If it were not for Christmas and Easter, it is doubtful network executives would think of producing a show with exclusively religious content. When the holidays do roll around, producers seem to draw from the same small group of scholars, most of whom are outside the pale of orthodoxy. Some are even atheists or agnostics.
Some of these scholars approach the biblical evidence with the presupposition that the events recorded there did not actually happen. They deny the Gospel accounts are based on eye-witness reports, as their authors purported them to be. Instead, they assume them to be fabricated - or at least grandly embellished - by the early church as a way of giving their movement legitimacy.
What one ends up with is religion without God - a religion in which God is superfluous. God’s very existence becomes a matter of little consequence. St. Paul might have described such a religion as “a form of godliness but denying its power.”
The absence of God in these religious constructs is no accident. Since at least the late 18th century, there have been powerful forces that have worked to separate God from the earth; to lock him in heaven (or fantasy land, as some might have it) so that humans can go about making the world right in their own way.
We haven’t done a very good job. More people died by oppressive violence in the last century than in all previous centuries combined. Communist regimes alone are responsible, according to some estimates, for the death of 100 million people. But violence has not been limited to communists nor did it end with the last century. In the first two decades of the new millennium, there have been genocidal conflicts in Sudan, Myanmar, Iraq, Syria and the Central African Republic. There have been civil wars and mass casualties in these and other regions, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria and Yemen.
Some of these conflicts have a religious backstory, which suggests to some people that faith in God is not only unable to deliver humanity from brutality but is responsible for it. So people, especially in the West, look to other means of deliverance. Psychotherapy was once thought to be such a power; economic equality still is. But chief among the God-alternatives is Education.
Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has written: “Education is the key to eliminating gender inequality, to reducing poverty, to creating a sustainable planet, to preventing needless deaths and illness, and to fostering peace.” Long before Duncan, the chief priest for education was the atheist philosopher John Dewey, who believed the construction of a new social order would come from the modern school, not the antiquated church.
Most people would not go as far as Dewey, who insisted there “is no need for the props of traditional religion.” Yet, like him, they look to lower-case gods for deliverance, especially to education. There is, however, little reason to believe that education can now succeed at what it has so far failed to deliver, but if one refuses to acknowledge God, there are few other places to turn.
Some people are looking for salvation without a savior, justice without a judge and utopia without a heaven. Not surprisingly, such an arrangement leaves humans - especially those from the enlightened West - in control. It promises a salvation that will deliver the world from greed, bigotry, and all forms of oppression, while leaving us unchanged.
People want justice without a Judge. Justice, in the abstract, is a favorite theme these days, but the idea of a judge is off-limits. We all want justice - but don’t you dare judge me.
People want utopia without a heaven. Of course, that hope was held out by a previous generation of communist thinkers - even as their regimes were busy eliminating 100 million undesirables. Today, in some circles, a redesigned socialism is promising freedom and fulfillment, but it’s just another lower-case god.
Salvation without a savior is a pipedream. Perhaps humanity could save itself, if it were just our circumstances that needed to change. But it is not just humanity’s circumstances which must change; it is humanity itself - and that is the job of an upper-case God, humanity’s creator and redeemer.
Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Branch County, Michigan. Read more at shaynelooper.com.