The Foundation, part 3: I Am Not a Pessimist

My original intention for this entry was to explain, rationally and from the evidence, why Christianity is true. Not that there aren’t plenty of better-qualified people out there who have already done it and whose books are readily available at any library or book store, but after going on and on in previous entries about how most churches have dropped the ball by completely ignoring the need to teach people why Christianity is true and how to explain it to others, I thought explaining how I do it is the least I can do.

I feel like it would be premature without some (relatively) brief clarification, though. At this point, my concern is that it might still be taken to validate the very concept of “Christianity” I’m trying to expose and exorcise. Also, for reasons I’ve already touched upon, an argument for the objective truth of Christianity just isn’t relevant within “Christianity” as we know it, so there’s still a great deal to say against it before a positive case for the gospel would truly hit home.

Most significantly, it’s commonly assumed that if you’re in church at all, you already believe. Why else would you be there? (That’s a joke; albeit, not a very funny one. Read my previous entries if you don’t get it.) Why you believe is rarely if ever addressed, but if you’re there, it’s taken for granted that you’re on board and everybody’s on the same page and we all believe the same things in the same way.

So my insistence that it’s true and demonstrably so might seem like I’m just preaching to the choir.

All of these people have faith too.

For much of the choir, though, “faith” is a matter of emotion and intuition, so reason is left out of the equation. It’s not explained in ways apprehensible by reason, so it’s established on other grounds. “Faith” sort of gestates out of groupthink and is passively absorbed through socialization and indoctrination. Consequently, a great many people will declare that they believe in Jesus Christ, and they’re sincere in the declaration, because they believe that they believe, because they identify with a group purportedly defined by the truth of Christianity—just as any Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Mormon, or adherent of any other religion in the world identifies with the culture of his or her upbringing.

But theirs is only a secondhand “faith.” They don’t know for themselves why or if any of it’s true. We’re taught that belief is a virtue in itself, so no burden of evidence need be borne to justify it, and so we’re not equipped to explain it—neither to ourselves nor to others. We’re not equipped to do what Jesus commanded and the apostles modeled by passing on their faith to others, except through the same manipulation by social pressure through which most of us came to “believe.” We can’t evangelize through rational

God's absolute and universal truth, made to order!

discourse as the apostles did; we can only proselytize through advertising and marketing and appeals to emotion and self-interest. Again—we don’t hold Christianity out as true so much as we hold it out to be helpful and attractive and maybe morally obligatory.

On those terms, though, “faith” has nothing to do with any personal connection to God. It just means you’re rooted in your particular culture. It just means you conform to local religious convention and social mores.

And that’s not what Christianity is about. Paul wrote that “God our Savior…desires everyone to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”

The Greek word for “knowledge” here is epignosis, which refers not to a general kind of knowledge—a mere academic or theoretical knowledge about something, but an experiential, firsthand personal knowledge—an intimate knowledge of someone or something. It’s a compound word combining gnosis, the general word for “knowledge,” with the prefix epi-, which is an intensifier meaning “at” or “upon.” Some translators render it “true knowledge” to distinguish it from the general or hypothetical.

Jesus said eternal life consists in knowing God and Himself. A person can know about Jesus and God, though, and not have eternal life. To be saved to eternal life, one must epiginosko Him.

Paul spoke elsewhere about those whose devotion to their religious culture prevented them from recognizing and embracing the Object of their religion when He stood right in front of them: “I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on epignosis.”

Paul completed his aforementioned thought “For there is one mediator between God and man: the man Jesus Christ.”

That epignosis of the truth means a direct, unmediated relationship with God through Jesus Christ. It’s not a relationship that depends, ultimately, on anybody else. You don’t need your pastor, parents, peer group, or local church congregation as a go-between. Each of us, individually, is called to “approach the throne of grace with confidence” because Jesus has torn the temple curtain in two, thereby opening access to anyone to approach the Holy of Holies without dependence upon priests or religious authorities to broker our communion. In fact, we ourselves become priests through that communion.

That relationship begins with direct, personal knowledge of the truth of His identity. It’s not just a warm sentiment from long years of cooing over nativity scenes or from nostalgia over hymns and other trappings of tradition, nor from taking a preacher’s word for it, but from a reasoned, rational, personal understanding of the truth. It’s not from identification with a church community by way of subjective feelings, but identification with Jesus Christ through objective knowledge of Who He is.

If someone asked me if I believed in Jesus Christ before I actually did, I would have honestly answered that I did. And, insofar as I wanted to hedge my bets in case I got hit by falling airplane waste or mauled by a bear later on (you never know), I did believe… Or, at least, I suspended disbelief, not knowing that an actual, conscious and rational knowledge of the truth was possible. I thought that what I had was the most “belief” could mean (as popular Christianity had tacitly demonstrated).

But when I came to actually know, in very specific and objective (and communicable) terms, that the gospel of Jesus Christ is actually true… it was like I was awake for the first time. Everything was cast in a new light, and I saw that it all revolved around a previously unperceived Center. The realization shocked me into a completely new awareness of reality—it transformed my consciousness. I didn’t glow or levitate or start communing with animals or anything, and I couldn’t (to my best knowledge) stop a hail of bullets in mid-air with my mind, but I did see into things in a way similar to when Neo, in his

Can you guess Brian's favorite movie? Give up? Ok, it's Bridges of Madison County.

moment of enlightenment, saw the code running through everything in The Matrix. Mine was not a visual “sight,” of course, but I saw a new meaning to the human condition and to history, and existence itself took on a new dimension as my sense of value and morality suddenly resolved into a clear pattern of focus. The realization took Christianity out of the realm of cultural convention and into the realm of objective reality, which illuminated and reshaped reality as I understood it, so I came to understand myself and others and the world at-large in terms I’d never before considered or imagined.

That new consciousness is the same reaction we read about in scripture when Jesus revealed Himself to people, or when the apostles explained the gospel to a responsive audience. It is not yet the New Birth described by Jesus, but it’s a catalyst for it, a preparation. It’s what brings us to the threshold of Rebirth and Eternal Life.

It’s not faith, per se, but faith is a response to the new awareness: because we know—not just “believe” or “feel” or “think,” but know that God Is, and we know that He knows us and wants us to know Him, we put our trust in Him: because we believe about Him, in turn we believe in Him.

Faith is the appropriate response to what can be apprehended by reason; it is not a substitute for nor an excuse to bypass reason.

We read in scripture that God gives us a new nature through faith, and that living by that faith consists then of learning how to increasingly “participate in the Divine Nature.”

And while Jesus Christ is our only Mediator in this, there is a great deal to be said for the role of the local church, and for the larger Church as a whole, in communicating that Truth to catalyze the transformation, and in mentoring us in our participation in the Divine Nature. While our relationship with Him is our own, and our knowledge of Him is supposed to be firsthand, we need someone to initially teach us that information, and then to mentor us in the application of that knowledge. Discipleship is the practical outworking of faith, and we need teachers who are wiser than we are in order to become disciples.

But, this mentor-disciple relationship isn’t something that makes us ultimately dependent upon or enslaved to a church institution in order to know and commune with God. When it’s done according to the apostles’ model, it actually sets us free. It’s the job of church leaders to educate and empower us, to turn us into free agents, so that our own direct relationship with God means we have something to contribute in service to Him and to the Church, and to arm and protect ourselves against those who would use His Name as a pretext for exploitation and personal enrichment.

“So Christ himself gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ might be built up, until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming,” wrote Paul.

But the Church isn’t doing that. Not really.

There might be small pockets of Christianity in which this is done, but I haven’t been able to find them (but if you have, throw me a bone, wouldja’?), and they haven’t done much to speak out against and correct the abuses and shortcomings of the mainstream Church.

If the Church were actually doing any of what it’s supposed to, this would be a very different blog (and a very different world). Instead of criticizing and condemning common church teachings and practices, I’d be going on and on about how awesome it is. Actually, no… come to think of it, I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t have to. The Church’s reputation would speak for itself.

As it is, though, the Church’s reputation pretty loudly screams how completely off-message and off-mission it really is. News headlines about internationally-known religious leaders getting arrested for DUI or caught doing meth while they cheat on their wives with gay prostitutes… stuff like this doesn’t even shock us anymore.

Recent mug shot of Richard Roberts, deposed heir to the Oral Roberts religious dynasty

As Christians, by definition, because we’re actively participating in His Nature, our lives are supposed to reflect the will and character of God. Yet, it hardly even raises eyebrows when the lives of Christianity’s anointed exemplars turn out to be moral and spiritual train wrecks beneath the Sunday-morning façade of smiles, straight-laces, and sanitized conversation.

But I shouldn’t single out Richard Roberts and Ted Haggard and other fallen Christian luminaries. They just get more attention because they’re the public faces of Christianity. They might be more colorful and dramatic examples because of the lofty height from which they fall, but they’re not really the anomalies we’d prefer to think they are. The same story plays out when we look to the mundane facts of our own daily lives: as I’ve pointed out previously, being a Christian means you’re just as likely as a non-Christian to fail at marriage, have sexually-active teenaged kids, get an abortion, and you’re (arguably) more likely to be the victim and/or perpetrator of an act of domestic violence, or any number of other violent crimes. And you’re just as likely to be in debt and have as much debt, on-average, as a non-Christian. Also, the suicide rate is slightly higher in predominantly Christian countries than in, say, Hindu or Buddhist countries. Atheists are more likely to commit suicide than Christians, but Christians’ having a greater propensity for suicide than Hindus and Buddhists suggests that this has more to do with cultural convention than with any deep-seated spiritual influence.

In short—though our lives are supposed to reflect the will and character of God, being “Christian” doesn’t actually make any substantial difference in our behavior and character. According to all of the observable facts, being “Christian” means you’re just like everybody else—no better, no worse (or “not much worse,” I should say… more on that later), and no different underneath the cultural and cosmetic.

Jesus said that a tree should be judged by its fruit. Many of us might have a culturally-ingrained preference for Christian-flavored “fruit,” so we’re biased in its favor, but according to all of the observable facts, our tree doesn’t yield produce any more nutritious or less rotten than that of our non-Christian neighbors.

When I point these things out to my fellow Christians, a frequent reaction is an insistence that the people contributing to those statistics “aren’t real Christians.” But, even if we subscribe to the No True Scotsman fallacy in this regard, it doesn’t change the fact that we have an entire Church full of people who are “Christian” in name and culture only: the ugly but inescapable fact is that going to church and subjecting oneself to its leadership and teachings and rituals doesn’t make any real difference in how we live our lives.

That isn’t to say that every individual Christian out there is a phony and a fraud and a hypocrite. I personally believe that the majority of churchgoers are sincere and well-meaning and are earnestly searching for an authentic connection with God, but they lack the guidance to show the way. And there are some Christians—many of whom I’ve met—who are different, better, and even holier. You, the reader, might be among them. But if you are, you’re an exception. You’re like that despite the overall influence and example of the mainstream Church, not because of it. And your anticipated kneejerk urgency to defend the religion of your upbringing against my seeming attack, while admirable, is no different and no more justified by truth than the reaction of any Muslim or Mormon or Hindu to defend the sanctity and honor of his or her religious heritage.

My point isn’t to attack or undermine or discourage individual Christians, but to confront the fact that collectively, as an institution, we’ve lost the plot. As private, individual Christians a lot of us might “get it,” but as a group—as a cause or a movement or “a kingdom of priests to serve our God and Father”—we’re a farce. As we are now, we’re a man-made religion masquerading as the kingdom of God, because if our religion is uniquely of God to the exclusion of all competing religions, that certainly isn’t evident from any observable outcome. However we try to spin it, we’re just not accomplishing the purpose for which we were founded two-thousand years ago. We don’t even understand ourselves in those terms.

And when we look at our overall message, there’s no great mystery about that, because the differences between what we teach and what the Bible teaches are just as vast and wide as the disparity between our actual (collective) behavior and the behavior to which we’re called.

For instance, when we read the gospel as “For God so loved the world, He gave His one and only Son, that whosoever believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life,” it’s commonly understood and taught to mean that we’ll go to heaven when we die instead of hell if we hold the correct doctrine about God and Jesus.

Yet, the gospel Jesus taught was that “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” When He taught His disciples to pray, He spoke of “heaven” coming here to earth: “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We were saved, we read, in order that we can “reign upon the earth.”

When Paul comforted the Thessalonians about their dead, he didn’t tell them not to grieve like the rest of men who have no hope because their loved ones were “in a better place” in heaven. No—they were dead, or “asleep,” Paul said. But, they would rise again at the coming of the Lord, he said, just as the Lord had risen bodily from the grave.

The new life that would reconstitute and reanimate them is the same Divine Nature we’re given now for our salvation.

We teach that the grace by which we are saved is unconditional. The scripture teaches that there is a condition: faith.

We read “faith” to mean mere belief (aka, fideism and so-called “Free Grace” theology), and the popular understanding of Christianity is such that it admits actual debate about whether having Jesus as Savior necessarily demands that we accept Him as Lord, or if a person can “accept Him as Savior” and be done with it.

But the scripture plainly and unambiguously teaches that faith means obedience and that only those who do the will of the Father are accepted, and that God’s commands aren’t unwanted burdens, but instructions to set us free, and that any “Christianity” outside of this understanding is a lie from the mouth of hell.

We teach that whatever “obedience” is necessary will come automatically—that God will pull our puppet-strings and move our feet for us, and that “if there were anything we could do to add to our salvation, we wouldn’t need grace.” But the scripture teaches that obedience means working out our salvation with fear and trembling and making every effort to add to our faith the qualities of the Divine Nature.

We often teach that the Christian life is all about passively “waiting for what God has for you” and relinquishing control by “being open to His will.” But the teaching and example of scripture is that God has already told us what His will is for us, and we are to strive for it—here, now, on earth, as the all-consuming, exclusive purpose and passion of our lives.

We teach that Christianity is all about “family values,” and many of our sermons consist solely of instruction on how be a better parent or spouse: the almost exclusive preoccupation of many churches is to assist in finding and keeping a spouse and in raising a family. In fact, one of the most powerful and influential Christian organizations on the planet contains no reference whatsoever to Christ or to God in its name, as its entire mission in the world is to “Focus on the Family.” Yet, Jesus said that if we do focus on our father or mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, or even our own lives more than on Him, we are thereby disqualified from following Him.

We teach that the Church is a “hospital for sinners,” suggesting an institution full of broken, helpless people crippled by sin. Insofar as this distinguishes us from a “hospice for sinners,” I would agree, but Jesus’ vision for the Church is much more striking by its contrast: He described us an army waging an aggressive, offensive war—we’re supposed to be on the attack, laying siege to the very gates of hell.

Our preoccupation is on individual salvation to an afterlife in heaven, of which we are passive beneficiaries with no role to contribute apart from being objects upon which God works; but the scripture clearly teaches that the Church, as the Body of the Messiah, is supposed to be God’s active agent in history for saving the entire world, for advancing His kingdom on earth.

The individual contrasts I’ve drawn here might seem trivial at first glance, even nit-picky, so it might look like I’m trying to pick a fight over minutiae like how many angels can fit on the head of a pin or something equally impractical and petty. After all, the positive elements I’ve pointed out from scripture usually show up in some capacity in most representations of Christianity: we all know what the Bible teaches about the Second Coming, the resurrection, the indwelling of the Spirit, and about discipleship. We know we’re supposed to evangelize and be holy and all that stuff…

My point, though, is not that there are all these particular doctrines and patterns of teaching and practice we need to individually correct. Individually, they might seem trivial (although I don’t think they do), but they’re all part of a broader pattern emerging from a false paradigm of Christianity.

That false paradigm certainly incorporates all of the positive elements I’ve held out for comparison, but it has them upside-down and backwards, so they take a back-seat to all the things we’re actually interested in.

True Christianity is active and aggressive in teaching and empowering people to be disciplined and sacrificial—it calls us to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow Him so that we can transform and save the world. It holds out our participation in the Divine Nature as the single, all-important pursuit of our lives, and anything else we might otherwise undertake—marriage, family, career, recreation, etc.—is judged to be good or bad by how it fits into our central lifelong occupation of discipleship.

In contrast, the “Christianity” we know today holds out a “gospel” that says we can live however we want and sin with impunity, presuming upon God’s forgiveness along the way. It offers something called “discipleship,” but it’s entirely optional—something we may or may not fit in if it’s convenient, and it typically has little if anything to do with our actual calling to transformation into Christ-likeness through our participation in the Divine Nature. Instead, it’s full of instruction about better parenting and money-management or how to improve our marriages, because “God’s grace,” as we represent it, leaves no room for anything in the way of active spiritual discipline, so all that’s left for us to do is to tend to our personal earthly interests, but under the guise of “finding God’s will for our lives,” while “eternal life” consists of nothing but our quiet, passive conformity until we die.

Instead of a call to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him so we can transform and save this world, the Church offers “God” as a means to fulfill our personal ambition and the “gospel” as a way to find our lives in this world. It teaches us that “godliness” means passivity instead of initiative. It emasculates us instead of empowering us, indoctrinates instead of educating, and teaches us to give in to temptation and personal desire instead of seeking discipline and holiness at all costs. Genuine Christianity is all about surpassing our base humanity and overcoming the pattern of this world, but the “gospel” we teach is all about capitulating to them.

As I discussed at length in my previous entry, this is the version of “Christianity” that we prefer. As religious consumers, we want the most “bang” for the least “buck,” and so we approach religion with questions about what the least is we can get away with and still get by with God, and about how much we can still be of the world but still get into heaven—or “What’s your church going to offer me more than this other church down the street?” And this is what the free market has provided.

So it’s no wonder that the form of godliness popularly offered has no power to transform us, and there is little-to-no evidence of the Divine Nature in our lives and behavior, and so we’ve come to expect failure in ourselves and in our leadership as a matter of course.

And this might tempt us to despair because, I acknowledge, all of this might seem to be unbearably pessimistic. At least, that’s the feedback I get from most of my critics: I’m too negative and pessimistic, which alone is sufficient justification to dismiss and ignore my message, evidently.

But I absolutely deny that I’m a pessimist. I’d be a pessimist if I thought this was how things are supposed to be, or the best they could be. I won’t say I’m an “optimist,” though, because “optimism” might be taken to suggest an unrealistically positive outlook. My outlook is positive, but not unrealistically so, because my outlook is based on what God has promised.

No, the real pessimists are the people who claim to believe but see the teachings of the New Testament as unrealistic, out-of-reach ideals. Those people are usually heavily-invested in the status quo, though, so it’s understandable that they’d want to preserve it against reform and change. It’s understandable, but still indefensible (not to mention cowardly).

We can change. We need not despair, because if God is real and is faithful, everything I’ve described here is attainable in this life. That doesn’t mean sinless perfection, obviously, but it does mean a functional and authentic Church.

It is impossible from our own efforts and resources, which explains our present failure. But someone once told me, “If you’re not attempting the impossible, you’re not trusting in God.”

And that isn’t just a pious cliché. If we truly follow a God who raises the dead and who put His own Nature within us, then we’re not really living as Christians if we’re not doing what could only be done by exceeding our mortal limitations. If we’re living within those limitations, we’re only playing “Christian.” It’s not a good enough excuse to blame our failures on our fallen human nature, because the entire point of Christianity is that we are no longer constrained by that nature, because He’s given us a new Nature—His own.

I recognize, however, that this is easier said than done, as the present paradigm of Christianity still represents a considerable obstacle to awakening the Church and rising to our calling. And that paradigm isn’t without its defenses, which work as a self-reinforcing, “chicken-and-the-egg”-kind of fortification against correction.

First, no one is going to rise to that level of commitment without first knowing, beyond any reasonable doubt, that God really did give us a new, superhuman Nature by which to live. The price of commitment to that new Nature is too high to pay without that guarantee. God raised Jesus from the dead as His pledge to this promise, but we have to know that Jesus rose from the dead—not just “believe” it or assent to it as a doctrinal point.

And the Church at-large doesn’t really teach or demonstrate that, except as a pious sentiment to be accepted as a cultural obligation, which doesn’t inspire much in the way of discipline and commitment. In the interest of getting as many butts in seats as possible, we’ve made “Christianity” as inclusive as we can, and so the “gospel” is offered as a passive invitation instead of a mandate based on facts and reality with demands of intellectual and moral accountability.

Secondly, even if a person does discover that awesome Truth for him/herself and wants to commit, absolutely, to living fully according to it… what then? The Church offers no real outlet for that level of commitment and devotion. A person might have the aforementioned “zeal based on knowledge” of which Paul wrote, but there’s nothing to do with all that zeal within the context of the mainstream Church. If you look to popular Christianity for guidance in following that conviction, they might give you plenty to do in the way of serving its purposes, but you’ll soon begin to realize that genuine faith is incidental and irrelevant to those purposes, and your conviction might well fade over time as you settle into the comfortable apathy of “Christianity” as we know it.

So, I intend to devote my next entry to explaining how we can know, from the evidence, that Christianity is true.

For that to matter, though, we have to demolish our present paradigm of “Christianity.” Just as popular consumer demand shaped this farce we practice now, we should demand that the true gospel be taught and practiced, and we should abandon those churches that don’t. We should hold our leaders accountable by demanding that they teach us how to participate in the Divine Nature instead of using Christianity as a pretext to teach us how to go after the same things the world goes after (and feel free to direct them to my blog if you don’t know how to broach the subject more directly). To be honest, I’m skeptical that they would even know how to teach that, since it’s not exactly current knowledge, but if there’s enough demand, and enough intolerance of falsehood, we would, collectively, apply ourselves to learning, just as they did in the 1st century.

Not that there’s anything wrong, of course, with learning how to be better parents and spouses or learning how to handle our money and finding a suitable career, but we don’t need a Messiah to tell us how to do all that, and we trivialize His mission when we reduce Him to that. As the Lord said “Pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and these things will be added to you as well.”

If I haven’t driven this point home by now, the fact that we’re not doing any better than our pagan neighbors in attaining these things should be indication that we’re not really seeking His kingdom. When we are genuinely seeking His kingdom and His righteousness, though, we won’t need to devote so much attention to fixing our marriages and finances, because those concerns will take care of themselves.

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