Church Write-Up: Is Christianity Necessary?

For church last Sunday, I attended the Missouri Synod Lutheran church, its Sunday school class on patristic interpretation of the Gospel of John, and the “Pen church.”

A lot of points were brought up.  One point with which I struggle is the Christian notion that Christians are people who have been made new, whereas non-Christians are severely deficient morally and spiritually.

The pastor at the Missouri Synod church said that newness is not merely a repair of the old but is actual newness.

The teacher at the class on patristic interpretations said that, for the church fathers, one is either indwelt by the Spirit of God, or one has an evil spirit.  He did not cite biblical passages, but I think of Ephesians 2:2, which states that the prince of the power of the air (presumably the devil) works in the children of disobedience.  Some of the patristic readings that we looked at treated baptism as something that spiritually cures a person, healing his or her inner spiritual maladies.

The pastor at the “Pen church” did not get into such topics, so much.  He did, however, present adherence to Christianity as necessary for rebounding from the bullying that we experience at the hands of life.  He referred to Hebrews 12:2, in which the author exhorts his audience to look at Jesus, the author and finisher of their faith, who endured the cross, despised the shame, and sat down at God’s right hand.  The story of Esther also came into his sermon, as he said that, had Haman killed the Jewish people, there would have been no Christian church.  Some may be happy at the absence of the Christian church, he said, but, without the Christian church, would there be hospitals and orphanages?  His implied answer was “no.”

Here are some thoughts:

A.  I have a hard time believing that I am somehow better than non-believers.  Non-believers have their flaws, but they have their assets as human beings, too.  Moreover, I, too, am deeply flawed.  Suppose that a Christian then says that I am not a true believer, and that is why I have flaws.  He or she is entitled to his or her opinion, but I have known believers, and they, too, have their flaws.  They can get impatient.  They are not universally accepting of people.  They are derisive.  They do not necessarily help those who need help.  I am not eager to say that they are not true Christians, for I hope that God is there for them, as I would hope that God is there for me, with all of my flaws.

B.  I struggle to believe in change.  I am the way that I am and have been.  Others are the way that they are and have been.  I know unbelievers, and I cannot envision them changing their minds.  Some were Christians for a time, but they went back to who they previously were, which does not mean that they reverted to being horrible people, just that they once more became people who were adverse to or skeptical of Christianity.  I also look at myself and see some of the same hang-ups that I have had for years.  When those hang-ups do not manifest themselves, it is because I fight them, hopefully with God’s help.  I still feel as if God is working in the midst of flawed me, rather than curing flawed me.  He is more like a dam, holding in waters, than one removing the waters.

(UPDATE: I acknowledge that there are many atheists or non-believers who become Christians and stay Christians.  Maybe I haven’t been reading their stories enough!)

C.  This is a tangentially related issue, but something was brought up at the patristics class that reminded me of things that came to my mind earlier that week.  The teacher told us the story of Augustine’s conversion.  Augustine’s mother, of course, prayed for Augustine to become a Christian: I thought of something that was said to her by a wise Christian, that she should spend less time talking to Augustine about God, and more time talking to God about Augustine.  That is relevant to the topic of this post, but the teacher did not mention that anecdote.  He did talk about how Augustine was impressed by the Christian father Ambrose, and Ambrose suggested that Augustine read the Book of Isaiah.  Augustine tried and did not understand it: he did not know what to make of it.  Augustine then had to learn how to interpret the Bible as a Christian, for it to come alive to him.  I have been reading some patristic interpretations of John 2, in which Jesus turned water into wine (the class will get into those), and Augustine likened coming to understand the Scriptures according to their Christological and spiritual sense to water changing to wine.

I have been on a Daily Bible Reading plan.  I will finish it.  But I do not always get a lot out of it.  What do these battles and kings’ worshiping practices have to do with me?  I do not feel utterly baffled when I read the Bible, as Augustine was when he read Isaiah.  I, however, would read Isaiah differently from how he did so when he thought that he understood it: I would read it in light of the history of Israel in the eighth-sixth (maybe even fifth) centuries B.C.E.  That does not exactly give me a spiritual high.

D.  Can people rebound from the bullying of life without looking to Jesus as the author and finisher of their faith, or looking at the example of Jesus as a faithful sufferer?  Can they rely on some inner strength, or other coping mechanisms (and I mean healthy ones, not drugs or drinking or other addictions)?  Perhaps.  At the same time, I have my doubts that a naturalistic universe can give them a solid hope.  I know non-Christians who still have spiritual beliefs, such as a belief in karma, or reincarnation.  That gives them hope that things will turn out better, at some point.

E.  I tend to agree with the pastor of the “Pen church” that a lot of hospitals and orphanages would not exist without Christianity.  Non-Christians can have a sense of compassion and social justice, but, in many cases, Christianity has provided that “umph” that motivates people to do something.

I’ll close comments because I am not interested in my spirituality being questioned.  This post is rather perfunctory, anyway, since I try to write about the church services that I attend each week.  I was not even in the mood to write it.

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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