NEW YORK — While some Christians might certainly agree to disagree on some issues, others believe that there are certain elements of their faith that are not up for debate. But instead of warring over those differences, Christians should find a way to "come back to Jesus," according to a philosophy professor and author of the new book, The Second Truth.
"It's amazing to me that 500 years ago, 400 years ago, Christians (were) killing Christians, burning them alive in the name of Jesus over really minor points," Dr. James P. Danaher, professor of Philosophy at Nyack College and chair of its Philosophy Department, shared in a recent discussion with The Christian Post.
Even today, Christians at odds over otherwise hot-button topics like marriage and abortion are still squabbling over minor stuff, as far as Danaher sees things. Instead of tearing at each other's throats over doctrinal differences, and divergent political and social opinions, Christians should just stick to Jesus.
"That's the common denominator — is Jesus Lord?" said Danaher. "That's the thing that should be binding us together, instead of stupid interpretive things."
Of course, one man's "stupid interpretive thing" is another man's motivation to draw a line in the sand.
When Rob Bell, a popular Christian pastor and author, released in 2011 Love Wins, John Piper, another popular and influential Christian pastor and author, sparked a flurry of discussion with just three words.
"Farewell Rob Bell," Piper tweeted, linking to an article titled, "Rob Bell: Universalist?" The article suggested that Bell had chosen to lay his universalism cards on the table by publishing Love Wins.
In "Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, Bell addresses one of the most controversial issues of faith — hell and the afterlife — arguing, would a loving God send people to eternal torment forever?" according to publisher HarperCollins.
While Bell's popularity has since soared in some camps, his credibility has soured among Christians who affirm traditional church teachings on a literal, eternal hell. And his 2013 vocal support for same-sex marriage confirmed for some critics that he had long been on a slippery slope.
But instead of asking who is right or who is wrong, Danaher thinks Christians should look to see if Jesus is at the center of any argument.
The philosophy professor, whose liberal viewpoints might seem out of place at a conservative evangelical institution, shared with CP some elements of his new book; why he believes Christians should evaluate if they are worshipping Jesus, or idolizing doctrine; and his thoughts on how doubting believers can "reconceptualize" theological convictions without abandoning their faith.
Below is a transcript of Danaher's discussion with CP (conducted via "CP Newsroom").
CP: How might a pastor or a Christian who has believed since childhood maybe, come to the point of unbelief?
Danaher: I think what happens, especially with higher education, is you're being introduced to a 21st century understanding of the world and the understanding of the human condition, and a lot of times that doesn't fit with your Sunday school understanding. What happens is, there's a crisis there and a lot of people end up walking away because their understanding of the 21st century doesn't fit with their Sunday school understanding, instead of reconceptualizing the Gospel in a 21st century understanding.
CP: Seminaries and other places of higher education are for students a time of thinking, crises, and questioning. What kind of mindset should one have before embarking on a seminary education?
Danaher: I think an open mind. I'm constantly writing against our modern concept of truth, that was a mathematical model, and the idea of certainty and objectivity. The spiritual journey is an open journey, and we have to be open to the things God's doing and the way that's changing our conceptual understanding. I think that's what higher education and seminary is supposed to be about, but a lot of people are still locked into that primary understanding that they got at their mother's knee, and they see that as sacred. So any new kind of ideas they see as a threat to truth itself, while it's not a threat to truth, it's just a threat to their understanding."
CP: How can faith communities or families even, when their student comes back and they have this new understanding of looking at Jesus and looking at the Gospel, reconcile what they're hearing with what they're used to?
Danaher: I think we have to reconceptualize the whole idea of truth and that spiritual truths are journeys, and we're not always in the same place. I often see people that are where I was 20 years ago and I roll my eyes at them, and I just get convicted by God: "That was a holy place. I blessed you there. Why can't I bless those people in that place?" And that we can tolerate people being in different places. It's so amazing to me that the history of Christianity is so full of Christians whacking Christians and torturing Christians because their understandings differ. It just seems to me so naive, especially in the 21st century when we know that our experience of the world is an interpretation based upon that understanding we bring to it, and that understanding is constantly changing. But Jesus is the thing we come back to, and we come back to, and we come back to…
CP: What is the middle ground, or the essentials for Christians who might be concerned that they are doubting or questioning too much?
Danaher: I don't think there is an objective truth. Or if there is, God knows that objective truth. Ours is always perspective. But that's what Jesus is giving us, He's giving us the Jesus perspective. We've made that into some sort of objective truth, to believe doctrines, to believe theology, instead of trying to take on that Jesus perspective. I think when He says 17 times in the Gospels, "Follow Me," that's really what it's about. To take on the mind of Christ and to come to conceptualize the world the way He conceptualized the world, to see sin as He saw sin, to see law — He says to the Pharisees, "I'm fulfilling the law." They said, "No you're destroying the law." Obviously they have two different ideas of law. It's trying to get Jesus's conceptualization of law, of faith, of sin, things like that. I think that's what the Gospel gives you.
CP: So to be a Christian, you don't have to believe on abortion and marriage the way maybe the way the bulk of the greater community does?
Danaher: Is Jesus Lord? And, are you being made into His likeness, in particular in terms of mercy and forgiveness? I think if we ever got that that's what the Gospel was really all about … For thousands of years, we've been making Christianity into a theology about how do we get to be righteous so God will love us. The truth is, God loves you in the midst of your sin, you don't have to become righteous, it's always about His mercy and forgiveness. That's the real sanctification, that He wants to make us not into His righteous-likeness but into His merciful- and forgiving-likness. If we ever got that, the virus of the Gospel would take over the world tomorrow.
CP: When you have popular pastors like Rob Bell who comes out with a new understanding, and you have other popular pastor like John Piper who might say, "Farewell, Rob Bell." How does everyone deal with that?
Danaher: This last book that was released March 1, and it's called the Second Truth, and what I argue is since we know that reality as we experience it is an interpretation, we have to really question the understanding that we're bringing to the data of our experience. When you question that understanding, there's really two truths. There's the truth you learned at your mother's knee, and you have to treat that as absolutely certain. But at a certain place you come to realize the mythic nature of that, and then you set out in search of a second truth, a better way to conceptualize the world.
Christianity is made up of people that are still defending that first truth, like Piper, and other people that are moving into that second truth, a 21st century way to conceptualize the Gospel. We have to find a way to live together, because we're both talking about Jesus. To think that my interpretation is the ultimate truth, whether it's your first truth or whether it's your second truth, Jesus is the truth, and it's always out in front of us. None of us ever get it, we're always pursuing it. I've never met anybody in my life that I would go, "That guy's got the Jesus perspective!" Some come closer than others, but that's what we're always purusing, and it's always in front of us.
There are others that want the security of hanging on to that… We get a great security by thinking that we know, we know. One of my favorite scriptures is in the Book of Ezekiel, where God says to Ezekiel, "Can these dry bones rise up and live?" And Ezekiel has the right answer — "Thou knowest, Lord." I don't know. I don't know, and I don't need to know. I just need to continue to follow, and be drawn into that Jesus perspective. I take that very literally when Jesus says, "I am the truth," that He's talking about His second truth, the Jesus perspective.
Watch Danaher's "CP Newsroom" discussion in the video player below: