Well, it looks like I’m going to hell again. I say “again,” because I’ve gotten used to being condemned to hell by folks who think my theology is liberal or blasphemous. Over the years, I’ve been condemned to hell most often for not believing the Bible is “the inerrant word of God,” but also for my refusal to consider being homosexual a sin, my support of equal rights for women—especially the right of women to be ministers, and for not voting Republican—just to name a few. I’ve come to believe that I must be doing something right if I have upset the sort of people who feel they have the right to decide whom God will show grace to and whom God will condemn to everlasting punishment.
This time around I was condemned to hell because of my views on the Bible. I received an e-mail yesterday from a gentleman who wrote, “You don’t know me - but I am aware of you and your classes in Bible.” Now, I’m not sure which “classes in Bible” this fellow was referring to, but I’m guessing it was the class I taught this spring at Missouri Western: Introduction to Biblical Studies, an academic and secular overview of the Bible from the perspective of critical scholarship. I can only assume he heard about the class from one of the students, and since the perspective of the class was not the same as his perspective on scripture, he felt the need to inform me of my erring ways.
Even though the author felt sure I would take offense at his message—which included an attached article by a conservative minister detailing the nature of a “true Bible Christian”— he felt the “greatest thing he could do out of Christian love” was to share the Gospel with me. He was right; I am offended by his e-mail, but I can cut the guy some slack. Once upon a time, I too believed that it was worth the risk of offending someone if it might mean saving them from an eternity of torture and pain. When your worldview is starkly dualistic and the dividing line between the “saved” and the “damned” comes down to who has the right doctrine or beliefs, it’s pretty easy to convince yourself that just about anything is justified if it results in saving someone from the fires of hell. Such a worldview makes its own particular kind of sense, even if those outside of it consider it nonsense.
I moved outside of such a worldview when the God I experienced failed to conform to its rigid ways. I began to ask some questions: Just who is doing the saving? What do the “unsaved” need to be saved from? Etc. Etc. I realized that it was not I but God who saved people from their own destructive behaviors and failures. Oh sure, I was taught that God saved people through Jesus Christ, but it was up to us, the true Christians, to spread the word and if we failed then the eternal status of our unsaved friends and loved ones was on our heads. When I realized God was the one doing the saving—or in other words, it is God who shows grace to God’s creation, then I also realized that the grace of God did not operate in such a mechanical fashion.
Rather like a vending machine in which you insert the correct amount of money and receive your chosen product, I believed that God would automatically dispense salvation if I believed the right combination of doctrines or had the proper emotional state when I prayed, etc. etc. I came to understand that the grace of God is not mechanical but organic. It flows and grows and spreads in ways that far exceed the limitations we place upon it. Our efforts to reduce the working of God’s Spirit to a transaction or mechanism reveal more about our need to control God than God’s love for us.
I am sure the writer of the e-mail felt he was doing what was right; indeed he probably felt he is being a true Christian. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I choose to believe he is unaware of just how arrogant he really is. Sending an e-mail to a stranger that professes Christian love yet informs that stranger of his errors and then goes on to describe the consequences of those errors as eternal damnation pretty much defines arrogance. Yet, this author has actually done me a service, just not the kind of service he intended.
He has reminded me once again about my own tendency towards arrogance regarding people I disagree with and how easy it is to reduce them to a caricature rather than viewing them as living breathing human beings. He has reminded me that my conversations about what I believe should flow from my own experience of Jesus Christ and the resulting humility I feel at being loved by God even though I am so often unworthy of that love, rather than out of an arrogant need to control or correct others who hold different beliefs than I do. He has reminded me that such conversations need to take place within relationships where I can demonstrate my love for the other person and learn from them as an equal rather than taking place in a one-sided exchange where I inform them how I am right and he or she is wrong.
Most of all, the author of this e-mail reminded me that I am fortunate to serve a church where our goal is not to enforce doctrinal beliefs but to experience the love of God with and through one another. Our energy is better spent experiencing God through listening to one another and learning from one another rather than policing the border of hell out of fear that God’s grace might not be up to the job.
Grace and Peace,