From depths of woe I raise to thee,
the voice of lamentation
If thou iniquities dost mark,
Our secret sins and misdeeds dark,
O who shall stand before thee?
I don’t attend many Christian church services these days. Recently I did attend a service at a church in Minnesota, while I happened to be visiting that weekend for other reasons (those “other reasons” may get their own blog post later). Oh, did I mention that my friend is the pastor of the church? I felt like visiting my friend and thought this would be a convenient way to say hello and to visit briefly. I also wanted a chance to see my friend in his element, as I had never seen this friend in his role as church pastor before.
It’s been nearly four years since I last set foot in Hope Community Church where I had been heavily involved. The church I visited (which will remain unnamed in this public post unless the pastor wants to comment here) reminded me of Hope in many ways. Two big similarities which I’ll be reflecting on here are the music and the theology.
What do humans deserve?
Calvinism is a specific variant of Christianity. It’s a theology, not a denomination. When I use the word “Calvinist” and “Calvinism” here I’m specifically referring to what theologians call the “doctrines of grace.” These doctrines talk about how people are saved. The handy memory tool that teachers have used for centuries is TULIP, which stands for 5 major points of the doctrine (go ahead and google all five points if you are curious as I won’t be covering them all here).
Calvinism presents an abysmal view of humanity. The “T” in that acronym above stands for “Total Depravity.” Part of what this doctrine means is that humans must totally rely on God for salvation due to our inborn sin nature. It also carries with it the idea that we are under affliction nearly constantly (even if we don’t always feel it) due to this same sin nature, which causes us to have the temptation to do and think evil things. Classic hymns, such as Martin Luther’s version of Psalm 130, are meant to heighten our sense of desperation and increase our conviction that we need divine rescue. Moving sermons are also meant to help inspire this conviction in us.
The sermon on this particular Sunday focused on John 5, which contains a story of Jesus healing a lame man and how the religious authorities wrongly responded to this miraculous occurrence.
After the broader context of the story was explained, some brief analysis of how the Trinity operates was given. But the core of the message wasn’t about how the Trinity works, which the pastor admitted was a mystery beyond human understanding. The core of the message that day was on eternal life and death…high stakes indeed. We paused to examine one particular verse together, part of Jesus’s response to the naysaying of the wicked Jewish religious authorities in the story:
Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.
At this point in the message a bold vertical line was displayed on the slide show. One one side was listed Life, through belief in Jesus. On the other side just a single word was stamped, “Death.” A stark contrast, practically and clearly on display.
Very sincerely, we were asked which side we were on (no one in the audience ventured to voice an answer at this point). The pastor, my friend, asked us to examine whether we were believing in Christ for salvation or not.
The central point of the passage in John chapter 5 was shown to us, and the central point of Christianity (at least according to this theological variety and in line with other conservative views) was set forth as well, elegantly and simply. We are broken. We are so broken, so sinful, that we deserve no better than death and divine destruction, yet God has chosen to make a way for us, so that we can pass “from death to life.” In traditional orthodox Christianity this passing doesn’t just mean dying and going to heaven, but it certainly does include that component. And in Calvinistic theology, heaven is where the saved are truly made whole and freed from the temptations and afflictions of sin.
While some variants of Calvinism embrace the view that “love wins” in the end and that God will (eventually) grant salvation to all people, most Calvinists today are not so optimistic (and indeed, theologically conservative churches tend to see the doctrine of universal salvation [‘universalism’], as a dangerous heresy rather than just another point of view that Christians are at liberty to hold). I received no indication that this church was an exception to the rule. The test for belief occurs in this life, and after that we must suffer from or enjoy the permanent consequences of the beliefs which we held while in our mortal bodies.
So, here I am in kind of a “mini-Hope.” It’s a small church. The setting is much more intimate, but the language and the music both call me back to that former time in my life when I believed in this message 100%. I see a room full of mostly young adults, sitting in metal folding chairs, attentively listening. My friend is passionately pleading with us to consider whether each of one of us, as individuals, has the correct beliefs. Because if we don’t have the correct beliefs and convictions, if we don’t trust in Jesus as the text instructs us to, then we are very…deeply…screwed.
The music amplified the message of the sermon and I must stress that it showcased the Calvinistic perspective quite well, though that label was never spoken. Calvinism portrays humanity as desperate, as totally reliant upon an outside force for salvation.
And here I am sitting in a hard metal folding chair. Ex-Christian. Atheist. It’s been barely three years since I left this same faith (even this same particular flavor of White Evangelical Protestant American Christianity) and this message has no resonance with me. I can see what it means to the participants in the room. The worshippers want to sing out, sometimes almost groaning as they recite ancient lyrics in a heavy, contemporary rock, musical style. They want to tell their god about how undeserving and sinful they are. But to me, it lacks relevance. There is no pull. It’s a window into a part of my past that I look on with mixed emotions. The message itself neither entices nor convicts me. I will grant that it was an interesting experience and a bit surreal.
Maybe some imagery will help to explain my feelings better. I found this recently while browsing on Facebook and it really sums up my personal journey out of the Christian faith and how I often feel about it:
(original source unknown, but this copy on imgur may be the most high-resolution)
I’ve written before about how it felt to grow up with the message of an angry god and the threat of eternal torment. I’m glad that unlike many ex-Christians I don’t experience vivid nightmares of hell. I’ve been able to let go of that fear with relatively little pain.
My current view of humanity is almost diametrically opposed to the strict Calvinism of my college years. Below are some brief comparisons between my past and present worldviews. Please take these simplistic comparisons with a grain of salt as your understanding of your particular theology (if you have a god belief of some kind) is likely to vary in some respects:
- Calvinism insists that humans are born sinful and fallen from grace.
Humanism insists that humans are born with various imperfections, but not a “sin nature.”
- God despises sin.
We’re not convinced that this particular god exists, let alone how he feels about our actions.
- Humans sin almost constantly. Even thinking the wrong thing can be a sin against your creator.
Humans mess up from time to time. We have biases and failings. We confuse truth and error. Most of us try hard to be better when given the chance. There is no such thing as “thought crime.”
- Humans need to be rescued from “eternal death” by God.
When you die you stop thinking and experiencing things. We don’t need to be rescued from any kind of afterlife (and if you think we do, the burden is on you to prove it, not on us to disprove something no living human has ever seen or provided reliable, solid evidence for).
- Human beings must totally rely on God.
Humans can get by in life and function well without any gods
- Humans are wretched and naturally miserable without God.
Humans have great potential and creativity. We are not perfect, but we are a marvelous part of this universe. We do not require a god to give us happiness, purpose or meaning.
- The most important thing we can do in this life is to believe the correct things about Jesus and trust in him for salvation.
The most important thing we can do is to leave this world a better place than we found it. We can all aspire to this. Belief is in the end far less important than action. I find Humanism provides me with a far more positive and motivating life stance than the old-time religion of Calvinism ever could. In my current worldview there is no Authority up above us, evaluating our thoughts, determining our destinies and punishing us for the moral failings that he built into us in the first place. There is no fear of hell and there is no guilt for simply being human. What kind of Esau would I be if I traded my current beliefs about humanity for my past beliefs? And why would I even want to believe in that angry god again?