A Case For Nominal Christianity
By David Metcalfe
February 4, 2019
It has become quite common for American pastors to try to challenge or convict their congregations in their Sunday sermons. They tell them that they can’t just be “Sunday Christians” who go to church on Sunday and then live the rest of the week as if they were secular. They tell them about Jesus’ statements that being a Christian is difficult, and requires one to “deny themselves, take up their cross and follow Him”. They say that prayer should not be a quick ritual at the dinner table or before bed, but a constant state of meditating on the things of God.
But some people don’t want to hear that shit.
So, they go to a place like Lakewood Church, where Joel Osteen tells them that God loves all people and wants them to be happy no matter what religion or place they come from, and that this happiness is brought to us by means of material wealth, relationships with people, and worldly success. This is met by overwhelming and harsh criticism from the other Christians who think worldly happiness should not be a part of their religion.
Well, today I want to tell you that worldly happiness is a much better and more sensible thing to pursue than “denying yourself, taking up your cross, and following Jesus.” Nominal Christianity, as is commonly seen in America today, is a very good thing for individuals and society as a whole, and should be supported by pastors and lay Christians everywhere.
As we will see, this is for three main reasons:
1) A certain good is better than an uncertain great
2) Actual Christianity is foolish, impractical, and does not produce real happiness
3) God grants us blessings through material and worldly things
Certain Good > Uncertain Great
Imagine you had two job offers: one pays $50,000/year, the other costs you $10,000/year for 10 years, but if the company is profitable enough by the end of those 10 years, you will get one million dollars.
Well, the question becomes: how certain are you that this company is going to be profitable in 10 years? Let’s say you figure out there is a 1/10 chance; you are probably going to take the $50,000 guaranteed. But what if there is 1/5, 1/2, 4/5, etc.? How sure would you have to be to risk losing $100,000 over ten years for the possible reward of gaining one million dollars?
If you’re like me, and have watched thousands of hours of “Shark Tank”, you’ll know that this is a very common dilemma that potential entrepreneurs face. They graduate business school and get a job offer making an average wage for some big, stable company, but deep down, they dream of starting their own multimillion dollar company. They really have to believe in the success of their company in order for them to give up the stability in favor of the dream. About 90% of start-ups fail, so based on that, it would not be logical at all to be an entrepreneur. BUT they have to believe that their company is going to be the exception. They have to be very certain that they are part of the 10%.
It’s often said that “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”. But it’s really a question of certainty. If you are an experienced hunter and you see two birds out in the bush, and are sure you can kill both of them, then you would actually say having two birds in the bush is better than one in the hand. But most often, we are not very certain of predicting future events, so the aphorism holds true. Hence, most business graduates stick to conventional careers at stable companies.
On the question of sacrificing on earth to attain happiness in heaven, it is just like a business graduate deciding whether to start his own business. If we are certain that heaven exists, and that sacrificing on earth is the way to get there, then it is logical to do short term sacrifice for long term gain. This was harnessed by the Catholic Church throughout the middle ages to solidify the class system and assure the peasants that their lives of struggle for the good of the state would be rewarded in the next life. It is used now in the same fashion, but without the political agenda attached to it. Pastors say that the sacrifices you make now (sexual restraint, financial giving, charity work, forgoing justice in favor of forgiveness, etc.), will have a reward later in heaven.
But as Socrates said, “The only thing we know about the afterlife is that nobody comes back from it.” Or, in other words, we don’t know much.
We don’t have actual proof that heaven exists, and furthermore, how do we know who even gets there? What if we were doing all these sacrifices and then it turns out the whole religious system was wrong, or the things we did within the right religious system were wrong, or that the things you do or don’t do actually don’t matter at all?
It might be reasonably said that sacrificing on earth for the hope of reward in heaven is like a business graduate with a very sketchy, uncertain idea, who spends tons of money and has a, maybe, 10% chance of being successful.
Who in the right mind would take those odds?
Christian Life Does Not Produce Happiness
When I say “Christian life”, I do not mean the way most American Christians use it. I mean the way it is talked about in the New Testament. It is one of suffering in the flesh and the world in favor of rejoicing in the spirit and God.
It might be said, in response to the first point, that we are not sacrificing on earth by living the Christian life, but actually benefitting from it through a different kind of joy that is experienced while on earth, so even if there is no reward in heaven, we see the rewards on earth in the form of blessings or closeness to God. The problems with this are many, but most notably, in the fact that this is not a view shared by Jesus, Paul, or the disciples. Jesus says to his disciples in Matthew 10:22 that, “You will be hated by everyone on account of my name, but the one who perseveres to the end will be saved.” Life on earth is clearly not something to be enjoyed, but persevered, for the hope of making it to heaven. This is seen practically by the terrible earthly lives of all of the Christians in the New Testament.
In the production of human happiness, we may say there are certain things which tend to bring us joy, and certain things which tend to bring us sadness. Some of these are universal, and some are individual. Of both these types, we can then derive certain principles. For example, it is universal that people do not like pain. Therefore, we should act on principles which result in people avoiding pain. Practically, then, we may say that violence is a bad thing, for example.
We all do this in our own lives to discover the kind of people we are and what we can do to make ourselves happy. We try a certain activity, a certain city, a certain job, certain friends, etc. and gradually come to discover who we are and what we like. In ethical matters that are universal, we would have to act universally, as dictated by laws and social standards, but on personal matters, we may act based on what makes us happy. For example, if we try earning lots of money, and it makes us feel happier, we should continue to pursue earning money. This is the essence of what is called “utilitarianism” or “the happiness principle”.
For these reasons, we do not really need Christian morality to tell us how to act. In fact, since we automatically operate on “the happiness principle”, any moral rule that Christianity brings in to make us change is actually impeding our happiness. If, for example, my passion in life is making money on the stock market, and then I go to church and the pastor tells me that it is harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle or you can’t have two masters or whatever crap, then Christianity is stopping me from pursuing something I know makes me happy.
You may ask, then, “if happiness is the ultimate goal, and Christianity impedes that, then why bother being Christian?”. Well, it is because if we pick and choose only the doctrines that make us happy, we are then able to apply our own happiness to Christianity. If it makes me sad to think I will die someday, I can choose to believe the doctrine that I am going to live forever. If it makes me happy to hear that I am loved, I can believe the doctrine that God is love. But if a certain doctrine doesn’t make us happy, we can then discard it.
God Blesses Us With Worldly Things
“Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.” Malachi 3:10
“I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full.” John 10:10
If we believe that God created the world, and has expressed Himself through creation, then we would also believe that all matter in the universe is an expression of God, in some way. So, when we see a beautiful mountain range or the expanse of stars in the sky, we are marvelling at God’s handiwork. When we do experiments and discover scientific laws, we are discovering God Himself. So too, when we appreciate physical things, we are appreciating something God has blessed us with as an expression of Himself.
Since, in our society, the way to acquire things is to have money, we then find that acquiring money in order to appreciate and take part in the physical things God has blessed us with is actually a good thing. And if we believe in a God who wants us to be happy, and physical things make us happy, then it is consistent to say that God wants us to have physical possessions. Pursuing the acquisition of material goods for our personal happiness is actually pursuing what God wants for us.
We all want to be happy, and we don’t want to have to sacrifice for possibly getting it later. We want our rewards now, with certainty, and in a way that makes us feel good about ourselves.
Taking Christianity too seriously causes people to sacrifice during their time on earth, and miss out on major aspects of happiness. Pastors who preach a convicting message based on the core teachings of Jesus make people feel bad, when they were actually good people, merely trying to be happy.
But nominal Christianity is humanity’s savior. It allows us to pick which doctrines we want to believe and follow based on what makes us happy. By combing through the Bible for specific verses that support our own agenda, we can develop a scriptural backing, and claim that everything we do to serve our own happiness is actually serving God.
So, pursue your own happiness with passion and conviction, and use Christianity however it suits that purpose.