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Thielen: What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be A Christian?

Martin Thielen starts to make good on the title promise in his book What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian? about halfway through, when he starts talking about things Christians do need to believe. Here’s the pull quote:

The short answer is Jesus. We can discard many religious beliefs and still be a Christian. However, we cannot discard Jesus.

Thielen then goes on to affirm belief in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and presents various stories or quips about Jesus as answers to “life’s most important questions:

  1. Who Is Jesus?
  2. What Matters Most?
  3. Am I Accepted?
  4. Where is God?
  5. What Brings Fulfillment?
  6. What about Suffering?
  7. Is There Hope?
  8. Is the Church Still Relevant?
  9. Who Is the Holy Spirit?
  10. What Is God’s Dream for the World?

His treatment of each of these questions is culturally relevant (his treatment of the first deals with a scene from a Will Farrell movie before turning to Matthew 16) and is on balance pretty light stuff. Thielen falls into a common trap here: his illustrations tend to dwarf his treatment of Scripture. Here are the answers Thielen provides:

  1. That Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” is the heart of Christianity.
  2. Relationships with God and others matter most.
  3. Even with our flaws, Jesus loves and accepts us as beloved children of God.
  4. Although God is not limited to working through people, God primarily works through human instruments.
  5. True fulfillment comes from serving others.
  6. Although God does not prevent suffering, the crucified God fully enters human suffering and works to redeem that suffering.
  7. Jesus Christ’s resurrection gives us hope for life and even hope for death.
  8. In spite of its flaws, the church is still God’s primary vehicle for doing God’s work in the world, and every Christian needs to belong to one.
  9. The Holy Spirit is God’s empowering presence in our lives, in the life of the church, and in the world.
  10. The kingdom of God is God’s dream for the world, and we are called to help make that dream a reality, both in our personal lives and in society.

One of the things that currently troubles me most is the disconnect between Good News (the Gospel) and good works (the usual Pauline virtues: goodness, meekness, patience, and also meeting physical needs of others as an aspect of Christian love). It seems to me that at some point around the turn of the Twentieth Century liberals and conservatives divorced, the liberals taking the good works and the conservatives taking the Gospel; on each side we tend to try to paper over what’s missing, but our hearts aren’t really in it.

What’s useful in Thielen’s list here is that it is a fairly standard defense of liberal social policy as a result of a kingdom Theology; “the Body of Christ has no hands but our own” and so forth. As a conservative I find the focus on some sort of social conscience convicting, but the theology seems odd. I’m accustomed to hearing God described as being either sovereign eventually (an apocalyptic position) or present in everything that happens, pleasant or otherwise (a determinist position), but the idea that God stands outside His creation and dreams of anything sounds too anthropocentric and frankly too weak.

I guess I would have to say that when I read Thielen’s description of what’s essential and what’s not I would have to recognize him as a Christian, but at the same time I’d have to acknowledge that between him and me there’s a great gulf fixed, and I’m not sure what to do about it.

One lives in one’s time, after all, and it’s not like we’re going to reconcile any time soon.

In the next post I’ll take a more detailed look at Theielen’s answer to the question “Do Mainline Christians Believe in Getting Saved?” Stay tuned.


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