A FAITH LOSING POPULARITY
There are reasons for the current decline in the popular standing of Christianity. Some of them, like the shocking modern record of priestly paedophilia are reasonable, others less so; for if the church is not innocent neither is the world. But amid the pattern of shifting sympathies we have to recognize a growing impatience with Christian intransigence on some issues that have become more vital today than previously.
Why, people wonder, and especially when America’s churches have long supported separation of church and state, should recent years have shown quite the level of outraged, conservative legal opposition to gay rights and abortion that has been evinced? If churches had been generous to the welfare of an often bullied, discrimination-ridden gay minority, would LGBT rights ever have become the self-righteously protested demand they now are? If churches had been less ready to criminalize or excommunicate traumatized, raped women or those whose lives were in danger, would “a woman’s right to choose” have become quite the secular feminist issue it now is? And whatever one’s convictions, shouldn’t there have been more latitude towards especially those not church affiliated? So what too often looks like an inflexible, political boss church (now sometimes protesting it is martyred because its beliefs are no longer protected) has itself partly to blame for a worsening PR situation.
But….. today a new kind of intransigence looks set to spark further alienation and confusion. And this time the quarrel is more fundamentally around faith and its rights and with unavoidable implications for personal rights and free speech in society more generally. This time the subject, even if a materialistic world ignores it, is “salvation” – who has or will have it.
TALK OF SALVATION CENSORED
We shall be hearing increasingly about this subject because, even if and when the theme is ignored by secular society, the related question of free speech can’t be so but rather affects everything. So we can’t afford to get this wrong. There is increasing pressure in the once Christian West from Russia especially but even England, to prevent Christians from witnessing to their faith – in almost any way. Don’t wear a cross, don’t offer to pray for patients, don’t invite people to church (short of government permission in Russia), don’t hand out literature lest anything from people’s multicultural to their Muslim to their gay or their feminist feelings be offended. And so on. In America a sheriff has recently had to hand over 41K to atheists for the misdemeanour of promoting Christianity on a department Facebook page though apparently some of the posts were as innocent as “living today is best done with a lot of prayer”. Recently an American duty marine was court marshalled for not removing from a work cubicle a verse from the bible that didn’t even mention God or Christ! There’s a relentless slide towards silencing. (Some months ago it prompted a poem from me
This is a controversial situation of some real gravity. Democracy and liberal society ultimately depend upon free speech. This is why for the greater good it may be preferable that a few sensitivities be hurt than that society and the laws indulge the merely offended through whose actions freedom of speech can be gradually eroded in favour of thought police and rigid PC values.
The rights of faith or belief must be respected. To the extent they reach into matters of conscience that everywhere feeds the most basic sentiments of freedom and independence, they should enjoy some special, careful protection if need be before what is closer to what’s inconvenient or hurtful to the feelings of minorities (which is not to say the latter are unimportant). It’s not good enough, it’s even shocking, that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has advised Christians not to speak about their faith now unless asked. Nothing could be further from NT counsels to preach the gospel to the whole world (it’s Christ’s own last commission Matt 28:19) and even to “proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or not” (2 Tim 4:2) and right now is not any favourable time.
PERSONS AND IDEAS DIFFICULT TO DEFEND
That said, plainly there are believers who would defend a right to something like “insistence” from attitudes and belief positions so extreme it helps bring the entire matter into disrepute. Although a distinct minority, there is a kind of uncompromising, aggressive evangelist, professional or lay, who on supposedly biblical grounds more or less sends to perdition anyone who resists their message. Just as free speech would not be best defended by appealing the rights of flat earthers to be heard in prime time, it would be better if protection of religious rights not have to expend too much energy defending the most absolute expressions of doom, gloom and damnation. But just what is the argument around “salvation”, one that threatens to increase as multiculturalism and the global village expand?
It is now trendy, liberal and many would maintain only good-neighbourly “inclusive”, to maintain universalist views with regard to belief. All religions are deemed essentially equal and the same: we all worship the same all-loving God (even if the Buddha denied the existence of any God/Creator and nowhere does the Koran assert that God is love) and everyone, unless the very worst, are heaven bound by default (although all religions have always had some version of Hell/Hades). We may call this (or at least its new pop version) the Rob Bell view of religion – its case is argued for by that ex-evangelical in his bestselling Love Wins favoured by the New Ager Oprah Winfrey. The doctrine can sound generous and intend well except that it now threatens to make an excluded enemy of dissenting voices.
Against this and as its polar opposite is pitched a conservative and would-be biblical position to the effect that only those who believe in Jesus can make it to heaven and escape the hell fires and this because Jesus died not as early Christians maintained principally to ransom us from Satan and the powers of evil, but primarily to satisfy the wrath of his Father’s offended honour (an emphasis deriving from the twelfth century St Anselm).
This would seem like bad news for vast populations of humankind who have never even heard of Jesus and plain distressing to converts who are invited to believe they will never see or know their forebears again unless perhaps glimpsed through the flames of hell. We can call this the Choo Thomas view of salvation after a Korean-American woman visionary’s claims in her bestselling Heaven is so Real. Her love of Jesus was so intense and her heaven so real and experienced over a series of improbably frequent trips there with Jesus, that she was somehow able to come to terms with being shown her mother, a good woman who didn’t know about Jesus, screaming in torment……
DOES CHRISTIANITY HAVE ANY MIDDLE PATH ON “SALVATION”?