Dr. Cornelius Plantinga, Jr,. senior research fellow at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and president emeritus of Calvin Theological Seminary, once wrote: “As the Father rescues his people from the powers of darkness and resettles them inside the kingdom of his Son, they revel in his grace and sing about it in church. They take satisfaction in believing right doctrine and teach it in seminary. There they plan on going to heaven by and by and talk about it on tv. And, in the process, they experience some high-quality religious feelings.”
Plantinga’s tongue-in-cheek description of the Christian life is devastatingly accurate, at least in the postmodern West. The clash of kingdoms, the fate of worlds, the struggle of good and evil is largely missing from western thought. And on those occasions when the language is employed, it is mistakenly used as political rhetoric rather than viewed as historical reality.
The historic Christian gospel has shrunk from a message of universal relevance to one of individual opinion. This has happened in an atmosphere where faith has been increasingly privatized. The rugged individualism once associated with Protestantism (and now seen in Catholicism), has, as Greg Ogden writes, “torn the heart out of Christian community.” It has also placed the great doctrines of the faith on an ala carte menu for theological consumption.
How did we get here? Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney have written: “Large numbers of well-educated, middle-class youth defected from the churches in the late sixties and early seventies… Some joined new religious movements, others sought personal enlightenment … but most simply “dropped out.”
One consequence of this major social shift was, Professors Roof and McKinney argue, a “tendency toward highly individualized religious psychology … In this climate of expressive individualism, religion tends to become ‘privatized’ and more anchored in personal realms.” As a result, personal fulfillment has largely replaced faithful obedience as the aspiration of millions of religious people. And whatever gets in the way of personal fulfillment – whether biblical ethics regarding sex or biblical doctrines regarding the nature of Christ – is simply jettisoned.
Thus the increasing number of Christians who believe that premarital and extramarital sex are a legitimate expression of love between consenting adults. Thus, also, the ala carte approach to adopting a “credo” – “I’ll take the doctrine of the atonement, but I don’t want the exclusivity of Jesus. I’d love a double helping of grace, but I’ll pass on the doctrine of judgment; it’s a little too sharp for my taste.”
Salvation shrinks in an environment like this. It becomes not merely provincial, but private. As a result, salvation loses the social force it once possessed (“save yourself from this corrupt generation”) and becomes a matter of personal religious feelings and private hope for continued existence after death.
So the great revelation of God and the redemption he accomplished in Christ is placed on the theological dollar menu for consumption by a fast food religious culture. People choose from that menu as if it were an entirely private decision or, as is often said, “a personal matter.” As one might expect, one of the most popular items on the menu remains, as Plantinga deadpans, “some high-quality religious feelings,” and everyone’s favorite dessert is still life after death. Of course, in this case, no one wants their dessert first.
Interestingly, Jesus never offered “high-quality religious feelings,” nor did he urge people to pursue personal fulfillment or purchase a pass to life after death. Rather, he invited people to enter the kingdom of God, to deny themselves and follow him. He called people to a transforming faith in God that would fill them with a life so dynamic that mere physical death could never quench it.
This is what one nineteenth century writer called the “larger Christian life.” It is a life to which the twenty-first century desperately needs to be reintroduced.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 10/8/2017