Saturday, March 2, 2013

True Religion must be Inclusive: Christ according to Doug Pagitt

My friend brought me to visit an artist in her studio. He assured me, based on a prior conversation with her, that she was interested in dialoguing about Christ. However, point-blank, she told us that she wasn’t interested in such a conversation: “Christianity is just too exclusive for me!”

What did she mean by this? Christianity demands belief in the Gospel, and any who don’t believe, who are unable to accept this revelation, are excluded.

This requirement opposes what people are looking for today. They want a religion that will unite all people, uphold our common humanity and eliminate any “us-them” distinctions. Emergent Church pastor, speaker and writer, Doug Pagitt, puts it this way:

  • We are connected to each other as well. Christians like to talk about community, yet the dualistic [us-them] assumptions surrounding our theology make it almost impossible for us to experience true community. As long as we hold on to “us” and “them” categories of seeing the world, we live behind a barricade that prevents us from joining in with God and others in real and meaningful ways. And it doesn’t really matter who we decide “them” is – the non-Christians, the sinners, the liberals, the conservatives, the Jews, the Catholics, that weird church on the other side of town. Division is division, no matter how righteous we want to make it sound. (A Christianity Worth Believing, 91-92)
According to Pagitt, a Christianity that makes distinctions and excludes is not the true Christianity. Therefore, say “goodbye” to the initiation rite of baptism, church discipline, and  even confronting others about their sins – whether they be rape, infanticide, or domestic violence. (Following this logic, the Catholic Church was correct to not distinguish between the pedophile priests and the faithful ones!) Surrender distinctions between the just and the unjust, the resurrection of the righteous and the resurrection of the unrighteous, and the saved and unsaved! Perhaps also we will soon be required to foreswear such distinctions as “my wife” and “his wife,” “my son” and “my daughter,” and even “my son” and “my father!”

However, we must continue to make distinctions. If we believe in any truth, we have to distinguish it from what is not true. If we believe in justice, we have to oppose injustice and those who commit it. If we believe that God is love, we have to oppose those who teach that He is not love.

Truth, therefore, is exclusive. It excludes those ideas that are not truth. Goodness is also exclusive. It excludes those behaviors that tear people down.

Any conversation is impossible without making distinctions. Pagitt certainly engages in his own “dualistic assumptions,” even as he denies it. He opposes dualism with his own brand of dualism. He is very ready to distinguish his Emergent thinking from that of the traditional church. This too is dualistic!

Even his language implies those verbotten distinctions. He contrasts “true community” with community which is not true and makes those unacceptable distinctions – just as he is doing. There are those who “live behind a barricade” of judgmentalism and those who don’t. There are those who cause “division” and those who don’t, namely Pagitt and the Emergent Church.

How do we cause division? Pagitt cites this example:

  • She’d been taught that unless her theology was right, unless her life and belief conformed to a model that would appease the unmovable God, she was a failure as a Christian. (107)
This is a gross misrepresentation. Instead, each of us is “a failure as a Christian.” That’s why we must live by confession and repentance. Consequently, we depend upon His mercy in everything!

But isn’t it a bit imperialistic, unreasonable and arbitrary of the Bible to insist that our “theology [be] right” for everyone else? Okay, we need to make distinctions, but it seems so unfair and unjust that God would require us to believe a certain way and then damn us to hell if we don’t or can’t.

Pagitt hits at the core of what he sees as the unreasonable exclusiveness of the Christian message:

  • I’m not sure I would have been interested in the Christian faith if the story on the stage had been about a removed God who needed to be placated with a blood offering before he was willing to cross the chasm and participate with humanity. (98)
Clearly, Pagitt has little taste for the heart of the Gospel – sacrificial atonement. Therefore, he has affirmed a more popular brand of Jesus:

  • Jesus was not sent as the selected one to appease the anger of the Greek blood god [his pejorative description of the God of the Bible]. Jesus was sent to fulfill the promise of the Hebrew love God by ending human hostility. It was not the anger of God that Jesus came to end but the anger of people. (194)
Interestingly, Pagitt’s new-found faith not only violates the New Testament but also the Old, from which he claims support. Even in the Old, our Lord always required a redemption or payment for sin (Psalm 130:8), even a human payment:

  • But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all…and he will bear their iniquities. (Isaiah 53:5-11)
Besides, we have to ask, “What does Pagitt’s god look like? One who does not require a pay-back for sin? Is humanity best served by a permissive god, one who does not guarantee ultimate justice, the just payment for man’s inhumanity to man?”

Pagitt claims that “It was not the anger of God that Jesus came to end but the anger of people.” However, if God is not angered by our inhumanity towards our fellow human, why then should we be? Isn’t God supposed to be our role model? If God is permissive towards sin, why should not we also be so!

Instead, we cannot separate God’s zeal for justice from our own. If God is above punishing, why then shouldn’t we be above it? Unless they go together, any coherent legal or moral system falters. Instead, perhaps we should tear down the prison walls?

However, we have to return to another question: “Is the requirement of faith in such a God an arbitrary and unjust requirement, especially if educated and thoughtful people are unable to believe it? Doesn’t this requirement also establish an unacceptable “us-them” distinction that illegitimately divides humanity?”

There is a pervasive misunderstanding about the nature of Biblical faith. It is often assumed that faith represents a blind leap into the darkness, one without any evidential support. However, if this is the case, God cannot blame anyone for not having such a faith. The world is filled with various belief systems – Hindu, Islamic, Secular… If there is no evidence or reason to choose one faith over the other, then there can be no blame assigned to someone who chooses the wrong faith. Besides, Biblically speaking, ignorance is an adequate defense (John 15:22, 24).

However, we are not ignorant. Instead, in many ways, we are wired to believe in God and His truths (Rom. 2:14-15). Besides this, the world has been designed in such a way that we can’t plead ignorance. It bears such a profound divine imprint that we are without any excuse (Rom. 1:18-20).

This particular revelation is not a New Testament invention. We find this very same message revealed throughout the landscape of the Hebrew Scriptures. The Proverbs tell us that God’s truths are so ubiquitous that it’s as if they are even crying out to us in the crowded and noisy marketplace:

  • Wisdom calls aloud in the street, she raises her voice in the public squares; at the head of the noisy streets she cries out, in the gateways of the city she makes her speech. (Proverbs 1:20-21)
The truths about God are ubiquitous – found even in the streets and public squares. Consequently, we are without excuse if we fail to believe.

If this is so, why then don’t people hear wisdom’s voice? It is not a matter of their inability to conjure up enough faith. Instead, they don’t want to hear this persistent voice:

  • "How long will you simple ones love your simple ways? How long will mockers delight in mockery and fools hate knowledge? If you had responded to my rebuke, I would have poured out my heart to you and made my thoughts known to you. But since you rejected me when I called and no one gave heed when I stretched out my hand, since you ignored all my advice and would not accept my rebuke, I in turn will laugh at your disaster.” (Prov. 1:22-24)
Why are people unwilling to hear the Gospel? It is not that we are unable to hear. Instead, we delight in things contrary to God’s revelation. We therefore reject Him and His voice. There is also another reason. “We would not accept [His] rebuke.”

What is His rebuke? His indictment of us – our denials, justifications, and rationalizations! All wisdom must begin with the instrument - us. Seeing micro-organisms requires a microscope with a clean lens. Seeing other galaxies requires a telescope with a clean lens. Similarly, knowledge and wisdom must begin by exposing and addressing the filth on our lens.

Jesus explained our blindness in terms of a log in our eye (Mat. 7:1-5). The log blinds us and must be removed before we can see clearly.

Wisdom must first point the finger at us to expose our blindness and sinfulness. It is only after we see these and confess them that we can see others. However, wisdom is painful. It unmasks our self-presumptions. Therefore, we hate it:

  • Since they hated knowledge and did not choose to fear the Lord, since they would not accept my advice and spurned my rebuke, they will eat the fruit of their ways and be filled with the fruit of their schemes. For the waywardness of the simple will kill them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them. (Prov. 1:29-32)
Faith is not something that requires a blind leap of faith. Instead, it asks us to open our blinds to the light, which He has made so apparent – that we are sinners who need a Savior.

This is so abundantly obvious, not only from the Scriptures but also from our lives. We know that something is the matter with us. Our shame and guilt speak persuasively about this fact. Whenever we are accused of wrongdoing, we immediately attempt to justify ourselves.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis observed that even the atheists who don’t believe in any absolute laws, react as if they exist. Instead of merely responding, “Who cares about your non-existent moral laws,” he will respond by defending himself. He intuitively knows that he has violated a moral law, and knows that he has sinned. Nevertheless, he will suppress this knowledge and try to justify himself. He knows that he is morally culpable to the God in whom he does not believe.

Consequently, we always have to be right (Prov. 21:2), and we convince ourselves that we are right (Prov. 16:2; 24:12). I too had convinced myself that my conflicts were always the fault of the other. Consequently, my wife and I could never resolve any of our disagreements. However, in our beloved darkness, we stumble and fail to come to any reconciliation – either with man or with God. “The complacency of fools will destroy them” (Prov. 1:32).

Countless surveys and psychological experiments have confirmed this same finding – that we love the darkness of self-delusion rather than the light (John 3:19-21). We have the truth but hate and reject it.

Entire volumes have been written to demonstrate this fact. Psychologist Shelley Taylor writes:

  • The evaluations people offer of themselves are also typically more favorable than judgments made by others about them. For example, when people’s descriptions are contrasted with the descriptions of them offered by their friends or acquaintances, the self-descriptions tend to be more positive. Typically, we see ourselves in more flattering terms than we are seen by others. (Positive Illusions, 11).
To demonstrate the ubiquity of this hatred of self-truth, she offers many other examples throughout her book:

  • When two people have written a book together and are asked to estimate how much of the book they are personally responsible for, the estimates added together will typically exceed 100%. The same feature characterizes more mundane tasks. Asked to estimate how much of a contribution they make to the housework, adding together husbands’ and wives’ estimates of their own efforts produces a total that greatly exceeds 100 percent. (18)
We are willfully blind in the direction of self-promotion. We do not want to see our sins and failures and have assembled a variety of “self-protective” mechanisms.

Some have even attempted to defend self-delusion as a necessary psychological tool. The late novelist, Andre Gide remarked:

  • Each one of us has his own way of deceiving himself. The important thing is to believe in one’s own importance.
However, believing in our self-importance requires that we filter out the counter-evidence. Nevertheless, we need to believe in something. Generally, it is in ourselves and our mastery over our lives. However, we cannot believe in ourselves and, at the same time, acknowledge that we are damnable sinners who need a Savior. Only one set of beliefs can reign.

However, the suppressed awareness of our inadequacy festers at the core of our being.
Consequently, our lives revolve around the futile and ongoing attempt to prove that we are okay. However, we find that we are never able to. However much money, success or approval we have accumulated, we remain dissatisfied. Why? Because these vain efforts fail to address the deeper problem – our alienation from God and self! Consequently, in order to gain some temporary relief from deep-seated shame and guilt, we may even attempt to punish and maim ourselves.

Intuitively, we know that a price must be paid for our sin. Intuitively, we demand punitive justice for not only others but also for ourselves. Not believing in the Savior, we attempt to pay justice’s price with our own lives.

For this perspective, faith isn’t an act of blindness but of courage to face the painful truth. It’s not a running from evidence, but a willingness to engage it!

In contrast, Pagitt denies that God’s has a holy character – one that He has also wired within us - that must be satisfied - propitiated. Instead, he has re-created Him in his own image to be tolerant of everything. Pagitt refuses to acknowledge the Creator-creation, the Sanctifier – sinner, distinction. In doing so, he refuses to acknowledge that our sins have alienated us from our God and that we must be reconciled through the sacrifice of the Messiah.

It is because of this distinction that the entire Old Testament cries out to Israel to confess their sins so that they can come to God and receive His mercy:

  • And if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. (Proverbs 2:3-5)
The Gospel – the knowledge of God – is there for the taking. It is available to all who sincerely seek. The Gospel is inclusive of everyone (John 3:16), but not in every way or of everything. Our God has His standards, and we also have them.

In fact, the notion that God accepts everything and every idea is an absurdity. I am not free to treat others in any way I please. When I am invited to their home, I must respect their household rules. Why then should we expect that God is so vacuous, flat and insipid that any relational overture is okay with Him?

For years, I had been interested in God, but I demanded that He fit into my specifications. For one thing, since I am ethnically Jewish, He couldn’t have anything to do with Jesus Christ. Consequently, I wasn’t making contact. It never occurred to me that if God is God, the Creator and Sustainer of this universe, He might have something to say about the grounds for our relationship.

In fact, He has a lot to say about it. I was calling-the-shots. I failed to see myself as the beggar. This beggar was in effect saying, “I only receive 20 dollar bills.” The hubris! The hubris of the assumption that we can come to God in any manner we so choose! Instead, Jesus taught that we had to come to our Father as needy little children, willing to accept His grace in the form He offers it.

However, no one seeks for a cure who feels he lacks a disease. Pagitt doesn’t acknowledge his disease and consequently thinks that he can call-the-shots.

More seriously, we reject the idea of a holy and righteous God. Instead, according to our modern perversion, the marketplace now demands a god who will not only accept everyone but also everything – every excuse, denial, rationalization and every behavior, no matter how lethal.

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