John G. Stackhouse, Jr., at the time of writing, was Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba. In the summer of 1998 he joined the full-time faculty of Regent College in Vancouver. This article first appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press.
Every year as I teach my survey course on world religions at university, I dread having to teach the Christian faith for two main reasons. First, all religions have difficult and complicated features. But Christianity has inexplicable mysteries at its very heart that simply have to be discussed even in an introduction to its teachings.
Christianity believes in one God, but in three Persons (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). It asserts that God took the form of Jesus of Nazareth, so that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human. It affirms that the death of Christ, in which one person suffered for a few hours, somehow atoned for the sins of the world.
And Christianity proclaims the doctrine of resurrection: the belief that God raised Jesus from the dead in actual fact, and the hope that God will raise all of us when Jesus returns from heaven in the Second Coming.
Whew! Think of explaining all that to eighty or ninety undergraduates who may not have had any previous religious training. Explain all that to a class which, this year, includes not only various types of Christians, agnostics and atheists, but also members of the Sikh, Islamic, and Jewish faiths.
As confusing as Christianity is, however, it is hard to teach in a public institution for a second reason: it is offensive. Christianity has claimed from its earliest preaching that God was uniquely incarnated in Jesus; that God saved the world through him; that people are reconciled to God only because of him; and that everyone who hears this good news of salvation should immediately devote himself or herself to the worship and service of God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
This call to conversion seems wildly out of step with the tolerant, individualistic temper of our times. It flies in the face of Canada's official policy of multiculturalism. It condescends to, and even condemns, other religions and philosophies. It seems, in short, arrogant.
Perhaps surprisingly, many people in Christian congregations — even denominational leaders — agree that traditional Christianity is perplexing and obnoxious.
The current Moderator of the United Church, for instance, admits that he, too, finds Christian doctrine too hard to understand and embrace. In recent discussions, initially prompted by interviews with the Ottawa Citizen and CBC radio, Bill Phipps of Calgary confessed that he doesn't believe that Jesus was divine, or that Jesus was actually resurrected, or that there is a heaven from which Jesus will return and to which Jesus will bring his church.
What matters about Christianity instead, he asserted, is caring for other people and especially for the poor and oppressed. There are no confounding doctrines here: just follow Jesus' example of charity.
The Anglican bishop of New Westminster, British Columbia, also has come forward to remove Christianity's missionary zeal. Michael Ingham's new book, Mansions of the Spirit, argues that Christianity is not the only true religion, or even the best one for everyone. Jesus is not the only way to God. And God is not actually a Trinity, but some sort of fundamental Being that is behind or within all other beings, and can be approached through a wide variety of world faiths.
Therefore, the bishop concludes, Christians have no business trying to convert others to what is just their own, particular route to the divine. They should just follow their own bliss and let others go their own way.
This simple, kind, and tolerant religion understandably attracts many Canadians, including a number of churchgoers. But as a professor of world religions, I have to wonder, is this religion recognizably Christian?
A faith that contradicts key portions of the Christian Scriptures? That denies affirmations of the ancient creeds of the Church? That sets aside express doctrinal teachings of the United and Anglican Churches of Canada? That resembles only in part any definition of Christianity I can find among the dozens of standard university textbooks on my office shelves?
Readers who wish to follow a religion that has no strange doctrines and no evangelistic imperative have lots of options in Canada today, including the variety of religion offered by leading clergy of Canada's two largest Protestant denominations.
It seems to me that those who do so, however, could keep things a lot clearer if they would just do one thing.
Call it something other than Christianity.