September 3, 2010
The Real Threat of Pagan Christianity
Attempts to control God with our behaviors, prayers, and theology reveals how pagan the church can be.
This year I have begun making the transition from student to teacher by teaching an introductory course on World Religions at a local college (while I’m still taking doctoral classes myself). We’re a couple weeks into our journey, and earlier this week we talked about indigenous (“pagan”) religions. One aspect of pagan religions that strikes me is that the relationships between the adherents and their gods is most often manipulative. When the gods are happy, the rains come, the crops grow, people have babies, people stay healthy. When the gods are unhappy, the land is blighted by drought, famine, barrenness, and disease. In order to set things right, the people have to make sacrifices, perform rituals, or repeat incantations to appease the gods. The system is set up to control the power of the deities. (Forgive me: this is an oversimplification, but we don’t have a lot of space.)
Biblical Christianity is essentially the opposite: the relationship between God and humans is not based on rites, rituals, and incantations; it is not a religion of manipulation. Instead, the relationship between God and God’s people is based on covenant and, first and foremost, on God’s gracious desire to love us in Christ.
That’s easy to say. But I’m ashamed to say that I catch myself from time to time beginning to think about my personal relationship with God in pagan terms.
Here’s an example: My wife and I are nearly three years into a painful and spiritually disorienting struggle with infertility. “Delight yourself in the Lord,” says Psalm 37, “and he will give you the desires of your heart.” The one desire of our heart left unfilled at the moment is the blessing of children. So we have prayed fervently for the Lord’s favor.
In light of James’ teaching that the “prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective,” it has been easy for us to feel as if God is unhappy and is punishing us for something. Each of us at one time or another has thought, If we could just figure out what we’re doing wrong, we could fix it and then we’d get pregnant. We’ve been tempted to think that if we could just figure out how to please God enough, if we appeased his anger over some offense, whether real or imagined, that he’d finally behave the way we want him to. That’s pagan Christianity.
This impulse to manipulate God can show up in our preaching, too. I heard a preacher not long ago quote the passage from Proverbs, “Raise up a child in the way he should go, and when is old he will not depart from it.” This verse is a promise, the preacher said. If we raise our children in the faith, God has no choice but to honor his promise. If we do our part, God does his. Friends, anytime we start talking about our relationship with God in terms of what God must do in response to our words, service, or obedience, we’ve drifted into pagan Christianity.
Maybe that’s obvious. Maybe less obvious is the temptation to turn our doctrine into a means of controlling God and his interactions with us. It’s very easy for us to find safety in our doctrine, to begin to believe that because we know the right formulations and the proper ways of thinking about things, we can predict and even prescribe who will receive grace, and precisely how. In some churches (I’ve been in a few) people are told that in order to be sure that they are saved, they need to say the right words in the right order. We wouldn’t call them “magic words,” but we put our confidence in the procedure and in the soundness of our system. That’s paganism, like it or not. When we put our confidence in our human formulations regarding how God acts in the world, it’s easy to start thinking in terms of how we can be sure he’ll behave the way we need him to. Anything that hinders us from recognizing that God acts freely out of love for his creation is dangerous, pagan Christianity.
At the heart of all this, I think, is the matter of control. There are a few things in my life that I hope go a certain way: I want to have kids; when I do, I want them to be healthy. I want my career to be successful and my ministry fruitful. And it’s so easy for me to think that God will make those things happen—increase my tribe, expand my territory, and grow my church–—if I just do the right things. Biblical Christianity is trusting that God will make those things happen (or he won’t) not because of what I do, but because of his love for me in Christ. And that’s something I can’t manipulate.