While each of the chapters in Paul Young's Lies We Believe about God is only six or seven pages long, each raises questions that prompt us to consider--and challenge!--our beliefs. Whether you end up agreeing or disagreeing with him, reading through Young's musings on twenty-eight assertions about God is a valuable exercise. In this fourth and final post in our series on this thought-provoking book, we'll consider two closely related statements that Young believes are lies: "God created (my) religion" and "You need to get saved."
Chapter 12: "God created (my) religion."
"...religion is among a whole host of things that God did not originate but submits to because we human beings have brought them to the table," writes Young. It's a line that is sure to rile many readers, and, though I don't believe that was his intention, if it gets you to stop and think--as I did!--that's all for the good.
"God is about relationship," he continues, "and therefore, any understanding of church or any community of faith that is centered on structures, systems, divisions, and agendas has its origin in human beings and not in God." Hold on a minute, I can imagine some objecting, what about the New Testament epistles which set forth the elements of church hierarchy? Is Young saying those are bogus? Not at all: the Apostle Paul would undoubtedly agree with his namesake that any community centered on structures and systems has indeed gone astray. As Young observes, "Religion is a construct, a way of doing things that almost always embodies both beneficial and destructive elements--destructive when they disconnect from relationship and love."
Is this talk of "relationship and love" some sort of New-Age happy talk? No, these concepts flow directly from a deep appreciation of the triune nature of God--of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit united in love, a love into which, as Jesus makes clear in John's Gospel, we are invited to join.
Young makes the point that when we "look to Jesus rather than religion," every aspect of our lives--"coffee brewing, whale saving, weed killing, caring for our neighbor"--become "expressions of participation in the life of God." In short, according to my own understanding of John 17:3, as we center our lives on Jesus, everything we do becomes participation in eternal life.
"Rather than being led by Jesus, however," Young notes, "human beings routinely become controlled by the very systems and institutions they create, often belying original intentions for greater freedom and good." Indeed! But a community of Christians focused on Jesus is a radical force at work in the world, doing His work and ushering in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Some will object that the Christian religion is the only path to the One True God. In his novel The Shack, the protagonist asks Jesus, "'Do all roads lead to Papa [God the Father]?' 'Not at all.' Jesus smiled...'Most roads don't lead anywhere. [But] I will travel any road to find you.'" I believe with all my heart what Young is saying here. It brings to mind a passage from C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity: "God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people [those who have heard of Christ but not been able to believe in Him] are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him."
This is a good segue into the lie discussed in Chapter 13: "You need to get saved." Here the issue comes down to what we mean when we talk about "the Gospel." Is the Good News that we sinners deserve eternal torture in hell, but can escape that fate and go to heaven instead by "believing in Jesus?" No, says Young, "The Good News is not that Jesus has opened up the possibility of salvation and you have been invited to receive Jesus into your life. The Gospel is that Jesus has already included you into His life, into His relationship with God the Father, and into His anointing in the Holy Spirit. The Good News is that Jesus did this without your vote, and whether you believe it or not won't make it any less or more true."
Perhaps because Young is well aware that "universal salvation" is a controversial concept, especially in Western Reformed Christianity, he provides a number of proof-texts in this chapter, and then many more at the end of the book, in a "catena," or chain of Scriptures which present "commentary on the theme of God's saving work for all--the grand arc of God's drama of redemption." Note, however, that "universal salvation" is not the same thing as "universal reconciliation;" Young has elsewhere made the point that Scripture does not clearly lay out the final fate of all humans, and in this brief essay, he writes "we actively participate to work out what God has worked in (Philippians 2:12-13)...our participation in the working out of this salvation is essential. Our ongoing choices matter...We don't participate in the working out to make it true; we do so because it is true."
I think George MacDonald would heartily agree with Young's argument. While it's clear from The Last Farthing (Unspoken Sermons) that the Scotsman could scarcely imagine anyone not, in the end, turning to God--though it might take eons!--he, too, believed that "our participation in the working out of [our] salvation" was essential.
There are few books that will prompt you to think and challenge your own preconceptions like Lies We Believe About God, and I encourage all to read it.