Why be a Christian (if no one goes to hell)?
That might seem like an odd question for a Pagan Druid to be asking, but it’s the title of a new book by Daniel Meeter that caught my eye.* I like to take up these challenges every now and then, in part because remembering the religious tradition that I came from helps to remind me why I left, and what lessons or insights of value I want to hold onto and carry with me into the future, even if I no longer call myself a Christian. After all, I remember being a Christian. In fact I was, if I may say so, a really fantastic Christian. I Christianed the hell out of that shit. So what happened? It’s a long story (with a few twists and turns). Suffice it to say, I’m in a different place in my life now, and that place gives me a different perspective on the purpose of the spiritual life and the assumptions we bring to it. That’s why I wanted to read Meeter’s book. To stretch my muscles a bit, to remember what it’s like to think about the world differently, and to keep my interfaith work bilingual and useful.
So, did Meeter’s book live up to its title? In lots of ways, yes. Meeter gives a robust run-down of reasons to check out Christianity, or to stick with it if you’re on the fence. Chapter by chapter, he outlines some of the benefits that he believes the religion of Christianity has to offer (while noting that lots of other religions can provide them as well). His style of writing is conversational, inquisitive and non-confrontational. Sometimes so much so that it can be hard to pin down exactly what it is that he believes, and how he grapples with apparent contradictions or inconsistencies. But he makes no pretense at giving complete answers or thorough theological arguments (and he includes a list of interesting books for readers who are intrigued enough to want to follow up on questions that the book raises).
Meeter divides up his text into chapters, each devoted to exploring one reason why someone might want to be a Christian. Since I’m not a Christian, and quite content and secure in my religious identity, I thought it might be an interesting exercise to approach each of these chapters by asking two questions: What insights into Christianity can I learn from this chapter? and Where does this reason fall short for me, personally?
What’s up with Hell?
Throughout most of his book, Meeter devotes one chapter to each of his seventeen reasons for being Christian — but when it comes to hell, he has a lot to say, so it gets two. You could probably guess from the title that Meeter holds to the belief that nobody goes to hell, and he’s well aware that for centuries, fear of hell has been a motivating factor in convincing folks to make the safer bet (Pascal’s Wager, anyone?). Without the fear of eternal damnation, what reason could you possibly have for wanting to be Christian?
Meeter’s Insight — For Meeter, believing that there isn’t a hell after all is itself an awesome reason to be a Christian. He points out that having to believe in a cruel, sadistic God who gets off on torturing people for eternity has been a huge stumbling block for people who otherwise find the Christian message of love and forgiveness really appealing. He wants to “clear the path to the front door” for those folks, and he does so by exploring the history of the Doctrine of Hell and its lack of support in the Old and New Testaments. He says, “It’s good news for you good-hearted and kindly people who believed that conventional views of hell are biblical, and therefore true, but wished they weren’t. […] It might be reasonable to believe in hell, but it’s not biblical, and that’s the best reason not to believe it.” (emphasis added)
Why I’m Not Convinced — I was raised not believing in hell in any case, taught that hell was a “state of mind” rather than an actual place people went after they died, so I’m with Meeter up to a point. Where he loses me is his emphasis on biblical accuracy and inerrancy as the test for spiritual truth. Fact is, I can’t think of a worse reason to believe something than merely because the Bible says so. (Seriously, have you read that thing?) I might agree with him that believing in a literal hell is not all that reasonable, and that it stems from a belief in the disconnection between the body and the soul instead of a worldview that sees body and soul as co-emergent and interpenetrating. But as soon as he starts arguing that we should put aside “reasonable” beliefs because they’re not biblical, he’s made a huge misstep. It doesn’t much help his case that he goes on to assert that “everyone already knows” that people are “special” and above other animals, so he won’t bother making a case for his assertion. (Still, kudos for trying to make people feel better that their pets won’t go to hell without them.)
To Be Spiritual
I’m a word nerd, so when Meeter starts getting technical in this chapter about the difference between “soul” and “spirit,” I geek out. (However, if you want a fascinating and thorough exploration of the question, check out Bill Plotkin’s approach in his book, Soulcraft.)
Meeter’s Insight — “The purpose of Christianity is not only the worship of God, but the restoration of humanity. […] Christians believe that the restoration of humanity requires a healthy spirituality, and a healthy spirituality requires the cultivation of the soul.” Meeter takes some time to point out that the cultivation of the soul is pretty much the raison d’être for all religions, and that different religions have different ways of approaching this work. “If you want to learn the practices that help connect your soul to God as Jesus connected with God,” he says, “then you would be a Christian.” And he goes on to explain that engaging in these practices, taking Jesus as your example, is also likely to lead you to engage with the world as Jesus engaged with the world.
Why I’m Not Convinced — Actually, I’m pretty much on board with Meeter here. I think he makes a very important point when he notes that picking and choosing practices from different traditions and cultures can quickly become problematic. Not only can it be hard to “get beyond yourself” without a cohesive, supportive community to challenge you and push you beyond your comfort zone, but it’s also a slippery slope into cultural misappropriation (something Meeter doesn’t mention). The reason I’m not a Christian? Firstly, the Christian community I used to belong to didn’t do a very good job of supporting the cultivation of soul through practices of love, so I had to look elsewhere whether I liked it or not. Secondly, practices from other religious traditions — specifically those that were grounded in reverence for the natural world and engagement with the mysteries of the earth, like Druidry — called to me much more deeply and powerfully than the example set by Jesus (who had always been most intriguing to me anyway when he was spitting in the dirt and talking about lilies in the field).
To be continued….
Hopefully this gives you a taste of Meeter’s approach, some of his insights and some of the weak spots of his arguments. I’ve broken up the rest of the chapters into a series of blog posts, and at the risk of boring you, I’ll be sharing those throughout the rest of the month (in part to keep this blog chugging along while I finish my novel… squeee!). So stay tuned….
* Yes, I received a review copy of this book for free (through SpeakEasy). Although I know you dear readers trust my intellectual and ethical integrity enough to know I would never give a positive review of a book in exchange for financial perks, I am legally obligated to remind you that bloggers are a shady bunch who need to be held to higher standards than print media, who review books all the time without having to point out that they’ve been provided with copies of those books in order to do their jobs.