Author paints clearer picture of Christian beliefs
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How did you decide to believe in God? Why did you choose the religion you are part of? What keeps you believing in it?
If you are a Christian, those are questions John Stackhouse, a professor of religious studies at Crandall University in Moncton, N.B, seeks to address in his book Can I Believe? Christianity for the Hesitant (Oxford University Press).
For starters, Stackhouse — who used to teach at the University of Manitoba — acknowledges there are reasons not to believe in Christianity: Unbelievable things like the creation of the entire universe in a week; a talking snake and death-dealing fruit; a worldwide flood; the waves parting to let a fugitive nation cross the Red Sea.
And then there are the miracles that come fast and furious in Jesus’s life, including being raised from the dead.
These are among “any one of a hundred implausibilities that would make a reasonable person say, ‘Come on. Get serious,’” he said, before mentioning other things like the Crusades, the Inquisition and Christian-supported imperialism, colonialism, sexism, racism and homophobia.
“The indictment goes on and on, with reason after reason to be disaffected with, even repelled by, Christianity,” he said.
Yet, many reasonable people believe in that religion, about two billion across the globe, he noted.
“How can those people believe? That’s the question,” Stackhouse said.
The book covers topics such as how to decide about a religion and what people can actually know when they believe. It ends with the question: Why Does Anyone Believe?
Stackhouse said he wrote the book for those who “have good education, good heads on their shoulders, who are acquainted more-or-less with Christianity, who can’t understand why reasonably intelligent people can be Christians.”
These are people who are “mystified by why Christianity is still an option,” he said.
The problem, Stackhouse said, is “everyone feels they know what Christianity is without knowing what they are talking about.”
This is partly because the religion has been “domesticated” over the centuries, either a background noise or a sappy “Hallmark version” of the faith, he said.
Christmas, in particular, has done Christianity no favours, he said, having been turned into “a horrific commercialization of Jesus,” while Easter is nothing more than a “spring festival of fertility, the circle of life.”
Christians themselves have contributed to the problem, he said — maybe “even made things worse.”
Some have done it with good intentions by “lowering the bar so low” there is nothing strange or demanding about the religion, turning it into a “community club” for nice people.
Others have done it by behaving terribly — things like clergy sexual abuse, support for right-wing extremist politicians or through the excessive lifestyles and outlandish behaviour of some American TV evangelists and preachers.
These are people who “commit crimes and sins while wearing Christian T-shirts and flying the Christian flag,” those who are “clearly not living according to the standards of their religion. They bring disrepute on Christianity by acting in odious ways.”
Such bad behaviour, in any religion, gets more media attention than quiet and faithful living, Stackhouse noted. So he cautions skeptics not to focus on “the bad people. Look for those who practice their faith consistently. Judge a religion by its most faithful, not the unfaithful.”
But is anyone today looking for a religion? This isn’t like in the past, when belonging to a church was considered a normal part of life, of being a stalwart and upstanding member of the community.
“The market for meaning, significance and community still persists,” Stackhouse said.
In the past, most people turned to religion for those things. Today, he said, people are “suspicious of organized religion, but many still are looking for meaning, to be useful in the world. If they don’t find it in religion, they will find it in other places.”
If religions offered that, some people will be seek it out. This includes Christianity, which for Stackhouse offers “a particular kind of meaning and purpose.”
For him, that meaning is “following Jesus back to God and ahead to the world to come,” along with service to others here on earth now — loving God and neighour.
It’s also about shalom — flourishing — at work, in the arts, sciences, culture, sports, music, whatever people feel called to do, he said.
As an evangelical himself, Stackhouse is aware one of the reasons many people discount Christianity is because of the way some American evangelicals have behaved of late.
But, he cautions, “just as we know Americans aren’t right about everything, so American evangelicals aren’t right about everything, either.”
Plus, he said, American evangelicals don’t define what evangelicalism is, even if they are the loudest and most aggressive.
“There are tens of millions of evangelicals in other countries who are nothing like them,” he said. “Only a minority of evangelicals are like those loud and aggressive ones in the U.S. with their toxic masculinity and white Christian nationalism.”
He spends little time on evangelicalism in the book; “stay tuned for my next book on evangelicals,” he said.
As for his current book, his goal is to help readers “perhaps understand more clearly what Christianity does and doesn’t claim, and what Christianity does and doesn’t offer. You will be in a better position to decide whether you can, in fact, believe.”