by Eric Elnes
I. Christians Behaving Badly
On February 26, 2011, a two-minute-fifty-eight-second video was posted on YouTube to promote a forthcoming book that, within hours, sparked a firestorm. Two prominent evangelical leaders, Justin Taylor and John Piper, raised an immediate cry. Taylor posted an entry on his blog which stopped just shy of reporting that “the sky is falling” (Taylor). Piper simply posted a three-word Twitter message that bid “Farewell” to the video’s creator.
By the end of the day, the video was the tenth hottest topic on Twitter. In less than a week, over 2,500 blogs had been posted in response and countless forums were gathered on Facebook in heated debate. Within a month after the video’s initial posting, more had likely been written about the video, the book it was promoting, and its creator, than was written concerning Martin Luther in the decade following his posting of the 95 Theses. Very impressive considering that the book had not yet been released!
At the center of all this controversy was Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill Church in Grandville, Michigan – one of the fastest growing evangelical churches in the country. The simple statement that set off all the alarms was Bell’s suggestion that a non-Christian like Mahatma Gandhi may not be burning in Hell.
To some, the idea that anyone who is not a Christian could go anywhere but hell for eternity is, well, for them hard to swallow. If this belief strikes you as cold-hearted, consider that people who hold such beliefs don’t generally hate non-Christians. No, these conservative brothers and sisters neither relish violence nor harbor glee over what they perceive to be the fate of non-believers. In fact, many are some of the most generous, loving people you’ll ever meet – people who are simply trying to do the right thing, based on their beliefs. Compassion compels them to save souls from eternal torture.
Now this debate over salvation created a very curious affair. It polarized Christians of both sides of the theological divide. The irony is that any of those who resonated most strongly with Rob Bell’s belief that “love wins” (which was the title of his book, incidentally) tended to be just as abusive in defending their beliefs as the fundamentalists were in attacking them. As Christian blogger, Rachel Held Evans noted in an interview on Darkwood Brew, “One thing I noticed from some of my more progressive friends who loved Rob Bell’s book was [an attitude toward opponents] like ‘Love wins. Eat it!'”
II. I’m Telling Mom!
This being Mother’s Day, I wonder how God would handle the controversy if God were a Mom.
When I was young, my brother Scott and I fought constantly. When Scott and I would fight, the most offended party would go tell Mom. This would inevitably put one or both of us into “time out.” Mom’s approach generally stopped the fight, but not the fighting, which lasted clear through high school. We didn’t become true friends until I left for college, and thankfully we’ve remained so.
When it came time to have children myself, I felt relief to become the father of two girls. But I quickly learned that it’s not just boys who fight. Girls can be every bit as vicious and brutal, though their tactics may differ. Thankfully, Melanie’s approach to sibling rivalry was more effective than my mother’s. Melanie did not separate the girls. She sent them to the bathroom. To the same bathroom. With the command not to come out until they could get along.
At first, behind that door we would hear some blaming and name calling. Then silence. Then a small giggle followed eventually by boisterous laughter. Within five or ten minutes we’d be telling the girls it’s okay to come out. But they wouldn’t! They were having too much fun in the bathroom.
After a few of these bathroom sessions, the girls learned to tame their arguments or quiet them so we parents couldn’t hear. After a dozen sessions, they worked their fighting almost completely out of their system. Maren and Arianna have been best friends since they were roughly six and eight respectively.
I wish God would send Christians into the bathroom once in awhile when we’re fighting, with the mandate that none of us can come out until we get along – really get along. (No fooling God!) Can you imagine Pat Robertson in there with John Shelby Spong? Can you imagine yourself in there with your theological opposite?
Shy of conversion, what would cause a liberal and fundamentalist Christian to move from disdain to positive regard?
III. By This Way of Life
There are any number of ways that two people can change their hearts about each other despite differences of belief. It’s not uncommon, for instance, for Republicans and Democrats to marry each other. Do you know such couples? (Darkwood Brew producer, Scott Griessel, once created a hilarious video on this theme.) Christian liberals and conservatives marry each other, too. At my church, Christians are also married Jews, Buddhists, agnostics and atheists.
I don’t mean to minimize the difficulties such couples may experience. Sometimes differences of belief, particularly profound ones, cause significant pain and hardship in a marriage. Sometimes they even break up marriages – or at least people claim they do. But if you’ve ever met a couple who remain madly in love with each other and faithfully committed despite profound differences of belief you know the special magic they exude. And why wouldn’t they? However it happened, whether their awareness came easily or through trial-by-fire, they’ve discovered that when True Love comes into conflict with something as well-armed as Unshakable Belief, well … Love wins. They begin to apply this discovery to their whole relationship, by which they model a way of life that is literally beyond belief.
Now, if imperfect, human couples can find ways to love each other despite vast differences of belief, can’t God find ways to love us as well, despite what we believe or fail to believe?
In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). What? Except through Jesus? Most Christians assume this means through belief in Jesus. But Jesus doesn’t say through belief in him. Jesus simply says “through me.” What could it mean that we come to God through Jesus if it’s not through belief in him?
Actually, John tells us what it means. Here are the opening lines of his gospel (John 1:1-5):
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
The Word, according to John, is Christ’s true and highest identity. John’s Gospel claims that all things come into being through this Christ. It says that apart from Christ “not one thing came into being.” John makes it pretty clear that we and everyone else, belief or no belief, fit into the category of all things. So coming to God through Christ has nothing intrinsically to do with our belief in Christ. Christ does not reveal that through belief in him we can have a relationship with God. Christ reveals that we are in relationship with God whether we choose to believe it or not.
We might better grasp Jesus claim in John 14:6 if we understand Jesus as revealing not “the way,” which many mistake as “the belief,” but “the way of life” that all people live when they discover, embrace, and trust their relationship with the Source of all Love, whether Christian or not.
You may be sensing a sudden decline in Jesus’ ratings on the scale of importance. Does this mean Jesus is unimportant? Not to a Christian! After all, who reveals this way of life to a Christian? Not Krishna. Not Ganesha. Not Lao Tzu or Confucius. Jesus reveals it. He shows what it is like to fully accept, embrace and place trust in our relationship with a God who loves us beyond our wildest imagination. In so doing, he shows us what it means to be fully alive. Through Jesus – and particularly through his love for us that not even a Cross could defeat – we find the assurance that this love relationship we have is trustworthy, and that God is faithful to this relationship even when we are not.
IV. Jesus Is My Mylar
Now, imagine yourself with your theological opposite in a bathroom with a window open on a sunny day. And you have a piece of Mylar with you
Mylar is a kind of stretched polyester film that is both transparent and highly reflective. It is so highly reflective that it can reflect enough of the sun’s light to actually look at the sun – briefly – without going blind.
Once in the bathroom, stop crossing your arms, sticking your tongues out, and huffing and puffing at each other just long enough to open the window. Find the sun and feel its warmth on your faces. Is the sun warming just one of you, or both of you equally? Hmmmm. I guess the sun doesn’t really care which one of you is right …
By the way, how do you know it’s the sun warming your face and not a heat lamp? Of course, you know through long experience, not belief. Hmmmmm. So belief alone is not that makes it possible to feel the sun’s warmth … In fact, the sun will warm you whether you believe in its existence or not.
Doubtless, the two of you have snuck glimpses of the sun over the course of your lives. How long have you ever been able to look at it before turning away? A couple of seconds? Now, hold the Mylar between yourselves and the sun. You can see it more clearly than ever – and without looking away [Note: This is just an illustration. Even looking through Mylar long enough will blind you!]
This whole thing is a metaphor, of course. It’s a metaphor created not by me, but by St. Augustine to describe the Trinity in the 4th Century (minus the Mylar!). God the Father (or Creator) is like the Sun. The Holy Spirit is like the light of the sun on your body and the warmth you feel from it. Jesus is like the Mylar. By looking at Jesus, we are able to see God more clearly, and keep our gaze fixed on God longer without being overwhelmed by God’s radiance. Through Jesus we discover that God’s love is not round like the sun, but Cross-shaped. It is Cross-shaped love – self-giving love, full of grace and forgiveness – that fills the world with light that even the deepest darkness cannot overcome.
A Hindu living in New Delhi does not need to believe in Jesus to experience God’s love, grace and forgiveness anymore than she needs to hold Mylar up to the sun to experience its warmth. But when she experiences that warmth – that love – she will need to decide whether or not to accept its offer to remain there or shrink back to the shadows.
What, then, is the benefit of following Jesus as opposed to Krishna or Ganesha? Truly, I cannot tell you the relative benefits because I’ve never been Hindu. All I can say for sure is what the benefit of Jesus is to me. He is one who walked fully in the light. It is by his invitation that I have had the courage to step out of the shadows into the light. And it is only through his living, loving Presence – which I know as the Holy Spirit and other faiths know by different names – that I have the courage and trust to stay in the light rather than rush back to the shadows. It is the incredible warmth I feel that moves me to invite others to step out of the shadows as well
It is BY THIS WAY OF LIFE that I have come not only to know God, but to know others and myself most fully. And not only to know, but to love.