The folly of Christianity

If we have lost our concepts we have done so because we are living lives that make sense even if Jesus was not raised from the dead. But he was raised. (Stanley Hauerwas, The Work of Theology)

Like so many things Stanley Hauerwas has written, the quote above strikes me as true and leaves me puzzled about how to apply what he has written to Christian ministry in actual churches with the people we find there. What does it mean, after all, to live a life that makes sense only if Jesus Christ was raised from the dead? Hauerwas seems to think the answer to questions like that are so obvious that they do not need to be explained.

My hunch is this. I suspect that what he is advocating is a life that could only be called a “good” life if Jesus Christ is Lord and the promises of Christianity are true. In other words, it cannot be a life that you would call good by the standards of contemporary American culture or ancient Roman pagan culture or any other culture that does not take as its center point Jesus Christ.

What Hauerwas is calling for, I think, and what gets so many people uncomfortable with him, is a life fundamentally at odds with what most Americans would describe as living the good life. The dream of many Americans is to live a life centered on what gives them pleasure, including the pleasure of feeling like they are being a good person when they share some of their time and their money helping those who are “less fortunate.”

Hauerwas argues that such hedonism — even if it is a soft hedonism that we feel slightly awkward about at times — is at odds with Christianity on a fundamental level. Christian life is about serving a Lord who said, “Deny yourself and follow me” and “turn the other cheek” and “do not lay up treasures on earth.” Those commands make no sense to us and they are foolish to follow unless, it turns out, that the one who said them really is Lord of Lord and King of Kings.

 

A few pretty ideas and nothing more

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them. (John 3:36)

Do you ever encounter this in church? Do you ever meet Christians who cling tightly to verses that promise life to those who believe in Christ and yet ignore the call that Christ puts on their lives? They act as if “belief” in Christ means nothing more than saying a few words with sincerity about his divine nature and his resurrection from the dead.

I find this attitude rather widespread and also quite difficult to change. Christians have been persuaded that this thin version of belief is all that is required for them to get to heaven, and so they rest happy in the delusion that Jesus Christ, their Lord and Savior, calls them to do nothing more than to hold a few pretty ideas in their head. They cling to John 3:16 and Romans 10:9 and look for loopholes in the Sermon on the Mount and the parable of the sheep and the goats.

The phrase I picked up from somewhere along the way goes like this: “The hardest people to convert to Jesus Christ are nominal Christians.”

Have you found this to be true? Do you have an experience with moving people deeper in their belief?

The temptation we don’t discuss

They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace. (Jeremiah 6:14)

Clergy face a temptation that is not talked about much and certainly never breaks into public attention the way other temptations we face do from time to time. It is the temptation to tell our congregations what they want to hear.

A sizeable number of our people want us to soothe their fears and worries with easy assurances. They want to be able to get on with life and not think about things like sin and death and eternity. And if we help them do that, they will thank us and love us, or at least they will until the day comes when they are staring into the black night of death and they discover the elixers we’d been feeding them were strong enough to numb what had been haunting them but not strong enough to cure them.

Too many Christians get to a crisis of faith and discover they have built upon sand. They face death and find themselves overwhelmed by grief and terror. They experience the loss of a loved one and uncover deep wells of bitterness toward God that drive them away from church forever. They encounter hardship and find that they have no spiritual reserves to draw upon because they have been fed straw rather than true food. And it is people like me who have helped them arrive at this point because we are too afraid of upsetting people and too worried about how we will stand up to the charge of hypocrisy. We make a secret and unspoken pact with our people. I won’t talk to you about sin and salvation too much and you will bring me lovely little cakes. It all works out fine until the sand start to give way beneath their feet.

I am a far from perfect man and a far from perfect pastor. I am going on to perfection and have much distance to travel still. But I truly do believe that we preachers do a grave disservice to our people when we offer them words of peace when what they need is to have the source of their fear and unease brought forth where it might be exposed to the light of the gospel. That is scary work and painful for all involved, but it is the only way we can truly help people. Soothing their pain in the moment only sets them up for much worse down the line.