OBAMA'S RELIGIOUS LANGUAGE
Do you know what I mean by "civil religion"? It's the phrase used to describe the widely accepted spiritual beliefs and assumptions that politicians, especially, tap into when they say things like "God bless America" and "May Providence guide our land." At any rate, on her blog, Andrea Useem, a journalist from Virginia, has posted this thoughtful entry about Sen. Barack Obama's skill at drawing on civil religion and how that might benefit him in the fall election. Maybe, but I think Sen. John McCain understands how to pull water from this well, too. So we'll see.
* * *
WHAT THE HELL?
Do thoughts of spending an eternity in hell motivate you to believe a particular religious creed or to act in a way that you think will help you avoid that?
And what does your religious tradition teach about hell?
The June 3 issue of the Christian Century, generally considered a mainstream or liberal Christian voice, contains a collection of essays from various theological thinkers about hell. In some ways, it's a little surprising to see such a publication devote so much space and energy to a subject that, frankly, doesn't get a lot of attention these days in Mainline churches.
Perhaps even more intriguing is the almost unanimous insistence among the writers that the doctrine of hell has -- and must have -- an important place in Christian theology and that people who want to throw it out give away far too much.
The piece seems not to be available online, but I want to give you a few highlights and invite you to think about -- and tell us -- how important to you and your faith is the idea of hell.
* ". . .it is simply impossible to take seriously orthodox Christian doctrine and not have a lively, indeed passionate, interest in the issues of heaven and hell. . . . We have been shamed by Freud, Marx and Feuerbach into thinking that concern with afterlife is a childish fantasy that is not worthy of the attention of mature, responsible persons. And in buying into this shame, we have trivialized both the gospel and our own lifes." -- Jerry Walls, Asbury Theological Seminary.
* "Hell is a nonnegotiable item of Christian vocabulary. . . . To abandon this sort of talk, as some Christians recommend, is a strange and sad form of self-hatred. . ." --Paul Griffiths, Duke Divinity School.
* "Condemnation to hell is comparable to an exile from where the departed has no longer the resort to return, has not even recollection of what was home.. . .Yet, in a paradoxical way, for the Christian there is a hope against all hope. As it is confessed in the Apostles' Creed: God in Christ descended into hell. That nothing is out of God's reach, even the depths of hell, is what affords hope, the promise of life." -- Vitor Westhelle, Lutheran School of Theology of Chicago.
* "Christ has robbed death of its sting and deprived the devil of many a tasty meal, but hell persists, we are told, because freedom of the will requires it and justice demands it. . . . Abolish hell, and see how salvation dims down. . . . Abolish hell, and a host of smaller obsessions will fill the gap." -- Carol Zaleski, Smith College.
* ". . .eradicating references to hell is shortsighted and has troubling consequences for the shape of our witness to the gospel. To be sure, there is much about Christian teaching on hell that is subject to critical scrutiny. But in its most basic form, it serves as a warning concerning the judgment of God against evil, injustice and callousness in the face of human need and brokenness." -- John R. Franke, Biblical Theological Seminary, Hatfield, Pa.
* "Hellfire and brimstone preachers can't digest their own message. Those who really want to save souls or spread divine love -- even those who use belief in hell as the orthodoxy test -- are the ones who teach us to love God for God's own sake." -- Martin E. Marty, Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago.
* "This is my only hope: to be moved by God into that Christ-formed participation that risks such pain, such confession, such rage that it risks coming so close to the devil that laughter may be impossible." -- Amy Laura Hall, Duke University.
To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.(My column tomorrow will do a little deconstructing on the nation's formational religious story.)