From a recent Letter to the Editor in a national newspaper comes this caricature of historic Christianity: it breeds "guilt-ridden neurotics", little inclined to "understand the sheer magnificance (sic) of the universe". And that's just the beginning!
This is a common criticism of Christian experience — one which anyone seeking to give testimony to their faith in the normal course of their Christians lives will almost certainly come across. We have to be equipped to meet such criticism. So what do we make of it?
The Contrast Stated
The free thinking humanist referred to above sees the church pews full — his word, not mine! — of guilt-ridden neurotics who depend on the clergy to "save" them. The clergy, he alleges, have a vested interest in convincing people that they are inherently evil. This amounts to a cynical psychological manipulation of people's vulnerabilities and anxieties. The whole process impedes them from rationalising and explaining their ignorance and insecurities, and it drives them to find comfort in tradition and conservation.
People, however, are not naturally like that: they are creatures of "opportunism, enterprise, creativity and intellectual curiosity", and it is therefore necessary to give children "latitude for self-fulfilment"
In sum, Christians apparently have their personalities warped by a sense of guilt; they are unthinking, un-enterprising and unfulfilled — a sharp contrast to those not crippled by guilt-feelings.
The Christian Position
I do not believe that it is Christian doctrine that these qualities are to be contrasted the one with the other. It is not a case of either feeling guilty or being enterprising; either believing or using the mind; either feeling sinful or being self-fulfilled. The Bible does not see these as alternatives.
The Christian gospel undoubtedly has something to say about guilt. Paul seems to teach that, until folks harden their hearts, they have a conscience that either accuses or excuses them. We are not surprised, then, when we ask unconverted people if they ever feel guilty and we get the answer: "yes, everyone does at times". The Bible recognises the existence of guilt feelings and is only too pleased if folks will seek an explanation of these feelings, for the Scriptures accept the reality of guilt: people feel guilty, because they are guilty.
But Christianity does not stop there. It provides a solution for guilt and one of the greatest practical goals of the Christian faith is to deliver people from the warping, crippling effects of guilt and to bring them to a life in which peace, joy and love are the main characteristics.
When this happens everything changes. The magnificence of the universe is understood better than ever before. The influence of sin, which has marred one's outlook, will be dealt with. The right environment for the expression of opportunism, enterprise and creativity is then provided. As we become transformed by the renewing of our minds, intellectual curiosity can be given free rein. In the practise of all this, true self-fulfilment is found — the liberty which belongs to the people of God.
People may be guilty and neurotic people at the beginning; at the end they are very different. Yes, the message of the church has to do with guilt — with the removal of guilt and of all the other negative influences with which sin cripples our lives. The Christianity of the New Testament is a buoyant, confident one that requires us to rejoice in the Lord always. It does not lead to a confined and restricted life of "don't touch that, don't taste that". It is a life in which all things are ours.
The Challenge Posed
So much for theory: the Bible gives no grounds for thinking that this humanistic criticism of Christian experience is valid. Thus we may answer our critics.
But our humanist correspondent would never have dared propound his theory if he did not believe that he had some grounds for thinking that the facts fit his case. It is no good expounding the gospel in the terms we have done unless it creates in practice a form of Christianity that has got intellectual content, that actually deals with and removes guilt feelings, that frees from neuroses and that encourages the all round development of a person's gifts and character. Therein lies the challenge.
In the past, we have not been a church that required people to leave their brains behind when they came in the church door. We must never become such a church. We must express our faith in a way that is capable of rational defence. We must not close our minds to problems in the word or in the world, pretending they don't exist; we must not deny the existence of intellectual curiosity but wrestle with whatever problems arise and resolve them where possible. The intellectual faculty is God-given and we must never descend to the anti-intellectualism so common among some evangelicals.
We must get the balance right. Making folks feel guilty is a step in the right direction: leaving them feeling guilty is a distortion of the gospel. Bringing people low is indispensable — but only as a preliminary to raising them high, for the glory of Christ. Hurt must only be wielded as an instrument of healing.
We must encourage Christians to develop their lives and characters in positive directions. We must be a body in which all members function to their full potential according to their gifts and aptitudes. Our Christianity has to be bold, not timid; outward looking and visionary, not in-growing and blinkered; not fettered to tradition and conservation but committed to development and expansion.
Otherwise we may rebut humanist criticisms at a theoretical level — and confirm them at a practical level.