Friday, 18 January 2013

A well-kept secret (perhaps a bit too well-kept)

In the area of Christian belief and practice, there have been many reforms in the years since the end of the Second World War.

Some of these changes have been well-publicised.
  • The ecumenical movement has led to far better relationships between Christian denominations.
  • In many places, relations have improved greatly between Christians and Jews, between Christians and Muslims, between Christians and members of other faiths.
  • Many denominations have recognised that God calls women as well as men to the churches' ordained ministries.
  • Some denominations have begun to re-think their attitudes regarding sex.
  • The Roman Catholic Church translated its liturgy into the vernacular from Latin, while most "Protestant" churches in the English-speaking world translated their worship into the vernacular from Elizabethan English.
All these reforms are, to my mind, very good.

But there's one reform that has taken place during this time that seems to have gone unnoticed.  It's a well-kept secret, a bit too well-kept.

Over the past few decades, most mainstream Christians have quietly abandoned the notion that a person's standing in "the life of the world to come" is somehow dependent upon their getting their belief right.   Christians of many different perspectives have asked themselves "Can a Jesus-shaped God really send people to be fuel for an eternal BBQ merely for getting their theology wrong?" 

Overwhelmingly, the answer has been an emphatic "NO!"

This change has happened among Christians of the full range of mainstream denominations, and it's even showing its face among some of the more theologically-astute evangelicals.  It's happened among laity, among theological scholars, and among parish clergy.  It's happened not only among liberally-minded ecumenical types, but also among relative conservatives ... even among some who could be described as "very conservative".

Because this change was the result of individuals quietly changing their minds, in their own time and in their own way, rather than a major ecumenical or denominational body making a solemn pronouncement, it has escaped the notice of many people outside the churches.  Many people in the wider community still think that the typical mainstream Christian believes that God will still condemn people to hell merely for getting their theology wrong.

Those of us who watched the episode of Q&A on ABC television in 2012, in which the "colourful Sydney religious identity" George Pell and "the colourful Oxford scientific identity" Richard Dawkins squared off at each other, saw this at first hand.

Professor Dawkins, the voice of proselytising atheism in the English-speaking world and the man who proves you don't have to be religious to be a fundamentalist, said in an accusing voice to Cardinal Pell something to the effect of "And of course you believe that anyone who doesn't believe in your God will go to hell."

Cardinal Pell, normally the voice of traditionalist conservatism within the Catholic Church in Australia, looked at Professor Dawkins and said firmly that he didn't believe God would condemn anyone merely for their beliefs (or the lack thereof).

The look on Professor Dawkins' face was priceless. He looked a bit like a child who was told that Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy were all metaphors for Mum and Dad.  I felt sorry for the poor bloke. 

But it is a well-kept secret ... a bit too well-kept.  Most mainstream Christians today (even a conservative's conservative such as the Cardinal) do not believe that God will send people to be fuel for an eternal BBQ merely for getting their theology wrong.  

We need to leak that secret, and let it become public property.


Constructive comments, from a diversity of viewpoints, are always welcome. I reserve the right to choose which comments will be printed. I'm happy to post opinions differing from mine. Courtesy, an ecumenical attitude, and a willingness to give your name always help. A sense of humour is a definite "plus", as well.