Christianity is now the most popular religion on the planet. As the saying goes, “You have come a long way, baby!” Starting with a handful of the followers of Jesus over two thousand years ago, Christians now account for more than 2.4 billion followers, over 30% of the world’s population. Christians are present in every country in the world. Christianity and Islam, two of the three Abrahamic religions, now comprise more than half the world’s population. While Christianity is shrinking in Europe and church membership is facing challenges in the U.S., the religion continues to grow in many countries, especially in underdeveloped countries. Part of the growth has been due to colonialism, part to missionary work by evangelical Christians, and part to the nature of the Christian message and the human hope for “salvation.”
So, what are we to make of all this? Does this mean that Christianity is the natural culmination of the human quest to experience the Divine? Of all the human attempts over a 20,000 year saga to connect with God, does it mean that Christianity has proven the best or as some would say only religion that is “true” and “real.” Does this mean that the other spiritual journeys involve “fake” or inferior religions? Does it mean that only those who call themselves Christian will have eternal life with God? That the rest will perish? Does it mean that if you are not baptized as a Christian, you are not “saved” and are destined to an afterlife in hell?
Probably many Christians, especially evangelicals, would say yes, that is exactly what it means.
But it is not just evangelicals. In the Episcopal Church which Embry and I attend we say either the Nicene Creed or the Apostle’s Creed where the essentials are laid out for being a Christian. They both were in use beginning in the 300s CE and state what determines whether you are a Christian. The longer Nicene Creed is used more often and addresses various heresies in the early days of the church. The Apostles Creed, which is below, was more often used in Baptism.
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
The creeds are all about belief, not about action or how to live one’s life. Yet believing in the creeds is considered essential by many churches. If you do not believe in your heart of hearts every word that is in the creeds, you are not a Christian. Well, some two thousand years later, for some people it is hard to say that they believe every word in either creed. Was there really a virgin birth of Jesus and what difference does that make anyway? Did Jesus really descend into hell for three days and what was he doing done there? You can be a Christian without taking the creeds literally.
Skeptics of taking every word at its face value would warn not to get too hung up on words that were written at a specific time that made sense then–about two thousands years ago, pre Copernicus and Galileo and Darwin and the Web telescope-but not so much now and point out that the central message of Christianity is unconditional love and acceptance. No one is going to hell because they are not baptized. No loving God would require this. Or because they do not believe in the virgin birth. Plus, when you are looking at the Big Picture, there are many unanswered questions that we humans will never be able to answer. We cannot explain why and how the Big Bang happened. We cannot explain the cosmos of billions of galaxies, all containing billions of stars and planets. While we can understand the science of evolution, we have trouble with its spiritual dimension or how God is part of this. We do not understand the nature of evil and why bad things happen to good people. If there is an afterlife, no one can accurately describe what that is like.
Given these uncertainties some declare themselves atheists or agnostics, concluding that there is no religious or spiritual reason for life on Earth. There is no “higher power.” There is no “God.” Get over trying to figure this all out, they say, and chill out. Just accept life for what it is. Others would say that we have clues but no absolute answers. Can you call yourself a Christian if you fall into this latter category and believe that Christianity provides the best clues to understanding the Big Picture, but there are still unanswered questions? Many would say no. It is all or nothing. I would say yes.
And there are issues with regard to the history of the Christian Church once it became a state religion, many of which continue to the present.
While you can point to many good things that Christian churches and devout Christians have accomplished over the centuries, you can also point to a lot of bad things. The history of the Christian church is a mixed bag. Think of the nine Crusades to liberate the Holy Land in the 1100-1200s, which resulted in over a million deaths, the Spanish inquisition beginning in the 15th Century and continuing into the 19th Century where tens of thousands died, the Wars of Religion in central Europe that lasted for over 100 years in the 1500-1600s, when several million Protestants and Catholics perished—Christians killing Christians. Think about the witch hunts in New England. What about the Christians who owned slave ships or who owned plantations in the South? And what about the Ku Klux Klan, which describes itself as a Christian organization? Explain the persecution of Jews by Christians over the centuries. Where were Christians during the Holocaust, and why were there so few Dietrich Bonhoeffers? And why were most White, segregated Christian churches in the South silent and on the sidelines during the Era of Jim Crow and then the Civil Rights Movement?
Yes, the history of the Christian Church is blemished. It has its dark side. Some would put the blame squarely at the foot of human nature. Remember we are only Homo sapiens. We have made it through many thousand years of evolution due to our instinct for survival and are now at the top of the food chain.
And there are those who argue, “The Bible says God created humans in His likeness.” Can this be right?
Keep in mind that it is not fair to lump all Christians together. Christianity is divided in all sorts of ways—Roman Catholic, Russian and Greek Orthodox, and a long list of Protestants churches–all of which “sort of” believe the same thing. But then again do we really? Presbyterians are said to believe in Calvin’s idea of Predestination. Catholics are said to believe there is a purgatory and the ultimate authority of the Pope. Mormons are said to believe that Jesus came to America. In some churches people speak in tongues. In others they swing incense. Some churches are filled with icons. Others are plain and simple. There are mystics, fundamentalists, evangelicals, right-to-lifers, and pro-choice Christians. Christians are on both sides of gender and political issues. There are conservatives and liberals, management and labor, PhDs and high school drop outs. There are MAGA Republicans, who adore Trump and progressive Democrats who despise him.
But here is the thing: We tend to sort ourselves by our backgrounds and our opinions, which often have little to do with Christianity. And also important: We rarely attend the same churches. The compositions of most churches are segregated according to race, class, levels of education and political leanings.
Is this situation today what the early Christians had in mind?
I recall attending a revival in Covington, Georgia, about 20 years ago when we were visiting Embry’s long lost cousins, who Embry was surprised to see on the cover of the National Geographic, where they were featured in the cover story, which was about old fashioned “camp meetings.”
The three-day, small town event, which had been happening every September since the end of the Civil War, brought (White) multi-generational families together at the end of the summer for fellowship, storytelling and to hear good preaching. The preacher for the event that year was probably in his late 30s and a Southern Baptist. He was very sharp and intelligent and surprised me by preaching a progressive message of inclusiveness, tolerance, and social responsibility. Toward the end of his last sermon, he stunned the congregation of several hundred attentive listeners with this question:
“After hearing what I have preached on this week, how many think that I would say that there is not really all that much difference between the Christian Protestant denominations? We are all pretty much the same. Well, let me be clear: There is a huge difference, and don’t you forget it!”
I could feel the puzzled shock that came over the audience. All ears perked up.
“Now I am a Southern Baptist and proud of it. A Southern Baptist is a Christian who has been washed.”
I was not sure what that meant, but there were plenty of heads nodding.
“Are there any Methodists in the congregation?”
Forty or 50 people raised their hands.
“A Methodist is a Baptist who can read.”
I could hear some soft chuckles.
“What about Presbyterians?”
More hands were raised.
“A Presbyterian is a Methodist who has gone to college.”
More soft chuckles.
“And an Episcopalian is a Presbyterian whose investments turned out all right.”
This brought the house down. Everyone knew exactly what he was getting at.
In addition to all the other things that divide us, culture and social status are also often near the top.
Yet despite the divisions and the differences in worship style and belief, and values the Christian Church has survived all these years and on a global scale– except for Europe and the U.S. and a few other “developed” countries–is thriving in a world where there are many other options for spiritual life and spiritual journeys. What is that all about?
This question will be the focus of the next post, the penultimate post in this series.