Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Universal Church (3 of 4)

At the opening of the movie Wedding Crashers the priest is about to start reading. John whispers to Jeremy, “20 bucks, First Corinthians.” Jeremy accepts the bet, “Double or nothing, Colossians 3:12.” Jeremy loses the bet, and 1 Corinthians 15 is read. That is the famous “love” chapter (the one opening with “love is patient,” or if you prefer the older translation, “charity suffers long”). At the end of the section, it talks about something that I, as a Bible-clutching believer in Truth never really understood. Love, “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” I get the bearing and enduring. But believing? Hoping? Isn’t Christianity about disbelieving things? Aren’t there definitely things that need to be rejected?

Christianity seems to have been specifically designed to be the most universal and unifying thing in the galaxy. And this is very strange. Isn’t is supposed to be close-minded and bigoted? Superficially, so it seems. But let’s review some history.

Jews for Jesus

In the first century, the Church was made up entirely of Jewish converts. They still kept Jewish feasts and really didn’t see Christianity as anything but a Jewish sect. Then, God called some Romans to be Christians, too. When the news of their conversion was shared, it blew the minds of the listeners who, to that point, thought God cared mostly about the Jews: “When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, "Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life." There arose a great argument: wouldn’t the new converts have to first convert to Judaism (and get circumcised…ouch!), or could there be such things as non-Jewish Christians. Because of the convincing (to them) evidence of miracle surrounding the conversions, they decided that non Jews could be Christians, too.

Gentiles for Jesus

Fast forward a few millennia and the tables have turned. Christianity, originally a Jewish sect, is now perceived as a non-Jewish group. But not entirely. Meet Glenn Blank (not Beck), a good Reform Jew who was minding his own business. Out of the blue, he saw a vision of Jesus crucified. He did not understand it at the time, but through a process that included a Bible-as-literature class in college, he eventually came to believe that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. So what did he do? Give up his Judaism and become Christian? On the contrary! He got more Jewish. “I didn't know [my Jewish identity] was important! I thought I'd become a Christian! But in fact, my Jewish identity is important to God, and I began to grow in understanding what it means to be a Jew.” Glenn is an example of what is called today a Messianic Jew, a startlingly large group that has been reported at 250,000 in the US alone; even with only these counted, it would mean that about 1 in 50 Jews worldwide believes in Jesus.

So we see in Glenn something very interesting. The first century question was whether Christianity was broad enough to include non-Jews. Today, it is whether Christianity is broad enough to include Jews. But in both times, God seemed to be calling people in their own cultural contexts not to change cultures, but to believe in Jesus.

Muslims for Jesus. Wait, what?

Now let’s take a look at Islam. Meet Soleh. He was a construction foreman who also taught in the mosque of his remote village. He took a job working on a Christian school for several months. The students at the school were running out of food, and prayed for food, and food came. Soleh believed the coincidental timing of this donation was indeed an answer to prayer. Later, he had a conversation with one of the students about faith, and came to believe in Jesus. He was ready to leave everything to follow Jesus, but was told he didn’t need to; he could follow Isa (the Arabic name of Jesus) without leaving Islam. He returned to his village, gathered his community and, “announced that he was a Muslim who now followed Isa. Not only did nobody seem upset, but many people were very interested, including the village chief who also became a follower of Isa soon thereafter!" The same source also tells the stories of other Muslim followers of Isa like Taufik who “never thinks of himself as being a ‘Christian,’ ... He sees himself being a good Muslim, called to share salvation in the Messiah with fellow Muslims” and Achmad who, “perceives himself as a Muslim who knows Isa.”

How is this possible? A Christian may wholeheartedly claim to be a Muslim, “One who submits.” He may pray 5 times daily facing east. He may give alms. He may fast during Ramadan. He may visit Mecca. He may say and even believe the Shahada (“There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his messenger”). A Muslim cannot accept the Christian idea of Jesus (that he was the Son of God), while a Christian can accept the Muslim idea of Muhammad (that he was a prophet). An orthodox Muslim cannot take Communion, accepting the sacrificial death of the Son of God (because God has no son), or Baptism, taking part in His resurrection (for Jesus never died) while a Christian can observe the Five Pillars. Christianity is a bigger circle than Islam. An orthodox Christian can be a Muslim, but an orthodox Muslim cannot be a Christian.

If there can be Messianic Jews and Messianic Muslims, there can be a Messianic anything. We think of religions as mutually exclusive largely because we, in the West, impose a Christian framework on other religions. We see conversion as a person leaving all that they once knew, and doing something completely foreign. But conversion to Christianity is not a universal rejection; it is a universal acceptance.


Christian universality is possible because Christianity is flexible in the right places and rigid in the right places. Jesus does command that you love him more than your family and your culture. But when the healed man from Decapolis would leave his people to follow Jesus back to his Jewish ministry, Jesus told him to stay. Some are called to literally leave, but most are called to stay, to work within their own cultures.

A Christian may, in the same year, celebrate Holi, Passover, Ramadan and Christmas. She may make pilgrimage to Mecca, Jerusalem and Tibet. She may meditate, pray, chant, sing, worship and do yoga. She may eat meat, abstain from meat; she may eat kosher food, halal food or food sacrificed to Vishnu. She may tell stories about the Jews’ redemption from Egypt, Odysseus’ return to Ithaca, or Rama’s romance with Sita.

St. Paul explicitly encourages this sort of thing. He himself walked amongst the idols of the Greeks and participated in Jewish practices he was freed from. He wrote that “All things are permissible,” even doing very un-Jewish things like eating meat sacrificed to idols. A huge part of Paul’s teaching throughout his life was that Christians didn’t have to keep Jewish traditions.

Real unifying faith

All this allows for a beautiful and unprecedented unity. When we talk about our color preferences, we are talking about something purely subjective. When we enter into the realm of true and false, we cross the threshold into that part of the human experience we can share. Conversations about theology are impossible in pluralism, or at least they’re very short. “Oh! Very interesting. That’s good for you.” True and interesting conversation can only come when people are talking about the same thing. And with Jesus’ audacious claim to be the Truth, the logos, the foundation of rationality, he permits his followers to seek him literally everywhere. The Christian can discuss the truth in a Hindu story, or a Jewish scripture, or a Greek epic, or a mathematical postulate. He can feel the emotional truth in Muslim architecture, Buddhist yoga, or even a secular nightclub [1]. The Christian can baptize a piece of art, or an experience, or a story in the waters of Truth, allowing all that is false or evil or wrong to die, and bringing the rest of it into the Light. GK Chesterton once said that St Thomas Aquinas baptized Aristotle: Thomas found his work and literally saved it from being lost, but also translated the good of it into the new orthodoxy. The Christian can affirm the true and the good in every culture, in every religion, and even in every person. The Atheist must deny all things (certainly all religions). The Pluralist must deny some things (e.g. Christianity and Islam). The Christian, unique in history and amongst philosophies, may truly believe all things.

Calling Christianity intolerant is like saying that the Allies were secretly Nazis. Without context, it might have been confusing to see Patton in Germany with American tanks. Patton’s defection might be a plausible story, or maybe he was a German general all along. But if one simply watched the Battle of the Bulge, it wouldn’t take long to see that the Allies were not friends with the Nazis. Of course, there were Nazi spies amongst Allied ranks, and there were Allied soldiers who poorly represented the group. But it’s difficult to argue that the Allies were pro-Nazi because it was the Allies who defeated the Nazis. And so it is with Christianity.

On Christmas Day, the beaches of Darkness and Intolerance were invaded. Since then, thousands of missionaries, abolitionists, and translators have been broadening the Church. As the Allies marked time from the day of their invasion, so Christians count time relative to “C-Day”. In fact, so do you. In the corner of your computer screen and on your wrist and on the phone in your pocket you can see exactly how many hours, days, months, and years have elapsed since the invasion began (“The Year of our Lord 2012”, abbreviated 2012 AD from the Latin Anno Domini). In 33AD, the Church spoke Aramaic and included Judaism. Within a few decades, its leaders were from diverse parts of the Roman Empire and it included Greek. Today, the Gospel has been printed in well over 1500 languages and the Church includes members from every continent and every major religion. And it continues to broaden.

[1] I have recently discovered the feeling of being ‘one’ with a crowd, moving to loud music in a dark club is true. Of course, there are a million bad things mixed in. But the feeling of unity with strangers is a mystical truth: we are indeed all one blood, and the breath that we draw is from the same Father in heaven. This is the kernel of truth I found at Bootie.

1 comment:

  1. Most excellent. The benefits of the open arms of the Savior - followers with open minds and open hearts. Can't wait for part 4.