Smugness as theology

Faith & Inspiration
by Tony Woodlief
Posted on Friday, October 26, 2007, at 12:00 pm

I went from atheist to believer to Christian between the ages of 16 and 29. I became a Christian in a Presbyterian church, and the resulting combination of Reformed theology and new faith made me want to set straight everyone who was not a Calvinist. I made sure to bring up the baptism of our children around my wife's grandmother, a Baptist. I read lots of dour texts. I congratulated myself on my righteous theological precision.

I confess that I recoil from such people now -- not only zealous predestination-obsessed Calvinists but all theology-besotted wagon-fixers. Perhaps this is simply projection -- I see now the unkindness that was in my heart in those early years, and assume that it lurks in the hearts of some people I encounter today, in blogs and through email and sometimes in the flesh. I think I detect a stridency and smugness lingering in the throats of some who labor so strenuously to point out the errors of others. We are to speak the truth, always, but in love, no? We are to be salt, yes, but also light, remember? Perhaps it was only me who needed to be reminded of that. But maybe some others among us need to hear it, too.

The thing that gets me about the vituperation some Christians aim at the likes of Christopher Hitchens and other outspoken atheists is -- and this may surprise you, given my opening brief against theology-as-fetish -- well, the bad theology of it all. By grace we are saved through faith, that no man may boast. None of us has pulled himself up to salvation by dint of his intellectual or moral bootstraps. Dead in trespasses and sins, no man sees the truth.

To lord it over people who don't share our faith, then, or to look down on them as if our exalted position has something to do with our own superiority, seems not only unkind and anti-Christian, but rooted in a misperception about the origins of faith. Christopher Hitchens is better educated than most people I know, and more articulate, and more thoughtful. But he is lost in a land of unfaith, a stranger and alien to God, and no amount of reasoning or debating will bring him into the kingdom of heaven.

We Christians, on the other hand, will gain entrance through no wisdom of our own. It's a humbling thought, isn't it, to know that we are saved in spite of -- certainly not because of -- ourselves? To know that some people with superior intelligence and reasoning capacity will not be saved? It seems that our attitudes ought to reflect this reality. We ought to proclaim the truth, yes, but in humility rather than smugness.

I had lunch a few months ago with an elderly man who was instrumental in my early theological education. When I first joined the Church he gave me scores of books from his imposing library, and fielded my questions about the Bible, and Calvinism, and the Reformation. He has imposing eyebrows, and a gruff manner, and is fond of that verse about how we are worms in the sight of God. He is the quintessential reformed American Christian. It had been years since we'd last broken bread together. I asked him what God has been teaching him, expecting an answer about holiness, or righteousness, or the importance of daily prayer (he spends over an hour a day on his knees). But he looked at me, his eyes welling up, and said, "God is teaching me that nothing I do -- not one thing -- is worthy. But He loves me anyway."

I wonder what might be accomplished, were we Christians more inclined to confess our own sins than to point out the sins of others. Not to ignore wickedness in the world, but to start with the wickedness that dwells in our own hearts -- to say: See? I am just like you, but I have been forgiven. To say: Let me help you with that burden, brother. To say: Here is a water that quenches all thirst.

Tony Woodlief

Tony is a former WORLD correspondent.

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