Thoughts : Progressive Christianity (Theology) : Theological Pilgrimage – the 5th Stage

I’ve written much about my disappointments with Christianity. Thinking now about it, I could say I’ve been through 4 important stages of my Christian life and now I’m currently in my 5th. The first stage would be when God changed me and I became a Christian in a Pentecostal Church when I was about 16 years old in 1995. Not only did my Christian journey start and God became the most important person in my life, but I also became a full-fledged Charismatic Christian. The 2nd stage started in 1996 and was a period when I started to turn from my Pentecostal/Charismatic beliefs/roots and embrace the Reformed faith. From around the end of 1997, the 3rd stage came about – a stage of integration. From this time till around mid-2001, my great interest was to see the Reformed/Conservative and the Charismatic worlds of Christianity brought together. I longed for balance in Christianity and I was moving towards pursuing my PhD in theology and teaching in a Bible/Theological College one day. My specialization: bridging the Conservative and Charismatic worlds of Christianity.

Beginning from 2000, I started to read more widely. That is, rather than just reading mainly Christian theological books, I started to read about the world, about culture. It first started from books of sociological analysis of this world. Eventually, I became interested in political issues (quite intensively in 2001) and how there was much poverty and suffering as a result of politics. September 11th 2001 could be said to be the full blooming and coming into being of the 4th stage. I was extremely disappointed with the world’s (especially Christian world’s) one-sided response to this event. For most Christians, this was the first time in their life political issues interested them. And their response was to be sympathetic to America because of the great tragedy. No doubt a correct response, what was however conspicuously lacking from their response was any understanding of the politics of this world and how much suffering Muslims (especially Palestinians) have gone through for decades. (Nor did they realize how much Latin Americans faced also during the 20th Century). Thus while Christians grieved because of the tragedy resulting in thousands of lost lives, few cared about how America had oppressed so many people in the past. Few could see that Islamic terrorism – as bad as it is – is probably no worse morally than what America has done many times throughout the Third World – in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. Even few had eyes to see how constant injustice and oppression propagated by the Americans was perhaps what had caused such a hatred for America, which culminated in the September 11 terror attacks. As bad and evil as the terror attacks were, we have to be fair and say also that American actions and foreign policies have been evil to an equal measure, if not more. Yet most Christians are blind to the evilness of the actions of America – sadly, even some have encouraged America’s oppression of Muslims. Indeed, most Christians have been oblivious to the oppression caused by America because the things of “this present world” is not of much interest to them. September 11 was something big to them because it was America, because it was a dramatic event and because it had large media coverage. In terms of suffering and numbers who have suffered and died through this event, what happened then could not be compared with what has happened to millions of people in the 20th Century and what continues to happen millions of people today – that is, great suffering, oppression and poverty. In fact, many times more people die everyday due to poverty-related causes than the number who died on the one day alone on September 11. Yet while Christians could do something about it – considering the kind of lifestyles they live in the First World – Christians don’t. They don’t care. Nor do many care about how American unjustly oppresses so many people. Or about how America has supported State terrorism and even supported terrorists groups in the past – and has been indicted for doing so by the International Criminal Court. Their facade of being for a free world is a big farce and yet Christians all over the world fall for it – mostly out of ignorance and unconcern for “this present world”. And all this greatly disappointed me. I had been slowly coming to grips with what the world was like outside my small little Christian ghetto and how much suffering there is around the world. And I had been gradually understanding that God’s heart is with the oppressed and suffering too – and that He’s concerned with more than just spiritual salvation, but also the physical needs of people. When September 11th came, I became totally disgusted with the response of most Christians throughout the world who didn’t have a clue about the suffering that has occurred and continues to occur in this world. All they knew of was the great tragedy of September 11. They couldn’t put it in context with the other sufferings of the rest of the world. I realized they couldn’t do so because most do not care about the dying poor or the politically or economically oppressed. The typical evangelical’s faith leads him/her only to be concerned with evangelism and the non-material, spiritual things. And that’s the great problem of the evangelical tradition I grew up with.

Two things I’d like to mention here. Firstly, I do not think that it’s only evangelical Christians who are unconcerned with politics and the sufferings of this world. However, while I do acknowledge that many non-Christians also eschew political talk and aren’t concerned about what happens outside of their own small little world, there’s something more in evangelicalism that makes them unconcerned about the physical sufferings of the world. This is the fact that inherent in much of their tradition is a distaste for social concerns, preferring and elevating in importance spiritual concerns above earthly physical and material concerns of the world. Why I say this is ‘inherent’ is because we need to go back to the Fundamentalist (Evangelical)-Liberal divide and see how the former holds firmly to the primary importance of the gospel and evangelism and spiritual concerns over a mere concern of the material world, which the latter tends to hold. That is, Evangelicals prize the spiritual at the expense of the material while Liberal Christians think that Christianity is about social and material concern and has little to say about spiritual salvation and the gospel. Therefore, in reaction against Liberals and to clearly delineate their belief from that of Liberals, Evangelicals have been prone to an over-reaction which emphasizes the spiritual aspects of Christianity (thus proclaiming that a good Christian will concern himself with the spiritual and eternal and getting the lost to be saved) and downplays the material aspects of Christianity (thus proclaiming that a good Christian will not concern himself too much with this present material world and won’t care so much for the temporal and material needs of the world, as Liberals do, preferring instead to focus on the eternal and spiritual).

Secondly, I wish to say that not all Evangelicals are as I painted above. That is, not all within Evangelicalism preoccupy themselves with a one-sided focus on the spiritual at the expensive of the material – but the fact remains that a greatly majority of them do. There are groups like Evangelicals for Social Action led by Ronald Sider (author of “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger”) who realize that Christians and Evangelicals need to have a more holistic faith that takes into consideration both the spiritual and material concerns that God has for the world. Which leads me to my 5th stage.

While my 4th stage can be said to be one of struggle and disappointment with a form of Christianity – the kind I grew up with – that consisted of Churches, parachurch organizations, Christian leaders…etc that shunned material and social concerns, the next (5th) stage – which is still ongoing – could be characterized by one of hope rather than despair, constructionism rather than deconstructionism, positive-ness rather than negative-ness. And I would perhaps point to the beginning of 2003 as the start of this 5th stage. In early 2003, I was led to read the book “A New Kind of Christian” by Brian McLaren. This book has become a defining sort of book for many Christians who have been through a similar journey as me. I wouldn’t say that reading this book was a defining moment in my life. But soon after, I realized that there were many other Christians who were going through the same struggles and disappointments as me. I was not alone. And there was a different way of viewing the Christian life.

So in this stage, I’ve become more hopeful and positive that there are other Christians of similar thinking as me. Before, eventhough I knew that groups like Evangelicals for Social Action and Christians of similar mindset as them existed, I’ve come now to be more actively involved and engaged with groups like that, but more importantly with groups that are seeking to go beyond evangelicalism. I’ve discovered many Christians that are seeking to define Christianity in different ways – transcending the modern fundamentalist/evangelical-liberal divide and seeing things from more postmodern categories. These Christians are calling themselves and defining themselves with labels like “Postmodern Christians”, “Post-Evangelicals”, “Emerging Church”, “Younger Evangelicals” and even “Post-Liberals”. What they all have in common is dissatisfaction with a form of Christianity that is too triumphalistic in its claims of their beliefs approximating absolute truth (of which such arrogance has done nothing but to divide the Church into many tiny fragments), an appreciation for some aspects of Postmodern philosophy (especially as it relates to epistemology), a focus on relationships and community, an appreciation for the emotional (and not solely intellectual) aspects of the faith, and a desire to be concerned also with the material and social (and therefore understanding better marginalized groups like the poor, oppressed, homosexuals, females…etc.) without letting go of the spiritual dimensions of our faith. In a sense, these are Christians who are learning from the mistakes of the past, forging a new more holistic identity and hopefully through all this becoming more biblical and balanced in their Christianity. And all this has given hope to many who were on the verge of giving up completely on the Christian faith. There is after all, as shown and proclaimed through these Christians, a way to be a “new kind of Christian”, so to speak.

While I’ve commented much already on how social concerns for the poor, suffering and oppressed led me to be disappointed with evangelicalism – and these social issues are very important to me, being what first led me away from evangelicalism – I’d like to touch on two other issues that I’m still grappling with in this 5th stage of my pilgrimage. I believe these are two issues that many Christians who have been through a similar journey or who identify with the above labels have thought through quite a bit. The first is the more foundational issue of Postmodernism. The second is the issue of the fate of the unsaved.

Understanding a bit of Postmodernism usually helps Christians like me understand the kind of journey we’ve gone through. We may even identify ourselves as postmodern (as I have) though by that we wouldn’t usually mean that we embrace postmodernism and adopt a postmodern mindset uncritically. To do so would be un-Christian, no doubt, for not all aspects of Postmodernism are compatible with Christianity. Perhaps it could be argued that at its heart, Postmodernism is totally incompatible with Christianity. Maybe so, yet I guess the true answer would turn on what is the “heart” of Postmodernism?

Conservative evangelicals tend to warn Christians to stay away from Postmodernism, equating it with radical relativism. And while they may be right that we need to be cautious when interacting with Postmodernism and that as Christians we can’t accept all its claims, Christians like me would rather like to accept the good points of Postmodernism while throwing out the bad. That is, we believe we can learn from Postmodernism, and thus we are interested in the issue of Postmodernism to a certain extent. We would say that it’s not wise to throw the baby out with the bathwater. And we go further: we would claim that it’s terribly unwise not to understand Postmodernism and how it came about, for through understanding Postmodernism and grabbing hold of lessons we can learn from it, Christians would be wiser, more mature and certainly understand and do things better.

The aspect of postmodernism that Christians like me think good and helpful is when postmodernism challenges us to realize that what people claim as knowledge to be accepted as truth is in actual fact many times merely knowledge from their own perspective, or worse still, knowledge behind which vested interests or hidden agendas reside. That is, people’s claim to absolute truth very often ought to be taken with a pinch of salt as these people may be, consciously or unconsciously, deceiving us to take as objective and right what is really not. This aspect of postmodernism resonates extremely well with me (and many other Christians) because we’ve seen enough of dogmatic statements by people who claim to be biblical and interpret the Word of God biblically which have turned out to be so wrong! We’ve gone through enough bad experiences and know enough of the Christian church and all its divisions and disagreements over this and that doctrine and we’ve heard enough of all the different beliefs which are put forward as the absolutely right one to be accepted that we have become just plain sick of it all. We have become more cautious in accepting what this or that pastor or author or leader says.

It’s not that there isn’t absolute truth to be believed in. I believe that as a Christian, we do believe in absolute truth – for the gospel is absolutely true and our faith rests upon that fact! Lyotard’s definition of postmodernism as “incredulity towards metanarratives” cannot be taken absolutely and without exception, as indeed Christians do believe in an important metanarrative – the gospel/biblical metanarrative. However, we realize that while we seek to promote beliefs and knowledge that approximates correctly absolute biblical truths, very often our interpretation of Scripture and approximations of truth in Scriptures err. We may genuinely want to be objective in our interpretation of the Word of God, yet we can’t help but be influenced by our history, the way we were brought up, the community we were brought up in and sometimes even personal prejudices, biases or hidden agendas. We all can err unconsciously. We all do err unconsciously many times. In fact, it doesn’t take very long for one to be a Christian before he/she realizes the existence of so many denominations (which hold to different beliefs). And when he/she understands that the Christian church is divided on so many issues – while almost all do genuinely seek to hold a position on all matters which is right and true and biblical – he/she will start to understand why postmodernism can be beneficial to understanding the sad situation we’re all in. Indeed, with so many Christians with different beliefs claiming to be right, it’s not possible for us to all be right! Yet they all do genuinely believe in their point of view. What gives? Postmodernism challenges to understand that try as hard as we may, very often we miss getting our beliefs right as many influences seduce us off the path to perfection. To put it more simply, while the Bible is God’s Word and absolutely truth, our interpretation of it doesn’t always do justice to absolute truth. And we err in our interpretation and belief because we’re all fallen sinful humans. This should thus cause us to be more careful about claims to getting it all right – for by doing so it’s just as though we’re claiming to be perfect. No one is perfect and so many times we err. We’d be wise to acknowledge our finiteness and be more humble in our claims.

Such a defense of this aspect of postmodernism will naturally draw much condemnations from more conservative evangelicals who feel that to believe the above is incline too much towards relativism. But I don’t think this is so. I think we ought to give our fallenness due attention or it’ll haunt us in ways we least expect it to. And that is precisely the problem in Christianity today. So we need a dose of this aspect of postmodernism to help bring us back to the reality that we aren’t always right – inspite of how much we wish we were so.

While I’m more certain of my stand on postmodernism – which is that we can learn much from it yet as Christians can’t accept everything of it -, in good postmodern fashion, I’m still struggling with the issue of what the Bible and God says of the fate of those who die unsaved. I believe this is a question very much on the minds of all many Christians. Or at least, I’m sure most would have thought about it one time or another even if it doesn’t trouble them greatly. But I believe it is a troubling question and one that should cause us to think more deeply about. That is, the traditional belief of those who die without trusting consciously in Christ going to hell should cause us to be deeply troubled. The fact that a large majority of Christians are not that troubled by such a belief – that implies that the majority of humankind would go to eternal hell and only a small minority actually make it to paradise – makes me deeply wonder. Why not? Have most not thought about what it means for so many to suffer eternally in hell? Or maybe they don’t believe such would be the case anyway so they aren’t troubled with such a belief. Perhaps it’s too troubling to think about so many of our friends and relatives going to hell and so we just refrain from dwelling too much on such issues. Yet I know many people – Christians or otherwise – have great trouble with accepting a God who claims to be love and yet would send so many to suffer eternally in hell. And because they’ve been told that the truth is such, they struggle much with their faith. Before going on, let me quote a passage from Mrs. Hannah Whitall Smith. She’s the author of the classic book “The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life”. She also wrote another book entitled “The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered it”. However, the publishers who have reprinted this work have actually purposely left out three chapters from the original printed version – basically because they didn’t like what she was writing and didn’t agree with her! Here’s a passage that went “missing”:

[A]fter a few years of exuberant enjoyment in the good news of salvation through Christ for myself and for those who thought as I did, my heart began to reach out after those who thought differently, and especially after those who, by reason of the providential circumstances of their birth and their surroundings, had had no fair chance in life. I could not but see that ignorance of God, and, as a result, lives of sin, seemed the almost inevitable fate of a vast number of my fellow human beings, and I could not reconcile it with the justice of God, that these unfortunate mortals should be doomed to eternal torment because of those providential circumstances, for which they were not responsible, and from which, in a charge majority of cases, they could not escape. The fact, that, 1, who no more deserved it than they, should have been brought to the knowledge of the truth, while they were left out in the cold, became so burdensome to me, that I often felt as if I would gladly give up my own salvation, if by this means I could bestow it upon those who had been placed in less fortunate circumstances than myself.

I feel much of what Mrs. Hannah Whitall Smith wrote above. The truth is that if we reflect upon the world today and who are the people who believe in Christ, a lot of those who believe are those who have been placed in a more favorable circumstance to believing. I’m not talking here only of how it is that the gospel has come and been preached in only certain places of the world and thus many have been brought up in places such that they have never heard the gospel. But even in so called places and countries that have many Christians and where probably everyone has heard the gospel preached, there is still the influence of one’s community or of one’s bringing up that makes it almost impossible for many to become Christians. For example, in Singapore, the majority of Christians are Chinese, some Indians and hardly any Malays. Why? Because it is simply hard for a Malay to become a Christian due to their upbringing and their own community which places much pressure on them to not become Christian. While there are some Christians here who have a burden for the Malays, the fact is that many Christians (who are Chinese) tend to refrain from reaching out to the Malays. Not only is it illegal in a certain sense, but many do not have that many Malay friends. When I think of all this, isn’t it true that some people are placed in a more favorable circumstance to believing, and others not? Isn’t it true that many Malays in Singapore (and in Malaysia) are those who, in Mrs. Smith’s words, “by reason of the providential circumstances of their birth and their surroundings, had had no fair chance in life.”? And isn’t it unfair and incompatible with the justice of God that because of this “these unfortunate mortals should be doomed to eternal torment”? In fact, if I were born Malay, I’m very sure that it’s most likely I wouldn’t be a Christian now!

In December 2002, I bought two books related to the whole issue of the fate of the unsaved. Both were from Zondervan’s Counterpoints series and thus allowed me to survey and compare the different views of the issue discussed. One had to do with Salvation – “Four views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World” and the other dealt with Hell – “Four views on Hell”. Both featured Clark Pinnock, who argued for a view in each book. Pinnock was once Reformed in belief but changed his theological track and has been moving more liberal (I use this word in a general, not technical, way) in his views for quite some time. When I was more staunchly Reformed, I would read a lot of criticisms by Reformed authors of his change in direction. However, due to my own journey away from more conservative and Reformed evangelicalism, I’ve come to understand his journey much better now and he is now one of my favorite Christian author and someone I really respect.

In the book on Salvation, Pinnock argued for an Inclusivist view, which is the view that, though grounding and establishing Salvation in Christ, believes it is universally available. That means, it is possible, though not always the case, that people come to know Christ through other religions. Other views argued for were Pluralism (by John Hicks who believed that all ethical religions lead to God), the Salvation in Christ view (by Alister McGrath who is agnostic regarding those who do not explicitly confess Christ) and the Salvation in Christ alone view (by Douglas Geivett and Gary Phillips who present a more exclusivist view, believing only those who explicitly confess Christ will be saved).

In the book on Hell, Pinnock argued for a Conditional or Annihilationist view of hell. This is the view that those who go to hell would be annihilated. That means, people who go to hell do not spend forever there. Rather, going to hell means going to a place where they are literally destroyed, that is, where human beings, in CS Lewis’ terms, “fade away into nonentity”! Other views expressed were those of the Roman Catholic Purgatorial view and the more common Literal and Metaphorical interpretations of hell.

After reading these two books, I leaned towards Pinnock’s Inclusivist and Conditional/Annihilationist views. Although, of the two, I think his Inclusivist view is more convincing biblically. However, around the middle of 2003, I read Keith DeRose’s article entitled Universalism and the Bible. This was the first time I read an article laying out biblical arguments for Universalism. I had vague ideas about what Universalism was before reading this site. My first reading of this article did clarify some misconceptions as to what Universalism is and how it could be defended. Yet even that didn’t move me much as the idea of Universalism was too offensive to my mind – even as a Christian who was becoming more open to alternative beliefs. A few more readings of the article gradually convinced me that there was a strong case for Universalism in the Bible.

Overall, the 5th stage of my theological pilgrimage has been characterized by much more openness. Also, rather than dwelling in disappointment of much in the Evangelical church, I’ve tried to go beyond all the negativity and am slowly moving forward. It has helped greatly that I’ve started to find a group of Christians throughout the World (especially in the States and the UK) who have gone through the same stuff, having come out disenchanted with the fundamentalist attitude of much of the Evangelical church. And whatever label you want to use to call it, or even if you prefer not to see it as a movement, there is no doubt that there are many Christians who are seeking to go beyond mainstream Evangelicalism and seeing the Christian faith in a different way. And so it’s in the midst of all things exciting for the future of Christianity that I find myself in! I’m learning and I’m struggling. I’ve still not come to my conclusion concerning Universalism – and probably never will – but I remain a hopeful Universalist. I’m also beginning to look into the issue of homosexuality. Will there be a 6th stage of my theological pilgrimage? I’m sure there will. But till then, I’m happy at where I am. It’s challenging to tread the path I’ve gone. But that only makes life much more exciting!

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