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A Skewed Christianity, Part 1, June 30, 2017

Four Things that Skew Western Christianity, Part 1

Rev. Yme Woensdregt

As I consider the landscape of faith in North America, I run into some things that cause us to misinterpret and misapply our Christian faith. Our faith gets a little skewed because we can’t help but be deeply touched by the culture in which we live … and the cultures in which the Bible was written are fundamentally foreign to our culture today.

I don’t mean to complain and I’m not trying to lay blame. Some of these things are part of the way I approach Christian faith as well. This culture is part of who I am. It is what it is, and the only way in which we can figure out where to go from here is to be aware of it and to own it.

First, as western Christians, our faith is overly intellectualized. The church in North American is dominated by the idea that being Christian means being right. It’s as if we were trying to tap into the data base of the universe and come up with the right answers. To put it in more “religious language”, we have been taught the Christian faith is about having the mind of God.

When that happens to the extent that it has, no room is left for mystery. We have lost the spiritual benefit of not–knowing. We turn the essential truths of our faith into a head trip, and we lose any sense that Christian faith is more about a relationship than knowing the right stuff.

Now don’t misunderstand me. I’m NOT against rational processes, or using our minds to think about things. After all, “reason” is one of the three foundational elements of an Anglican approach to truth. But when “truth” is something that can only come to us through our rational activities, then there can be no room for mystery—indeed, no room for other ways of being, no room for other ways of experiencing the divine.

The other thing about such an overly rational approach to faith is that we focus all of our energies on learning, on teaching and being taught. The Bible talks a lot more about “doing”—

  • loving God rather than thinking about God;
  • loving your neighbours—all your neighbours, whether they think right or not;
  • taking care of creation, rather than using it for our own purposes;
  • living with compassion and grace, rather than thinking about the right way to live and the right doctrines to believe.

The trouble with “doing” is that it’s so much more difficult and uncomfortable for us. Thinking is much easier. Learning to parrot the right answers is so much easier. Doing, however, will transform us. It’s easier to think the right thoughts. It’s much more difficult to live as compassionate and loving human beings.

The second thing which skews Christian faith in the West is that it has become overly individualized. We tend to see ourselves, far more often than I care to admit, as if we were the centre of the cosmos and that the Creator does too. We behave as if it were all about us.

Personally, I don’t pray for a good sale at the mall or for a great parking spot when I get there. But I know people who do. And there are times when I catch myself while I am praying or pondering some thought about God, faith, life—as if it were all about me. And I have to remind myself that it’s not about my own little life.

The Bible, and Christian faith generally, grew up in a culture which knew nothing about that kind of rampant individualism we take for granted. The ancients lived deeply within community.

It is very much like the concept of ubuntu. Desmond Tutu describes it this way: “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours. We belong in a bundle of life. We say, ‘A person is a person through other persons.’”

We have lost that deep sense of community. We hold up the rugged, solitary individual as a model for how to live. So it happens that there are people who think that the key question about faith is, “Do you know where you will end up after you die?” As if that is the central question in Scripture and the primary concern of the Creator. It is not.

Part of the difficulty in correcting this skewed perception is the English language itself. When we read the word “you”, our default is to read it in the singular. You, a person, an individual. But the word “you” is also plural. It means you all. You are a group of people, a community.

In Greek (the language of the New Testament), there are different forms for the singular and the plural form of the pronoun “you.” The vast majority of instances in the Bible are in the plural. The Bible is a library of books about community. It is about a people living together, sharing the wealth of the universe, living with hope and compassion and grace. Together.

But our default in the West is to read it as singular. And so we miss a lot

One of the things we miss by reading it in the singular is the sense of justice … and I’ll have more to say about that next week in Part 2.