Who Needs Theology When You Can Have Jesus? You Do.

I ran across two videos online yesterday. The first was one I had seen before by Jefferson Bethke, called “Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus,” and the other was by Thabiti Anyabwile called “Why is Theology Important?

I’ll be concise and say that I love the second video, but the first video doesn’t sit right with me.

I understand what Jefferson Bethke is getting at, but I think he is a bit misguided in his approach and his choice of words.

Kevin DeYoung has written a very good response to Bethke’s video and to statements like “God hates religion.” That response can be found here: Does Jesus Hate Religion?  Kinda, Sorta, Not Really

In think that many Christians have overplayed their hand when it comes to trying to make a hard dichotomy between Christianity and religion, or saying that people don’t need theology, all they need is Jesus. That’s a false dichotomy.

Throughout the Old Testament, God Himself established what could be called a “religious” system of rituals, symbols, rules and ceremonies – all of which pointed to Jesus and were then fulfilled by Jesus. In James 1:27 we are encouraged to practice “pure religion which is pleasing to God.” (James 1:27).

As I have written about extensively on this site, Christianity is unique compared to all religions of the world, which all share a common method of obtaining salvation: earning it. In this sense, it is right to say that Christianity can’t be bunched together with other world religions. Timothy Keller, in his writings has put it this way: that Christianity is neither religion nor irreligion, but something completely different: salvation by grace unto a relationship with God. I agree.

And yet, it would seem that what God hates isn’t religion per se, but bad religion which leads to self-righteousness and self-justification and any other practices which do not align with His heart. He chastised the Israelites in the Old Testament, not for being religious, but for distorting their religion for selfish purposes which did not align with His heart. The solution God gave them was not that they cast off religion, but that they get back to the heart of God.

It is important to remember that self-justification and self-righteousness don’t only come about through religion; there are plenty of non-religious ways that people seek to justify themselves and get a sense of self-righteousness, e.g. through morality, career, achievements, family, etc.  In fact, apart from Jesus every person is pursuing self-justification in one form or another, and most of these forms are not through religion.

One of the particular dangers of “bad religion” is that it gives people a false sense of security in being right with God. However the same could be said of an anti-religious stance which is just as condescending and self-righteous in its own right…

This is why theology is so important. Theology is not opposed to relationship with God, rather it is what Anselm of Canterbury called, “Faith seeking understanding.” If Christianity is about a relationship with God – and it is – then it is of utmost importance that we get to know this God for who He is through how He has chosen to reveal Himself to us. Furthermore, theology directly affects the way we live practically.

The fact is, like it or not: we are all theologians. You are a theologian, whether you think of yourself as one or not, because you have conceptions and ideas about God: who He is and what He is like. That makes you a theologian. Whether you are a good theologian or not is a different question, but the fact is that you are a theologian. Even atheists are theologians.

Check out this video of Thabiti Anyabwile talking about why theology is important:

Is Christianity in Decline? Yes and No. – Part 2

growth

In Part 1 of this post I shared some thoughts on the commonly held belief that religious belief is in decline around the world and eventually doomed for extinction.

Today, we look at three more important factors to keep in mind regarding this topic:

2. Liberal Religion is Declining, but Conservative Religion is on the Rise

I wrote about this phenomena recently here: When You Stand for Nothing…, where I talked about the case of two Presbyterian denominations, one which is theologically liberal and the other which is theologically conservative. The liberal denomination is bleeding out quickly, whereas the conservative one is growing strongly.

It seems that there has been a major miscalculation by many people about the eventual demise of theologically conservative beliefs.

Since many of the historical mainline Protestant denominations, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the United Methodist Church (UMC), the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) and the Episcopal Church in America (TEC) have taken a hard turn towards theological liberalism, they have seen rapid declines in their membership and attendance. And since these denominations compromised a large portion of the population in the United States, their declines have caused many to say that Christianity in the United States is in crisis.

Of the people leaving these denominations, many have transferred into theologically conservative Evangelical Protestant Churches. According to this article from Christianity Today, over the last four decades, there has been more than a 400 percent growth in Protestants who identify as nondenominational. Non-denominational Evangelical Protestant Churches now compromises about 30% of all Christian church attendance in the United States.

Around the world, both in Christianity and outside of Christianity, it is the conservative branches of religious movements which are on the rise, not the liberal ones. This is surprising to those like Richard Dawkins, who assume that as the world becomes more educated and developed, religion will either turn into sentimental tradition or just die out completely. Quite the opposite is happening actually.

3. Secularism is Set to Decline in the Future

In an interview with the Christian Post (full article here), author and pastor Timothy Keller said:

“In the past there was hardly anybody who was secular,” Keller told the Christian Post. “In the future there will be significant numbers of people who are secular more than have ever been in history. But, the facts on the ground are that Christianity and Islam in particular are growing faster than the population. And that over the next 25-45 years the number of people who say that they are secular, the percentage of the world’s population that is secular, is actually going down.”

Is Keller correct? According to a Pew Research Center report released in April 2015, he is. That report projected out to 2050, finding that, as the world population changes in the coming decades, the world’s religious profile will also change.

Christianity is poised to remain the largest religion in the world, but Islam is growing quickly, less by conversion than by birth. This relates again to my previous post, in which I pointed out that inherited religion is in decline globally. It would be assumed that this decline will affect the growth of Islam as well.

4. Only a Small Part of the World is Moving Towards Greater Secularism, and They Will Soon be a Minority

What the Pew Research Center report had to say about the “nones”:

“Atheists, agnostics and other people who do not affiliate with any religion – though increasing in countries such as the United States and France – will make up a declining share of the world’s total population.”

So, it would seem that secularism is set to decline rather than increase in coming decades.

It is important to remember that the rise of religious beliefs is taking place as education as well as industrial and economic development is taking place. It would seem that as the world is becoming more educated and more developed, people are increasingly aware of their need for God.

Is Christianity in Decline? Yes and No. – Part 1

empty_church

Last week a friend of mine sent me a video in which Richard Dawkins was interviewed, and in the interview he stated his view that religion as a whole is eventually destined to die out. Then he sent me another article from The Guardian (UK), about how there is a correlation between the increase of secularism and standards of living around the world.

It seems as if from every angle, people are claiming that Christianity is in decline and it is simply a matter of time until all religion dies out in the world. The assumption is that as we become more “enlightened,” people will cast off their “superstitious” religious beliefs and everyone will be secular, AKA atheist – or atheism’s more friendly cousin: agnostic.

Many people take these claims as foregone conclusions, but is this really the case? Is religion in general, and Christianity in particular, in decline?

The answer is: yes and no. The answer to those questions depends on 1) what kind of religion (and what kind of Christianity) we are talking about, and 2) which parts of the world we are talking about.

There are a few very important factors to keep in mind. We will look at the first one today, and others tomorrow.

1. Inherited Religion is in Decline, but Chosen Faith is on the Rise

This is something we experienced as missionaries in Europe. While it is true that Europe is full of empty churches and has high rates of people who identify as atheists, we also experienced great openness to the gospel, and we saw many people come to faith in Christ and churches planted.

What we are seeing is the decline of inherited religion, but at the same time there is still an increase in chosen faith. There is certainly a down-side to this, in that people who assume inherited Christianity will still be exposed to Christian teaching and the Bible, and such exposure may very well lead to real, personal faith at some point in their life. In a situation where Christian faith is inherited, Christianity is seen in a positive light, as is going to church and reading the Bible. This perception can make it easier for a person to become a Christian than if one is raised in an environment where Christianity is portrayed negatively.

However, from a Christian perspective, there are also benefits of the decline of inherited religion. For example, as many people from Muslim background come to the West, many of them, rather than assume their parents’ religion, are open to the idea that their faith is something they must choose for themselves.

Furthermore, inherited religion, including Christianity, can leave people with a false sense of security, that they are guaranteed salvation or that they are right with God, even when in fact they are not. This is one of the great themes of the Book of Deuteronomy – as Moses speaks to the new generation who will enter Canaan, and he emphasizes to them that they must have their own faith; it is not enough that the Lord was their parents’ God, He must be their God as well.

This article by Timothy Keller for The Gospel Coalition addresses this topic very well: Inherited Faith is Dying. Chosen Faith is Not.

Here’s an excerpt:

[At a recent conference in Paris,] Grace Davie, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Exeter in Great Britain pointed out that nominal or inherited Christianity is declining. However, she noted (against all expectations) that new movements of Christian faith are growing in Western cities.
The growing Christian churches are evangelical and Pentecostal, and they emphasize the biblical call to “choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve” (Josh. 24:15) and the biblical teaching that we stand or fall on our own faith, not the choices of our family or community (Ezek. 18). These churches teach that vicarious, formal religion isn’t enough; there must be a radical, inward conversion (Deut. 30:6Jer. 9:25Rom. 2:29). Christianity that foregrounds these important biblical concepts and lifts up heart-changing personal faith can reach many contemporary people—and it can reach cities.

Tomorrow we will look at the statistics which point to the fact that secularism is actually poised to decline in coming decades, whereas religious belief, and Christianity in particular is set to increase worldwide. Stay tuned!

Why Ethics Depends on Origin

In my last post I mentioned how much I appreciated the intellectual integrity of Penn Jillette for saying that he respects Christians who share their faith and evangelize, because if you really believe the gospel, then the only appropriate response is to share it with others.

Today I’d like to address the opposite approach: a very common and yet completely contradictory set of beliefs about the meaning and value of life.

I recently came across this quote from well-known atheist Steven Pinker, author of the book, “How the Mind Works.”

“When it comes to ethics, ethical theory requires free rational agents whose behavior is uncaused. Now, ethical theory can be useful even though the world as seen by science does not really have uncaused events.” – Steven Pinker

Do you catch what he’s saying? He’s essentially saying that ethics are useful to society, but that they really have no basis in reality. In other words: ethics help society function, but in a view of the world in which there is no God who created you, ethics are completely baseless.

To put it simply: if there is no God who created you, there is absolutely no rational reason for saying that you are any more important than a stick. And you really have no original thoughts or creativity. Everything you do is programed, nothing is uncaused. You are just a hunk of matter, and therefore your life is utterly insignificant.

And yet, Pinker is saying that in spite of this, we should live as if human life is special and we as human beings are valuable, because it is helpful to the functioning of society, even if it isn’t true.

Here’s the point: an atheistic/humanistic worldview is incredibly conflicted.

On the one hand, modern Western society is obsessed with self-esteem. Our schools put a huge focus on telling kids that they are unique and valuable. We affirm that every life has innate value. And yet, at the same time we have a secular worldview which says that if there is no God, you still have to live as if human beings are significant, even though in reality they are not at all.

In other words, if your origin is insignificant and your destiny in insignificant, then the conclusion is that your life and everyone else’s life is insignificant. However, at the same time we are told to believe that we must pretend that it is.

That’s not intellectual integrity, that’s intellectual schizophrenia.

Atheism has an inherent problem with human rights: on the one hand our modern Western culture believes in individual human rights, and yet on the other hand, there is a push for an existential and eschatological narrative which undermines the very foundation for believing in equal individual human rights.

I have written more on this subject here: Atheism and Human Rights: An Inherent Problem.

Christianity, on the other hand, tells us that human beings were created by God, in His image, and therefore our lives have innate value and purpose – even if there is nothing that we can contribute to society, such as in the case of handicapped individuals.

Furthermore, the message of the gospel is that the lord of the universe left His heavenly throne and came to the Earth in order to save us by giving His life in order to redeem us — which means that you and your life have more value than you can even comprehend.

Modern Western culture has held onto the belief in individual value and human rights, something which has its basis in Christian doctrine and theology, while trying to eschew Christian doctrine and theology in the areas of origin, existence and destiny.

Ethics depend on origin. If you believe that human life has equal and inherent value, please remember where that idea comes from: the Word of God.

The Problem with Evangelism

I came across this video from Penn Jillette which I found very compelling. Penn Jillette is the “Penn” of the comic/illusionist team Penn and Teller, both of whom are avowed atheists who use their platform as comedians and magicians to promote atheism.

In this video Penn talks about how after a show he was approached by a very polite and sincere man who gave him a Bible as a gift and sought to evangelize him.

Rather than being upset or offended by this, Penn says this:

“I’ve always said, you know, that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell, and people could be going to hell, or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think that, well, it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward…

How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? I mean, if I believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that a truck was coming at you, and you didn’t believe it, and that truck was bearing down on you, there is a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that…

This guy cared enough about me to proselytize.”

Here’s the whole video:

I respect Penn for having the intellectual integrity to say this.

Because the problem with evangelism is that in Western society it is considered extremely presumptuous to claim that other people need to change what they believe and believe what you believe or else they will be lost. But the problem is, that this belief is inherent to Christianity. To remove it would be to remove its very heart.

If Jesus came to be a “Savior” who “saves” the “lost,” and to be a disciple of Jesus is to be sent on His mission, which is to seek and to save the lost, then to not evangelize is to betray the very heart of Christianity.

There are a lot of people who look at Christianity and say: “That’s a nice religion with a lot of really nice teachings and great principles. I love the community aspect of it; I respect the teachings about family, and morality and putting others first. But the one part I don’t like is how narrow it is. How presumptuous to claim that you are on a mission from God to save the world by converting people to believe what you believe!
When it comes to mission, I’m okay with you going to help poor people in developing countries by improving their standard of living — but why do you have to try to proselytize them?!”

There are even many Christians who would say, “I love learning about the Bible, and taking the sacraments and worshiping — but I don’t like that part about Christianity where we are always being told to go out and convert the world to what we believe!”

The problem with evangelism is that there are so many voices in our society today which tell us that the idea that you can be on a mission from God to change and save the world is at best: naive, and at worst: terribly arrogant. So instead, you should just privatize your beliefs: focus on your own life and leave everybody else alone.

But the problem with evangelism is that you cannot be a Christian and not care about evangelism, because the command to be on this mission comes straight from the mouth of Jesus.

“As the Father sent me, now I send you!   Go into all the world!  Preach the Gospel!   Make disciples of all nations — teach everybody to obey all that I have commanded you!”

That may not be popular – but it’s straight from the mouth of Jesus. And, to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ means you can’t ignore what he says.

It is encouraging to me to hear this coming from a person, in Penn Jillette, who does not (yet) believe, but has the intellectual integrity to admit that in order to live according to one’s beliefs, a Christian should share the gospel with others.

Atheism and Human Rights: An Inherent Problem

I recently heard someone mention something, which made me want to probe a little deeper. What this person said was that there is an inherent problem for atheists who believe in human rights, which is probably most of them in our modern age.

Why is that?

Here’s the problem: If there is no God, then how did you get here? Why are you alive?  It was through a series of natural selection which saw the survival of the fittest and the death of the weak.

In other words, the reason you are here, in an atheistic evolutionary model, is because your ancestors trampled on their competitors, who were the weaker of that given society.

So, if that is the entire basis of how humanity evolves and makes progress, then on what basis should we advocate for human rights?  To do so would not help further the progress of humanity, but only slow us down, according to this line of thinking.

Here are a few examples of people, who are atheists and who realize this inherent problem with atheistic evolutionary belief and our modern notion of universal human rights:

“The Darwinian worldview must look upon the present sentimental conception of the value of the life of a human individual as an overestimate completely hindering the progress of humanity.”

“The human state, like every animal community, must reach a higher level of perfection through the destruction of the less well-endowed individual. The state has an interest in preserving the more excellent life at the expense of the less excellent.”

Robert Kossmann, “The Importance of the Life of an Individual in the Darwinian Worldview”, 1880: German medical professor whose views influenced later Nazi regime attitudes and actions.

Richard Rorty (1931-2007), a committed atheist, also acknowledged that the basic assumptions upon which his worldview operated could not account for human rights since the struggle for survival eliminates the weak with no regard for any overarching morality.

Rorty admitted that “the concept of human rights came from ‘religious claims that human beings are made in the image of God,’ and admits that he reaches over and borrows the concept of universal human rights from Christianity, even though at the same time acknowledging that his atheistic Darwinian view gives no basis for a belief in universal human rights, but actually encourages just the opposite: the extermination of the weak by the strong.1

It was in fact this very view which led to the attitude in Nazi Germany that people with handicaps were an unnecessary burden on society, and that it was therefore better to put them to some good use for the common good, i.e. inhumane medical experimentation without consent. It was this same view which led to the devaluing of human life by the Soviet regime.

And yet, in our day, it is generally thought that it is perfectly normal to be an atheist and to believe in human rights at the same time. The problem with that is that such a person is ignoring the inherent contradiction between these two, and borrowing the concept of intrinsic human value from Christianity although it is not a natural result of atheistic reasoning. At least Rorty was willing to admit it!

Because if human rights means that we are not supposed to trample upon weak individuals, then that contradicts the basic premise of how atheistic evolutionary theory of human progress works!

Rorty and other atheists see this inherent problem, and yet they have no answer other than to say: if there is no God, there should be no human rights, but yet I believe that human rights are there.

The problem is: they stop right there and don’t allow reason to take them to the next logical step, which is to say: Okay, if there is no God, there should be no human rights, but yet I know that human rights are obviously there…  and so: maybe I was wrong about there being no God…

I can’t help but believe that there are some who sense this inherent problem and allow it to lead them to belief in God – I pray that more will – and not just any god, but the God of Christianity, the only God who gave his life to redeem people of all tribes, tongues, nations, ages and ability-levels, because he believed that they all had an equal level of intrinsic value as human beings. He is a God who associated with the weak and marginalized, even to the point of becoming one himself in order to save others. If you believe in human rights, you got it from him.

 

1. [Nancy Pearcey, Finding Truth, pp. 225-226, quoted by Gary DeMar in ‘Why Atheists Can’t Account for Human Rights’]

Ga BleshU

Do you remember that Seinfeld episode where they talked about why we say “God bless you” when someone sneezes? One of them – I can't remember if it was Elain or Jerry – suggested was that instead we should say, “You're so good looking!”, because that would really make people feel better.

I saw this display at Sprouts in Longmont today:

Ga Ble Shu: You know, for when you're not really into God, but you feel like you should say something when people sneeze.

What do you think? Harmless advertising gimmick or a sign of the spiritual climate?

 

Atheist Mega-churches: What they mean and what we can learn from them

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Sunday Assembly in Los Angeles

Recently a new movement has been getting a lot of publicity. Dubbed “atheist mega-churches” – the movement is being spearheaded by two British comedians. They call their meetings “sunday assemblies,” and they have all of the look and feel of a contemporary Christian church service, without one key factor: God.

Co-founders, Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans have stated that their goal is to export the original concept, first started in London, around the world. They are currently on tour visiting 40 major cities; right now they are in the US, going from New York to Los Angeles, trying to establish Sunday Assemblies and propagating their message of humanist community gatherings.

At these Sunday assemblies, they do everything that your average Christian church does: they sing songs, they drink tea and coffee and chat in the lobby, they raise money for humanitarian causes – they take offerings, and they have a sermon each week! In an interview, Sanderson Jones answered the obvious question of what they preach on if they don’t have the Bible or another “sacred text”. His answer was astounding and something that should cause Christians everywhere some serious consideration. He said that ‘preaching without God isn’t hard at all – after all, most preaching in churches these days is basically tips and strategies about how to be a kinder, more balanced, well-rounded person; we embrace that whole heartedly, and we don’t believe we need God to do that.’

‘preaching without God isn’t hard at all – after all, most preaching in churches these days is basically tips and strategies about how to be a kinder, more balanced, well-rounded person; we embrace that whole heartedly, and we don’t believe we need God to do that.’

Here are my thoughts on these “atheist mega-churches”:

1. Mega-churches? Hardly.

Although they have been dubbed “mega-churches” by the media, if you look at the pictures, you will notice that if this were a Christian church, it would not be qualify as a “mega-church”. Furthermore, let’s not forget that the gatherings getting the most press are the ones in which Jones and Evans are present and leading the meetings – two British celebrities, who have been getting a lot of press attention lately for these Sunday Assemblies. This is a special event, not a church – not a committed community of people, and certainly not a mega-church. Even the original Sunday Assembly is not all that big. I understand that “mega-church” pops out on a page – but let’s make sure we’re not blowing this all out of proportion.

2. Novelty = Media Hype

“Atheist Mega-church” is a novelty of a phrase that grabs people’s attention. Perfect for the media. Is there much substance to it? Will we see this as a growing movement for years to come? I don’t think so. I don’t believe it is sustainable. In fact, if it hadn’t been started by two celebrities, I don’t think it would have ever gotten off the ground. I see this fizzling out in the weeks, months and years to come as media hype wears off and moves on to the next amusing story. The reason why “Christian music and movies” are never as good as the original is simply this: they are not original – they are trying to copy someone else’s idea and put a Christian twist on it. It is often second-rate as a result. This smacks of the same thing, only more so.

3. A Very Important Critique

The quote from Sanderson Jones above is a VERY important critique for Christians, and particularly church leaders. Because here’s the deal: ANYBODY can “do church”! And Sanderson is right – you don’t need God to just get together, drink some bad coffee, sing a few songs and hear an inspiring talk about 10 ways to have your best life now. YOU DON’T NEED GOD FOR THAT! He’s right!

ALL that we have as Christians is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If we get away from that, then we have become nothing more than a community gathering – in which it doesn’t matter if God is there or not.

Recently I had someone come to our church, and they told me that they had been attending another church previously, but came to realize that the sermons that were being preached could have easily been speeches given at a high school graduation or by a politician. God’s name was mentioned, but if it hadn’t been, it wouldn’t have changed the substance of the message. In other words: it didn’t matter if God was there or not. They were giving tips and strategies for how to be a kinder, more-balanced, well-rounded person – and the fact is, that you don’t need God to do that.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Word of God are what we have as Christians. They are what we should major on, and never neglect in an effort to give practical advice. The Gospel is life-changing and transforming, and we must crank it up rather than water it down. Only then will people really be transformed.

What do you think of these atheist mega-churches and my estimation of them?  Are they just a flash in the pan, or are they here to stay?  And what does this mean for Christianity and society in general?