Tuesday, July 01, 2014

When Practical Religion is Impractical

While attending a conference a while back in the northeast, I had dinner with a colleague who I occasionally see at those sorts of meetings. Our conversation was interesting and wide ranging, touching on our work issues, politics and current events, history, and our personal backgrounds. With regard to the last of those, the subject of religion came up.

He grew up a Southern Baptist somewhere in Oklahoma, graduated from OU, and then headed off to a prestigious law school. Somewhere along the way, he decided that the faith he had grown up with was not credible, and he dropped out until, like many, he married and had children, at which time he found his way into an Episcopal Church. Although his children are all grown, he remains very active in his church, serving in various capacities.

Unfortunately, he said that he was not sure that he believes in God and doubts that there is any kind of an afterlife. Pragmatism, not truth, had brought him back to the church. He returned and remains active in a church because in practical terms it is the best way to raise a family, provide stability to a society, and perform good deeds for the needy. The church provides for life to be ordered in a way that is for him meaningful, providing satisfaction that he is doing good for others.

Yet, he is terrified of growing old and dying. He visits a nursing home in behalf of his church, taking along his dog because the residents love the little animal. He says that he doesn't do this for the residents, but it is "exposure therapy" for himself. He cannot come to grips with the fact that he will grow old (he is currently in his 60's), become "useless," and die. He is hoping that by visiting these people, that he will gain a level of comfort with his inevitable future.

I expressed regret that he had not found resources that would have helped him appreciate the viability of orthodox Christianity and told him that my hope for my future was grounded in the fact that Christ had risen from the dead. Trying to find a point of contact with him, I mentioned some Anglican writers that had been helpful to me, and he brought up C.S. Lewis as someone he had read. When I pointed out that Lewis, though practical in style, argued in favor of Christianity not because it was practical, but because it was true, he noted that as a point that was worth thinking about. We agreed that we would talk more at some point in the future.

I regard his situation as tragic. He has spent much of his life in churches, yet he finds no help with regard to some of the most fundamental issues that Christianity addresses. Of course, some will point out that his experience results from his migration to a liberal version of Christianity. While that is true, evangelicals might want to pause before dismissing the relevance of his testimony.

The fastest growing segments of evangelical Christianity in the United States now largely base their appeal on the practical value of what they claim to offer. Some churches even market themselves in a way that downplays themes such as sin, grace, salvation, redemption, and death. Rather, they focus on practical matters: coming to our church and hearing our message will help your kids, make you a better parent, make you more fulfilled and give meaning to your life, help you overcome addictions, provide you with a sense of community, and so forth. None of these things are bad in and of themselves, though one might point out that you can find resources for them in places other than churches.

Christianity doesn't just claim "to work;" it claims to be true. And in that claim, it asserts that God has dealt with our sins and provides a way of redemption and a future hope. That is, it deals with the truly large issues of life. In his practical religion, my colleague did not find an answer for the most fundamental and certain issues of life. It would be most unfortunate if evangelicals are leading their members down the same banal path.

It is often argued that people in their day to day lives are not concerned about these larger issues, and that may be true. But evangelical Christianity without the Christianity is nothing more than a marketed message that gains adherents without offering anything of value for the long haul. Churches should offer the Gospel, which is the power of God for salvation for everyone that believes; if churches don't, they are doing more harm than good.

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