It is a given that in a modern society we should always respect the beliefs of other people whether political or religious. We may debate these ideas or strongly disagree with them but we must never suggest that such beliefs are nonsensical. This attempt at tolerance towards other people has paradoxically created a situation which allows many totally irrational ideas to flourish in people’s minds. By irrational or nonsensical I am suggesting that some people believe things which, even after a moment’s reflection, do not stand up in any kind of rational support. While going for a walk yesterday, it occurred to me that I could think of three ideas commonly held by Christians that seem to fall into this nonsensical/irrational category. For reasons of politeness or political correctness we normally do not point out to someone that they are holding on to an idea that is devoid of any rational support. But in the context of this blog, we allow ourselves the indulgence of calling nonsense by its proper name.
The first area of nonsense which is held onto by many Christian individuals and groups is the idea that one congregation or network of churches has somehow alone received the most perfect revelation of the Christian gospel in the world. The preaching and the fellowship at that church is eminently superior to that in any other church anywhere. Often the claim of perfection extends to a promise that it is only by being a member of the church that the individual is acceptable to God both in this life and in the life to come. This message of superiority and perfection is frequently used by the cults but it is also used by Christian leaders to hold on to congregants who might be tempted to change church. In different ways, the message is given that the church down the road is poorly led or what is being taught is not the ‘true gospel’. Teaching Christians to expect to find a perfect church makes sense as some sort of power game played between congregations or Christian leaders. Where it makes no sense at all is when we try and look at congregations from a wider perspective. Can we imagine that there is any perspective that could exist which could distinguish which Protestant congregations are the purest and the possessors of absolute truth? Looking at these churches from the outside, whether with sociological or theological perspectives, we see that the differences between them are of the smallest kind. We might note a difference in the social make-up of the congregations or perhaps the personalities of the leaders. Nothing we see gives any grounds for confirming objectively that one individual congregation is, as it would like to claim, the best or truest church on the planet. It is still harder to imagine how God, in whatever way we understand him, would want to make such distinctions between these congregations. Is he really going to declare that one church or group of churches is superior to all the others? Is not the idea claimed by some church leaders that they alone offer the path to salvation palpable absurdity? With no biblical or rational basis for such a claim we must list this idea as our first example of an irrational Christian belief.
The second belief idea which we want to describe as ‘Christian nonsense’ and which is preached in many churches across the world is that God shows his favour on us by making us rich. This is the core teaching of the so-called Health and Wealth churches and is particularly found among Tele-evangelists. The path to this wealth is to give extravagantly and God will use these ‘seed offerings’ to make us as wealthy as the evangelist on the stage. Their wealth, expressed in the extravagant dress and lifestyle of the evangelist is presented as God’s reward and blessing for faithful service. Faith and generous giving will unlock the same wealth for everyone else. It is his will that such abundance is for all. This message is the staple diet of the television religious broadcasts and you will hear the same message repeated again and again. There are various grounds which allow me to suggest that such belief and teaching is utter nonsense. Not only is it a distortion of biblical teaching, where Jesus appeared to be far more interested in being identified with the poor, it also makes little sense to suggest that everyone should become wealthy in a world of finite resources. I have pointed out before that wealthy people drive large cars, live in large houses and travel around the world with normally little thought for their ecological footprint. If every Christian in Africa, for example, who attends a Health and Health church were to become wealthy like their Christian leaders, the world that we know would be literally destroyed. Whatever our attitude to wealth, it is impossible to understand God colluding in large numbers of people acquiring wealth and gobbling up an even greater share of the world’s resources. Fighting poverty seems far on the agenda of a rational faith than promising fantasy extravagance to all. The Health and Wealth teaching has to be declared a further example of largely nonsensical teaching, even if some parts of it can be shown to root themselves into the ideas of Jesus.
The third idea which is presented as Christian orthodoxy but which makes no sense is the idea that God’s will is only to be found in the written text of Scripture. Part of this teaching is of course eminently respectable but the nonsense part begins to wriggle out in the word ‘only’. This is not here an argument with those who wish to use the Bible as an inerrant source of teaching, even if I would want to argue a far more nuanced approach. The problem that I have is the way that many Christians want to restrict and even control the will of God and keep the whole of it in one place – the written text of Scripture. Over the centuries of culture and civilisation, the human spirit has developed in many ways. Many of the values and ideals discovered by humanity owe nothing to the written word. Human beings have discovered the spirit of beauty in music, artistic form and poetry. Some of these creative impulses have developed within religious contexts, while others have found their expression outside such a context. Those of us who lay claim to a Christian cultural inheritance find that our faith is enhanced, not just by reading Scripture but by exposure to architecture and music which was nurtured by Christian faith. There is no right or wrong answer as to which composer or architect expresses the Christian impulse better. Each of us have our preferences in this matter. The important thing is that Christians recognise how every cultural expression can be integrated into our spiritual journey. Truth may be found in the soaring arches of a mediaeval cathedral or in a Bach cantata. If one or any of these other encounters with the divine was said to be invalid for any reason, we would find our access to Christian reality impoverished. The words and meanings of Scripture need the context of a rich cultural and spiritual imagination to come alive. Words on their own, particularly when presented in a legalistic controlling manner, somehow dampen down the spirit rather than raise it up. To summarise the third example of ‘Christian nonsense’ is the belief that says that words alone can communicate the truth and reality of God. That is seems to be what is being said very often when Scripture and the words within it are exalted to a place where they can suppress and deny all other experiences of the divine mediated to us as Christians.