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February 09, 2006



Beautiful post. Knock it off. How do you expect your progressive atheist readers to stay that way when you articulate a theism that strikes so close to the heart of our own values? ;-)

More seriously, I think this is good opportunity to say thanks for this blog. I've been reading for a year (maybe a little longer; it's hard to keep track of that sort of thing), and in that time you've unwittingly done a lot to help me work on my Christian = Jerry Falwell stereotyping. And no doubt I'll be looking to the things you write about your faith more in the coming years, as my university threatens to head down a path of intolerance based on 'Catholic doctrine'.

(Apologies to all for that last bit. We're having an extremely tense month here.)

Keep up the great work, Hugo!


and this is where you sort of start to lose me. i was hesitant to start reading your blog in the first place, some months ago, because i am one of those "evangelicals" of which you speak (although quite, quite liberal,as we go). but you have drawn me in with what was a suprisingly consistant gospel message (i do not mean that to sound condescending in any way). and it is very nice to see someone openly call themselves a feminist who professes a belief in Jesus.

in one respect, we skirt along the same belief--because i feel that relationship with Jesus is the center of Christianity that is, of course, manifested in love. Love for God, and love for all human beings (and other creatures). But if unconditional love for others, in the context of community or not, is the All, then there is no need for Jesus.

for Peter, the important question was about loving His sheep because Peter already believed in the saving work of the cross (john 6).

i just think there needs to be some balance--i do believe that many conservative evangelicals have gotten it wrong by saying: i "believe" in the cross, that is enough. but on the other side, "liberal" christianity often is too soft--i can forget about jesus as long as i'm kind and loving.

still, i'll keep reading.


"Patience nodded along, and then asked the follow-up question: "Okay, so that's what he believes. What do we believe?" Knowing what our topic was for program last night, I told Patience that rather than tell her, I'd try and show her."

I was struck by this question. Why does she need you to tell her what she believes?

That implies that you are there to tell her what to believe instead of saying "this is what I believe and what I am trying to teach you."

A not-so-subtle difference.


I think you missed another "3 with Peter" that confirms your churchs understanding of "agape" in Jesus. That was that even though Peter betrayed Jesus 3 times on the way to the cross, Jesus, knowing it would happen, still loved and forgave him. And did nothing but shine love and forgiveness from that cross.

That's what I think the conservative factions of christianity miss, even suffereing the terror of that cross and sacrifice, he didn't stop loving and forgiving. Even his enemies who put him there, even those closest to him that betrayed him.

What better example of all encompassing love could there be?

The Gonzman

Even though he still loved them Johnny - they still did wrong.

This is what liberal churches miss is the need to repent from wrong behavior, because they will not pronounce something as wrong. Serial adulterer? Oh, well, that's fine. We love you. God loves you. And true enough, God does love you - but you are on the fast train to Hell - eternal seperation from immmanence - if you don't turn from your bad behavior and mend your ways.



This is another (as always) well-written post here. Let me respond to a few points.

"If there's one thing that distinguishes progressive Christians from our conservative friends, it's our conviction that no one gets saved alone!" I think you've described accurately the views of many non-denominational and low-church evangelicals, Hugo, but not denominational ones. I think it was Peter Moore of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry (I may be wrong on that) who once said, "Salvation always begins with the individual but never stops there. It always ends in the community of the church." Among mainline evangelicals in particular, there is a different ecclesiology from the other evangelicals I mentioned, so that the Christian life does not just boil down to "me and Jesus."

"Salvation happens in community, as we are saved not from the lake of fire of Revelations 20, but from our own self-centeredness and isolation. Salvation, for us, lies in living out the greatest commandment, which is to practice unconditional agape love." Now this is where we will part company, Hugo. Beyond the question of whether anyone will be eternally separated from God (since we've discussed that before, I won't repeat it here), salvation does not equte to agape love. Agape love is a fruit of salvation, but not salvation itself. I think that here you are treading on dangerous ground, confusing a fruit of the Holy Spirit with justification (unless I'm misreading you, of course). And Jesus came to deliver us from things far more serious than "self-centeredness and isolation," but our own rebellion and sinfulness that keeps us from being holy as God is holy.

Peace of Christ,


People who think that consistently practicing loving kindess is easy or soft make me kind of worried.

Somewhat related:
One of my favorite Jewish proverbs is: The world stand on three things: On Torah (which can also mean wisdom, knowledge, and learning), On Avodah (which can mean worship or labor/work) and On Gemilut Hasidim (which means acts of loving kindness).


Will, Patience asked "what do WE believe?" She was asking about how All Saints interpreted salvation, not how I thought she should believe.

Johnny, indeed -- agape love, as the apostle tells us, forgives all things.

Chip, as always, a thoughtful reply. Thanks for the Peter Moore comment. Honestly, most of the conservatives I know are very low-church non-denoms, and that skews my views!

I work with All Saints youth because I am convinced that Christ died for me on the cross and gave me the power for a new life. Yes, we are justified by His sacrifice on the cross. As an evangelical I believe that. But just because that is the source of our justification, that doesn't mean that the most important Christian task is to convince others of that truth -- it's already happened! Jesus doesn't need us to verbally assent to his atoning death and resurrection, he calls us to practice agape love as the primary task of a redeemed people!


Tara, I'll agree that loving kindness isn't easy. It's a constant spiritual discipline. Eros is easy, philia is easy, agape is hard -- but incredibly rewarding.


Hey Hugo - I love the explanation of Love as the central tenet of Christianity but what I'm not hearing is an explanation of what liberal Christians believe about sin and atonement. What I understand is that one of the central tenets of Christianity, liberal or conservative, is that people "sin." There is a tally somewhere of how much people sin and that Jesus died on the cross to wash away the tally. Evangelical, conservative Christians believe that in order to get your tally of sins washed away you have to believe in Jesus. And because your tally of sins is washed away, you get into heaven. But, if you don't believe in Jesus, your tally of sins sticks and you go to hell.

What that presumes is that someone is keeping track of your sins and when you die, that someone sends you to heaven or hell. And then you stay there forever. And for me, this is the main reason why I'm not a practicing Christian. I don't believe a merciful god would be keeping score like that or banish you to anywhere. I think if we do live on after this life that we will always have the opportunity to grow and banishment to hell doesn't make sense in that context.

And in the context of your explanation to Patience, if someone doesn't love enough, does that mean they are going to hell in the agape Christian paradigm? I'm curious.

Space Chick

I think what some of these responses demonstrate is a difference in viewpoints--some focus on the fact that we must repent and forsake our sins in order to receive the blessings on the Atonement, while others feel that the Atonement has already been accomplished, so we need to put our sins behind us and focus on how to continue to live worthily of the resulting blessings. This will probably ruffle some feathers, but I think the 1st view tends to lead to a judgmental approach, evaluating not just our own sins but everyone else's, to make sure we're properly repenting. This overlooks the fact that it is not our duty to assess how well someone else has overcome their weaknesses--our duty instead is to love them as well as we can. We can help them to change, but we also have to provide a place where they feel welcome and valued even when they have trouble changing. In contrast, the 2d view may lead to a complacent approach that the only thing we need to do is be nice to each other, and that the Atonement, while a wonderful thing, is already in effect so why worry about it. Perhaps we need to find a balance between the two?


I'm going to join Heather in asking you theology, Hugo...

My mom once told me why she didn't believe in Hell, and left the Catholic church. She said to me:
"I'm a parent. When I punish my kids, it's to teach them so they'll be happier adults who don't make the sorts of mistakes that lead to unhappiness. It's not revenge. Eternal punishment doesn't make sense to me; what sort of loving parent takes revenge on his children?"

I can accept that being away from God is its own hell, and that we make choices that keep us away from god. That if you're acting away from that loving centre, you're shunning God's light and love. But I can't really reconcile agape and Hell as punishment, or Hell as eternal, unless, of course, when we die we become shadows frozen in time unable to learn. In which case, "I'm" not there anyway.

Which is one of two reasons why I'd never claim to be Christian, Quaker though I am. It's the one thing I've never reconciled; I wonder your take on it?


Gosh, I've got quite a lot to say about heaven, hell, and universalism -- but no time in which to write at the moment. Letters of rec must be written first!


I think my own understanding of the role of a loving church community in salvation is rather more apocalyptic than yours. When I read the New Testament (especially Paul) I get a strong sense that the formation of churches, repentance from sin, and all the rest of it are means of preparation for the transformation of the world that they felt was coming. Therefore the main difference I see between that and what you say here is the NT's sense that things are unfinished -- we are ever striving to become holier, the church is but a glimpse of the Kingdom that is to come, etc. And this was an era when miraculous healings and prison breaks seemed to be the order of the day. I'm not sure if you mean to say this, but you make it sound like by creating a loving community, salvation is already realized. I'm Mennonite enough to feel that salvation does indeed begin on earth, but I wouldn't say it ends there.


Camassia, I agree completely. But while we are here, we can't be focused on a "pie in the sky by and by" theology that sees this world as some sort of Marine boot camp from which we hope to graduate ASAP. Do I believe in an eternal life to come? Absolutely. But what we know -- that the first century church perhaps did not -- is that Jesus is tarrying on His return. While none know the time and the hour of his comeback, perhaps He is waiting for US to build His Kingdom of radical justice and love. So until He calls me home, my job is to take care of the sheep here. And I take care of 'em best not by promising a wonderful meal tomorrow, but by feeding their emotional, spiritual, and physical hunger in the here and now

Alice M.

Hi all

I'm a Quaker too. I like Walter Wink and Rene Girard for christology. I understand sin as what happens when we are possessed by the demonic forces: including those which animate the whole structure of the industrial growth society as it rampages across the earth laying waste and destroying.

Atonement is God's way of giving us a bath and setting us on our feet again after we have been muddied up - when we have got colonised by the landslide of evil which perpetually rolls around us in human society, confusing and hurting everyone. Jesus exposed the Powers of violence and empire and showed them to be unrighteous: for us he suffered and in doing so, won as he revealed God's truth: that sin can be overcome by God, and death is not the end of an act of truth. The action of God's power - grace and love and truth - is to clear the confusion from our minds and send us out again into the world to live out that truth and power.

I haven't ever got my head round an afterlife: I understand eternal life to mean sustainable and powerful. I guess that's part of my being a biological scientist. So Hell has to be metaphorical for me. I need Jesus's sacrifice and his leadership as well, (as I experience he is alive & with us in spirit), to free me from the Powers of destruction and violence. It's a rebirth for me to follow Jesus: an alteration, growing-up again but this time learning to depend on grace, faith and love instead of on worldy influence, violence and 'playing the game'.


See, I think it is watering down the Gospel to act like the Kingdom is even possible for humans to build. Like I said, the NT church had all sorts of amazing things going on and yet still took the attitude that things to come were greater. I don't think that's "pie in the sky", I think it's humility about one's own achievements compared to God's. I mean, the NT church believed that it was building the Kingdom, but that was because it was "the body of Christ" -- that is, Christ was building it through them. The image of Jesus waiting around for us to perfect ourselves until he'll deign to come back doesn't strike me as an improvement on the Marine-boot-camp version. The thing that agape love and renouncing sin have in common is that they're both things that common sense tells you is impossible for human nature to do (consistently at least), and are therefore characteristics of God.

The Gonzman

And here is the fundamental misunderstanding of Hell. God doesn't send you to hell - you go there of your own free will, by walking away. The best metaphor I ever heard was that the road to hell was wide, but at the gates of hell was the cross, which you had to walk past to get in.

I'm perpetually amazed at secularists of all stripes who resent deeply someone telling them to so much as tie their shoes, but are angry with God because he won't "fix the world" by taking away free will.


Camassia, when I joined Pasadena Mennonite, I was told by Jim Brennemann that Mennonites believe we can make the Beatitudes (the conduct code specified in Matthew 5) an earthly reality. As I understand Anabaptist theology Mennonites believe that one of the gifts of grace is the strength to prepare the Kingdom by living in communities of love. Perhaps I've misunderstood Mennonite teaching?


Gonzman, fair enough -- your position is not that far from Lewis' in the Great Divorce.

And Camassia, I don't think Jesus is "waiting around" passively -- we have been given new life and new power through the cross, and that power came from Him.  Thus we are really co-creating with him, building the Kingdom.  It's where I like the language in 1 Corinthians 3:9-11.  We are God's fellow laborers; Jesus laid the foundation with His sacrifice on the cross, but it is our agape love that builds the building.

That's how I read the passage, anyway...  I know my bible pretty well, but I do tend to play "proof-text poker" more often than I ought!


In response to: "And here is the fundamental misunderstanding of Hell. God doesn't send you to hell - you go there of your own free will, by walking away."

Who created the possibility of hell? Who set up the system if it wasn't God? According to Christianity, God created heaven and hell. The Christian version of the God-created system says if you "choose" to sin you go to hell. You go "there" of your own free will but hell is "there" because God made a "there." And what I'm saying is, I don't buy that if there is a God that he, she or it would create separate spheres for people to live in eternally, or a system with an end to forgiveness.


Well Jim Brenneman and I don't see eye-to-eye on everything theologically, but that's also very Anabaptist. However, the distinction I'm really trying to make here is between something being in process, and being completed. Like I said, the NT church obviously believed it was building the Kingdom, but it seems equally clear that it doesn't expect to finish the task until Jesus returns. The fact that it's had longer than it expected to work on it doesn't inherently mean that therefore, it's supposed to finish it itself. I was getting this feeling from your post of, "We've created an accepting community, therefore we've made heaven on earth." It sounds borderline arrogant. It also makes heaven sound exceptionally mundane. I mean, loving communities are wonderful and necessary, but they don't conquer death, make the blind see, create glorified bodies or any of the other things the NT promises. I guess I'm coming at this from a somewhat unconventional angle since I see heaven as the end product of transformation, more than a reward for good behavior. I've got a bit of Origen in me, I suppose.

I think that's why I agree (somewhat) with our conservative brethren about the emphasis on loving people "just as they are." Not that you shouldn't do that, but that God's ultimate purpose for them is not for them to remain the same. So "I love you as you are" goes along with "prepare for some really big changes." This is apparent to me in the rest of 1 John -- his discussion of love goes along with some very sharp warnings against sin and false teaching.


But (simply to play out this line of thinking), suppose God did offer people a choice: follow me or don't follow me (the basis of free will). But if everybody ended up the same place regardless of their choice, then it's not really free will, is it? In this sense God HAD to create an "other place" for those who chose to walk the other way.

Also, we do have to realize that most of our imagery of hell comes from Dante, and not the Bible. Whether or not is is a lake of fire with demons poking people with pitchforks is up for debate. That it is the place apart from God, set up for people who choose to say no to God - that is the point. More C.S. Lewis there.

However, your final point is intriguing: "a system with an end to forgiveness." There are Christian scholars who would say there is never and end to forgiveness, for those who choose to accept forgiveness. It's just that, like in "The Great Divorce," once the choice is made, it only gets harder and harder for people to change their mind.


I just wanted to add (lest I'm misunderstood) that a good analogy for God's love for us is that it's like the love you'd have for your five-year-old child. You love him unconditionally, but you also want to help him mature into the adult he's meant to be. Paul uses a number of analogies like that (especially when he's talking to the Corinthians).


Camassia, theology aside, you and I agree very strongly that we shouldn't just love people without seeking to help them transform. After all, Jesus tells the woman caught in adultery to "go and sin no more". Where liberals and conservatives break with each other is over the issue of what constitutes the nature of the sin we are trying to overcome!

Do I want my teenagers to become less selfish? Absolutely. Do I want them to become more generous? Absolutely. Do I want them to work through the narcissism, the self-obsession, and the pettiness so inherent to adolescence (and adulthood)? You bet. Do I want them to experience themselves as incredibly loved, as God's favorites, and thus called to love others and create communities of love? Yup.

Am I concerned with whether or not they are virgins on their wedding night, or whether in following eros, they are drawn more to men or to women? No.

Am I concerned with whether or not they embrace sacrificial living and giving? Hell yes.

Am I picking and choosing the Gospel passages to support this? I don't think so.

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