Tag Archives: Jim Burklo

Ross Douthat is a Genius.

Seriously. You’ll not hear me say that very often about anyone, but in this case I think it’s justified. The ouster of Metropolitan Jonah has all the makings of a brilliant story. A high level church official, the highest actually, has been implicated in a cover up of a rape by a deranged priest. There is sex, alcohol, religion, and scandal, but all anyone can seem to talk about is an article Douthat wrote about the statistical decline of the Episcopal Church. Small newspapers in smaller midwestern towns are giving each other high fives at the downfall of the nominal Christian. Episcopal bishops repudiate the criticisms, Episcopal parishioners echo them, and Episcopal priests try to temper them. Meanwhile, emergent, missional, politically leftist, and every stripe of hipster Christian have launched an Occupy the Blogosphere movement to protest the caricature. How did Douthat do it? It has been outrageous, and I am clearly by no means immune. (I’ve even caught myself arguing in the comments of other articles with people clearly too riled to think straight.)

Considering how heated the discourse has become, a few clarifications and disclaimers seem to be retrospectively in order on my part.

The liberal-conservative continuum is a useful but not flawless tool for discussing contemporary Christianity. I endeavor to be very careful with the labels I use in describing Christian groups. A historical perspective has afforded me a wonderfully rich taxonomy with which to precisely categorize various manifestations of the faith as they have appeared repeatedly throughout history, and I am convinced that it is safe to talk about a “liberal” wing of Christianity and a “conservative” one that dominate the scene in the American religious landscape. Now there are important qualifiers there. First, only America is in view here. Talking about liberal and conservative Christianity in Africa would conjure completely different images if not, more likely, be entirely nonsensical. Second, liberal and conservative Christianity dominate but do not constitute the American religious landscape. There are many groups, some significant theologically and some powerful within small segments of society, that fall into neither group neatly. Any kind of binary system of categorizing Christianity will necessarily fall short. (Sorry, Byron Williams.)

Ambiguity is the mother of conflict. Much of the tension that has arisen in the wake of Douthat’s article has been a result of uncertainty about just what is meant by “liberal Christianity.” Some of this has been on the part of self-styled liberals misreading what is being said in an effort to serve their own agendas. Much of it has been on the part of conservatives who are so busy rejoicing in their arguments that they do not take the time to clarify them fully. Even Douthat is somewhat at fault. It has been rightly pointed out that liberal Christianity can and does thrive in ways beyond what can be measured by attendance in the Episcopal Church. Douthat, however, is very careful to limit his criticisms to institutional bodies that have embraced liberal Christianity. Thus, saying that the “spiritual but not religious” demographic (who are often embracing the label “liberal Christians”) yet grows is not to debunk Douthat but to confirm him. They are leaving the liberal churches because they have nothing left to offer. Additionally, many have complained that certain liberal church groups are continuing to grow, churches that cling to the traditional core of Christian doctrine but play free-and-loose with traditional Christian forms. Again, however, Douthat makes very sure to define liberal Christianity as theological liberalism, the marginalization (if not obliteration) of all theology and dogma in favor of left-wing social and political causes. Cf. Burklo. Churches that keep the faith and update the practice are the kind of liberal churches Douthat wants. Which leads me to…

The decline of liberal Christianity is nothing to be happy about. Douthat is careful not to gloat over the predicted demise of the Episcopal Church, and other conservative Christians should follow suit. The conservative church has always existed in order to temper the unbridled pursuit of progress as its own end, to sustain the truths which might be (and in many cases have been) discarded when they become inconvenient, and to continue the stress on holiness which has characterized God’s relationship with His people from its earliest recorded moments. What the conservative church needs to realize is that the liberal church has an important function as well. It prevents the rest of the church from embracing the fallacy that something must be done a certain way because it has always been done a certain way. It keeps the faith fresh, timely, and growing. And, perhaps most importantly, the liberal church has historically stressed social ethics as a counterpoint to the conservative church’s stress on personal ethics. Conservatives rightly have a problem with vulgarity, sexual libertinism, divorce, and substance abuse. Liberals rightly have a problem with war, poverty, oppression, and disease.

The two groups or, more appropriately, the two impulses within Christianity serve each other through their constructive tension. It is only when that tension becomes conflict that we see the kind of partisan infighting which is quickly coming to define every aspect of American life. So conservatives, put away the fireworks. The demise of a powerful liberal branch is among the worst possible outcomes for American Christianity. And liberals, there’s no reason to equate Douthat with sexists and racists. His article has the same purpose that my responses to Burklo did: to encourage the liberal branch of Christianity to recover “a religious reason for its own existence” and “consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world.” Because I want a strong, vibrant, liberal voice among institutional churches. Otherwise, the Southern Baptist Convention gets to set the tone of the message, and I’m not ready for that.

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Speaking of the Folly of “Progressive” Christianity

It would seem that Ross Douthat, of the New York Times has been reading my criticism of progressive Christianity’s attempt to distance itself from theology and collapse religion into social ethics because he has chosen to illustrate my theological point with some statistical data. His article specifically reviews the declining attendance in Episcopal churches and correlates it to the conscious decision on the part of the denomination to become deliberately progressive.

As a result, today the Episcopal Church looks roughly how Roman Catholicism would look if Pope Benedict XVI suddenly adopted every reform ever urged on the Vatican by liberal pundits and theologians. It still has priests and bishops, altars and stained-glass windows. But it is flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.

Yet instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace. Last week, while the church’s House of Bishops was approving a rite to bless same-sex unions, Episcopalian church attendance figures for 2000-10 circulated in the religion blogosphere. They showed something between a decline and a collapse: In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase.

And why not? After all, what do Episcopalians have now to appeal to a young, socially liberal demographic? You’re telling them, “Look, we believe what you believe,” but then you also want them to believe in the existence of an omnipotent deity which their college professors have told them is intellectual barbarism, ask them to give up an hour or two out of their precious weekends to do liturgical calisthenics (sit, kneel, stand, kneel, sit), and encourage them to give money so that the church can continue to feed the hungry, care for the sick, and marry the homosexuals (like Jesus did) out of the comfort of their altar-filled, stained-glass cathedrals. That’s a PR manager’s dream.

So while progressive Christians and secular liberals continue to laud the Episcopal Church (US) as a model for Christianity, regular old Christians are investing less and less of their time in the Episcopal and like churches. Douthat rightly observes that the problem is not a renewed emphasis on the social ramifications of the Gospel but on the emptiness that comes when you strip Christianity of everything not compatible with political liberalism, not unlike Burklo trying to taking everything “unbelievable” out of the New Testament. The truth is, and somewhere some Episcopalian must know it, that a Christianity without a full-bodied, soul-saving, pre-existing, sanctifying, dead-buried-resurrected-returning Christ is no Christianity at all. It certainly has nothing that is going to put butts in the pews and bills in the offering plate. If progressive Christianity is going to continue to have a voice in the greater faith community–and I sincerely hope that it does–it needs to realize that it has fallaciously and dogmatically married social liberalism and theological liberalism. Maybe that’s the aberrant marriage they really should be worried about.

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Customized Christianity: Ethics à la Carte

The following is one of a multi-part response to an article by Jim Burklo entitled “How To Live As a Christian Without Having to Believe the Unbelievable.” For an introduction to these thoughts, see Burklo’s Bible.

I have made a number of arguments against Jim Burklo’s vision of a believable Christianity over the past week. I criticized his willingness to assume an oppositional relationship between faith and practice, his inability to distinguish between marginal and central biblical stories and truths, his dangerous Christology, and his selective hermeneutic. All of these, however, are part of a broader flawed attempt to collapse religion into ethics. It is only by elevating ethics to the status of comprehensive and exclusive truth that he can effectively disregard the doctrine, dogma, and fantastic stories that he believes hinder people from finding genuine Christianity. Unfortunately for Burklo, Scripture gives us every indication that ethics are rooted in theology, conditioned by soteriology, and aimed toward eschatology (just to name a few of those evil, confusing categories that label trivial matters).

Burklo, as mentioned repeatedly, believes that the central message of the Gospel is the Sermon on the Mount. Far be it from me to ever stand in the way of someone trying to refocus Christians on the Sermon on the Mount, but the majority of Protestant Christianity is going to have a bone to pick with Burklo. And rightly so, as there seems to be a general consensus that, if a single passage encapsulates the gospel, the real text of central importance is John 3:16. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Look at that. We have a theological statement about the nature of God flowing into a soteriological statement about the mechanism of salvation flowing into an eschatological statement about the eternal destiny of humanity. Do you notice what’s missing? Any mention of ethics. This has been the animating sentiment of so much of Protestantism, precisely because of its antinomian character, from Luther’s sole fide to the now widespread evangelical idea (specifically derided by Burklo) of a personal relationship with Jesus.

Certainly, I am part of a generation that wants to correct the stress on faith without ethical strictures, but there is much to commend Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus (one of those passages where Jesus is speaking but Burklo apparently isn’t listening, as there is nothing about social justice) as a good synopsis of the purpose of the Incarnation. The biblical text is not the narrative of the struggle for a moral principle to take root among moral actors but of a perfect God trying to reconcile to Himself a willfully imperfect creation. This reconciliation, the New Testament makes very clear, takes place not with Jesus preaching on the mountain top but with him dying on the cross, being buried in the tomb, and conquering death in the resurrection. Christianity is not an ethical system which we can be convinced to believe but a comprehensive experience of a personal God that radically shapes more than just our ethics.

Otherwise, the poor are left to hope in the moral regeneration of the world for their deliverance. The sick are left to hope in the dedicated work of altruistic physicians for their healing. The oppressed are left to hope for a people powerful enough to enact their liberation but righteous enough not to use that power to oppress. It’s a false hope, an empty hope, very much like faith in an unresurrected Christ is an empty faith. Faith in Christ and hope for an inbreaking kingdom are realities which transcend how we treat one another. They have to do with the totality of existence, and all of reality falls inside the scope of Christian faith.

Genesis, historical or not, teaches us about the nature of the physical world and God’s relationship to it. The Psalms reveal the human character, both as it is and how it can be when it allows itself to be transformed, more than just morally, by the redeeming power of God. Job guides us through the problem of evil and, centuries before the greatest philosophers the world has known would reach the same conclusion, declares that it is irresolvable (but nevertheless God). The prophets instruct us on the interrelatedness of piety and social justice, a lesson Burklo could stand to revisit. Micah introduces us to a vision of the culmination of reality which will define not only Judeo-Christian eschatology but the whole of Western civilization’s utopian vision: peace, fertility, leisure, uncoerced global unity, and the eternal pursuit of knowledge.

Most, if not all, of these themes are taken up explicitly or alluded to by Jesus in his ministry and, if we are going to accept the validity of the biblical account, they must be engaged by Christians as well. We cannot simply call them trivialities, hindrances in the way of creating a heaven on earth (something which Burklo doesn’t seem to believe that Scripture explicitly states is beyond the scope of human possibility). God’s transformative work is not limited to human behavior. Being in Christ is a total transformation, and that includes those pesky truths that Burklo encourages us to ignore. We may never understand them perfectly and we may dispute about them until the second coming, but pursing those truths is part of the great pursuit of perfection, of conformity to the image of Christ.

And, of course, an unwillingness to engage these doctrines and stories, the marginalization of everything that isn’t explicitly command in the social ethics of Jesus, has profound and tragic implications for ethics. Burklo relishes the fact that “Jesus said nothing about [homosexuality and abortion] whatsoever in the New Testament. There’s no hint in the Bible that these topics mattered to him at all.” While the factual accuracy of much of this may be disputed, the real issue is with Burklo’s logic. By the same reasoning, Jesus never mentioned eugenics and therefore there is no reason to assume that the actions of Nazi Germany bothered him. He certainly didn’t talk about atomic weaponry and therefore the atrocities in Nagasaki and Hiroshima probably wouldn’t have mattered to him. After all, harkening back to the points about the divine sparks, Truman probably reasoned that the bomb was how many Americans thought they could express love for the Pearl Harbor widows.

In truth, Jesus presented a radically different view of reality, and more than presenting it, he inaugurated it. The mission of Christ was not primarily one of persuasion. It was one of redemption, and it is impossible to crack the pages of Scripture and think otherwise. The greatest change achieved when he ascended into heaven was not that he had presented a wonderful new ethos for people to construct their own heaven but that he had made of himself the conduit through which humanity might find themselves reconciled to God—which, it turned out, is “heaven.” Trying to take Christianity and customize it, sanitize it, by saying, “I like the ethics but not the other teachings” (i.e. doctrine, dogma, and stories) is a little like saying, “I’m a Muslim but only because I feel compelled to make a trip to Mecca once in my life.” Religions are not like buffets: “none of that ‘I’d rather gouge out my eye than go to hell’ nonsense but I’ll have a double helping of the meek shall inherit the earth.” They stand or fall on the strength of their interrelated features. Frankly, without a benevolent, personal deity who became incarnate as an expression of love to recreate the world and me with it if only I choose to allow myself to be transformed, the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t make sense. If I’m imagining my most pleasurable world, my “heaven on earth,” I’m ashamed to admit that liberating the oppressed is a lower priority than legalizing marijuana and prostitution. Certainly turning the other cheek doesn’t sound heavenly at all.

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Customized Christianity: Do As I Say, Not As I Do

The following is one of a multi-part response to an article by Jim Burklo entitled “How To Live As a Christian Without Having to Believe the Unbelievable.” For an introduction to these thoughts, see Burklo’s Bible.

In spite of his unorthodox view of the nature of Jesus and his divine spark, Burklo does put an appropriate stress on Jesus as the central figure in the Christian religion. It is his thought, his teachings, and his deeds which need to take critical importance rather than Calvin or Wesley or Luther or Campbell (to steal an old and mostly unfounded intra-Protestant polemic). Unfortunately, Burklo thinks that it is appropriate, for whatever reason, to be very selective about what in those human documents about Jesus are really important and which are not.

We have already observed that Burklo was prepared, inexplicably, to declare the unique passage in Matthew 5-7 the central message of the gospel and the resurrection, retold by all four gospel writers and Paul, doesn’t really matter. This is really reflective of a broader fallacy for Burklo of paradoxically trying to affirm what Jesus said and reject what he did. He admits that Jesus’ moral teachings are hard to swallow, but insists that therein lies their moral force. Then, in direct contradiction, he declares the stories about Jesus hard to swallow and therefore expendable. It isn’t just the resurrection imperiled by Burklo’s Jeffersonian attempts to purge the Bible of the unbelievable. In the course of listing all the things Jesus doesn’t mention, he points out:

The Sermon on the Mount makes no mention of believing in miracles, believing the doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ, believing in the Trinity or the Apostle’s Creed, or even “accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior”.

Ironically, in the previous entry we noted that one of the core features of Burklo’s vision of love is healing the sick. It’s unfortunate that, in spite of that commission, Christians are being instructed to disbelieve the miraculous healing stories. Not to mention the famous reply of Jesus to John, “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” Having made clear already that he doesn’t believe in miracles and especially not in resurrection, Burklo makes Jesus a liar or at least his human biographers. If that’s the case, why should we even bother to take the all-important Sermon on the Mount all that seriously? Perhaps it is just hyperbolic or distorted or metaphorical. Perhaps turning the other cheek isn’t a hard and fast rule. Perhaps God really isn’t all that invested in the success of marriages. Of course, that’s the way Christians throughout the centuries have treated the famous sermon, but the strength, the cornerstone of Burklo’s vision of Christianity is the weight it gives the radical ethical challenges presented in the Gospel. Unfortunately, his own vision of biblical credibility compromises the integrity of his favorite passage.

It isn’t that I believe you can’t be a Christian without believing that Jesus walked on water. As someone who has taken my fair share of criticism for doubting the historicity of numerous Old Testament narratives, it would be hypocritical to impose that standard on anyone. The real problem is that the blithe way in which Burklo treats essentially all the deeds of Jesus directly contradicts and undermines the confidence he has in the moral teaching of the Gospels. There is at least a greater deal of intellectual honesty and consistency with groups like the Jesus Seminar that apply rigorous scholarly criteria to determine what the historical Jesus might actually have said, and approach the entire Gospels with a heaping dose of doubt. Burklo has decided what he wants the gospel to be—love, defined as God and the divine spark within all of us and the social justice impulse of Jesus’ recorded ministry—and invested only those passages of Scripture with credibility. It is not convincing as an objective hermeneutic, as appealing as it may be as a sanitized, politically correct incarnation of the faith.

Of course, it isn’t merely the stories about Jesus’ life that Burklo takes the knife to. He also makes no positive mention of any non-ethical teachings of Jesus or even those ethical teachings which might not fit neatly into his social gospel. That, however, is the content of my next and final complaint.

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Customized Christianity: Finding Your Divine Spark

The following is one of a multi-part response to an article by Jim Burklo entitled “How To Live As a Christian Without Having to Believe the Unbelievable.” For an introduction to these thoughts, see Burklo’s Bible.

As promised, let us turn now to that nasty dogmatic discussion of Arianism, a spectrum of beliefs which, in their many forms, share the common denominator of a belief that Jesus was somehow less than divine. The Trinity, and its necessary belief in the full and equal divinity of Jesus, is among those pesky doctrine that Burklo would have us do away with if we find them at all offensive. What he proposes instead is a benign, new age rendition of the divinity of Christ more palatable to our refined, enlightened sensibilities.

When Jesus asked us to believe in him, he wasn’t asking us to believe a list of ideas about him. He was asking us to believe in that spark of the divine that was inside of him, because he wanted us to believe in the spark of the divine that is in every one of us.

Let’s ignore, for the time being, the unfortunate reality that Jesus never actually says what Burklo wants him to. He never references a common divine spark shared between himself and humanity. He doesn’t mention a divine spark at all. But this willingness to pick and choose and distort Burklo’s own chosen source material to conform to his preset notion of who Jesus ought to be is a problem to deal with tomorrow.

Instead, let’s assume, arguendo, that Burklo’s argument isn’t self-defeating on its face and look to the disastrous implications of his vision of Christianity. What Burklo has offered us is a perverted version of Jesus message read anachronistically through the lens of Enlightenment humanism. It imagines Jesus not as something other than or apart from the human condition but as an exemplar of the ideal human as humanity can and ought to be. If only humanity would see and embrace love (“who is God”) which is already available to us, already accessible, then we could construct a heaven on earth.

It is, for all intents and purposes, a functionally atheistic form of Christianity. Except that really isn’t fair because what it actually does is deify humanity creating a vulgar, anthropotheistic religion. This devastates theology, particularly the cosmic story of fall and redemption, creation and recreation, that dominates the biblical narrative, replacing it instead with universe which revolves around me. Just the way we like it. This paring away of the annoying doctrines of soteriology, cosmology, and eschatology will be the subject of my final complaint. More crucially here, Burklo’s vision of Christianity even undermines his all important ethical consideration. After all, if God is love and I have God (i.e. love) inside me and practicing love is the whole duty of man (not, as the narrator of Ecclesiastes says, fearing God and keeping His commandments) then any behavior which I can reasonably justify as originating from love–whatever that is, however I feel like defining it, since I have the divine spark equal to that of Jesus–is moral.

In fairness, Christians of all stripes do this anyway. I’m loving that homeless man by not giving him a few dollars because he’ll probably just use it to buy liquor anyway. I’m loving my spouse by being obstinate because, in the long run, what I know is right will be best for both of us. I’m loving my enemies by invading their country and setting up a democracy because that’s how God wants their lives to be governed. It’s all ridiculous, but, by making Jesus the messenger of love and divine sparkliness, Burklo actually exacerbates the problem. If Jesus really did come to say, “Hey, I have a divine spark, and I’m living consistent with it. You should look to your divine spark too and live in accordance with its law of love,” then he freed every man to be a canon unto himself, the measure of what love is and how it should be applied through the loose framework of “willingness to feed the hungry, liberate the oppressed, heal the sick.”

Sure, it makes you always feel good about the kind of loving your doing because it is always consistent with your divine spark, but you’re left feeling a little suspicious of the guy down the road whose working just as hard to liberate a different set of oppressed people–maybe the people you thought were oppressing your oppressed people–and in a way that you don’t think is all that loving. I guess maybe his divine sparkler just sparkles different from yours.

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Customized Christianity: The Resurrection vs. Things That Actually Matter

The following is one of a multi-part response to an article by Jim Burklo entitled “How To Live As a Christian Without Having to Believe the Unbelievable.” For an introduction to these thoughts, see Burklo’s Bible.

It is important to remember that faith and practice, theology and ethics, compliment one another. It is equally important to realize that not all theology is created equal. There are certain of the “fantastic stories” Burklo alludes to that should not and were probably never intended to be taken literally (if by literally we mean historically, factually, or scientifically). There are certain dogma which arose late in the life of the church which can be accepted or rejected liberally (and frankly, until the Reformation and Trent, the church universal understood this). Unfortunately, Burklo makes no distinction between different types of biblical data, those whose historicity or factuality are essential to the faith and those whose historicity is an unnecessary hindrance.

No one takes the entire Bible literally, not in the sense we’ve defined the term. Everyone knows that the Psalms are poetic and that parables are moral fictions. From there a tremendous debate arises. Did a winged creature really destroy Sennacherib’s army or is “angel” an all-inclusive way of speaking of a providential act or was the supernatural explanation a pre-modern attempt to understand something like a plague? Who knows? And Burklo rightly points out that it doesn’t really matter, because the point of that story is not the mechanism by which Israel was delivered by the causal relationship between Hezekiah’s faith and Jerusalem’s deliverance, a theme which carries over into the New Testament very well. Whether you think the inability of the Assyrians to take Jerusalem was the result of a supernatural slaughter, natural devastation, or simply economic inability to maintain the siege is irrelevant so long as we all affirm the active God who listens and responds to human need.

The problem is not with admitting that certain stories or certain details can be questioned historically without invalidating the faith. There are whole books of the Bible that I would argue need to be read etiologically (e.g. Genesis) or allegorically (e.g. Jonah) and have no basis in historical or scientific fact. Burklo’s problem is his inability to distinguish between the seven days of creation and the resurrection of Jesus.

Instead of caring whether the story of Jesus’ resurrection was a fact or a myth, let’s concern ourselves with things that matter.

That’s dumbfounding, at least to anyone who has made it far enough out of the Gospels to find 1 Corinthians 15. Burklo apparently has not, suggesting that:

The key to Christianity is the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7.

Curiously, Burklo doesn’t seem to realize that the Sermon on the Mount is offered only in Matthew, while all four Gospels have an account of the resurrection. In fact, it is the resurrection that is the defining event of the Gospels. And why not, since according to Paul, it is the Gospel (unlike Burklo who asserts, without explanation or justification, that the Gospel is “the good news that Love is all that matters”). “If Christ has not been raised,” and Paul specifies a bodily resurrection, “then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.”

Paul isn’t exaggerating. The resurrection is the central event is Christian thought. It is the purpose of the Incarnation, it is the victory of good over evil, it is the means by which humanity is redeemed, it is the core of the message Christians proclaim to the nations, and it is the future hope for all the redeemed in Christ. There is a reason the creeds include an affirmation of the resurrection of the dead. It is core to everything we do. It defines our anthropology which, in turn, defines how we treat not only ourselves but others. It shapes a theologically valid relationship with the material world. It is our promise of participation in the eternality of God and the sustaining hope of millions who suffer. Without the resurrection, Christ’s and ours, there is no Christian faith.

It is interesting from a historical standpoint, that all manner of beliefs seeped into the mainstream of Christian thought at one time or another. The belief that the Son was a creature and that the Spirit was a creature. The belief that Jesus was a human-deity hybrid. The belief that, after a period of pedagogical suffering, even the devil would be saved. Curiously, however, the mainstream of Christianity never entertained a belief that the resurrection did not literally happen. Certain gnostic sects certainly, as part of a broader complicated cosmology in which the Christ was never really here to begin with and therefore never really died and never needed to be really raised. For Christianity, this has been a modern pretension.

I can swallow a lot of skepticism. They could discover today that the whole Old Testament was written by a council of rabbis in the 200 BC, and I would trudge merrily on. You could tell me you don’t believe Jesus walked on water or changed water to win or even drew water from a well if you’re so inclined, and I can still extend you a sincere, if shaky, hand of fellowship. But a graduate student at a seminary in the Midwest once told a friend of mine, “If they found the bones of Jesus today, it wouldn’t affect my faith at all.” I’m not there. I’m with Paul; if Christ has not been raised, my faith has been in vain. Burklo needs to understand that. To suggest that the historicity or factuality (or however you want to phrase it) of the resurrection is a matter of no consequence is to misunderstand everything: the structure of ancient narrative, the historical witness of the church, the soteriological and eschatological promises of Christianity, in short, the faith in its entirety.

The church can and should scrub away the accretions of overactive imaginations and the layers of obscurants created by ancient idiom and metaphor. The church also can and must distinguish between those things which can be scrutinized safely and those which, if undone, will mean the end of the faith as we know it. Some of those essentials, particularly the resurrection, may unfortunately fall into Burklo’s unbelievable category. This, of course, cuts to the heart of Burklo’s problem. A faith which can only believe that which it already considers believable is no faith at all, and a God who can only do that which His creations can reproduce in a laboratory is no God at all.

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Customized Christianity: Choosing Between Faith and Practice

The following is one of a multi-part response to an article by Jim Burklo entitled “How To Live As a Christian Without Having to Believe the Unbelievable.” For an introduction to these thoughts, see Burklo’s Bible.

In reading Burklo’s article, one of the first things that became immediately apparent, is that Burklo sees believing creeds, dogmas, and fantastic stories as somehow and to some degree opposed to living like Christ.

Christianity asks you to do very hard things that are supremely worth the effort. Loving your enemies – that often seems impossible. Willingly giving up your power and money and time and influence in order to serve the poor and the sick and the oppressed – that can be downright scary. Having a heart full of pure love in all circumstances – how can we do it? But if we do it, we build heaven on earth. These are things that matter, things Jesus asks us to do. It takes a lifetime of serious spiritual and physical and emotional work to come even close to rising to these challenges.

Compared to them, believing in the factuality of the fantastic stories in the Bible is trivial. And that is exactly why it makes no sense to let such questions matter very much in living a faithful Christian life…Don’t let dogma and doctrine get in the way of practicing Love, who is God. Doctrines can be interesting. They help us understand the origins and background of our religion. But repeating creeds is not the price of admission into Christianity.

Burklo is right to say that repeating creeds isn’t the price of admission into Christianity, but there are at least two reasons why, pragmatically, that assertion is meaningless. First, the majority of churches do not use creeds as the terms of admission. The majority of Christians still belong to churches where admission to the faith is managed through baptism, at various ages. A creed may be read during the process, but it is not the central feature of admission into the faith. What’s more, they aren’t even necessary for continuance in the faith in most denominations. Anyone can walk into the high holy service at an Episcopal church and refuse to say all or part of the creed during the service (and I always refuse to say at least part during my frequent visits) without being asked to leave or denied the Eucharist. In fact, barely over a week ago I was at an Episcopal wedding and the priest made a point of reading what has been in every bulletin at every Episcopal service I’ve attended: anyone who is baptized is welcome to partake of the Lord’s Supper. That has been my experience at a variety of denominations. Some require baptism in their particular sect, but I have never once been asked to recite a creed to determine my status as a Christian. If you walked into a Methodist Church today and they happened to be reciting a creed, you could repeat “watermelon” over and over like a kid who doesn’t know the words to a song and not receive so much as a sidelong glance from an usher.

Even if none of that were true, however, the greater pragmatic truth is that the overwhelming majority of Christians accept the overwhelming majority of the creeds, even churches that are non-creedal, even churches that are anti-creedal. The Apostle’s Creed does little more than copy and paste statements from the Gospels and Paul. If you can’t affirm those truths, with whatever interpretation you want to wash them over with, then you find yourselves on the most extreme margins of what might be considered Christianity.

And having wasted too much time on those considerations, the true flaw in the argument is to suggest that believing a central Christian doctrine or a biblical story might ever impede “practicing Love.” Just the opposite, every word of Scripture was canonized precisely because the teachings and stories therein were shown to be conducive to living the Christian life. The church historical has always understood there to be a harmonious relationship between faith and practice, between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. It is a fallacy of modernity, and particularly in our day of emerging Christians, that believing in the Trinity might somehow be contrary to turning the other cheek. The Trinity was not a doctrine arrived at in a void of philosophical speculation. If Burklo would turn to the history he encourages others to study, he would find Trinitarian dogma the result of centuries of struggle against beliefs that were set to gut Christianity, soteriologically, theologically, and, yes, even ethically. Fashionable as Arianism has become once again, the ancients saw in it the potential to utterly distort everything that Jesus had come to offer the world (a trap which I intend to demonstrate later this week Burklo has fallen into). The same, of course, is true of the other dogma which have formed the core of Christianity for lo these many centuries since Chalcedon.

Dogma, particularly those enshrined in the central creeds, was not established to force conformity of belief on “trivial” matters. They were established precisely because the early church realized how far-reaching the effects of wrong belief can be. That is not to say there isn’t some validity in moving toward a greater balance. Certainly the doctrines and stories of Scripture exist almost exclusively to shape behavior, but that they exist should be a reminder to us of just how much our behavior needs shaping. Ideological purity, as Orwellian as that term sounds, serves a legitimate ethical and existential function. Who God is, who Christ is, should have a profound effect on what it means to seek God and to be Christlike. If it doesn’t, then our faith has become unthinking, non-specific, and worthless. Burklo encourages spiritual disciplines like prayer, but in a doctrinal void, does he know who he is praying to?

Jesus did not come to reveal to us and reconcile us to the idea of a deity but to a particular, engaged, personal God with particular attributes and about whom particular statements are either relatively true or relatively false. Who that God is and how He has chosen to reveal Himself is the content of doctrine. How He has intervened in human history and the human condition is the fantastic biblical narrative. When who God is and what God has done are set in opposition to how God wants us to live, Christianity implodes.

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Customized Christianity: Burklo’s Bible

While browsing another blog, I came across an article by Jim Burklo entitled “How To Live As a Christian Without Having to Believe the Unbelievable.” Within, Rev. Burklo–the Associate Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California, an ordained United Church of Christ pastor, and the author of books on progressive Christianity–lays out his vision of a Christianity which allows the adherent to pick and choose buffet style which beliefs to accept provided a set of core ethical values is maintained.

There is a great deal of commendable observation in Burklo’s article, provided of course it is read in isolation of his broader argument. In particular, his assertion that the Bible is not self-aware is a sermon that I never tire of preaching. His recognition that the full scope of Christianity with its manifold traditions, doctrines, and mythology is a hard pill to swallow for many modern seekers is perhaps the defining problem for Western evangelism in today’s world. The reminder that Christianity is neither an ancient legal code nor a modern political ideology is among the most necessary messages for American Christians.

Nevertheless and unsurprisingly, I find most of Burklo’s points as well as his overarching message to be severely flawed, both by his own internal logic and by legitimate external standards. I am certainly not one to suggest that the Bible should be confused with a history book or, worse still, a science book. Just the opposite. Moreover, I have never been one to use the forms of creeds as tests of fellowship. Barton Stone would turn over in his grave. I admit a great deal of latitude in recognizing and drawing conclusions from the human components of Scripture, at least by majority Christianity standards. With all that said, however, I have the following objections to Burklo’s vision of Christianity.

  1. Burklo mistakenly implies an oppositional relationship between believing creeds, doctrines, and “fantastic stories” on the one hand and living like Christ on the other.
  2. Burklo fails to make any meaningful distinction between essential and non-essential data in Scripture when suggesting what might be disregarded as non-factual.
  3. Equating the “divine spark” in Christ with the divine spark in all is idolatrous, anachronistic, unbiblical, and reenforces the need for the Christological dogma found in the creeds.
  4. The desire to focus only one what Jesus said and not what he did is self-defeating.
  5. Burklo confuses ethics with religion, and thereby fails to grasp the comprehensiveness of Jesus’ mission.

I will treat each of these more fully over the next few days, hopefully with uncharacteristic brevity, with the intent of moving toward a Christianity that can be forward thinking without divorcing itself from its past and, equally importantly, away from a Christianity which is comfortable with sentiments such as, “If [doctrines] don’t make sense to you, don’t worry about them.” Belief in an Almighty God ought to preclude humanity from imputing its own intellectual inadequacies onto the divine.

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