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Religious Education Could Increase Christian Tolerance

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There is a new book on the market called the Human Faces of God by a theologian named Thom Stark. In it, he writes that the ancient Israelites were likely polytheists who practiced human sacrifice. According to an interview with Valerie Tarico, the deity known as the supreme “God” by most Christians is believed to have once existed in a pantheon—much like Zeus was a part of a mythological pantheon.

Because of the centrality of Christianity’s monotheistic message, conservatives may view Stark’s radically different view of ancient Israel as a ploy to subvert the faith. After all, one of Christianity’s most widely cherished beliefs is that the ancient Israelites practiced a purer form of worship than their Babylonian neighbors.

However, many progressive Christians believe that these are the very things the average churchgoer should learn. We know that most of us are well versed in the contents (doctrines) of our faith, but lack sufficient context (or historical understanding). Most Christians can’t tell you how the Bible came into existence or how Constantine’s political prowess shaped early Christianity. Christians can quote the epistles, but are not typically aware that most theologians seriously question Paul’s authorship of many New Testament letters. Most Christians are unaware of the external influences that may have shaped our theology, such as the Mithras mystery cult, or the Code of Hammurabi, or Hellenism.

These things remain in the realm of the unknown for a large number of Christians, but it is this very information that will provide a pluralistic context for our beliefs that hasn’t existed. If we were exposed to the historical context in which Judaism and Christianity were formed as often as we are exposed to doctrine, we would develop the ability to question the veracity of our views. We would see that our Old Testament was produced by an ancient society that didn’t understand science or medicine any more than Zeus’ followers did. We would likely jettison our “only path to God” narrrative if we could simply see that our path, like others, developed through a desire to understand that which transcends human understanding. We could begin to tell our story as one that is shared by cultures all over the world.

The future of Christianity will only be realized when we begin to fully understand our past, and the path to religious tolerance will be paved for Christians with sound religious education. I hope that we will someday emerge beyond blind faith to contextual understanding.

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About C Lewis

  • Talk about ambitious! I totally agree with you, but so many Christians (and others) deliberately ignore knowledge and profess FAITH as the only thing that matters. Facts, history, science – they don’t deny that these things exist, but they simply declare them to be irrelevant.

  • @Jon… Yes, I agree it’s a bit ambitious, particularly when I know of Christians who remain unmoved in their beliefs after learning about how religions worked in historical Mesopotamia or the history of the early church. Yet, the overwhelming majority of the Christians I’ve met who know the history of the faith have relaxed their conservative views on issues like homosexuality and pluralism… They don’t tend to admit it to other conservatives, but seem relieved that they can admit it to me. (I find that interesting.) I can’t help but think that a theological education for churchgoers is the missing key in Christianity. I’d like to see how the dialogue among Christians would change if churches experimented with contextual Bible studies. That may never happen, but I’d love to see it.

  • As an atheist from the age of 15 (I’m now 65), I’ve always thought fundamentalists have it right. One either accepts the Bible as the revealed Word of God or lives outside the community of true believers.

    From Amazon’s product description for Thom Stark’s The Human Faces of God: “What should thoughtful Christians do with texts that propose God is pleased by human sacrifice or that God commanded Israel to commit acts of genocide? What about texts that contain historical errors or predictions that have gone unfulfilled long beyond their expiration dates?”

    You, Crystal, argue that the average Christian churchgoer must acquire a sufficient pluralistic framework to incorporate such idiocies into his or her faith. “If we were exposed to the historical context … we would develop the ability to question the veracity of our views.” This would enable Christians to “go beyond blind faith” and “tell our story as one that is shared by cultures all over the world.”

    What garbage! You’re really a defeatist, Crystal, throwing up your hands in frustration and saying, in effect, Christianity as it stands is not salable. We must repackage it to fit into a fuzzy, feel-good one-world credulity that ignores the irreconcilable differences among religions and homogenizes faith so that everyone can live together in a global commonwealth of unitary belief–one so watered down that Jesus becomes just another harmless figurehead.

    It’s naive of you to suppose that “the ability to question the veracity of our views” and “going beyond blind faith” would lead to a reframed Christian evangelism. It could just as likely lead to a rejection of faith. Be careful what you wish for, Crystal. You might wind up educating churchgoers into a rational disbelief that frees them forever from the primitive superstitions of religion.

  • @Alan Hello. I knew that people would disagree with my point of view, but I wasn’t totally prepared for the kind of attack you just launched. Either way, I’m thankful for your perspective. I agree with a lot of what you said.

    I don’t view myself as a defeatist. I’m acknowledging that we lack an understanding of where our faith comes from, and that learning this would likely broaden our understanding of what it means to be religious in the modern world. Pluralism (not evangelism) is a major concern for me as I seek inroads to interfaith peace. A defeatist would walk away from the Christian path altogether. I’m proposing an idea that could help those of us who wish to remain in the Christian tradition, but don’t quite understand how to do that with the theology we’ve been given. I’m also sharing an idea that could expand the minds of people who are currently oppressing others because they believe that “God” is telling them to.

    As far as being naive, I’m sure that’s probably true to a certain degree– but naivete may not be a terrible thing. I think we need idealistic (and possibly even naive) people to start leading in ways that haven’t been done in Christianity. We have to find a way to pave a new road for people wish to participate in the Christian tradition, but feel ostracized by the current preference of doctrine over reason and compassion. That’s going to take some trial and error.

    So thank you for your comment– but not your insults. (Why insult a perfect stranger when we can just talk like adults?) I happen to agree with a lot of what you said.

    Have a good night. 🙂

  • What insults? I called you a defeatist and said you are naive. In your reply, you denied being a defeatist but conceded, “As far as being naive, I’m sure that’s probably true to a certain degree.”

    Where, then, is the insult? I think you’ve been too long in your gilded cage at the Theological Seminary. Try venturing out more often into the real world–or what passes for it on the Internet. You’ll be surprised at how actual people are willing to think for themselves and speak their own minds within the truly pluralistic context of an open society.

  • @Alan “I think you’ve been too long in your gilded cage at the Theological Seminary. Try venturing out more often into the real world–or what passes for it on the Internet. You’ll be surprised at how actual people are willing to think for themselves and speak their own minds within the truly pluralistic context of an open society.”

    I think you’re making some very unfair assumptions about a person you don’t know at all. But thank you again for your comment.

  • It’s true, Alan, you tend to criticize in a needlessly mean tone. It’s not conducive to the civilized discourse your comments would otherwise invite.

  • Jon, someone proselytizing Christianity brings a lot of baggage to the discussion. Like, say, 2,000 years’ worth of willful unenlightenment rivaling that of Islam itself. Why waste time coddling such people?

    Crystal Lewis would have us believe that educating the average Christian churchgoer is a revolutionary concept–and maybe it is! But I don’t see why we should applaud her naiveté as to what would result from such a harebrained scheme. Christians are best left in their natural, uneducated state.

    It’s like young children. Give them coloring books and let them slather contentedly outside the lines. Trying to impose artistic discipline on kiddies who are simply not cognitively developed enough to handle the concept is futile.

    As for my “tone,” that’s my style and I’m sticking to it.

  • I’d love to read about your own journey Crystal. I edited Leaving the Fold: Testimonies of Former Fundamentalists. Contact me if you have a link to your story. My email can be found via the URL linked to my name.

  • …IF Clive Staples weren’t in heaven, he’d be doing three-sixties in his grave right now.

  • If God is in any way relational, he must have been communicating to people who have sought him with honest, humble, contrite hearts from earliest antiquity through the present. That is in fact, what the Fundamentalist Christian Bible (KJV) says, and people who believe in One God in Three, as I do, have to look through history and see that Plato, the Jews (Sarah’s three visitors, etc) the Hindus…had some inkling of the same notions about God.

    After more and more people moved away from caring about, and then, even having access to cultural traditions about what The One True God was like, different forms of “god” were developed, and they were so unlike one another that…voila…enter polytheism.

    That monotheism grew out of polytheism is NOT a foregone conclusion among scholars, as your article seems to suggest,.

    Scholars differ as to when monotheism first emerged. The German anthropologist and Catholic priest Wilhelm Schmidt (1868–1954) maintained that monotheism was the primordial belief of human beings. In his twelve-volume work Ursprung der Gottesidee (Origin of the Idea of God, 1912–1954), Schmidt argued that the “High God” found in many primitive cultures pointed to an original monotheism (subsequently obscured by devotions to lower spirits and gods). Many anthropologists, however, believe polytheism is more primordial and monotheism the result of a higher cultural development.

  • Oh, Alan, you and your “Give them coloring books and let them slather contentedly outside the lines.” See paragraphs 3 to 5 of the link to recent British research.

    I’ve got to get back to my Crayolas, but before I go, I’ll repost the reference to varieties of scholarly opinion about the order in which polytheism and monotheism appeared.

  • Carol McDOnough

    Have you read ‘381’ by Charles Freeman (Pimlico, 2009)? It looks at role of Emperor Theodosius 1 in stamping out all but only one Christian view of who God is and no others are allowed by pain of death and no other religious traditions allowed which he argues was started to be moved towards some religious toleration in 17 C. We still have a long way to go.

  • Paul Roy

    Christians who really become educated about their religion will likely become Atheists

  • Personally, I don’t know what is the most shocking/appalling – that people take unsubstantiated superstitions so seriously, the fanciful notion of it being possible to be a “progressive” Christian or that there are actually degrees in this superstition. What next, a masters in Astrology?

  • Irene Athena

    Chris: Amazing grapes, how sweet, sour, sweet…?…the sound.

  • Irene Athena

    id your parents name you CS Lewis, because they hoped you would follow in the footsteps of OXFORD don and Christian apologist(from OXFORD UNIVERSITY, Christopher Rose might’ve heard of the place) named Clive Staples Lewis (CS Lewis)? He wrote a book in the form of an exchange of letters between a senior demon and his nephew in which he gave advice about tempting humans. “The Screwtape Letters,” it’s called.

    I listened to it on tape this summer, with John Cleese (from Monty Python) reading the role of the Senior Devil. It’s a very, very funny commentary on human nature.

  • Hi Irene. No, that just happens to be a really, really interesting coincidence. 🙂 I have not yet read The Screwtape Letters, but I’ve heard great things about it. I bought a copy of The Great Divorce over the summer, but haven’t had a chance to start it yet. I hear it’s fabulous, too.

    I would also like to point out that graduate degrees in divinity are undertaken by people of a variety of spiritual paths. Yale has a divinity school. So does Harvard. I decided to get an M.Div. because I’d like to pursue interfaith work at the executive level in the non-profit sector or possible chaplaincy. It’s a requirement for most of those roles. I consider myself a Christian Unitarian Universalist (UU)… If I ever desire to pastor a UU, interfaith, or open/affirming church, I’ll need my M.Div. It’s obviously not the graduate degree many of the readers here would choose, but I think we can agree that people often want spiritual guidance at some point in their lives. I left a long history in corporate America because I would rather do interfaith peacemaking than anything else in the world.

  • Crystal, I’m all for interfaith peacemaking.

    Conservative Christians are needing to discover how to balance the tension between plurality and personal conviction. A fundamentalist “John 14:21” Christian has chosen to be on the love –> obedience –> revelation about God–>more love–>more obedience–> more revelation about God cycle. A fundamentalist Christian who is more concerned with the particulars of the obedience–>revelation cycle of others than he is with his own might be missing the point of being a fundamentalist Christian.

    Have a great weekend!

  • Thank you, Irene. You too! 🙂

  • Irene, not surprised that you turn to one of the worst dirges of all time to make what was a mildly amusing, albeit logically challenged, little joke. Well done, girl!

    Not surprised that your fellow traveller thought your follow on remark was a “really, really interesting coincidence”. Clarity really isn’t a friend of you faithists, alas.