samedi, juillet 05, 2008

Are you (oh my) dogmatic?

Pew report finding poses evangelical dilemma


Focus on Faith
A walk through the religion or self-help section of your local bookstore can be an instructive experience.Blended in with the classic texts of the world's larger religions are popular texts that, frankly, defy easy categorization.Topics include conversations with God (but what or whose God?), descriptions of life after death experiences, a potpourri of Jewish and Christian mysticism, and advice on how to practice disciplines like Christian yoga.If they are on a shelf at your local Barnes & Noble, it's a pretty good bet that someone is buying them.Perhaps even you.Thus it may not be a surprise that the recently released Pew Foundation Landscape Survey of more than 35,000 Americans tells us that most Americans have what they characterize as a "non-dogmatic approach to faith."Many religions can lead to salvation or eternal life, say seven out of 10 surveyed. That includes 57 percent of those who are members of evangelical Protestant congregations.These findings concern some U.S. evangelicals, who say it contradicts their belief that salvation is exclusively found through faith in Jesus Christ.To mine these statistics and discuss what they mean to U.S. evangelicals, I called up Steve Nichols.The research professor of Christianity and culture at Lancaster Bible College, Nichols is the author of "Jesus Made in America: A Cultural History from the Puritans to the Passion of the Christ."I asked him: How could it be that such a high percentage of evangelicals subscribe to the belief that salvation can be found elsewhere than in faith in Christ?On the one hand, the phenomenon is understandable, says Nichols.In a pluralistic, globalized culture, it is more likely that evangelicals, like other Americans, will run into non-Christians, and be sympathetic to their traditions.On the other hand, asserts the professor, the results speak to a general, and alarming, lack of a theological center among American evangelicals.Historically, doctrinal statements have defined many denominations, making it clear what they do or do not believe, Nichols says.Evangelicals, on the other hand, come from different Christian traditions and non-denominational faith communities.Having a "thin doctrinal center," they are defined more by experience, associations and activities than by a particular confession of faith, he says, citing parachurch activities, Promise Keepers, music groups and political causes as examples.In recent years, it has become even more challenging to define the term "evangelical" as Nichols points out. "It's an elastic terms, meaning different things to different people."A member of Lancaster's Westminster Presbyterian Church who terms himself an evangelical, Nichols affirms the authority of Scripture as a hallmark of the evangelical tradition."It's God's word that stands over us, and we need to submit to it."The challenge for evangelicals in a pluralistic culture is how to maintain belief in salvation solely through Christ, while showing respect for other traditions, he says.Living under Roman persecution, the New Testament writer Peter urged Christians to "always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you," (I Peter 3:15), but to do it with gentleness and reverence, says Nichols.Holding on to our beliefs, but showing respect for the beliefs of others, is rather difficult for us, says Nichols.In reflecting on my conversation with Nichols, I thought about how often parishioners in my congregations had seemed a little murky about their own beliefs, let alone those of others.Before engaging practitioners from other culture in fruitful dialogues, it would be helpful if Christians had a clear sense of what their own faith tradition teaches.Only then would they be able to genuinely affirm that they actually believe it.That is a challenge, not solely for the faithful, but for those who serve as their shepherds.Another Pew survey finding tells us what we probably already know: many of us see ourselves as very religious. According to the survey, "more than half of Americans say religion is very important in their lives, attend religious services regularly and pray daily."How does this faith commitment play out in the American political arena? In my column next month, I will take up that question with Nichols and other students of American culture.

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