The Crisis And The Challenge Of The Christian Faith
By Doug Soderstrom, Ph.D. is a Psychologist
E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org
On the surface, Christianity is, above all things, most simple. It
was Jesus who said that it could all be summed up in two rather
succinct phrases: Love thy God with all of thy heart, thy mind, thy
soul, and thy strength. And like unto the first----- love thy
neighbor (and perhaps even thine enemy) as thyself. Although "rather
difficult" to put into practice, Jesus quite nicely reduces religion
to its very most common denominator.
On the other hand, if one moves beyond the surface, it does not take
very long to discover the utter complexity of religion. Although the
command, that we should love others, forms the basis of all the great
religions, the specific differences are a cause of great concern (as
in the ongoing conflict of the Moslem faith with that of
Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism). There is the Catholic Church
vs. the Protestant Church------ and then, those factors that so
fiercely divide one protestant denomination from that of another in
their competitive struggle to please God, a struggle so divisive that
it is threatening to destroy the foundations of the Christian Faith.
But now only two sides remain; the Christian Fundamentalists (the
fundamentalists) and the more liberal faction of the church (the
liberals)------- each determined to win. Yet, we are left to wonder,
in this bitter battle over "the minds of men"-------is it possible
for the church to survive?
It would be instructive to know where these two rather embattled foes fit into the overall ontology of life. The author has proposed that
there are four basic levels of human existence, each with its own
specific source of authority (the reality to which one gives
allegiance). First is the carnal level of which the source of
authority is one's own (most depraved) self. This, I believe, speaks
for itself. The second level is that of society. For it, the primary
source of authority is the status quo----- which means choosing to
live the life of an obedient, tradition-oriented, patriotic American
(assuming, of course, that one is an American). The third, in the
ontological hierarchy, is that of the moral level. At this point
(given the fact that the moral individual, in order to move to the
moral level, had to reject society as a source of authority) chooses
his own conscience (the highest and best values to which one can
aspire) as that which is most ultimate in life. And, of course, the
highest level is that of the spiritual realm, of which, God is the
ultimate source of authority. At this level, the will of God becomes
the primary purpose of one's life.
So then, where do these two adversaries of The Christian Faith fit
into this ontological scheme? The fundamentalists (rather oddly) seem
to be simultaneously stuck at (but certainly not in between) two very
different levels------- that of the social and the spiritual level.
And this is what, as you will see, accounts for their status quo,
rather conventionalized, and very ethnocentric approach to God. It is
as if they are not able (or should I say, not willing) to make a
choice between the sacred (God) and the secular (mammon). On the
other hand, the liberals, at the moral level, tend to be "social
reformers." Many of them would like to move to the spiritual level,
however, due to their propensity for logical and rational thought, it
is not an easy thing for them to do. They find it very difficult to
commit themselves to something that they cannot "readily see" such as that of The Spirit of God. In terms of their relationship to each
other, it could be said that: they do not understand each other; they
do not like each other; they tend not to agree with each other; the
fundamentalists (as good patriotic American citizens) tend to defend
society, whereas the liberals tend to challenge, and therefore want
to change, society; and they each tend to look upon the other with a
mournful sense of disdain, scorn, and contempt. In conclusion, it
could be said that they simply do not tend to get along with each
other very well.
Now, concerning "their gods"----------their perception of "the one"
who they believe to be in charge. The fundamentalists worship a
conservative-republican god, one who is committed to maintaining the status quo interests of society--------- one who is concerned about
controlling the personal morality of men. This god seems bent on
punishing those who drink alcohol, engage in illicit sex, dance,
swear, and gamble, but with little concern for "the sins of society,"
the sins of the rich and powerful as they continue to abuse and
enslave the "huddled masses" of our world. On the other hand, the
liberals worship a liberal-democratic (perhaps even humanistic) god;
one who is committed to challenging the social misdeeds of society, a
god of social justice---------one who is interested in the social
morality of men. This is a god who is inclined to punish the sins of
racial injustice, materialism, greed, chauvinism, war, and the
destruction of the environment, yet with "a blind eye" toward the
more personal sins of men. Biased gods indeed! God's, whose reality,
exist only in the minds of men, and men, whose sins, define the
reality of God. God and men "in arms" bent upon destroying each other!
The best way to explain the nature of the problem is to put it into
the form of a question: "What is it that we, as Christians, must do
in order to please God------ what is it that we must do in order to
"be saved;" is it required for us to "believe in" Jesus Christ, or,
on the other hand, is it necessary for us to "live like" Jesus
Christ? However, at present, there seems to be no common ground, no
place to meet, no way for reconciliation to occur. Yet it is crucial
that a resolution be found, for the implications (the consequences)
of getting the answer wrong are beyond calculation. The stakes are
indeed "very high," for, in this contest of wills, the winner will
take all. For those who triumph, the reward will be Heaven------ an
eternity of joyful bliss. But for those who lose, their punishment
will be Hell------ an eternity of agonizing pain.
So, how do the Christian Fundamentalists fit into the crisis-----
what is their problem? Fundamentalists believe that in order to be
saved, one must "believe in" Jesus Christ----- he must accept Jesus
Christ as his own personal savior. And, for them, there are no
exceptions------ not even one. It is this that has placed them into
an extremely difficult bind. Given the rather severe nature of this
requirement, it has been estimated that approximately 90% of all
human beings who have ever lived upon the face of the earth have gone to Hell. 1
One reason why many of these individuals will have ended up spending
an eternity in the fires of Hell is that they did not know about
Jesus-----simply said, they had never heard of Him. For example, it
is likely that individuals, who had, let's say, been living in China
during The First Century AD, may well have not heard about Jesus
Christ, since word of Jesus probably hadn't spread to that part of
the world yet. There are others who, as a result of having been
(that is, culturally conditioned by the religion in which they had
been raised), would likely have had 1Approximately one third of the
world's population is of the Christian Faith. Assuming that one third
of this group has not accepted Jesus Christ as their own personal
savior, then, according to fundamentalist theology, it would be
correct to conclude that approximately 90% of all people living on
the earth today will end up going to Hell.
little opportunity to accept Jesus Christ as their own personal
savior. Many of these people may have been raised in India as Hindus,
in China as Buddhists, in Iran as Moslems, or in Israel as Jews.
Pairing this information with the fundamentalist's belief that God is
all powerful, all knowing, as well as all loving, places this faction
into a rather precarious situation. This is the question that a
skillful critic of fundamentalist theology would ask: "How is it
possible that an all knowing, all powerful (yet simultaneously all
loving) God would dare to create such a situation in which perhaps as
many as 90% of all human beings who have ever lived upon the face of the earth (none of whom were even given the choice to be a human being) would end up suffering for an eternity in the fires of Hell?"
Indeed, a very, very difficult question for which to formulate a
reasonable response------ in fact, a question so severe that, as of
this date, as far as this author knows, no fundamentalist has been
able to develop a reasonable rational response. 2
There is not time, nor is this the place, to elaborate upon those
things that have thrust the fundamentalist faith into such a
quandary. So allow me to list just a few of the questions that seem
to be driving this group to "their knees."
-----How could a loving God allow so many of His own children to end
up in the fires of Hell?
-----How can you be so absolutely sure that you know the Truth of God
when there are so many different ways of interpreting the Bible; how
can you be sure that your interpretation is the one, and only,
-----How can the fundamentalist church be so in touch with the Truth
of God, while, at the same time, having had such an absolutely horrid
history of supporting slavery? And, even though the fundamentalists
may have repented for this terrible sin, how could it have taken them
such a long time to figure out what they had done was wrong?
-----How is it possible that being a homosexual could be such a
terrible abomination to God if, as research has shown, people have
literally no control whatsoever over their sexual orientation?
-----With all of our knowledge about the evolution of the earth, how
can you still believe that the earth is no more than six thousand
-----Why do you place more emphasis upon symbolic behavior that
implies salvation (e.g. a death-bed confession) than you do upon a
reality such as one actually having lived a good and decent moral
life; in your mind does this represent a "better ticket" (or perhaps
even "the only such ticket") to Heaven? 3
-----If it were possible for Jesus Christ to live upon the earth
today, do you really believe that He would be a proud supporter of
capitalism, capital punishment, war, racial intolerance, corporal
punishment, the right of every American to carry a gun, as well as
actions that seem to be destroying the ecosphere?
2 Based upon many years of research, debate, and personal discussion,
the author has found that it is extremely difficult for the Christian
Fundamentalist to respond in a logical manner to such questions.
However, for those of you who believe that you are capable of
defending fundamentalist thought, please feel free to contact the
author. The author would love to discuss this matter with you, and if
there is enough mutual interest, we could choose to have a formalized
(and, of course, quite civilized) debate on the
subject-------------with all profits, of course, going to a worthy,
agreed upon, cause.
3 The author has developed an idea that explains why the
fundamentalists tend to place such a great emphasis upon
symbolic-ritualistic behavior such as "going forward," baptism,
speaking "in tongues," etc. The idea, "The Deification of Symbolic
Behavior," refers to the antecedent assignment of divine qualities to
volitional activity (e.g. the initial acceptance of Jesus Christ as
one's own personal savior) in such a manner that it essentially
begins to take the place of what it was meant to lead toward (i.e.
It is no wonder then that the fundamentalists are so often on the
defensive when it comes to their faith. There is, no doubt, a lot to
This is why it has been so extremely difficult to find
fundamentalists who are willing to allow their beliefs to be
challenged in a logical-rational manner. From my own experience, the
fundamentalist nearly always ends up saying something like this; "It
doesn't matter if something does not seem to make sense, because
religion is based upon faith, not facts. Anyway, the entire Truth of
God is contained in The Bible and it is not something that we should
question. When we come across something that we cannot understand, we should pray about it. And if after that, we still can't figure it out, perhaps it is not God's will for us to understand. It is
important to remember that God's ways are not our ways, and He is
much more intelligent than we are. It is His responsibility to
question (and eventually to even judge) us; not the other way around.
My responsibility is to simply have faith in Jesus, and to leave the
rest to him."
On the other hand, the liberal Christian, as well, has been forced
into a rather difficult position. The more liberal Christian tends to
believe that, in order to be a Christian, one must be willing to
"live like" Jesus. Now that is all nice and good, however, what if it
turns out that the one who decides to "live like" Jesus is a Jew, a
Hindu, a Buddhist, or even a Moslem? It is quite likely that any of
these fellows could go a long way toward emulating the life of Christ
without ever once having expressed a belief in (or even a knowledge
of) Jesus Christ. For example, look at the life of Mahatma Gandhi.
There can be no doubt about the fact that this was a man of
outstanding moral character. Surely, if anybody were to end up in
Heaven-----it would be Mr. Gandhi! But we must remember that, as far
as we know, Gandhi never did accept Jesus Christ as his own personal
savior. So where does this leave the liberal Christian?
The skillful critic of the liberal Christian would ask this question:
"If you believe that all that one needs to do in order to be saved is
to "live like" Jesus, then why is it necessary for anyone at all to
"believe in" Jesus, since anyone of any religion is quite obviously
capable of such a feat?" A very good question indeed. So good, in
fact, that most liberal Christians today are trying to figure out if
there is any good reason for anyone to be a Christian-----since "it
obviously" makes no difference "in who" or "in what" one believes,
because all that one needs to do in order to go to Heaven is to live
a half way decent life. And since Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Moslems,
and, for that matter, even agnostics or atheists, are obviously quite
capable of doing such a thing, why all "the rush" to convert others
to Christ------and even more importantly, why "do I," as a liberal,
need to be a Christian? As one who has studied this question for
going on four decades now, this is what I hear the liberal Christian
say: "I have come to the point that a lot of this "Christianity
stuff" just doesn't seem to make any sense any more. How can anybody
say that their religion is the one right religion, and that all the
others are wrong? I have studied all of the great religions, and to
me they are all just fine. And when you really get down to it, they
are all saying just about the same thing. As it turns out, all that
is really important is to love your neighbor, and maybe, if you can,
your enemy too. Basically, it can all be summed up in one simple
phrase; "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And
that's just about all there is to religion. So I have come to the
point that it really doesn't make any difference to me what religion
I, or anyone else, believes in, because, in the end, all that matters
is if you have lived a good life or not. If you have, then you will
probably go to Heaven, and if you haven't then you might perhaps go
to Hell------that is, if there is a Hell, which I really do sincerely
But, not to let the liberals off the hook, a couple of questions do need to be asked.
----- What are you going to do if it turns out that the task of pleasing God was as simple as the fundamentalists had claimed, that all that was required was to simply accept Jesus Christ as your own personal savior?
-----What are you going to do if, after having demanded that religion
must make sense, you are left with nothing in which to believe, and
even worse, if your skepticism leads you to Hell?
To summarize, in relation to what they believe, it seems that the
fundamentalists are at war with the rest of the world, whereas the
liberals are on the verge of leaving the church. There is no simple
solution, and no matter how you cut it, there are big problems in
"the River City" of The Christian Faith. At this point then, I
suppose that it could be said that the fundamentalists are fed up
with all of the questions that others are asking about their faith,
while the liberals have yet to begin to ask all of their questions.
It would be nice to believe that there is room for accommodation,
some place for them to meet, something upon which they might agree, some way for them to get along--------- but, at least at this point,
there isn't. The gulf is just too great. There have been too many
wounds; too many bruises and too much hurt. The time for healing has
not yet come, and unless things change, it may never come.
But now, in order for you to internalize, perhaps even to deepen, the
ontological significance of this rather difficult problem, take a
look at the characterization of three different individuals; Charles,
Chep, and Chowyan. Then, after having read them, try to figure out
which of the three God would be more likely to allow into the Kingdom
of Heaven (and conversely, who He would allow to descend into the
depths of Hell).
4 Benton Johnson and his colleagues decided to survey church members in order to see if they could figure out why the more liberal
protestant churches were losing so many members. They concluded that the primary reason for such a loss was the fact of "lay liberalism,"
of which, the defining characteristic appeared to be a "rejection of
the view that Christianity is the only religion with a valid claim to
truth." In order to avoid the nihilistic implications of such a view,
many indicated that they felt that there was an element of the divine
in all of the major world religions-------- that other faiths such as
Buddhism, Judaism, and Hinduism were just as likely to embrace
elements of the truth. Their findings tend to reinforce the author's
thinking in regards to why liberals have been leaving the church.
Johnson, B., Hoge, D. R., Luidens, D. A. (1993, March). Mainline
Churches: The Real Reason for Decline. First Things, 13-18.
Charles: An individual who, for the first 75 years of his life, was
very selfish, greedy, unkind toward others, and prejudiced, but then,
after having discovered that he had contracted a fatal disease and
would therefore die within a month or so, decided to accept The Lord
Jesus Christ as his own personal savior.
Chep: Having lived his whole life in a small village hidden deep
within the rain forest of Brazil, this 75 year old Holy Man and healer of the sick, although once having had an opportunity to hear
the gospel of Jesus Christ presented to him by a Christian
missionary------- was unable to make a personal commitment to Jesus
Christ as The Lord of his life.
Chowyan: A Buddhist Priest, having lived the entirety of his life in
a communal setting in the back country of China, was very loving,
extremely kind toward others, and always ready to forgive those who
would do him harm. He spent the final sixty years of his life
dedicated to helping those less fortunate than himself----------
however, he ended up dying at the age of 75 without ever having had an opportunity to hear about Jesus Christ.
So, what do you think? Who would God be more likely to welcome into
His kingdom? And which, of the three, would He allow to descend into
the depths of Hell? How would God go about making such decisions?
What factors might He take into consideration? Would His decisions be
a matter of "black and white," or would there be various "shades of
gray" that God would have to contend with?" What do you believe God
will take into consideration when it is time for Him to figure out
where you will spend eternity? And finally, given the way that you
have chosen to respond to these questions, what does this have to say
about the kind of person that you have chosen to be?
How we choose to think through such questions will enable each of us
to better understand who it is that we, as a human being, are and
what it is that we believe. Dealing with this dilemma will
enable us, as Christians, to better understand the depth of our
confusion, as well as, the depth of our division, concerning what it
means to be a Christian, what it means to follow in the footsteps of
Christ, what it is that we must do in order to go to Heaven and thus
avoid the horrors of Hell.
Clearly then, the Christian Church is beset by conflict, a mighty
chasm that has risen out of the diverse complexity of a simple need
to worship God. Each party wanting to worship God in its own chosen
way, yet a way that the other does not, and perhaps may never, be
able to understand. A diversity of worship that is beginning to
destroy the church from within---------unless a path toward
reconciliation can be found. However, it is the author's opinion that
the seeds for reconciliation can be found within the very ground of
contention that, at present, divides the one from the other. These
two (the fundamentalists and the liberals) are at war simply because
neither one of them is whole. What the one needs, the other one has.
What could have made one strong has been used to make itself weak.
What the one knows, the other cannot seem to understand. A solution
can be found,but it will take everything that each of the two adversaries have to offer, absolutely every single ounce of honesty, integrity, understanding, courage, and humility that each possess. Just as a coin must have each of its sides in order to be whole, it is no
different for the church. In order for The Christian Faith to be
restored to wholeness, to move toward a singleness of spirit, it must
allow The Spirit of God to transform "its swords of hate into the
ploughshares of love," to convert its adversaries who choose to hurt
into allies who want to help. So that each might have the humility to
accept for itself what it needs from the other, just as each must
have the courage to give to the other from the strength that it has.
Pragmatically, and more specifically, there are two things the church
can do in order to heal.
First, it is important to recognize the simple fact that most, if not
all, of us have developed some sort of political bias. Some, like the
fundamentalists, have become rather conservative in their thought. On the other hand, there are liberals who may be to the "left of
center." Given the fact that our political opinions are likely near
the center of how we tend to think about life, there is little doubt
that such thoughts can skew our efforts to understand The Truth of
Scripture. Indeed, it does little good to have available "a source of
truth," if we approach it with a preconceived state of mind, if we
are essentially unable, or perhaps even unwilling, to take an honest
look at it. Clearly, neither Jesus Christ, nor His followers, were,
what we conceive of today as being, biased toward a more conservative or liberal political agenda. The Truth of Christ, of course, stands far above "the puny wisdom" of our political ideologies. Rather than choosing to see only what we want to see; rather than choosing to
modify Scripture to conform to the ignorance of our own petty
biases---------- rather than allowing our biases to distort our
capacity to understand the Truth of God (The Truth of Scripture, as
well as, The ascribed meaning of Jesus' life), it would be a far, far
better thing for us to invite The Holy Spirit to change (even perhaps
to radically modify) how we think, in order that our thinking, might
once again, be brought back into one accord with that of our Heavenly
Father. Then, and only then, will the church be in a position to
learn from itself. Until that time arrives, it will simply be a
matter of "the blind leading the blind!"
Second, if there is to be reconciliation it will originate out of
strength. So then, what is the strength of the church? Concerning the
fundamentalists, their strength seems to lie in their capacity to
"believe in," that is, to accept, the divinity of The Lord Jesus
Christ. Whereas the strength of the liberal church seems to be rooted
in an assumption that a God who is truly divine will, out of
necessity, be one who is rational and moral; one who would be
described as being loving, caring, kind, forgiving, understanding,
rational, and fair. Such a synthesis would yield a much kinder God
than that in whom the fundamentalists believe, and, on the other
hand, a God much stronger than the God whom the liberals follow. If
such a transformation could take place, what might the "faith-works"
continuum look like? "Faith" would begin to be conceptualized as The
Power of God's Love living within us, and "works" understood as The
Power of God's Love moving between us. Not two dichotomous entities,
but rather one continuous reality; one as a natural extension of the
other--------faith as the empowered reality upon which works are
based, and works as the inevitable outcome of a spiritually empowered
faith. If such were the case, I believe that we, as Christians (those
who wish to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ), would begin to
realize that it is The Power of God's Love within us that makes it
possible for us to have the capacity (an authentic desire) to emulate
the life of Christ, so that we, as a church, might eventually become
able to love others in a manner that would truly please God. If each
of these two "rather embattled forces of god" could find the courage
to confront the weakness "of their own footing" before the presence
of God, perhaps "the miracle of two having become one" might enable The Church to once again "stand tall" as a mighty force for God.
However, if such a transformation fails to become a reality, the
church will remain a kingdom divided, a church unto itself, a group
of "mere mortals" fighting for "the leftovers" of a world without God.
But, regardless of the outcome, even if the church does not survive,we can rest assured of one thing-------if we, as individuals, remaintrue to The Holy Spirit of God, He will, in all of His greatness and glory, welcome each of us home, and in the end------------------- His
Love will make us whole.