Wednesday, April 06, 2011

What's the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian -- Review


I’m an ordained minister in a non-creedal denomination that has from its origins embraced the principles espoused in Rupert Meldinius’ motto – “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things liberty.” It is also a tradition whose founders embraced the principles John Locke espoused in his books The Reasonableness of Christianity and A Letter Concerning Toleration, wherein he suggested that the church should not make any terms of communion beyond those that “the Holy Spirit has in the holy Scriptures declared in express words to be necessary to salvation” (Locke, Toleration, Prometheus Books, p. 24). Coming as I do from a tradition that has embraced what some might call a simple faith, one that leaves significant room for opinion in matters of faith; I didn’t find the title of Martin Thielen’s book odd or off-putting. In fact, it resonates quite well with my sensibilities, though I have to admit that I’ve heard some in my tradition who have claimed that one can be a member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and pretty much believe whatever you want. Although that assessment is too minimalist even for Disciples, I expect that a United Methodist pastor would have a more expansive set of necessary doctrines than would a Disciple, and a perusal of this book would bear out this expectation.

The title of the book does leave one with the sense that the author might be espousing a rather minimalist faith, but that would be a misreading of the book. The author is a United Methodist pastor who left the Southern Baptists after the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. That decision was brought on by the feeling that he no longer fit within the church in which he had grown up, been educated, and had served as a pastor, educator, and publisher. Ultimately he would find himself serving as pastor of First United Methodist Church of Lebanon, Tennessee.

In a book that is written for a lay/general audience, and that would be very useful for an adult education program (an online leader’s guide is available from the publisher), the author offers what this reviewer would consider a broad, middling, moderate understanding of the Christian faith. Although the book might seem liberal to some, it will seem rather conservative to others, and yet it lifts up for discussion issues that tend to divide and confuse contemporary Christians.

The book is broken into two parts, the first of which lifts up ten issues that “Christians don’t need to believe,” while the second part focuses on eleven items that he believes Christians should believe – what he would consider essentials. At the end of each chapter Thielen places a brief summary statement – what he calls the “bottom line.” So, for instance in the chapter in which he deals with women in the church, his bottom line is: “Women are fully equal with men in marriage, in church, and in society” (p. 23).

The first section of the book focuses on ten “don’ts,” which aren’t merely non-essentials. Instead, for the most part these are perspectives that one would best reject, either because the misrepresent God or they reflect an anti-intellectual perspective that is best left behind by modern Christians. These topics include the suggestion that God causes things like cancer, car wrecks, and catastrophes, as well as the suggestion that real Christians won’t have doubts about their faith, believe in evolution, or think that women can’t be preachers. In a brief opening paragraph to this section, Thielen takes us back to the old gospel song that declared “Gimme That Old-Time Religion.” He suggests that while much of that old time religion might be good or noble, it could also be downright dangerous to the body, to the mind, and to the Spirit. Not only did it give us the Crusades, the Inquisition and religious wars, it also oppressed women, supported slavery, and suppressed science. There are, therefore, aspects of the old form of our religion that we’d be better off casting aside.

The second part of the book focuses on eleven things the author thinks you do need to believe – what he considers essentials or the “least I can believe and still be a Christian.” These are the areas of the faith that he believes matter most. Being that this is written for Christians it should not be surprising that the focus is on Jesus, beginning with what some call the “good confession” (Matthew 16:16), and deals as well with issues such as grace, the presence of God, Jesus’ example, his death and resurrection, the church, the Holy Spirit, and God’s vision of the future. The final “essential” seeks to answer the question as to whether mainline Christians believe in salvation. He insists they do, but he wants to clarify what that means.

This is a good little book that should be of value to many in the church. It might be used as an introduction to the Christian faith for those exploring the faith or who have questions about the Christian faith. It could also provide a foundation to needed conversations about what is important and not important to the life of the church. Although the book is written with Mainline Protestants in mind, at times I felt like Thielen was trying to convince the more conservative elements of his Baptist past of a better way forward. That may explain the moderate and even evangelical tone of the book. This tone is especially present in the final chapter of the book, which seeks to answer the question: “Do Mainline Christians believe in getting saved?” Now the answer to this question is framed in a more progressive fashion – it depends on what you think we’re being saved from or for, but the mere phrasing of the question in this way seems to address concerns among a more conservative audience. This isn’t meant as a criticism; it’s just meant to demonstrate the perspective that’s evidenced in the book.

Ultimately what we have here is a gentle, moderate, Christocentric faith, one that represents the perspective of a large portion of Mainline Protestantism. Thus, the author supports women in ministry, a commitment to social justice, an intellectually engaged faith that embraces evolution, while taking a more middle of the road approach to homosexuality. On this issue he points out that this is an area upon which not all mainliners agree, but suggests that the best description of the current climate is “welcoming but not affirming.” In that chapter, the author doesn’t take a strong position, but you get the sense that he falls into the majority view (though being open to conversation).

While this isn’t a perfect book, and really doesn’t break new ground, I sense that it will prove to be useful to the church.  This is true in large part because Thielen reminds us that we should focus on those things that matter most, rather than focusing on the tangentials that tend to divide and rarely edify.

4 comments:

Brian said...

Like Campbell and Stone, I advocate for a version of Christianity that is not focused on opinions. A religion that is based on thought control is one that mocks Christ and must be rejected.

Jewish rabbis, like Jesus, teach that faith is about intentional action and intentional community. "Not everyone who says to me 'Lord! Lord!' will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of God" (Matthew 7:21).

Bob's right that people often say, "You Disciples can believe anything you want". This is framed as an attack. Let's turn it around.

WE DISCIPLES DO NOT EXCLUDE SOMEBODY FOR HAVING A THOUGHT.

In our heritage we have the freedom to think for ourselves. That's the part that is easy. The hard part is related to the first. We have the responsibility to think for ourselves, and to share it with the community. There WILL BE someone out there who needs to hear what you think.

Jesus warned against putting stumbling blocks in front of little children. Exclusion based on opinion is a stumbling block. Frankly, I find it to be a form of evil.

In the most recent edition of TIKKUN, Michael Benedikt tells a story, "...of a young atheist arguing with his Orthodox Jewish father about the existence of God. It's late Friday afternoon. After an hour or so, the father looks at his watch and concedes, 'Well, my son, God might or might not exist, but it's time for evening prayers.'"

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Brian,

Unfortunately, it's been Disciples, mostly lay people who grew up Disciples, who say that Disciples can believe anything they want. Haven't ever heard someone from outside say that. Of course, spending most of my life in California and Oregon the question has been -- who are the Disciples?

John said...

The question has to do with who we classify as Christians, not who belongs to a particular denomination. With that in mind, I would simplify what it means to be a Christian to one core item and everything else is derivative:

To understand my life and my relationship with God, humanity and the world through the filter of Jesus of Nazareth.

For my faith I see three primary correlatives which I have deduced: (a) each human being, including myself and including the worst human being I can imagine, is a sincerely beloved child of the Creator God, and in the manner of Jesus, (b) I am compelled to love unconditionally and (c) to forgive without limit.

What each Christ-follower perceives through the filter of Jesus life, teaching, death, and resurrection will change over time, and may conflict dramatically with the understanding which others have deduced, (and may even be at odds with the actual teaching of Jesus) but in any event we all agree that Jesus is the exclusive lense through which we encounter the world.

phil_style said...

interesting discussion bob; I've replied by it's lengthy, so it's on my own blog.

http://virtuphill.blogspot.com/2011/04/do-i-really-have-to-believe-all-this.html

My reply is really a list of things I don't want to have to believe, rather than a list of things I think are "core".