Christianity may not have all the answers, but it may offer meaning, says professor
Author John G. Stackhouse says he's making a hard pitch for a 'strange' faith
John Stackhouse, professor of religious studies at Crandall University, wants people to reconsider Christianity.
He knows the idea can be a hard sell, but in his new book Can I Believe?: An Invitation to the Hesitant he suggests that there might be something more for people, if they're willing to look.
The Moncton-based professor and author talked to Tapestry host Mary Hynes about his relationship with God, and why, even if you don't want to give Christianity in particular a shot, there might be something waiting for people in the world of religion. Here's part of his conversation.
For people who struggle with belief, you've suggested the problem isn't that God is far away. The problem is what we tend to do with God. Tell me what you mean.
Some people seem to think that finding God is like finding the top level in a video game – they have to work and work and work and work. And then finally they're rewarded by the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, so to speak. But finding God in the Christian frame of things is like making the acquaintance of somebody that you have offended or somebody that you've ignored, or somebody who loves you and is looking to make your acquaintance on positive terms.
I like your definition of religions — that they attempt to give people a map to everything. And I want to quote you here "Christianity is at once the most popular and yet perhaps the most unlikely explanation of reality ever to appear in world history." What else makes the story unlikely when you look at it as perhaps someone who would be seeing it for the first time?
When I teach Islam, I teach some very basic concepts that God is great, that the fundamental Islamic affirmation, Allahu Akbar, God is great, and therefore what's the appropriate response of the human? It is to submit. And Islam means submission to the greatness of God. If I follow the teaching of Gautama, Siddartha, Buddha, and I understand the world to be an unbreakable cycle of suffering that is fuelled by my desire and my attachment to things that can be broken only by my seeing things as they really are, and detaching myself from them to eventually enjoy the relief of Nirvana. That makes a certain kind of sense. To think that the story of the world focuses on this uncredentialed artisan in a remote province of the Roman Empire in the first century, a kind of amateur rabbi who gathers a fairly bedraggled group of people around him, never leaves behind an important book, never seems to do much more than inspire these people with words and deeds and perhaps some wonders.
How this group ends up dominating, really, world history – Christianity is the biggest social fact in history. Nothing's been more significant in world history. Nothing's affected more people. Nothing has affected the course of history more than the fact of the Christian religion. And it's so very strange to think that this young man who dies in his early thirties is somehow not only the savior of the world, but the Lord of the universe. We Canadians, many of us at least, are really used to this. So we kind of take this on board. But when you step back, not very far, it's a very unlikely claim indeed.
I interviewed Ron Rolheiser ago, the writer and Catholic priest from Saskatchewan. And he said something that's stayed with me for years, that it's harder to be a believer now than it was a few generations ago, because the culture all around you doesn't necessarily support it, that the culture supports doubt and skepticism more than it supports belief. Do you think that's true?
I think that generally our culture supports a kind of doubt because I think we're all 21st century people who have endured the outcome of the 20th and the 20th century is a tremendous century for disillusionment. So many idols, so many causes, so many ideologies were exposed as threadbare, as rationalizations of power, as Marx would say, ideologies of the rich to exploit the poor: capitalism, communism, nationalism, fascism… All of these isms were eventually shown to be ways in which those who had power were trying to oppress those of us who had less. So on the other side of that, we're all pretty leery of anybody who comes along and says, I have the big answer. I'm here from the government. I'm here to help you. You know, we're all pretty leery of that now. So it's not just that we're not so crazy about Christianity in a kind of post-Christian Canada. We're a little nervous about anybody who comes along purporting to tell us they have the answer to things.
There's a candidate running for governor in Georgia, and her campaign slogan has become famous in the last little while. That slogan is Jesus, Guns, Babies. And in both Canada and in the U.S., whenever you see protesters waving Confederate flags, there is inevitably a cross right there, too. What do you think it is about Christianity specifically that is so appealing to far right movements?
Christianity, and particularly evangelical Christianity, is appealing to far right movements, in particular cultural contexts like the American Deep South and the American Middle West, like parts of Eastern Europe, Russia in particular, but also in Hungary and elsewhere, because it gets enmeshed with national identity. If you're really an American, you're really a Christian and you're a Christian of a certain sort. And so nationalism, truly racism, sexism, capitalism all get wrapped together in a kind of cultural package and they reinforce each other. In other parts of the world, of course, those don't go together. Even here in Canada, we have a distribution even of evangelical Christianity right across the board. I mean, Tommy Douglas, who helped to found the CCF and the NDP, was himself a Baptist minister in Britain.
Much of the so-called evangelical Christian Party is behind the Labour movement in Britain. Same with Australia. So Mary, I think it's our American friends with their outsized microphones and megaphones that tend to make us think that if you're a fairly conservative Christian, you're going to be a conservative in politics. I think that's really an accident of just certain countries and their particular national histories.
You've referred to this whole project as a big ask, because trying to figure out the meaning of life, your place in the world, why are you here? It's almost comical in how overwhelming that can be. Why are you urging people to approach life that way?
I guess for me the challenge is – I go back to William James, the American philosopher, who said, "well, what are your options?" I mean, you can't investigate all the religions of the world. Nobody's got time to do that. But of the options in your life that you think are perhaps worth investigating, what's the best of those? If you can't live the best life possible, what at least is the best of the options available to you? Do you want to settle for the life you have now, or is the hunger you feel for something significantly better? A clue that there is something significantly better, that the longing that one feels for a life of meaning and purpose. Is that just to be shoved down and self-medicated with alcohol or the latest Netflix special, or is there something more?
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Produced by Rosie Fernandez and Arman Aghbali.