The following is an excerpt from the book “The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus” by Peter Gomes:
In the 1920s, Harry Emerson Fosdick condemned fundamentalism for its lack of charity and its refusal to share disputed ground with Christians of other persuasions. Can Christians agree that following the teachings of Jesus and the example that he and the best of his followers have set is sufficient to maintain a Christian identity and witness in the world? It would seem not. It can be argued that in the first decade of the twenty-first century, Christians have either lost their nerve—that is, they deny any unique or normative contribution to the world—or they expect the world to conform to a Christian worldview. In other words, there is no serious belief system outside their own: it’s either “my way”—which is God’s way—”or the highway.”
Fosdick predicted that the kind of narrow, doctrinal piety with which he associated the aggressive fundamentalism of his day would expire in the light of modernity and higher education. He would be surprised, and perhaps more than a little disappointed, to find that the modernist position that he espoused has long been in retreat, and that the cultural tune is more often called by an evangelical piety having much in common with the fundamentalism to which he was so adamantly opposed. The mainline, as the old bromide has it, has become the sideline, and the question remains, Now that Christianity is increasingly defined in terms agreeable to evangelicals, what does this kind of Christianity look like?
It looks like power, influence, and a new establishment. The old fringe is now the new center, and one of the great risks to a new establishment is the danger inherent in dissent and nonconformity. This returns us to our familiar theme that in religion, as in much else, good news for some is almost always bad news for others. Two elements nearly always missing from any religious establishment, especially one that has come to prevail only after a long period of suffering and deprivation in the wilderness, are charity and modesty. Charity is the capacity to love the other and to lead with the heart and not simply with the head. Although religious establishments often espouse charity, they rarely risk their own hard-won status by exercising it among others. Charity in this context often suggests weakness, a tolerance of error, a failure to exercise the sovereignty of truth. Charity free of condescension is rare. The best that one can hope for is the old aphorism: “You worship God in any way you choose, and I will worship him in his way.” Religious establishments are terrified by any hint of relativism, and the notion that God may know more about the salvation business than we do is often more than a true believer can bear. Having won the truth “our” way, it is difficult to believe that there is any other way, or that anyone else might have found it.
Christian exclusiveness, for that is what the lack of charity suggests, cannot face the requirements of modesty, the notion that all is not known and that we do not know all. When devout Christians believe that only Christians of a particular doctrinal stripe have access to God, that, for example, God hears their prayers only, they stand in cosmic immodesty. The Christian Bible more than once makes the point that God’s ways are not our ways, and that the mind of God is vastly different from our own minds. Thus, when Christians state categorically that Jews, or Muslims, or believers in other faith systems are outside the provisions of God, they utter arrogant nonsense. A respectful agnosticism is called for when often there is offered in its place a self-interested certainty. If God is the God of all, and not just a tribal deity, then God has made provision, not necessarily known to us, for the healing and care of all his creation, and not simply our little part of it.
J. B. Phillips observed many years ago that one’s God is too small if within God’s providence there is no care and awareness of the other. This is what the hymn writer F. W. Faber meant in “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy,” when he said:
For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of our mind:;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.
If there is any good news that is truly good news for everybody, and not just for a few somebodies, it is this: God is greater and more generous than the best of those who profess to know and serve him. This is the radical nonconformity with the conventional wisdom that Jesus both proclaimed and exemplified, and, alas, it cost him his life. Will we hope to fare any better, as disciples of his nonconformity?
Peter Gomes is the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church and Member of the Faculty of Divinity AB, Bates College, STB, Harvard Divinity School