THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 166
Four reasons to become a ChristianFour reasons to become a Christian.
[The essentials will never change, everything else will.]
I can think of four good reasons why one should consider becoming a Christian.
First, the quality of Christ’s teaching - it is simple yet profound and beautiful. It is complete and elegant. All such good things are.
Secondly, there is no credible explanation of how and why the disciples changed so radically after the first Easter. They were a beaten, leaderless, disheartened disparate group. They quickly became a world missionary force.
Thirdly the testimony of millions down the centuries has been that their lives have been radically altered by God through Christianity.
Fourthly - not really a reason, more a prediction - if you try it properly it will work for you too. Countless people, living and dead, have testified that when they turned themselves over to God in Christ, their lives were transformed for the better. That is my testimony, over a stretch of many years. And it is the testimony of my Christian friends. It can be yours too.
Having faith is not trying to believe what plainly isn’t true. It is trusting in what Christ has showed us and opening ourselves to God’s Spirit who will perform in us the same miracle experienced by millions alive today.
By believing about Christ we can live and act as Christ taught. As we accept the reality of his presence we are transformed. God’s Spirit leads and assists all people who follow his path, whether or not they call themselves ‘Christian’.
The name ‘Christian’ may have become so besmirched for some people that they cannot slot their lives into the conventional pattern of church attendance. We must not let that blind us to the fact that they may be on the good road that God intends for them.
We must hold on an open hand both our doctrines and our practices as Christians. The main reason is that, as the centuries pass, human beings are growing in knowledge and technical ability in all areas of life and, therefore, our doctrines and religious beliefs must continuously be checked against and revised in the light of reality as it now appears to us. The essentials of our faith never change, almost everything else will!
This truth is so obvious that it is sometimes missed altogether by Christians who also hold another truth dear to their hearts: that we must preserve the essence of our Christian message and not let it become contaminated. Many Christians think that this means that we must hold onto the faith of our forefathers - and that that means preserving, accepting and perpetuating all their inherited beliefs and thoughts. That is a mistake. It should be that we preserve the essence - the core - the essential elements of what they believed.
Take a simple example. Take an invention (or discovery, whichever word you prefer) that, looking back, we can now all see clearly is beneficial and, indeed, necessary for the human race today. Yet it was not seen in that light when it was first invented. Indeed, it appears that some theologians, doctors and even surgeons - decided that this invention was not a good thing (see ‘Blessed days of Anaesthetics‘ by Stephanie J Snow, reviewed in The Times Book Section by Nigel Hawkes, 30th August 2008). Some Christians thought that it was not what God intended. That it offended against what God had ordained should happen in life. Some said that if God had wanted this then he would not have made the world the way he did.
When chloroform was first invented it enabled women to have babies without so much agonising pain; it enabled surgery to take off and become the wonderful gift it is for us today; it allowed dentists to start extracting teeth painlessly. Yet some Christians thought the idea was deeply wrong - and campaigned against it.
In example after example we see that some people - including some Christians - resist new knowledge because they think the status quo is preferable.
It happened with Galileo. It happened with all sorts of medical advances. It happened in the field of birth control - the Roman Catholic Church still officially rules against birth control. One can go on citing example after example.
So what is happening in these instances? What common human characteristic can we discern here?
Obviously it is a case where some people are able to embrace new thinking, new inventions, new concepts, while others are much more rooted in the past and much less willing to let go of what they are accustomed to. If such people are religious then it is likely that they will object to the changes in the name of religion. They will call down all sorts of religious reasons why change is not desirable.
Such persons are entirely sincere. They may be good Christians in every other respect. They will probably talk about preserving the faith of their forefathers. They may be learned professors, able to build all sorts of clever arguments against the innovation. But at base they are dead set against change. They want to keep to the old ways.
So what sort of arguments should we expect from these Christians who are opposed to new ideas or concepts or practices? Obviously they will start by trying to show that the new thinking was not envisaged in the early days of the religion that has now solidified beneath their feet. In the case of chloroform, for example, they might say that God never envisaged that we would do away with pain. Or that pain was built into the system God created and who were we to try to eliminate it? Or they might point to possible dire consequences: the eliminating of birth pain might encourage young women to be far more promiscuous for they would no longer fear the trauma of birth.
Their arguments will be many and varied, but they will all be directed to one purpose only - to show that the innovation is wrong. They will hold that adhering to the faith of their forefathers is important - but it is really a desire is to preserve the status quo. This desire, often unrecognised in origin, is present in all sorts of situations, not only religious disputes. What we are seeing here is a characteristic of human behaviour.
Eventually, of course, the resistance put up by those wanting to preserve the status quo - the faith for their forefathers - is overcome. Over decades - and sometimes over much longer periods of time - the inhibition we have been describing is overturned - often by young people who are not bound with the same restraint. Eventually the new idea or invention or concept begins to be recognised as valuable. People begin to say publicly that it is a relief to go to the dentist and not to experience the sort of pain they had to endure in the past. Some women have babies with the help of anaesthetic and are profoundly grateful that they can perhaps actually enjoy the experience.
And so the public sees the value of the new idea as set against the value of tradition, and slowly adopts the new ways. And eventually people look back and say - why ever did people object to this innovation? And the traditionalists are seen for what they are: temporary blockers of progress.
When we apply all of this to the present dispute about homosexuality we see a very powerful fact. Quite apart from the rights and wrongs of the arguments, society at large in Western countries has accepted the new scientific understanding of human sexuality that accepts gay people as normal and natural. They are now seen as people who have the same rights and duties as anyone else in society, and as people who will not cause a collapse of standards or morality. People also draw the very correct conclusion that gay people have been stigmatised and persecuted for far too long.
It is significant that in the space of fifty years - a blink of the eye in the history of human society - homosexuality has been accepted by the generality of people. It has been helped by legislation to protect gay people from discrimination, but such legislation could not have been passed without general acceptance. Being gay has been brought into the normal everyday life of the nation. This cannot be explained away as western decadence. Rather it is an incredibly praiseworthy realisation of an intention to reverse an injustice.
We must, however, deal seriously with one argument by those who try to guard the status quo - those who want to preserve the faith of their forefathers. It is that the innovation of accepting gay people is against the tenets of the Christian faith. That being gay strikes at the heart of Christianity. That homosexuality is ‘wrong’.
To my mind there are two answers to this charge. The first is that it is not against the essence of Christ’s message. And the second is that it actually fulfils the Christian message. Lets look at these in order.
That two men or two women can love each other with a deeper love than friendship, and that they should want and decide to live the rest of their lives together - committed to and faithful to each other - is in no way contrary to anything that Christ taught. He talks of a love for God and for other human beings as being of central importance. He advocates a giving of one’s life into God’s hands, and then of having an attitude of love to all.
The fact that love is central to the gospel and to all relationships we have is of the essence of the gospel. When homosexual and heterosexual relationships are lived on the grounds that Christ stipulated in his teaching then surely we cannot get closer to obeying his commands.
The second answer to the charge that homosexuality is ‘wrong’ is that gay relationships actually fulfil Christ’s teaching. I see this as an obvious truth, because whenever we love someone deeply we are both fulfilling the deepest elements of our nature and doing as God has commanded us. We were created to love - to love God first and then to love all human beings. Any deep and true love of another person leads us along God’s path to our fulfilment.
There are those today who hold that the earth was created ’complete’ about six to ten thousand years ago. And these people are Christians! They resist any idea of evolution, even though countless scientists support it. The evidence of evolution in incontrovertible. The fossil record is there to prove it to any who have an open mind.
But these people prefer to reject the idea that evolution ever happened and, instead, believe in sudden creation of the earth under ten thousand years ago - I believe this theory is called ’creationism’.
Evidently they believe that God created the earth within the last ten thousand years, with all the fossils buried in the earth so that these fossils could be dug up and pieced together to form the theory of evolution. Why would God want to do that? Perhaps to create a real doubt as to how he created the earth? So that we would be challenged to ‘have faith’ that he created within the last ten thousand years?
If you believe that then, in my opinion, you will believe anything! I don’t believe in a God who plants bogus fossil evidence to make us have ‘faith’ which flies in the face of the evidence in front of our eyes!
Why do I mention creationism? Because here is yet another example - perhaps a more bizarre one - of a group of people shutting their eyes to new truth and new understanding.
As human beings we must embrace whatever new thinking and knowledge comes our way. Let us refuse to cling to the faith that our forefathers held and instead extract the kernel out of the wheat. There is an essential gospel - there are beliefs that any person who is a Christian will hold - but let us gently wash away the accretions of man - the ideas and thinking and concepts that have gathered around the faith over the past twenty centuries.
It is an exciting world we live in! Who knows whether we are going to find life on an other planet? If we do then Christ will be Lord there too! Who knows whether the idea of parallel universes is right? If it is then Christ is Lord of them all.
Let us trust the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth. There are exciting discoveries ahead - but if Christians try to fit everything into an out-of-date intellectual framework formulated two thousand years ago, they will quench the Spirit and fail to match themselves with the challenge of the hour.