Tuesday, June 24, 2008

We Do Believe!

A new poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has revealed that we Americans are, for the most part, believers. In fact, over 90 percent of us believe in God, including about 20 percent of those who declare themselves "atheists." (Usually, atheists are people who inherently DON'T believe in God or a "higher power," but to each his or her own.)

What is interesting in the poll findings is that most of us--over 70 percent--hold to a non-exclusive view of salvation, meaning we believe there may be many paths to God and eternal life. Those most apt to believe in the "many paths" view are Hindu and Buddhist, which is not surprising, given that Eastern religions view themselves as "pathways to enlightenment" in the first place. It was interesting, however, to see that 82 percent of Jewish people polled and 79 percent of Roman Catholics believe there are other paths to Heaven. The Jewish category obviously lumps all branches of Judaism together, and some are more tolerant than others. The high percentage of Catholic persons who believe in "many paths" was a real surprise to me. Up until the Second Vatican Council, Catholicism was an exclusive faith--if you weren't Catholic, you weren't Heaven bound. It is exciting to see that the ecumenical teachings of Vatican II have been taken to heart in such a "short" period of time (Vatican II was held during the years 1963-65). Protestants were where we usually are--right in the middle. 66 percent of us believe there may be other paths to God. Of course, lumped into the "Protestant" category were many fundamental sects that would NOT agree. Another surprise was the high number of Muslims polled--56 percent--who allowed for alternate paths to salvation. We often think of Muslims as being somewhat intolerant, but this demonstrates again that our opinions are improperly influenced by fundamentalists, who get most of the attention in the media. The religious groups with the lowest response to this question were the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses, respectively (not unusual in that their core doctrines promote the exclusivity of those faiths).

Theologically, I have a problem just saying there are "many paths to salvation." This makes it sound like we are free to "pays our money and takes our choice," and I think there is more to it than that. Using the Bible as at least a cursory guide, I believe God is working in ways I don't fully understand in the three major religions--Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. As a Christian, I believe what II Corinthians 5 says: "God is in Christ, reconciling the world to God-self." I don't know what all God is doing in this action, but I believe God may be working through a variety of pathways to find people who are seeking truth. I know the other verses--"Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life," and "Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord"--but if one views these eschatologically, one can believe that God is working in many venues to bring people into a saving relationship. One thing I know for sure is that I can't say for sure what God is up to, other than the biblical statement that God wishes that "none should perish." Does this mean that all will be saved? Unfortunately, probably not. There will be those who will continue to resist the grace of God throughout life, and as one wise old pastor once said, "There will not be anyone in Heaven who doesn't want to be there."

The Pew research also showed that almost 60 percent of those polled believed in a literal "Hell" as a place people would go to who "didn't live good lives." Of the findings of this poll, what most disturbs me is that we are more affected by Hollywood in our theology than we are the church, synagogue, or mosque. It is the stuff of movies that the "good" will go to Heaven while the "bad" go to Hell. These loose designations are divorced from any theological/doctrinal standards. It would seem that the modern trends of the American religious landscape--more believe in God but less and less affiliate with any specific faith community--have begun to dictate our whole belief structure. Without the church, synagogue, or mosque to offer historically-rooted teachings, guidance, and ethics, persons are free to make up their own belief system--and they are. Even some who ARE affiliated with a faith community are no longer engaged in regular worship or educational programs where they may "learn the faith." Hence, they, too, are making up their own theology, as the survey suggests.

I don't have much time for the cut-and-dried fundamentalist views that it is "my way or the highway." And the overly eclectic, "personalized" theology revealed in the Pew study worries me as well. Making up our own God is not any different from what some of the cults practice. Does this make us the "high priest" of our own religion? As a pastor, I teach the historic tenets of the Christian faith, but also urge tolerance among my congregants, suggesting that ours is a faith journey that will include many "wrestling matches" with what the church declares as "truth," our own appropriation of same, and with God, who is always trying to call us forward to a better future for the Kingdom and for all humankind. The word "wrestle" is the best image I can come up with, but it works.

Bottom line: be a seeker of God's truth; offer the love of Christ to people; work to bring grace and peace to the world. Pray that if there is a Hell, that none will go there because God is in Christ, reconciling the world to God-self. And this action may be far wider than the confines of Christendom. Shalom, my friends.

Dr. Jeff

P.S. The website on my "Ten for the World" stewardship challenge is up and running. Find it at: www.tenfortheworld.org

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