... Still, I ultimately resisted taking the easy, sensational way out. ... I suggested that the three players had collectively succumbed to the stress of playing in a strange exotic environment under the extremely competitive conditions that typified the minor leagues of tennis. Without the tennis ministry there to provide a safety net, they began to make it up as they went along, feeding off one another’s spiritual hunger and anxieties in an unhealthy way.
... The column generated a surprising amount of mail, ranging from nutty denunciations of Christianity to letters that were uncritical and almost pathetically thankful for the simple fact that something—anything—about Christianity had made it between the covers of Tennis magazine. But one letter made me angry at first, then it got me thinking. ... The striking thing about this was the accusation that I didn’t “understand” Christianity. How could someone raised as a Christian and educated at a Catholic university not understand? Well, I eventually came to understand that the answer to that one was, “Pretty easily.”
... Some elements of Christian doctrine need to be spelled out because typical secular individuals, including highly educated ones, often don’t understand them. They see Christianity as a bewildering jungle of arbitrary, antiprogressive doctrines (doctrines that some, particularly fundamentalists, take literally). This attitude is shared by nominal Christians who basically think that believing is a good “idea” for its social and moral value, but find fundamentalism scary and arrogant. These prejudices prevent lively and productive debate, and they make it difficult to grasp the problems with which believers grapple. So let’s take a quick look at some of the most troublesome claims of Christianity and the defense that believers make for them.
CLAIM: Christianity is not a way but the way to spiritual salvation.
DEFENSE: Despite the existence of other great, lasting religions and personages, including Muhammad and Buddha, only Jesus Christ made the explicit claim to be the Son of God. Of course, a lot of other people have also subsequently claimed to be the Son of God, but they did not become what Christ did—an important, if not the most important, and well-known figure in world history, an achievement nearly as mind-boggling as Christ’s claim.
This puts Christ in a very different league from other religious figures. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, this claim made Christ one of three things: a good, albeit deeply deluded man; a manipulative crackpot; or, well, the Son of God. Anybody who would take religions seriously must choose one of those three descriptions and figure out the consequences.
CLAIM: The Bible contains literal truth.
DEFENSE: If Christ was just another teacher and moralist, the Bible is just another old book full of symbolism, poetry, and moral guidelines set down at a time when different problems, values, and needs obtained. But if Christ was indeed the Son of God, the Bible is by far the most extraordinary document ever written. Instead of interpreting the Bible by the standards of our time, our time must be judged by the standards of the Bible.
CLAIM: Homosexuality (substitute abortion, infidelity, and so forth) is wrong.
DEFENSE: The Bible is a book full of restrictions and prescriptions, but the Christian God is not only all-knowing but all-loving and all-forgiving. That’s why, unlike some other tyrant, he really does have the authority to tell you how to live. And that’s what makes him God, instead of just another three thousand-year-old dog who speaks to you through the medium of some guy working out of a mall in Santa Monica. The essence of Christianity is love and forgiveness, so its mandate to believers is to “hate sin, love the sinner.” And even those who most flagrantly violate biblical mandates can be saved through belief.
CLAIM: An individual’s way of life and actions have less to do with his or her salvation than whether or not the person believes.
DEFENSE: Accepting this has something to do with Christian humility, in that it implies that even the most murderous serial killer, may ultimately end up saved. This may not seem fair, but fairness itself is a temporal notion based on the very shaky premise that you and I can be the ultimate judges of our brethren. The preeminence of believing also ensures that nobody can buy his way into heaven. Anybody who has ever wondered why Donald Trump or Aristotle Onassis seemed to have all the luck will appreciate this. The paramount importance of belief offers universal access to salvation, and the fact that so many people still choose not to believe is a confirmation of the flawed, stricken condition of human nature.
CLAIM: It is possible to have a personal relationship with God.
DEFENSE: This is the bonus baby that bothers so many people. God is like Michael Jackson. Some people know him, others don’t. Some will, some won’t. Some want to, some don’t. The key difference, however, is that a lot of people who want to know Michael Jackson never will, but anybody who wants to can know God. Thus, Christianity is not only remarkably exclusive but breathtakingly inclusionary. It is open to every person who fulfills its single, overwhelming demand to believe.
And, finally, knowing God doesn’t give you a leg up on anyone else. And it isn’t any easier getting along with him than with Michael Jackson, your wife, or your boss. In fact, if you don’t have problems with God, you don’t have any more of a relationship with him than you do with your wife or boss.
“The Courts Of Babylon”