Thoughts : Progressive Christianity (Theology) : Christianity and Idealism

On the 28th of June, 2005, I had a wonderful meeting with an old friend of mine – Zachary Harris. I got to know him somewhere around 1998-99 from a previous church I attended. Somehow I maintained contact with him through email and met up with him in 2004. I lent him some books I had on the Holy Spirit and the Baptism of/in the Holy Spirit as he was interested in that topic. Through that meeting and emails to him before that, I shared with him my burdens concerning the lack of interest by mainstream evangelical Christians in social issues and social justice. He shared with me a bit then about his interest in missions and also his view that missions should not be conducted in a “secret” way. What he said then didn’t really impact me partly because I didn’t know much about his particular view and how he came to it. However, during this particular meeting, he shared more about his idealistic view of how missions ought to occur in the present day (which is, of course, to say that it doesn’t occur in such a way) and I was left very excited and inspired by what he shared.

Perhaps another Christian may not have been as impacted through hearing what I heard. In fact, I’m sure very few Christians would have felt as excited as I did and most would actually put his view down. But I was inspired and encouraged through his sharing. The reason was simple: I found in him a brother who was a fellow idealist. He read the Bible, realized how most Christians live nowadays (for him, this living is in terms of how we do our missions) differed so greatly from the ideal of how God wanted us to live and yet he didn’t try to justify our lack of attainment of the ideal (or at least our lack of seeking to attain the ideal). Rather, he sought to live out that ideal. Here was a fellow idealist at heart who was troubled by the lack Christians who are seeking to live out the ideal. He wasn’t about to give in and say like almost every other Christian that the ideal is impossible and therefore we have to be realistic and just do as much as we can do. “You have to understand that we’re mere human beings and not perfect”, most Christians would argue. And yet for him, he believed the ideal ought to be strived for. And he has been and is doing precisely that now. What an inspiration!

Yet I think one thing needs to be clear too. In a way, every Christian will say they are striving for the ideal – i.e. we are striving to live as God wants us to live in all we do. So we also need to ask the question of “what ideal?” we are talking about. We would like to think that in all we do, we’re striving to fulfill the Christian ideal that God has set before us. But are we really? G.K. Chesterton once said:

The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.

I think the truth is that the true Christian ideal has, for the most cases, been found too difficult and therefore left untried. Very few Christians have tried to fulfill such an ideal. The majority of us Christians, when confronted with the true Christian ideal, have not sought to fulfill it but have instead found the ideal too hard to fulfill. When this happens, we somehow soften the ideal and change it to suit our lifestyle. We come out with all sorts of explanations as to why this is really what we ought to be seeking to fulfill (the weak, distorted ideal) and not that (the true ideal). Really, these explanations may seem so right, but I think a lot of times they are just justifications and excuses. We find it hard to fulfill the real ideal and therefore we soften its demands through well thought-out reasoning. In the end, we have a distorted ideal that is sensitive to our needs and lifestyles! I think this quote by Kierkegaard illustrates well what I’m trying to say:

The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.

Although Christian scholarship has its place at times, I think we also need to be very careful of it. Christian scholarship doesn’t just mean Christian reasoning at the highest intellectual level (by well-known scholars or learned men) but also reasoning, arguments and explanations we so often use to justify a position – often a position that is much more favorable to the lifestyle we live. Take any hard demand in the Bible and anyone can come up with at least some arguments for softening that demand. Who stands to benefit from softening of the ideal? Us Christians. It is so easy to interpret what the Bible says in a self-serving way. This is a very important danger we have to be aware of.

And so very often when there’s a great gap in what the Bible demands of us Christians and how we’re actually living (be it in the way we ought to be reaching out to the lost or how we should be helping the poor), most Christians will explain away that gap by using arguments that the bible actually doesn’t demand such and such a thing. We do this really to soothe our conscience. If we can get ourselves and others to believe that the Bible really doesn’t demand that much out of us, then we can live a more comfortable life! Who wants to sacrifice our time and money to help the poor and reach out to the lost? I’m quite comfortable with my materialistic lifestyle, thank-you-very-much!

So what exactly is Zach’s ideal view of Christian missions – which I definitely think is closer to the Bible’s ideal than the softened ideal we hear nowadays? I’ll quote from a summary of his “case against secrecy in missions” taken from his homepage:

Many regions of the world today are considered hostile to Christianity and restrict all forms of missionary work. Thus the notion of “security” has become a well-developed part of the missionary enterprise. For example, if believers are gathered together at all it is often in the form of an “underground” church. Spreading of the gospel is limited to “low-key witness” (i.e. that which does not arouse too much attention).

The primary problem I see with “security” is that it does not adequately honor God. The way God interacts with His world is definitively public, not secretive. If actions speak louder than words, then secrecy does a terrible injustice to the message that the Good News is for everyone, that God is the God of all people, and that He is sovereign over all the affairs of the world.

Second, secrecy is based on limited human reasoning, not the revelation of God. An entire generation of Hebrews was denied entry into the Promised Land because they listened to the report of giants in the land rather than God’s command to enter that land. We have not been commanded to go in secret (Matthew 10:27, 2 Timothy 1:7-8).

Secrecy is also based on a false theology of persecution. We from the West export our expectations of a safe and comfortable Christianity. In contrast Jesus said, “If they hated me they will hate you also” and Peter said, “Rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ.”

Finally, secrecy does not do the job of getting the gospel out to an entire community. For good reason we see the Lord and His apostles at times engaging the public. Their message soon saturated the society and became a public issue.

To put it simply, Zach believes that the ideal way to do missions is to proclaim Christ publicly. This means even in a place where the government or the people are staunchly against Christianity. Of course, being public and unashamed of the Christian faith would only get you in trouble in such a circumstance. It may get you jailed, arrested, stoned to death…etc. In other words, it’ll get you persecuted. Almost all Christians fear persecution and thus have invented a way of doing missions that will result in less persecution. This way of doing missions is to be basically secretive in missions. Christians justify such a way of doing missions through appeals to “wisdom”. It is wise, they argue, to seek to spread the gospel in a way where there will be less resistance. Yet is this secretive way of doing missions really based on God’s wisdom or merely man’s wisdom – and man’s fear of being persecuted? Zach thinks it is based on man’s wisdom and I am inclined to agree with him. Indeed, as I’ve said above, when the ideal is too demanding, we fallen human beings love to invent ways less demanding and we also come out with good arguments to justify those ways. Those less demanding ways may seem “wise” – but really only in the eyes of man. God demands radical faith and discipleship. I think if we were to honor Him with our faith and boldness in preaching the gospel in a non-secretive way just as the Apostles did, He will surprise us with many miracles and wonders and salvations. We may think that preaching the gospel in a non-secretive way isn’t going to result in many conversions but if we think as such aren’t we dishonoring God through not only our little expectation and faith, but also through disobedience to Him? I think if we were to go in faith and boldness and realize that it’s not our words or our ways but the Spirit of God who brings results and conversions, God would truly move in a mighty way beyond our expectation. We may think a more secret and subtle form of outreach may evoke less resistance, but I think God will mightily overcome all resistance if we just faithfully obey Him and publicly proclaim Him to the lost. No doubt, there will be persecution and martyrs to go along – but isn’t this part of the whole package as presented in the Bible? Didn’t Jesus promise us persecution? If in our so-called wisdom, we’ve managed to avoid such persecution when doing missions in a secretive way, one wonders whether such wisdom is indeed from above or below!

Those who have read some of my previous articles would know that I still struggle in many areas of my theological thinking. I wrote about my sympathies towards Christian Universalism – a view that everyone would be saved ultimately through confessing Christ. I’m thus still not sure about many things. However, if I were thoroughly evangelical in my thinking – as Zach is pretty much – and believe that only those who confess Christ will end up in heaven, then I think the way to do Christian missions is precisely the way Zach described it – without secrecy, with faith in God’s power to move, with boldness and willingness to die as a martyr if it be God’s will. Evangelicals don’t do it that way of course and that’s why I think many unbelievers find them hypocrites. Let’s face it, unbelievers find us hypocrites because we don’t live the true ideal of the Bible – be it in helping the poor, reaching the lost or loving our neighbors. In regards to reaching the lost, evangelicals in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia do not really reach out to Muslims in their own countries. This is mainly due to our acceptance of the “secret” way of doing missions – a way that’s supposed to evoke less resistance and allow the spread of the gospel to carry on more smoothly. In accordance with our “secret” way, we propose relational or relationship evangelism (reaching out to people through focusing on relationships) to reach out to Muslims. Of course this “secret” way of missions fits in perfectly with our fear of persecution and the fact that it is somewhat illegal to evangelize the Muslims. All in all, we prefer the “secret” way of missions. It is supposed to be a “wiser” and more “effective” way of doing missions that would result in more conversions ultimately. The result? No surprises there. Hardly any Muslims have been converted. And we’ve succeeded in being so secret and evoking so little resistance that the gospel actually hasn’t spread at all! Our “safer” method of doing missions has utterly failed. There are hundreds of millions of Muslims in Indonesia alone and if we were to continue in our methods of doing missions, hundreds of millions of them will go to hell (thinking here as an evangelical would). I think evangelicals, who truly believe that these hundreds of millions would go to hell without Christ, know they ought to do more. Our “secret” ways have failed. Perhaps we need to be more public in our speech and more trusting of God’s Spirit to move during our public proclamation of Christ. But do we have the guts to face the persecution that would result? Do we have the faith to believe God’s Spirit to move mightily? Will we start seeking to fulfill the true ideal and not an easier softened version of it? If we dare, I believe we will not find God’s ideal wanting at all.

Let me continue on with Zach’s story. The above was a bit about his beliefs. Now, let me share with you how he lived those beliefs out. Three things I want to share here. Firstly, he shared with me his urgency for doing missions. He’s currently studying to do his PhD in a local University. As he’s on scholarship, he can’t just quit his studies – if not, he may have to pay back a bit of money to the University. However, he shared with me how he wants to quickly leave his studies and go into the mission field. Getting a PhD wasn’t exactly a goal of his but pursuing it and being on scholarship provided him time to think over certain issues in his life and especially whether he felt he should go and do mission work. Now that he was sure that he should go to reach the lost, he wanted to do what he had to do. He told me that he’s trying to divert his PhD studies to do a second masters instead so he could finish his studies at the end of 2005 – one year before he would had he continued for a PhD. Here he was, not really giving any value to getting a PhD. Indeed, all he needed was to study just one more year to get that higher degree. But to him, the degree didn’t mean anything, as all he wanted to do was quickly reach the lost.

To me, this is a true man of God. I respect him and missionaries more than I respect most of the other types of Christians because they are the ones really and truly living out the ideal of the Bible that calls us to reach the lost. They are devoting their whole lives to reaching the lost. Yes, we do need Christians in our own land reaching the lost through our jobs and so on. But really, let’s admit it, the great majority of us don’t do that much of outreach in our workplace or in our daily lives. We like to justify our comfortable lifestyle through the fact that we’re also witnessing in our workplace and that there’s a calling for everyone (meaning, of course, that the calling for me is to live comfortably here and not go out and sacrifice my life to reach the lost), but the truth is, we are really enjoying ourselves more than living for God.

Let me talk a bit more about “callings”. I really don’t know what that means but it’s often used in the context that God has different purposes for different people and therefore we can’t expect everyone to do the same thing. Well, I think there’s a certain element of truth in it but I also think the “different people have different callings so you can’t expect everyone to be like this or that” line has been used all too often to justify our apathy towards God’s demand of us. While we aren’t all going to do the same thing in life, God does have at least some identical purposes for all Christians: to reach out to the lost, to help the poor, to put others before self, to love to the point of dying for the sake of others…etc. Those are heavy ideals and common “callings”. The point is are we doing all of this through whatever vocation we are in? Before we answer this, just look at the world with millions dying and millions lost. Look at these facts alongside the fact that most Christians are living pretty luxurious lifestyles wherever they are then I think we know whether we are near God’s ideal or not.

I often hear other Christians telling me that I’m being too extreme in my thinking that all Christians should sacrifice more to give to the poor as there are so many poor in the third world. They tell me that everyone has a different calling and thus we cannot say it’s wrong that many Christians live luxurious lives or aren’t doing more to help the poor. Well, seriously, I think those are some of the dumbest excuses and justifications. Look at the poor suffering and struggling to live and if you’re telling me God is satisfied with how Christians have treated them, then I can only stand amazed. But maybe I shouldn’t be so amazed because I know that any belief or lifestyle is justifiable. As Kierkegaard stated above, we Christians are scheming swindlers that would do anything to come up with our self-serving beliefs.

If we know how many “lost” there are in this world, I think the only right conclusion is that we Christians have failed in reaching the lost. There are not enough missionaries simply because there are few willing to sacrifice their lives totally for the lost. Many more people have been “called” into the mission field. It’s just that we’ve ignored God’s calling. Don’t tell me that we all have different callings! I think the truth is that God has called more to the mission field than there are at the moment. And I think God has called those staying in their own land to be more faithful in reaching the lost than we have been. Also, God has called more Christians to stop spending so much and give more to the poor. I have no doubt that all this is true because God is a God who loves the poor and the lost and somehow we have a church on earth that has utterly failed to reflect God’s heart in these matters. The only reason can be that we’ve failed in our calling as a whole church and too many of us have ignored the call to carry the cross and deny ourselves for God’s glory and greater purpose. I just wish we’d acknowledge this and stop sticking to the “different callings for different people” line. Let’s stop use the “different callings for different people” line to justify our apathy towards striving for the ideal. The ideal is there. It is to reach the lost and help the poor. Let’s stop making excuses for ourselves. Why be so defensive? God’s not going to send us to hell just because we fail! There’s no need to kid ourselves that we’re doing fine. God loves us in Christ and we’re sinners saved by grace. There’s nothing wrong with failing. But there is a lot wrong with deceiving ourselves that we’re not failing when we are. The first step is to acknowledge we’ve failed and stop making excuses for our failures. The next step is to challenge each other to reach for the ideal that God has set before us.

Secondly, I want to share about how Zach lived out his “non-secretive evangelism” theology in Malaysia. In April this year, Zach went up to Malaysia to meet a fellow American friend Rick Rupert. Together, they went to a park and started to talk about Jesus to Malaysians and also gave out some books of Bible in the Malay language. They also brought along a banner which mentioned that the Good News was for all people – including Malays. Evangelizing the Malay Muslims was illegal and Bibles in the Malay language had to be stamped with the words “Not for Muslims”. Zach and Rick of course didn’t care about these laws because they felt that Muslims needed to be reached for Christ too.

As Rick was able to speak the Malaysian language, many Malay people started to hear what he had to say and also asked many questions. When it became dark, they moved towards a more lighted area and it so happened that they talked to a group of people outside a Mosque. Eventually they were arrested and sent to prison. Over the next 9 or 10 days in jail, both had the opportunity to share their faith with other prisoners and government officials too. They could easily have been jailed for a couple of years but somehow it ended up that charges against them were completely dropped. Indeed, God intervened. Furthermore, there was at least one case of healing that occurred, a few conversions and many changed lives as a result.

God definitely was with Zach and Rick in all that they did. They risked their lives for His glory and in order to get the Good News out to a group of people that few Christians are reaching out to in Malaysia. Most Christians in Malaysia who heard of what they had done reacted in a negative way. For them, Zach and Rick were spoiling all the good “secretive” work of outreach that Christians have been doing all along in Malaysia. What both of them did was considered “unwise”. These were the normal Christian reaction in Malaysia. Yet how much fruit has their more secretive and less confrontational way of evangelism yielded? Seriously, I doubt much. It’s almost illegal for a Malay to be a Christian in Malaysia. You’re not going to reach them through relationship evangelism. What’s going to set them free to be Christians is God’s great and mighty power. It’s going to happen when Christians preach boldly, not fearing persecution. And there will be persecution no doubt. There will be confrontations. But there will be God’s mighty Spirit overcoming all opposition too.

The third thing Zach shared with me was about his desire to share Christ with Muslims here in Singapore. While Malaysia is a country led by Muslims and thus has strict laws against the evangelism of Muslims, Singapore has a secular government. However, we’re very sensitive about racial and religious issues here and always keen to avoid such sensitive conflicts. Zach told me he wanted to hand out Bibles in the Malay language in public in Singapore. He asked the police if it was possible and was referred to the much feared Internal Security Department (ISD). They asked him to go over to their office for a talk. He went there and shared with them what he wanted to do. Obviously they didn’t take too kindly to it. The ISD exists to maintain the internal security of Singapore and one very important way is to maintain religious harmony here. What Zach wanted to do was surely bound to create religious conflict. The ISD sought to intimidate Zach but never actually said it was illegal for him to distribute Bibles in Malay. However, they said he would be held responsible if a riot or whatever resulted from his acts. Zach shared all this with me and said he hoped to set up a table in public one day to distribute Malay bibles.

I’m truly inspired by Zach’s idealistic beliefs and life example. Idealists in this pragmatic world are indeed hard to find. For it is not easy holding to such radical and ideal beliefs. Harder still living them out. Zach knew the majority of Christians would disagree with his view of missions and think he’s wrong. Yet, he has still stuck to his belief and has sought to live it out. And this is no self-serving belief he holds on to! It’s a belief that he knows would result in persecution for himself. In fact, before his Malaysian trip, he prepared his family for the worst. He knew anything could happen to him. Yet he wasn’t afraid for he only wanted to be faithful to God.

I understand how hard it is for him to be told by most Christians that his radical view of how missions ought to be done is wrong as I have always been told by many Christians that my view of what I believe is God’s ideal for how we ought to use our possessions and how we ought to help the poor is too radical for Christians to live by. It’s not easy to hold on to a view that we’re convinced is right and biblical but which most of Christianity think lowly of. Zach holds a radical view of missions in the same way I hold a radical view of how Christians ought to live in the light of world poverty. And I know it’s hard to hold that radical ideal view when everyone looks down on it. You start to wonder how outspoken you should be about it and whether you should continue believing in your radical ideal and seek to live it out. You are so tempted to just live the way other Christians live and not be so different from them. I have been tempted so many times. Many times I tell myself:

Perhaps I should just be more realistic and not seek to live up to what I believe are God’s ideals for us. After all, no one is doing it. No one even believes that God’s demands are that radical. So why should I continue to believe in what I believe in? And why should I seek to try to live out such a belief. After all, it demands a lot of me and I have good reasons to forsake the ideal and just live a “realistic” life. Why not just be like everyone else? If I’m like everyone else, I’ll be more accepted and it’ll give me less pain. And living a life that is less ideal and more realistic would also demand so much less of me.

So the temptation is always there. Especially when you have few friends or no friends who hold the same view and who can encourage and challenge each other towards attaining that ideal. That is why I was so encouraged after talking to Zach and seeing a fellow idealist seeking to be radical for God. Getting to know his story and how he is seeking to pursue the ideal in the face of much disagreement from the rest of the Christian community has been a great encouragement and challenge for me.

This entry has been a mish-mash of some thoughts in relation to idealism and Christianity. I’ve tried to say at least two things in relation to idealism. They are really two ways that I see people react to ideals and idealists – which, of course, as an idealist I do not like at all! Firstly, because it’s difficult to attain the ideal, many people think it’s ok not to put one’s heart into striving for it. They come out with excuses that we human beings are not perfect and thus it’s ok if we fail. This helps them soothe their conscience and allows them to justify them living a pragmatic life. We all are inclined to think like that because living the ideal or seeking to live it out is not easy at all! We may set out in the beginning with great ideals but as we confront problems (reality), we tend to lose our ideals because they are just too difficult to attain. That’s why the young are often people with great ideals but when you become older, you start to think more pragmatically. Some true quotes about idealism:

Idealism increases in direct proportion to one’s distance from the problem. (John Galsworthy)

Idealism is fine, but as it approaches reality the cost becomes prohibitive. (William F. Buckley, Jr.)

All idealism is falsehood in the face of necessity. (Nietzsche)

Indeed, as we draw closer to the problems (costs), our idealism recedes. Gradually, they become false to us and totally unworthy of paying attention to when we face so much need. That’s the reality of ideals and idealism. It takes a lot of courage, conviction and commitment to hold on to our ideals. The great majority of us give them up. When we think of ideals, we all say, “Wow, that’s really great.” But then, most of us somehow think that such ideals are beyond our reach and therefore there’s no urgency to seek to fulfill them. This is the easy way out that most of us take.

Christianity is full of ideals. It is a radical religion. The calling of Jesus is radical. It is to deny ourselves, take up the cross and follow Him. We are not promised a comfortable life, but rather persecution. We are called to be a sacrificial community that shares our wealth with the poor. We are told to feed the poor, clothe the naked…etc. All these are radical demands! Yet how we’ve just set them aside and said, “Woops, great ideals you have going there God. But it’s a little too difficult for me. I’m sure you know I’m only human. Therefore, I’ll take a pass…”

The majority of us respond this way. And yet we think there’s nothing wrong. We continue our Christian lives as though all is ok. We don’t care much for the lost. We don’t care much for the poor and suffering. All we care for is our lives. Yet, when we say the Christian ideal is too difficult for us, we’re really saying following Jesus is too difficult for us…

The second thing I wanted to say in relation to idealism is that there’s another way to avoid thinking about and living the ideal besides just being plain apathetic to it. That is the way of softening the ideal. This is what Kierkegaard was talking about above in his “scheming swindlers” quote. Indeed, we human beings are great at justifying ourselves, our beliefs, our lifestyles. That’s why we’ve come up with a belief of missions that has resulted in less persecution for us and which has demanded little faith from us. We’re too scared of the biblical way of doing missions so we’ve invented a newer and less radical way that also serves us very well – we don’t want to be persecuted! Or take the issues of poverty and the suffering of the world. We Christians do not want to sacrifice our standard of living. We don’t like what the biblical ideal says about us sharing our possessions, selling it to help the poor, feeding the poor…etc. So we come out with excuses. We say it’s ok for a Christian to live a luxurious lifestyle because we deserve our wages and God is blessing us…etc. Again, softened ideals for self-serving purposes…

I’ll end my entry here eventhough I can go on and on! I’ve written about the biblical ideal of helping the poor elsewhere. This entry has been more about Zach and his life and the “non-secretive” method of missions. Living the ideal Christian life is not easy. I know it. I just completed my University studies and have to think about working. Now I have to think of getting a job to earn my living. Here’s the stage when most often one loses one’s ideal. I don’t want to do so. I know it’s not impossible to strive to live the biblical ideal. It’s difficult in the first world with the consumerism and materialism and what have you. But even then, it’s not impossible. Everything is possible. It’s only how much effort you want to put in. It’s about whether you’re going to say to yourself you can do it, or whether you’re going to find the easy way out and say to yourself that you’re only human and therefore that’s an excuse for being indifferent to God’s ideals. The challenge for me in my life is to strive for the ideal. I don’t think I’m perfect. No one is. I’m not wishing we be perfect. But I just wish more Christians would not ignore the ideal but rather strive for it. With more Christians acknowledging that the ideal is so different from how most Christians live, we can encourage and challenge each other. Though we will always fail, we will move closer to God’s ideal. I think that’s good enough and what God desires of us.

(Just a note here to say that I do think that the Church Planting Movements (CPM) I talked about elsewhere seems to me now – after having talked to Zach and thinking things over – as a less than ideal method of doing missions. I don’t want to condemn it totally and be dogmatic and say that the “non-secretive” method is THE only correct way and that CPM is the wrong way. But I do feel that CPM is further away from the ideal than the “non-secretive” method is. The fact that one of CPM’s aim is to be secret in order to avoid persecution makes me suspect about how biblical such an approach to missions really is.)

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