The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Holy Humility or Hubris?

OK. One more religion post today and I’ll get off it. For today.

Yesterday I linked to this post by Jim Wallis about how Christian faith, as he sees it, should inspire humility.

Jesus being the Son of God does NOT mean that Christians are better, more right, more righteous, more moral, more blessed, more destined to win battles, or more suited to govern and decide political matters than non-Christians. Instead, believing that Jesus was the Son of God would better mean that people who claim to believe it ought to then live the way Jesus did and taught. And on that one, many of us Christians (who believe the right way) are in serious trouble when it comes to the way we live. Those who believe that Jesus was the Son of God should be the most loving, compassionate, forgiving, welcoming, peaceful, and hungry for justice people around—just like Jesus, right? Well, it’s not always exactly so.

What’s interesting is how he’s taken to task by his coreligionists in the comments. Particularly when he approvingly recounts how Billy Graham responded to the state of non-believers.

One young believer stood up and asked Dr. Graham, “Since Jesus said ‘I am the way, the truth and the life, and no man cometh to the Father but by me,’ doesn’t that mean people from other religions—Jews and the rest- are going to hell?” Billy replied, “I’m sure glad that God is the judge of people’s hearts and not me! And I trust God to decide those questions justly and mercifully.” The student was disappointed and pressed further, “Well, what do you think God will decide?” Graham demurred, “Well, God doesn’t really ask my advice on those matters.” Another questioner started again, “Well, what about those who aren’t even monotheists—like the Buddhists?” Graham, replied, “You know, I’ve been to some Buddhist countries, and so many of the people I met seem to live more like Jesus than too many Christians I’ve seen.”

I’ve only read some of the comments, but both Graham’s statement and Wallis’ apparent approval of it didn’t sit well with some people. It’s almost as if righteousness and the promise of heaven, etc., weren’t as much fun without the thought of the rest of us roasting in hell. Dare I mention, as one review does, that in his book Dawkins references one of Thomas Aquinas’ writings that believers in heaven will get a view of non-believers roasting in hell, to enhance their enjoyment of heaven? Would the Left Behind series be as entertaining to those assured they’ll be raptured up if it didn’t catalog the torments awaiting the rest of us during tribulation? (As one teenage fan put it, “The best thing about the Left Behind Books is the way non-Christians get their guts pulled out by God.”)Would the video game based on the series be as entertaining if it didn’t include “kill or convert” missions against all kinds of non-believers?

Is it possible the Wallis’ approach is an attempt to lift religion above its traditional in-group (believers)/out-group (everyone else) dichotomy? Is the response to that suggestion a sign that such an approach is likely to fail?

I was reminded of Wallis’ post when I came across a post by Andrew Sullivan on the same subject, referencing a column by Jonah Goldberg in defense of “certainty” (or hubris, depending on how you look at it) and an effective response to Goldberg, in which he echos Wallis in a way that also brought to mind my previous post.

It is one thing to say that I am certain that my eyes are brown and another to say that I am certain that all non-Christians will burn in hell. We should surely make distinctions between what we can know and what we see through a glass darkly. But such nuances are to be dispensed with by many of today’s conservatives.

…Since God is definitionally beyond human understanding, certainty about God’s will on specific matters is something to be treated with appropriate skepticism and humility.

When I find myself nodding in agreement with Andrew Sullivan, well, it’s at least worth making note of it. In the meantime, I’ll continue being wary of anyone who claims to know “God’s will” for me and everyone else, as well as the right to enforce it.


  1. It’s almost as if righteousness and the promise of heaven, etc., weren’t as much fun without the thought of the rest of us roasting in hell.

    Shit, I have enough trouble keeping track of my own soul, I don’t WANT to be put in charge of making sure you are saintly and a good person.

    The funny thing, even in those strident, squaking, bible-thumpin’ churches, there are humble people just trying to live as best they can. But their voices are drowned out and shouted down.

  2. What Wallis and Graham are expressing is definitely the consensus of orthodoxy Christianity. Some of the most bone-shaking parts of the Gospel are Jesus railing against those who judge their fellow human beings. Bad news.

    But as Sister suggests, orthodoxy isn’t something any individual Christian possesses. That’s where a lot of folks go wrong, and that’s what creates the in-crowd/out-crowd dichotomy which has no place in Christianity (but still finds its way in, all the time). In fact, in marked distinction from the Roman Catholic hierarchy, many Eastern Orthodox priests and bishops won’t answer theological hypotheticals, even about stuff that to many on the traditionalist side seem open-and-closed (like birth control). They will only offer advise to people who are in their care, whose stories they know, about concrete situations. That strikes me as a better idea than pontificating about what is and is not God’s will.

  3. Jesus was famously ambivalent about earthly authority and political structure, and for the most part taught individual compassion for other individuals — and not confusing the spirit of religion with the letter of the law.

    The reason that political fundamentalist Christians (aka “Christianists”) are uncomfortable with even the soft universalism suggested by Graham and Wallis is it undercuts their claim to political authority. Like the pharisees, they are more concerned with the letter of law than the spirit of religion, because they derive their earthly political authority from interpreting and enforcing those laws.

    Which is why I tend to see the Christianist movement not as a spiritual or religious movement, but a purely political one dressed up in the language of the numinous. It has nothing to do with transcendence, self-awareness, or compassion and everything to do with telling people what to do.