by Harold W. Anderson, M.Div., Ph.D.
Belief is powerful. It changes things and the more people believe it, the more things change. This, I suppose, is the lesson of systems. A singular belief can be something powerful for the person who holds it, but it may have little impact upon others. But a belief that is held by many, hundreds, thousands, or millions of people begins to change worlds and that is the power of religion. The belief structures of religions are powerful and shape the lives, hopes and dreams of
people the world over. A religious person might argue that the power of belief is the power of God, and I am not here to argue that point. What I do wish to draw attention to, though, is that a misplaced or incorrect belief often pushes people to believe something more harmful than helpful.
I am reminded of this when thinking about a theology grounded in dispensationalism and propositional theology that have powerfully influenced generations of believers throughout the world, but particularly in the United States. In fact, John Smith, who drew heavily on the theology of John Calvin and was one of the framers of those who stand in the tradition of Baptists, shaped the hopes and dreams of a nation. Fundamental to this theology is the belief that human beings are fundamentally flawed; they are hopelessly sinful and can do nothing other than sin. This means that even acts of goodness are flawed by sin. They call it “total depravity” from which salvation rescues the believer but not in this lifetime. That awaits death, and the trip to heaven is where people are finally healed of their depravity. Finally, in heaven, people are and can do good. This fundamental belief shapes their beliefs about Christology, atonement, theology, soteriology, ecclesiology, etc.
Augustine wrote the City of God in 413 CE. At the time, the Roman Empire, which many thought to be God’s reign on earth, was beginning to fall. How can something God brought about be defeated Augustine wondered? To answer this question, he wrote the City of God. The physical empire of Rome is a material empire built by people, he thought, whereas the City of God is an eternal empire that will never be destroyed. We live in the “City of Man”, as he called it, in the hopes of getting to the “City of God” once we die. The dualism of Neo-Platonism was an influence that heavily shaped his thinking.
Beliefs have consequences, and original sin as defined by propositional theology, has had tremendous consequences, the most problematic of which is what people believe can and will happen in the “hear-and-now.” This narrative holds that the plague of evil is true not only of secular institutions and people, but of religious institutions and the believers who are part of them. As Augustine wrote long ago, reality is comprised of the world of people and while the spiritual world sometimes interfaces with the world of human beings, it is nonetheless something fundamentally different and ontologically distinct. In the “City of God,” as Augustine called it, things are good, but in what he called “the City of Man,” things are, well…sinful and that is all they can be. Augustine’s Neo-Platonism seemed to work well with the dualistic emphasis found in the Pauline corpus where Paul speaks of the body of sin and death—the realm of sin and sinful behavior—and the body of Christ—the realm of goodness and Christlike behaviors. It would have been well had Western Christians taken Paul more seriously and minimized the Neo-Platonism of Augustine, but they didn’t. Instead, theologians adopted it, and it was preached from the pulpits of churches throughout the United States and people believed it. They and others are sinful; ultimately, they can do no good because they are depraved. Belief, as the foundation of our thinking, becomes the substance of our expectations and the reality of our world. People are evil because we expect them to be; we think no one can do good because their depravity taints and distorts their behaviors no matter how much they try to do good.
When we expect nothing but evil in the world, this expectation affects the way we look at others and erodes our trust in the people and institutions that we find ourselves relying upon. We might go to church not with the expectation that we are in a family of mutual respect, but in the hopes that God’s spirit will nourish us because the people and the institution certainly won’t. We look at our centers of government as a swamp, and elected officials as swamp-dwellers. The former seeks to oppress us while the latter is in it to help only themselves. Our votes are therefore cast for the one who we think will best line our pockets rather than the one who stands on the side of justice. But here is the worst thing. When our expectations are so low, we too easily rationalize the unethical behaviors of elected
officials. Regardless of what unethical behaviors they participate in, we vote for them anyway if they say what we want to hear, embrace the ideals we embrace and pass the laws we think will benefit our bottom line. We don’t care if they are liars, have little personal integrity or treat others who do not agree with them, look like them or think like them with disrespect. Because our expectations are so low, we can rationalize just about anything as long as we believe it will help us. Such transactionalism is far from the teachings of Jesus and betrays the calls to righteousness reported in the biblical texts.
John Wesley (1703 – 1791) was an Anglican Priest whose thought and influence founded the Methodist Church in Great Britain and the American colonies. Following a religious experience where his heart was “strangely warmed,” Wesley began to teach that when empowered by God, people could live a life of holiness, a life of grace and goodness.
When we look at the events and people who inhabit our worlds, what do we see? Our beliefs form the shape of our lens with which we view the world and determines the nature of what we see. But the lens of total depravity is not the only lens. It may have shaped the lens of millions of people in our country, but there is another theological tradition that casts human beings in a better light. This narrative also has a long history within the Church but finds a focus in the writings of John Wesley. Wesley is not a systematic thinker, but his writings and sermons taught a different belief structure than that of the Baptists and taught that faith—far from being a set of propositions about God, Christ, and people—is the substance of one’s life as lived under the saving grace of God, revealed in the life of Jesus. According to this way of thinking, people do not have to do evil; empowered by the grace of God, they can and often do good. Rather than looking for the evil in people and society, look instead for their goodness and the good they can do. This is the opposite of the Smith/Calvin folks and teaches a theology built upon spiritual empowerment of people to do good and build worlds reflective of their faith, their goodness. While early proponents of this way of believing as well as Wesley himself used all too often the word “perfection,” this like the Calvinist embrace of Neo-Platonism, is unfortunate for it creates hope that collapses on the reef of unrealistic expectations. Our goal is not to become perfect, but to strengthen our commitment to becoming better. This is the lens of the Wesleyan heritage, and it is the lens through which people embracing this focus view the world.
What would the consequences of such a belief be? One might suggest that the impact of this way of believing is nothing less than a conversion. As Paul wrote in I Corinthians 5: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” To embrace this belief structure as the lens through which we view the world, is to discover the new creation of which Paul speaks. Using this lens, we become a part of the Body of Christ and are empowered to live a Christlike life, i.e., we do good and work to build worlds reflective of that fact. At the foundation of this belief system is not total depravity but the imago dei, the image of God empowered by God’s grace. But there is something else that is fundamental to this belief system—forgiveness. The goal of becoming better is forgiveness not in the abstract, but in the concrete everydayness of life. God’s forgiveness is worked out in reality through our forgiveness of others.
People helping others in acts of kindness are angels in our midst, paradigms of goodness inspiring hope that with God’s grace, things will get better.
From Jesus’ followers to believers today, the idea of forgiveness is perplexing. We are tempted to ask, “Who is deserving of our forgiveness?” Such judgments are difficult because there are persons who seem to be so bad, such an embodiment of evil, that we dare not “forgive” them unless by doing so, we risk condoning their acts of evil. Forgiveness, we need to point out, is the imposition of goodwill upon those who do evil not to condone their evil thoughts and deeds, but to influence them to do better. This is a complex process that is worked out in very practical ways. It may take time and under some circumstances, we may not have the luxury of time. Nonetheless, forgiveness, one hopes, begins the difficult process of becoming better, reflecting the imago dei that is the essence of being human. When this lens of belief becomes the lens for many, the process of becoming better dons a potency that is life and world transforming. When horrible acts of evil rip apart the tranquility of life, when natural disasters interrupt homes and steal human life, when treachery and deceit create an atmosphere of betrayal making trust and respect difficult, during these times if we look closely, we see acts of empowerment, acts of goodness where people become angels entering redemptively into the lives of others. A Protestant family protects a Jewish girl in Nazi Germany; a man disarms a mass murderer putting his life on the line to save others; a parent becomes a human shield to save their child from the powerful bullets of a terrorist’s weapon; thousands of people gather to help people whose homes and lives have been destroyed by hurricanes or tornadoes; a nurse befriends a 16-year old girl who has just given birth to triplets and eventually adopts the young woman giving all of them a loving place to live. These are acts of kindness by good people who become a paradigm for what it means to become better and whose goodness influences the lives of others helping them to believe that while life may be difficult, there are reasons to believe that things will improve. It is in the context of becoming better that the meaning of forgiveness is discovered and becomes a reality. It is this process that lies at the heart of spirituality as told by the Wesleyan branch of Christianity, a belief system that is a powerful alternative to the one told by those who believe in human depravity.
My educational journey has taken me deep into the study of different theological perspectives. While I do not agree with the Baptist and Calvinist perspective, I do not begrudge those who embrace such a position. I hope they do not begrudge me of mine. But beliefs have consequences. When held by large numbers of people, the consequences are powerful and truly shape worlds. I think it is a matter of choice. Which do you prefer? A world where goodness is a very real possibility, or one in which all we can do is sin? I have made my choice. What is yours?