving understanding of Christ; some who come to the cross late take the shame they feel over their pre-conversion behavior and externalize on to all and sundry, near and far. These born-again prudes are common players in many evangelical circles.
One of my favorite conservative evangelical theologians is John Stott, whom I wrote about at length in this 2007 post. I’m reprinting a section of it here, as a reminder of what I still find so wholesome and good and true within Christianity, and why it is the path I choose — without disparaging other paths — to walk.
Here’s what I wrote in ’07:
A couple of weeks ago, a friend sent me a link to this story about the retirement of John Stott from public ministry. Stott is, in the minds of many, the greatest living evangelical theologian. He’s a an Anglican, but his appeal is broad and his influence immense. The story notes that Billy Graham has called him “the most respected clergyman in the world today.” And though I do not share all of Stott’s political conclusions, I have long had great regard for his theological insights. And I was deeply moved by the sermon he preached last month — the 87 year-old’s final public sermon before heading into well-deserved retirement.
The substance of Stott’s sermon: we in the church need to focus on becoming more like Christ.
“God wants His people to become like Christ,â€ Stott said, as he was greeted with a standing ovation. â€œChrist-likeness is the will of God for the people of God.â€
â€œWe are to be like Christ in his Incarnation,â€ he said. â€œIt was unique, in the sense that the Son of God took our humanity to himself in Jesus of Nazareth, but the amazing grace of God in the Incarnation of Christ is to be followed by all of us. We are to be like Christ in his Incarnation in the amazing self-humbling which lies behind the Incarnation.â€
So much of contemporary Protestantism emphasizes belief over action. Too many pastors tell their congregations that salvation is a consequence of assenting to a simple formula: believe in Jesus Christ and his redemptive work on the cross, and presto, you’re guaranteed admission to heaven. And while assenting to the truth of the Christian story is surely one aspect of conversion, it is a beginning rather than an end. Faith in Christ without a willingness to become like Christ is empty faith — and John Stott, in the twilight of his remarkable ministry, makes that case.
Becoming like Christ is, obviously a process, rather than a singular event. Becoming an agent of love and justice and selflessness isn’t easy, even with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But what I appreciate from Stott is his reminder that all Christians are called to do this incredibly difficult work. The life that Jesus calls His followers to in the Sermon on the Mount is a life marked (to borrow from Lexus) by the relentless pursuit of perfection.
Perfection, we are told, is impossible for humans to achieve. Without faith, it probably is. But for me, as a Christian, one of the central tenets of my own belief is that Jesus is calling me to be as He was. I am called to model Christ and emulate Christ, and that is infinitely more useful than merely telling people about Christ. As Stott makes clear, the “Great Commission” for Christians is much less about what we say and much more about how we live.
Talking about the Christian duty to pursue Christ-like perfection brings us quickly to a seeming paradox. We’re called to become like Jesus — but a central part of His message is forgiveness for those (surely including ourselves) who regularly and repeatedly fall short of the mark. What we’ve got to do, it seems, is hold two things in simultaneous tension: the knowledge that we are all loved, just as we are, even if we never change — and the knowledge that we are called and required to do the achingly hard work of relentlessly changing ourselves and the world.
Sometimes, I imagine Jesus saying something like this to me: “Hugo, I love you just as you are. No matter what you’ve done, no matter what you’re doing or thinking or saying, I couldn’t love you any more than I already do. No matter what, no matter what, I adore you. But I long for you to change and grow; I’m calling you to follow me and to feed my lambs.”
I haven’t blogged about my faith in a while. But it seems that in recent months, the Spirit is stirring in my life in a more overt way again. I’m feeling closer to God than I have in a long time, feeling His call on me more acutely. John Stott’s valedictory sermon has been very heartening, and it’s been much on my mind these past couple of weeks.
That’s what I wrote then. I’d add, in response to Melissa, that an essential part of becoming like Christ is practicing not just radical forgiveness, but radical humility. Melissa writes that when she was a Christian, she had no sense of how to make amends for the wrongs she had done, no sense of how to escape from the smug and self-involved judgmental box in which far too many “true believers” of all theological stripes find themselves. Stott’s point about Christlikeness includes the simple truth that living as a Christian is living relationally — living in relationship with other creatures. What we believe is less important than what we make manifest. Faith without works is dead, and first among the works we need to do is ask forgiveness and make amends.