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Church Basement Theology

For my freshman and sophomore years, I attended a junior college close to home. I was coming off a two-month summer stay in the hospital, and I wasn’t convinced of a future direction, so it was the most convenient option. As with most kids, college was an entirely new experience for me and introduced me to many unforgettable experiences—from weekly war protests to a teacher who frequently stood atop his desk.

I remember one class where this big kid, sitting in the front row, fell asleep one day. Just as he started snoring, someone reached across and jostled him awake. Fewer than five minutes later, his head was back on his desk, deep in sleep, and snoring even louder. This time, instead of waking him, the professor suggested we should let him sleep since he probably had a rough night.

I made two glaring mistakes that first year of college. First, I took a class on Art Appreciation. Second, the class met right after lunch. Every afternoon after eating, the professor turned off the lights in the room and projected slides of great works of art on the wall as he discussed them in detail. I confess I was the one sleeping more than once.

Normally, I’m not a sleeper. I never take naps. Once up in the morning, I’m awake until bedtime. I stay busy, and even if there’s nothing pressing to do, I find something and entertain myself. You can accuse me of a lot of things, but I’m not one of those people who sleeps a lot, but I’ve known many people who have essentially slept through life.

When I speak of sleeping through life, I’m not referring to an occasional nap or dozing off during a boring movie. It’s a reference to the person who spends an entire lifetime without learning anything new about God. Perhaps the best way to understand it is to think of the person who believes the same thing they believed at age 20 when they are 70, or 60, or even 50. Their grasp of theology has been unchanged by experience—they have basically slept through life when it comes to faith.

I see it all the time in Facebook discussions. People who grew up in the church and lived their entire adult life as faithful church members but they still cling to elemental theological opinions that they learned in kid’s Sunday School.

I grew up in Colorado and most churches had basements for Sunday School classes.

Perhaps I can make sense of what I’m saying by describing my own experience. I remember sitting in the church basement during Sunday School as a kid and discussing what happens when people die without knowing Jesus. I suspect I was always the skeptic that untrained teachers hated. I was the one who asked about the poor people in Africa who never even heard about Jesus, would they spend eternity in hell? It didn’t seem fair for God to do that to them.

The smarter, more experienced teachers would say something like, “That’s not for us to decide, God will do that right thing,” and then continue teaching that everyone who died without being saved spent eternity in hell. If you have gone through life without wondering about that, then you have been sleeping; you are brain dead. The entire evangelical doctrine of hell rests on answering that question.

But we move beyond the questions of childhood. Important theological questions are not answered in the church basement. Life happens, and we have other pressing matters. Then one day, a friend dies, or perhaps a family member. He was a good person, kind, considerate, generous, liked by everyone, a bastion of honesty and integrity. However, not a follower of Jesus in any sense of the word. Now the question is more important. Is my friend destined to spend all of eternity, without any ending, suffering from fiery flames, covered with skin that won’t burn up?

I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like the same God I learned about from those same Sunday School teachers in the church basement. I mean the ones who taught me to sing, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world,” and “God is good, God is good, God is good to me.”

Life goes on, and now you’re 60 years old. Your granddaughter, your oldest grandchild, is out partying with friends from college and has a fatal car crash on the way home. You were never invited to her baptism because she never had one. No church Christmas programs because her parents never took her to church, and as far as you know, she was not a friend of Jesus. She was a beautiful girl, loved by her many friends, on her way to being someone special, and you loved her dearly. She was your first, and to be honest, your favorite grandchild.

Can you live with the idea that she will spend eternity in excruciating torment? I’m talking about the kind of punishment no human would even inflict on another human. After all, isn’t that what you were taught about hell.

The person who has slept through life still believes what he was taught in the church basement—everyone who dies without knowing Jesus spends eternity in hell. If they are ever asked what happens to people when non-Christians die, their answer is simple; they go to hell. These people have slept through life. None of their experiences register with them. The fact that life doesn’t seem consistent with their belief is a non-factor.  

This person is the parent with a gay son or daughter who they have disowned because they have always believed God wants us to condemn homosexuality. They know this because that’s what they were taught at VBS held in the church basement. Life is much easier if we don’t question the things we were told are true. After all, if it was good enough for Jesus, then it has to be good enough for me.

It’s time to graduate from Sunday School and move your theology out of the church basement. Don’t be afraid to reflect on how your experience is inconsistent with your theology. Be willing to examine what you learned as a kid and start considering what life has taught you and how it impacts what you believe (or think you believe).

Now that your wonderful granddaughter has died, do you still believe God will oversee her eternal existence in a fiery hell? After all the things God has done for you, do you think He would do that to her? For eternity?

The only way to get out of the theological church basement is to be willing to ask questions. Just because your favorite Sunday School teacher taught something doesn’t mean they were correct. Even if they attached Bible verses to what they taught, have you studied to determine if that’s what it really means?

In every area of life, we continue to learn new things. I’ve tried to think of any other area of life where we stop learning, but I have failed to come up with even one. I’m open to your suggestions. Why do we do that in what might be the most important area of life? Many do. Listen to people. Those with a church basement faith are easily recognizable.

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Are You Sure that All Lives Matter?

I have struggled for the past four years with understanding how so many Christians can support a man with Trump’s moral failings. I’ve been discipled in Christian values my entire life and what I observe with Trump and his followers is foreign to anything I was ever taught about Christian values.

It was pounded into my brain that all Christians cling to a similar set of values, even though we might have differences in theology, religious practices, and lifestyles. I might be a Baptist, and you a Catholic, but our values are the same, even if you don’t eat meat on Friday. We always shared the same values with unknown-tongue talking Pentecostals, Saturday church-going Seventh Day Adventists, and Whiskey-palians (as my father used to call them).

All of us valued love for other people. We might not always act like it, but we all knew that every person had value. This idea of loving all people was so ingrained into us Baptists that we took it upon ourselves to do everything we could to make sure the whole world is saved. We were taught that loving others was important enough that many volunteered to give up their lives to preach the gospel to the four corners of the world, which included even the communists, Chinese, and the savages. Every life has value.

Another value we shared is that certain behaviors are to be avoided. The extent of this depended on your Christian tradition, but I’m thinking of things like sobriety (both alcohol and drugs), speech (for most of us, this included George Carlin’s seven dirty words), honesty (not only in what we say but also how we act), and kindness (don’t be a bully, use your manners). There are certain things Christians do and don’t do because of our values.

Somewhere along the way, culminating in the election of Trump in 2016, Christians are no longer identified by values. We have substituted policies for values. In other words, A Christian is no longer identified by a value like loving others or avoiding certain behaviors. Christians are now known by their political policies. These policies include abortion, restrictive immigration, obtrusive law and order, military dominance, and an overarching economic policy of money is good.

Values no longer matter. Policy is now king. It’s permissible to elect a vulgar, dishonest, hateful, greedy candidate as long as he advocates the correct policies. In fact, I’m amazed at how often I hear people say something like, “I know Trump is a bad (vulgar, despicable, obscene, hateful) man, but I support him because I agree with his policies.”

How many “Christians” have you heard make this statement?

I’m aware that some of you Trumpers are going to call me out because, after all, you do oppose abortion—the ultimate value. Opposing abortion is not a value; it’s a policy. The value is to protect life and being against abortion is one policy that sometimes values life. But not always.

Opposing all abortions is not life-affirming; it can be quite destructive. What about the young couple who are excited about having a child and take all the medical precautions to have a healthy baby, only to learn after five or six months they will have to decide between the mother or the baby, they won’t both survive?

Or, what about the 15-year-old who is raped and gets pregnant? Her family is unwilling or unable to help her. She can take a year out of her life, drop out of school, have a baby she can’t possibly raise, and destine herself and her baby to a life of poverty. Don’t tell me that people will help her. Sure. They drag her into a pregnancy help center, show her some videos and give her a handful of baby clothes to take home, but who’s going to pay the medical bills, provide childcare while she finishes school, supplement her minimum wage job, and be there for emotional support?

Don’t forget the woman who has been told by her doctor that her baby won’t survive more than a few hours after birth and that the infant will have severe painful deformities. Sure, she could have the baby, but who will pay the hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical costs required to try and save the life? How do we affirm the mother’s life after we’ve condemned her to a life of poverty?

These are all hard questions, and fortunately, they are not faced by most of us. But the point is valid—refusing abortions without exception is not always based on valuing life. Anti-abortion is a tool that usually puts value on life, but it’s not the only policy that’s necessary. Refusing to eliminate all abortions does not mean a person doesn’t value life.

The abortion rate has been on a steady decline for decades, even during Democratic administrations. This reduction is occurring while Republicans are waiting for the magic number of Supreme Court Justices to overturn a law. In the meantime, pro-life policies are making an impact. Things like education, birth control provided by insurance, increased support for the poor are all policies that contribute to reducing abortions. Advancements are happening while Republicans are fighting these policies. They don’t want teens to be educated about birth control; they fight against affordable health insurance; they oppose assisting the poor while standing in picket lines in front of abortion clinics wrapped in the righteous robes called, “Right to Life.”

People who refuse to say, “Black Lives Matter,” when it comes to racial issues, ironically refuse to say, “All Lives Matter,” when it comes to issues like abortion, gun control, climate change, immigration, and military superiority. For them, the life of a fetus matters, but the life of the mother doesn’t. The rights of a gun owner matter but the life of a shooting victim doesn’t. The life that wants to drive a gus-guzzler matters but the life of the rest of us on the planet doesn’t. The life of a citizen matters but the life of an immigrant doesn’t. The life of a soldier matters but the life of someone caught in the crossfire doesn’t.

If you want to support a candidate like Trump, that’s fine; it’s your right as an American citizen. But don’t tell me you are doing it because of your Christian values. You’re doing it because of your policies that are not based on Christian values. I’m tired of being insulted because I don’t share your values when the truth is, I don’t share your policies. My values are the same ones we grew up with; you’re the one who changed values.

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