Friday, February 1, 2013

Forgiveness, Palatability, and God's Presence

My church for its Bible study is going through Romans: The Letter That Changed the World, With Mart De Haan and Jimmy DeYoung.  I have three items on our session last night.

1.  Someone in the group, whom I will call Carl, asked the pastor if murderers are truly forgiven by God.  I'm not sure if Carl meant murderers in general, or murderers who kill people and then commit suicide, apparently escaping justice.  Carl had problems with the idea that God would forgive someone who had caused so much pain and anguish to people, in addition to cutting off somebody else's life.

Perhaps one could respond that we're all sinners in need of forgiveness, and so why should any one of us assume that we're better than a murderer?  I talk in my post here about the point that someone in the group made a couple of weeks ago that we are all equal before the cross, since we are all sinners in need of forgiveness.  But Carl did not appear to buy that entirely (even though no one in the group made that specific point last night).  We were studying Cornelius, a Gentile in Acts 10 who respected God and gave to the poor, yet still needed the forgiveness and the cleansing that come through faith in Christ.  Carl said that we are all sinners, but some sinners are better people than others.

I appreciated Carl's honesty about his theological struggles.  It's refreshing when people are real----when they don't just give the standard Sunday school answers but are honest about their difficulties with the faith.  I didn't address Carl's question in the group, but how do I respond to it for myself?  I can see merit in believing that we're all sinners in need of God's grace, for I think that my remembering that can alleviate my own rage at others, as I remind myself that I, like those I am mad at, am far from perfect and need forgiveness.  At the same time, I do not want to close my eyes to the existence of evil that is so horrendous that it would be scandalous for God to forgive it.  Perhaps God does forgive evil that is so horrendous, but that doesn't mean that those who commit it get off scot-free.  God can punish them in the afterlife, yet the punishment may not last forever.

2.  The DVD that we watched last night was reiterating some of the themes that were said in last week's session (see my post here): that the concept of divine grace was revolutionary in the Roman world, where many thought that they had to climb their way to the gods.  The implication seemed to be that Christianity met people's needs in a way that Roman religions did not.  I've thought about this point for about a week.  I find it interesting that a number of Christians appeal to the palatable nature of Christianity to argue that it is divinely-inspired:  Christianity is obviously from God, the implication runs, because it meets our deep human need for God's love and grace, whereas other religions do not.  Yet, when Christianity is not palatable, there are Christians who say that this is evidence that Christianity is from God: Christianity is obviously not human-made, the argument runs, because why would humans create a religion that is so unpalatable?  Wouldn't humans create a palatable religion? 
 
3.  One of the questions in our workbook asked how the sea of God's love has touched our life.  People in the group were talking about the success of Christianity in Communist countries, and how Christians abroad experience God at a level that people in the United States do not.  Someone even mentioned that Christians abroad are sending missionaries to the United States!

I thought about something that I once heard Tim Keller say at a church service: that you don't see any revivals that are associated with the Unitarian-Universalists, whereas you do see Pentecostals, Presbyterians, and other Christians being involved in revivals.  I'm not sure if he was suggesting that one piece of evidence for Christianity is that it produces revivals, whereas other religions do not.  I'll admit that you don't see masses of people converting to Unitarian-Universalism (or at least I don't see it), but I believe that God is still involved in it.  There are many who have been abused within conservative Christianity, and they find refuge and healing in Unitarian-Universalism.  Unitarian-Universalism has also been on the forefront of social reform, such as the civil rights movement.  Just because Unitarian-Universalism lacks the flash of revivalism, does that mean that God does not use it?  I think that God does use it.  God may choose to speak in a still, small voice, not always in the flash that impresses a number of conservative Christians.

I still have to respect Christianity, however, for the inroads that it has made into Communist countries.  When it comes to South Korea, some tell me that the growth of Christianity there is a great work of God, whereas others tell me that it's due to South Koreans seeking some religion that would allow them to make a lot of money, something that certain Eastern religions discourage.  But Christianity's growth in Communist countries is a different story, for, in that case, people are joining Christianity when doing so can bring them persecution.  In my opinion, that attests to the power of the religion.  I do not want to believe that conservative Christianity is true, for then wouldn't I have to accept that God is exclusive?  Perhaps I'd even have to ask why God has seemed to leave me out so often, to not know my address.  But there are values that Christianity has----values of service, of humility, of love for others, of hope----that, not surprisingly, attract people, even in nations that are oppressive, where many people seek hope that there is some just and beneficent power that is above the State that afflicts them. 

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