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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Does our theology reflect Christ's example, or our own fears?

I have been reading the book "Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism" by Joel Carpenter who was a Provost of Calvin College for a decade and left that position in 2006 to direct The Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity.

I initially bought the book for my husband as he knows Joel Carpenter personally and I thought he'd enjoy reading it. The book's title intrigued me so I decided it was worth a read for myself. :) I have found it very interesting from the perspective of one who's first foray into the church as a child was into a Fundamentalist denomination. It has been intriguing and enlightening to see how American Fundamentalist thinking and theology has developed and been shaped in part by world events since the early 1900's and I'm still just less than half-way through the book. I have also found it rather informative in helping me to understand where I am now (in the Southern Baptist denomination) and seeing the very strong, dare I say inescapable, influence of Fundamentalism not only within my denomination, but also within the world of politics.

On page 100, Joel has a short section labeled "The Mark of the Beast: Social and Political Alienation". This section, in particular, arrested my attention.  I have long been at odds with the thinking of other Christians regarding governmental social programs to help the less fortunate. In this section, Carpenter is explaining in historical context the shaping of American Fundamentalism (in the 1930's) and how it's dispensationalist point of view came to be reflected in it's politics and ideas about social reform. He wrote:

     "Dispensationalists tended to be suspicious of social reform campaigns....In their darker moods, dispensationalists suggested progressives' drive for governmental solutions was preparing the world for the reign of the Antichrist. Progressiveism marked the honest efforts of well-meaning people, but they were fundamentally mistaken about God's plan for the ages. Their efforts showed an unwitting movement toward the dictatorial spirit that would dominate the end-times."

     "Predictably, fundamentalist's looked askance at the New Deal's ventures into economic and social planning."

     "Dispensationalists had a good idea of where those forces were leading. The "present world movement," the editor of Bibliotheca Sacra judged was, "progressing away from democracy or republicanism toward dictatorial centralized power." Some of the actions of the New Dealers were strikingly similar to those prophesied as part of the Antichrist's regime, fundamentalist's thought."

     "Preconditioned by their political instincts toward individualism and populist antielitism, it was relatively easy for fundamentalists to see Beastlike tendencies in New Deal economic planning and to remain alienated from the public arena. James M. Gray's call for serene detachment was fairly typical: "Whatever comes, the saints can remain undisturbed, for 'He is their refuge and their portion in the land of the living.' "

I have long been baffled at how many claim Christ, yet seem to care so little for the less fortunate in society at large, unless of course the less fortunate happen to live in another country. I am not belittling missions by any means, but I do think that we need to be careful of a cognitive dissonance between our theology and our actions, or orthopraxy, where we have the most constant influence as we move about in our daily lives. I think we often sit in our pews content in our opinion that we are living in what many feel is a "Christian" nation thus requiring little of us on a personal level.

After reading the above, I am left with questions. Simple questions such as "If the fundamentalist point-of-view is that the 'end times' will usher in a dictatorial government why do they find themselves, in my opinion,  striving against God's plan? Does it not show fear of what they believe is to come? If God has indeed revealed that it will happen in such a manner, why not accept it and in the meantime embrace the compassionate aspects that will allow those less fortunate to be better cared for instead of ignoring their plight?" Sure, it's simplistic, but the Gospel is simple. To ignore the plight of others either physically or spiritually is to be neglectful and utterly lack compassion. One need not look far into the gospels to see that compassion was integral to the person of Christ.

We are told the world will know that we are His by our love one for another. I do not believe our love is to only be reflected in how we treat others who claim Christ (people like ourselves), nor does that follow Christ's example.  I believe the world will also know we are His by the love we have one for another....period. Regardless of others' religious persuasion or humanness, however those may manifest.

What speaks to me about Christ and His person on a personal level is the love and compassion that He exhibited, and continues to exhibit, for me, a person filled with a multitude of sins and imperfections. Even though He was/is the very God of the universe He humbled himself and took the form of a servant seeking out and ministering to those who needed it never exhibiting an air of superiority and eventually dying for all. I will submit that it was through this compassion that He was granted credibility in the eyes of those who crossed his path, and even in my own heart. In seeing his obvious compassion, people (such as myself) were then open to hear his message of hope and a future.

How credible are we?

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