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PRACTICING PURE CHRISTIANITY IN THE WAY WE LIVE

Paul Serwinek, PhD

The time has come for we who are Christians to rethink where we are going with the treasure, we call Christianity. The handwriting is on the wall. Western Christianity in Industrial Society is waning yet the tenets of Christianity are more important than ever.  This is an opportune time to take stock and make a few minor adjustments with the slant of our message, our appeal and our dogmatics. Throughout the 3500 years or so of our written history of Christianity and its antecedents (the time of Abraham, the twelve tribes of Israel), the knowledge of God has had to make periodic minor changes to keep up with the times and the ever-changing environment and extant knowledge, yet the message has remained essentially the same.  During that time, I would propose that the basic concepts of Western and Middle Eastern God -Seeking has been striving for a relationship with God that has not changed but the methods and the details have progressed.

MY PLEA

This is my call: Don’t be afraid to put Christianity in a relevant, modern setting!  Don’t let doctrinal dogmatism divide us in our effort to fulfill our commission. Please let me explain my thesis of two simple points before you raise objections.  Two simple provisions will change the misunderstanding toward Christianity. To put Christianity back into relevancy we ask two things. First Christianity must stress the positive not the negative. The message is to stress GOD’S LOVE not punishment or hatred as it comes across to many now. Don’t we agree the basic requirement of Christian Heritage, going back as far as written history goes, is GOD’S LOVE and our responsibility for DOING GOOD? Don’t complicate things!  Read the many Psalms (Psalm 37:3, “Trust in God and do good,” for example). Micah 6:8 stipulates, “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy.” Jesus’ instructions and the apostles’ repeated message (Romans 2:7, “God will give each person according to what he has done. To use who by persistence in doing good seek glory…he wil give eternal life.” See my full treatise on DOING GOOD. Even the simple synopsis of Jesus’ ministry is summed up with the description at (Acts 10:38), “Jesus went around doing good! “ If people only knew that’s what Christianity does and wishes to accomplish. Christianity does GOOD for those who choose the course and the new adherents DO GOOD for the community and society. And as scripture predicts, “By their fruits you will know them.” Unfortunately, that’s not always the way it is with our Faith.  Christianity has a negative connotation to many. Society should be able to see unreservedly that followers of Christ do a lot of GOOD IN THE COMMUNITY. We’re not here to preach negativity but to preach the “Good News.” I’ll explain this all in more detail.  The second point is this. Stressing doctrinal differences is divisive and confusing. These conflicts get in the way of spreading our message. As an example, some Christians believe in a literal Hellfire. Others, like C S Lewis suggest that Hell can almost be conceived of as a type of “purgatory.”  Neither denies that actors are “punished’ for their sins. To what extent God has the world set up so humans punish themselves by their actions and to what extent God has a hand in it seems rather trivial. Don’t let doctrinal dogma stand in the way of spreading the Good News. And as an aside, the “Good” News does NOT stress SIN but stresses FREEDOM. More on that later.

My two suggestions for Christians to remember again: The Christian message is proclaimed through the way we live and that means “doing good.”  And second, divisive doctrine hinders fulfilling our God given commission.

 

CHANGING METHODS & MARKETING NOT CHRISTIAN MESSAGE

Consulting written human history which I mentioned goes back some thirty-five hundred years will confirm the unchanging Christian heritage. Anecdotal history goes back even further to also confirm the basic immutable concepts. For example, written history is available to confirm without any doubt those same  concepts of a monotheistic, all-powerful God with the necessity of some sacrificial arrangement for humans to feel worthy of calling the creator of life “Father” and the need for a set of guidelines to form a pathway toward a spiritual outlook have remained basically the same, without change. However, when worshippers grew to the size that the rules of individual tribes (large family units) were no longer adequate, provisions were made and when regional international hegemony began controlling nations, provisions for a King and Priesthood were instituted. Later when Israel was subjected by the Assyrians and then Babylonians and came out of exile and had to start anew, additional guidelines followed. Later Jesus came with further clarification and further adjustments were necessary.  Still later when Christianity became a major international religion, this required new provisions. Throughout the Middle Ages culminating with the Protestant Reformation, the picture became ever clearer. However, through all this time, 3500 years, the basic concept and picture of a God and His desire for a relationship with mankind was constant. Guidelines were periodically attenuated to accommodate changing society and changing human environment, though these concepts have never changed, seeking a relationship with God and doing good.

CAN WE AVOID CONFLICT AND FIND COMMON GROUND?

So, when I say, “Now is the time to pause and meditate on where we are going, I’m not talking radical transformations. A few simple adjustments, at most, may be necessary. We live in a global economy in a developed world with instant connectivity to nearly every society on earth. Since 1950 the vast majority of people, at least in the developed West, are almost totally unfamiliar with an Agrarian society that previous Judeo/Christian tenets thrived in. The fact that large numbers of individuals with a Christian Heritage are exiting the spiritual umbrella of Christianity should be a call to action. Especially young people are saying Christianity, as they perceive it, is no longer relevant. What is so pitiful is that many Christians, perhaps the majority, deny that anyone could possibly feel that Christianity was irrelevant and argue, “What do you mean Christianity, irrelevant, it’s relevant to me, what’s wrong with you?” What they should be admitting is, “I can’t argue with you; if you say Christianity is irrelevant to you, I have to take your word for that; so how can we make it more relevant to you?  It is relevant to me but how can we communicate to you why something that has stood the test of time for at least 3500 year is still relevant today.”  As was mentioned, back in 1950 most people in the US either lived on a farm or had parents or relatives who lived on a farm, many Baby Boomers can vouch for that. That is no longer true though. That being the case, most people in the U.S. no longer have first hand knowledge of “sheep and goats,” “wheat and tares,” “seeds growing,” “trees bearing fruit,” not even ever having slaughtered an animal for food let alone familiar with animal sacrifices. No, we do not disregard these illustrations in the Bible but we supplement them with more up to date analogies. Most everyone understands “garbage in and garbage out,” as a phrase, for example. So, we use the current vernacular to express these same scriptural principles. Again, in this age when most young people are familiar with computers, we can be relevant and start a conversation by asking, “What do you think, is passing on something you read on the internet without firsthand knowledge or researching ethical?” But then you’ve got to make it clear by the word choice, the tone of your voice, or your countenance you are sincere. I often preface my thoughts with, “I don’t have all the answers but there are biblical guidelines that seem to apply here, let me show you…”  So much more can be done to appeal to the youngest members of our society.

Not only can more be done, but the method is so simple. Look for common ground first. Talking to a non-believer, I can mention that science has come to the conclusion that you can’t prove life has any meaning or purpose and guidelines for living can’t be proved to exist. I can agree with that; science cannot prove any that is strictly subjective. And if I can further agree from purely logical reasoning that her basic assertions may be true, the two of us can start our discussion with agreement not disagreement. But then I can add, “We all live by a set of rules regardless of whether science may not be able to prove those are the best rules, but we still need rules, don’t we? How did you come by those rules and why are your rules very similar to the rules I live by? A conversation such as that will usually have satisfying results.

And further, many young people may claim they don’t know if there is a God, but they admit, something had to exist before the Big Bang that formed the Universe, didn’t it?  Where did the material for the Big Bang come from? We can at least agree on that much too, can’t we? I tell them, “That ‘something before the Big Bang’ is what I consider the essence of God or comes from God. Now you’re not sure what existed before that Big Bang, logically something, you agree. Well, we agree more than we disagree, don’t we?” Don’t make it complicated. Find out where your discussant agrees with you. Maybe you as a Christian didn’t need reasons to come to God. You may have learned of God as a kid, you may have been brought up without questioning and over time you began to appreciate the promises and comfort from scripture. Appreciate that others have not come to the table with the same back ground as yours. Similarly, the promise of a safe place to sleep at night or a free meal don’t mean the same as in previous generations, before our welfare state was conceived (please let’s not argue politics here). You know what I’m saying. What is relevant now, especially to the young members of society? Maybe a free meal or free lodging may not have the same appeal today as in Bible times but I can think of tons of other needs relevant now. Those are the ones we stress now. We’ll discuss this later.

I am contending that to publicize Christianity properly we must make a few changes in our appeal to the public. I am not talking about radical transformation, just a minor attitude adjustment. I feel we need more of an emphasis on love and less on fear and fear inducement. I also note some of us have gotten out of balance between employing reason and feelings in the conclusions we come to. Both are necessary when appealing to humans, logic and emotion, each just as important.   But I often see one or the other dominating as the basis for positions on various issues. Logic may be the starting point but feelings, emotions and intuitions are just as important. Modern science uses only logical reasoning, eschewing the other three because they are subjective and they haven’t been able to figure out how to integrate the two separate sets of reasoning yet. Christians must remind any logicians they meet of that fact, subjective reason is necessary in real life, otherwise some decisions could never be made otherwise.

I’ll also argue, Christianity needs to be more practically oriented and less doctrinally oriented. Remember, Jesus’ attitude was arguably more optimism oriented with less emphasis on the negative. Finally, let us never forget the spiritual aspects of life will always be mystery-laden. I won’t that the time to go into detail on these three, Practicality, Optimism and Mystery-laden, all three are essential in appeal to any truth seeker, young or old. As proof, recall 2 of the most famous Bible passages. The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talked mainly about practical living. The Beatitudes of Jesus were all about thinking with optimism. Mystery, I will spend a few minutes on Mystery shorty since many Christians don’t realize it is a necessary part of truth seeking. In our search for answers humans may insist on having explanations for questions about the future, the here-after, only natural. Not only are we not intended to have those answers, it is impossible! While in human form and mind, how can we ever understand the mechanisms and intricacies present in a spirit realm? When confronted with such questions a believer need not apologize when they don’t have an answer, it is just a fact of life, an answer isn’t possible.  In the meantime, why not spend more time and effort emphasizing what seekers really want and what will fulfill their needs. What is lacking in our modern world is purpose in life, meaning for our existence, simple steps for guidance, a realistic basis for faith and, yes, a simple, logical partial answer to that question of “Why a Loving God tolerates Evil.”  When evangelizing, I plead with those of little faith, “Rather than closing your mind to any mediations on Christianity, at least resolve not to make any decisions until making a thorough search into the logical reasons for and benefits of a spiritual outlook.

OUR CHRISTIAN PLIGHT

Before I go on, I think it helpful to mention my work in the field of U.S.  demography. This information makes it very clear, who our audience really is. I realize that to 20% of the U.S adult population my appeal for a New Look for our Faith will have no interest and be meaningless. You see, having studied American population and Christianity in detail, I came to several realizations.  The data suggest, give or take a one or two per cent deviation, there is ten percent (10 %) of the U.S. population who are extremely Liberal in their political and social attitudes and another ten per cent who are extremely conservative socially and religiously. This suggests the expectation that each of these two groups, respectively, have attitudes very different than the other ninety percent of the population. Those extreme Liberals hold views far beyond the sensitivities of the average American. By the same token, on the conservative side, that other ten percent, are so extreme in views that they alienate as much as 90 per cent of the population by their speech and actions. I expect these two extremist groups will never agree to a good-faith discussion on social, political and religious issues. Hence, I appeal, and Christianity need only to appeal to the eighty percent, populous majority. For example, there are as many as ten percent of our adult population who have no reservation to admit if it weren’t for the majority of society, they would have no compunction in seeing children as old as one year  be terminated (I’m not talking about Abortion here, I am talking of self-sustaining living children), who medically and financially are a burden to society. Read the surveys. That ten percent accepts a moral code outside the comprehension of the other ninety percent of adults. Ninety percent of the population in the US would not go so far in their condemnation of the unfortunates. This is just an example. But the other extreme group is steeped in Tradition (e.g., the Bible) to interpret most everything literally. They flatly will not discuss the possibility that God did not create the Universe in six literal days, for example. For them, reasoning holds little value. Still I have and Christianity has the majority, some eighty per cent of the population in the middle as an audience and I feel we may successfully reach out to them.

I am absolutely certain we can very easily balance the claims of modern science with the traditions of the past. Reasoning and logic have its place in a modern world but we also must rely on emotion intuition and feelings to sustain any improvement in society.  Science thinks in physical terms studying material phenomena, yet many scientists categorically refuse to consider the possibility of a dimension beyond the physical though they can not offer any justification for their views other than to say we have not come across such proven evidence yet. In other words, though our physical minds and material senses may not be equipped to sense such evidence, they say, it is best to ignore the possibilities. It is unfortunate we live in an age where humans categorically refuse to open their minds to any possibilities beyond what they are comfortable with. Yes, there are extreme liberals and extreme conservatives who refuse to even consider further discussion, though only the extreme conservatives are currently getting the negative press.  I and we can simply appeal to all who will keep an open mind.

 

DON’T BE AFRAID OF MYSTERY

I wanted to spend a few more minutes on Mystery since many Christians don’t realize it is a necessary part of truth seeing, a I mentioned earlier, Human nature insists on having explanations for questions about the future and imagined fancies. However, not only are we not intended to have those answers, it is impossible! While in human form and mind, how can we ever understand the spirit realm, if there is one? When confronted with such questions, don’t apologize, when an answer isn’t possible.  So, don’t steer the conversation to such unproductive areas. Often Christian apologists give the impression they have all the answers or that their answers are the best available. But to aver they have logical arguments beyond rebuttal for hard questions like “Why a Loving God tolerates evil?” or “How the process of salvation works” is misleading and leaves out the “mystery” that scripture intends.  These are mysteries as scripture claims, we are not in a position to have all the answers. Yet believers spend inordinate amounts of time arguing these unanswerable questions without access to experience beyond the physical. One major pitfall of religion is trying to explain everything as if there were no mystery! Having a physical mind immediately limits the answers we can anticipate. Religion, in general, has made it a project to try to invent answers to some of these mysteries when they would be better off admitting they don’t have an answer or at least to say, “Here is a suggested answer but we are not being dogmatic…” Mystery requires FAITH and that is what Christianity is built upon, “FAITH.”

One of the biggest mysteries in the very nature of God. Genuine seekers but mostly skeptics will question, “I don’t understand this mystery of the Father, Son and Holy Spirt. Jesus said, when talking about the coming End Time, he didn’t know when it would come but only the Father did. Yet He is purportedly “God.” I remind myself of why I can’t understand the details of the spiritual realm when handicapped with only a physical mind. I cannot do that but I can readily comprehend how I should strive to live in this physical realm since Jesus gave instructions clearly understandable to anyone with a functioning physical mind. As spiritual people let us be content to follow to the letter the instructions we can comprehend and not to be so anxious about the unattainable details. I have learned the lesson not to be too dogmatic about interpretation of the mysteries of scripture. Don’t condemn others unless you can say with confidence, “I have all the answers.” And be reluctant to abruptly want to change thousands of years of inspired tradition that has stood the test of time. Broaden it, clarify it, but don’t condemn it, just because one personally doesn’t feel it fits in our modern world.

A good attitude, I think, is exemplified by the social commentator and philosopher C S Lewis. His insights on life and Christianity are written in an unassuming manor. His conjectures about the hereafter, for example, are quite intriguing. At the same time, he was one who was courageous enough to change his views on spiritual interpretation throughout his life. Many revere him although relatively few would go along with all his views. I like to believe that Lewis’ non-judgmental attitude fits more in line with what a God of love would endorse.   This is why I use C S Lewis as a mentor and why he is popular among most Christians. Not only was he non-dogmatic but he was not afraid to speculate openly with his personal musings. Most all Christians respect him, but more than respect, they venerate him since he had a fresh, engaging outlook. Take Lewis’ view of Hell, almost like a Purgatory, but he was not dogmatic. He simply stated how he believed a God of Love might deal with imperfect sinners who start out in life with two strikes against them in the first place. Treat this as an interesting idea, but not an issue.

DON’T START WITH HATE OR NEGATIVES

What I’m stressing here is that the true, pure message of Christianity is needed more than ever today. But certainly not in the way it has been portrayed for much of the last fifty years. While Christianity may have inherited the authoritarian laws of the Old Testament, adjustments were made.  Those original directives were simple, beautiful and very necessary for a time. There was a time in history when a unique people who had a special relationship with God. That Old Testament law attempted to guide a whole nation, with one unified culture, to conform to a proper standing before God. Rules are necessary at times. Just as restrictive rules are necessary for naïve children on occasion. As a father I necessarily taught my kids by an authoritarian standard. When I stressed the rule not to touch electrical sockets with any object including their fingers and when I stressed under pale of death not to play with fire, there was a reason. Absolutes were and are necessary. However, kids progress beyond that rudimentary training. The quick and dirty way to engender obedience is fear and punishment and there are circumstances when this method is necessary. For a uniform culture, a culture devoid of diversity, the kings and religious leaders could employ the quick and dirty fear and punishment method. Remember the Jews shunned diversity in favor of exclusivity but such a stance would not work in our global world. Along came Jesus with his appeal to friendship, love, empathy and relationship building, along with an appeal for diversity. A positive, not a negative, message addressed to the whole world made up of a diversity of humans- all races, all cultures, all political systems. He portrayed a vision for the ultimate society. So, he taught primarily not fear but freedom, a life style befitting of free-will moral agents.

The reason many in developed countries are leaving or declining Jesus’ invitation since today’s appeal often still comes based on fear not freedom. We admit, Fear and Punishment work for a time but only a limited time. Furthermore, the appropriate message to our society, the developed world, made up of adults who mostly already have food, water, heat, power is not the material necessities but Love, Belonging, Meaning, Satisfaction. Remember, once Jesus had come, at first, Christianity was simply called “the Way.”  A way of life. A new way to walk with God based on a relationship, the appeal to become closer to God than one could even be with a best friend. A person who chooses to live “The Way” will be transformed over time. This is what we should be highlighting now. The concept is simple. With God’s blessing, start over with a clear mind and conscience and a positive attitude, you will find the meaning and satisfaction for which you are yearning. My urging is for us to get back to “the Way” mentality; a way based on living in the present, acting charitably in the present and with an optimistic hope for the future. Start over with a clean slate and be led by a set of guidelines befitting of free thinkers who claim to be motivated by a measure of goodness already built within them.  Unbridle and encourage the millions of Christians, who right now have seen how their lives have been changed for the better, to testify openly of their experience.

STRESS THE POSITIVE

We must spend much more time highlighted the benefits of our Faith rather than bickering among ourselves. Every time a detractor takes objection to our Faith, come back with a positive. Somehow, we have gotten put on the defensive, whereas Christianity started out on the offensive. We must get back on the offensive. I’m certain there can be a major turnaround in the public’s response to our message. Our message is Good News! Society is tired of all the negatives in the news. Let’s talk more about the charitable work we do. How many at risk kids we helped and how we did it. The work we do, visiting the sick in hospitals and visiting prisoners who deserve a second chance. Our churches might weekly in services invite members to recount the good they did the previous week. I personally try to give my own testimony to others when an appropriate time arises. I can say unabashedly, since I had begun following the Way, my life is a life of fulfillment and satisfaction. I can say, unlike many physiologists,” Follow the guidelines set out in scripture as I have and experience a beautiful marriage of over fifty years like mine, it works. Very different than some of my friends who are marriage counselors who have to say, “Yes, I’ve been married several times but I think I got it right this time and we’ve already been married five years with no signs of breakup yet.” They admit, “I’ve learned by experience how not to have a fulfilling marriage; I can tell you what doesn’t work…”  Christianity must continue to stress the positive difference their faith can make.

My appeal, and I wish it was the appeal of most Christian leaders, is to avoid spending time arguing over what a Bible verse really means. Preach more about how Jesus’ Way will transform one’s life now. Give inquirers examples from one’s own life of the difference Jesus’ Way has made. A seeker will see the benefits almost immediately. What binds us most as Christians is LOVE not doctrine. The main doctrine of Christianity is LOVE. Out of LOVE, God wants to share His happiness with others. Out of LOVE he devised the provision for Jesus to come to show us the WAY and to give up his life to demonstrate by example true LOVE. He assures us we have the FREE WILL coupled with FREEDOM to start over regardless of our past. All this because the Father and Jesus have compassion and LOVE. I, too, can affirm that if He could transform my life into a beautiful journey I have to believe, somehow, he can right all past wrongs. How do I know? Yes, it takes faith but my transformed life gives me the basis for faith, it’s not blind faith anymore, it’s verified faith. Think of it this way. Like so many Christians, I can describe my life as a journey driving down on a rural country road on a sunny day. The scenery is beautiful, refreshing and inspiring. But you’ve got to watch where you’re driving. The old country back roads are pocked with large potholes, some as large as craters. They can be scary, if you’re not careful you can lose control. Sometimes a severe wind and rainstorm, out of nowhere, can pop up, through no fault of your own. However, don’t lose your cool, be patient and wait a little while and in most cases the sun comes out again and you’re riding in the fresh, INVIGORATING air again. That’s the way it can be for most Christians. That’s not always the case because some Christians have never been taught the “Ask and you will receive and seek and you will find” mentality Jesus evinced in his life. The rest of the story about the negatives in life can readily be explained but this is not the time for that extended discussion. See my other treatments of Why Evil at my website. All I can say, after a lifetime of experience, truthfully, my life has been like that wonderful ride on a back road in the country at times with rain storms and, in fact life threatening hurricanes, so to speak but all considered happy, with peace and satisfaction. Don’t most people want that? I think so, and that’s what I’d like our leaders to teach.  I took Jesus’ invitation and I proved it works! I realized He promised me everything I need so I have no need for aggrandizement of power, extreme wealth or material things. Jesus taught me what wealth really means and how to become wealthy. I have what I need and know what makes for happiness.

This is all part of the WAY, a life style based on FAITH and LOVE; Faith that there is a loving, all-powerful God, Faith that He has enough love to send His Son to show us the way and provide an act of Love so extraordinary that we can start over in our lives and somehow He’ll right all wrongs. And how do I know? I accepted his invitation to just try his Way and like a miracle I am happier now than I was before I made the choice.

 

MY APPEAL AGAIN

Following up on this need for a relevant path, as we mentioned before, the FEAR part doesn’t work anymore. Most citizens here have the basic necessities materially. However, people no longer can put their finger on what’s missing from their lives. The vast Middle class is kept busy with mundane pleasures until suffering enters – a death, an illness, loss of a job or marriage breakup. Our task now, as heralds of Christ, is to emphasize what is missing now. We can Just ask, “Why is it when rich have all their material wants met, they still are lonely?”

I want people to look at Christianity from a positive light. How it helps NOW. How it helps one prepare for any eventuality or ordeal that may come in the future. The ability to walk day by day with purpose and meaning in life. Can we get our friends to stop long enough to ask them to answer, “What’s most important in your life and why?” “Ultimately what do you really want?” If you want something material or physical, that’s fine, but know there is something even better when you get bored with the material. Just be cautioned to know you must live through the consequences of your choices. That’s where Jesus’ day to day advise comes in to play. Don’t you want your best life, the life that is custom made for you, for your personality, your capabilities, your circumstances? He’ll help you get there.

This is the MESSAGE. The gospel stripped of confusing doctrine. An environment that gives you the right to question what you believe and the ability to suggest optional ideas and alternative viewpoints. Let the scriptures you read inspire ideas within you.  The right to humbly suggest what comes to mind but doing so without the need to belittle another. To be more succinct, I want to see “PURE CHRISTIANITY LIVED IN THE PRESENT AND DEMONSTRATED IN THE MOMENT.” Scripture and Jesus’ message is practice and for the now. How to live a meaningful, practical, stimulating life now. Might you play a part and insist that Christianity be taught the way Jesus would want it taught?

Paul Serwinek PhD     drpaul@instituteformerechristianity.org

 

Institute For Mere Christianity