Past, Present and Perfect
by Ed Harrell
“The Americans demanded that they were free, masterless individuals,” wrote Alexis De Tocqueville in
his classic description of the American character in 1835, “they sought absolute independence and equality of status. They imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands .,.. They acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone.’ It is this fierce independence of mind that has allowed New Testament Christianity to flourish in America. I am sure we are all thankful for the freedom of speech and conscience which has been the incubator of New Testament Christianity in the modern world.
It is precisely this habit of mind that led many nineteenth century American Christians to renounce the religious baggage of centuries and to call for a return to primitive Christianity. New England preacher Elias Smith stated that plea powerfully; ”I am a Christian . . . calling no man father or master; holding as abominable in the sight of God everything highly esteemed among men, such as calvinism, arminianism, freewillism, universalism, reverend, parsons, chaplains, doctors of divinity, surplices, notes, creeds, covenants, platforms.” Nobly stated. As a historian, I have been repulsed by the human forms of religion—by obscure theological systems, fruitless hair-splitting and semantical debate, by ecclesiastical institutions that bear no resemblance to the Christianity of the New Testament, and by fat and flabby preachers whose selfish motives are transparent. Societies have often turned anti-religious because of such perversions; it is easy to understand why. If all there was to commend religion to us was its historic forms and its present institutions, I would opt for an enlightened secularism. If I propose to stand against war, it won’t be at the behest of a political activist who appeals to a God of his own creation to support a cause of his own creation; and while I do indeed urge others to be moral, I have no interest in a religio-political movement that mixes the divine and the profane without discrimination to support right-wing politics.
Like Elias Smith, I thank God that I am just a Christian. Oh, it takes some courage to stand alone, with our “whole destiny” in our own hands. It means ridding ourselves of the accumulated assumptions of the centuries, standing lone and without prejudice before the Word of God. It means, as Alexander Campbell said, that we must “open the New Testament as if mortal man had never seen it before.” There is a spiritual exhilaration in such pioneering, as there must have been in viewing this continent for the first time. But it demands brave and adventuresome men and women, the kind that carved out the American nation.
To be a Christian only, free from theological jargon and culture-bound institutions, is not only an exciting business, it is also the right way. “If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11). I refuse all other labels and I am bored by all other systems of thought. I am a Christian.
Ouch, Crunch, Squeeze
I remember years ago when one of our children got her head caught in the seat in front of her at church services. Getting back between the spokes proved more difficult than getting through to the other side, Frustration was followed by panic, then tears, then bedlam. She was finally rescued by two or three mechanically-minded brethren.
I have been in some tight places myself— in fact, I am in one at the moment. My problem is strikingly similar to my daughter’s. I can manage to squeeze through my arms and legs, even my body, but my head just won’t go. Why is it that our heads won’t go through small places? I have noticed that even those with small brains frequently have large heads. I know one thing—if I ever get out of the spot I’m in, I’m going to have to shrink my head and get it in the proper shape. Men just aren’t built for going through the eye of a needle. And if you think it’s hard getting through on a camel’s back, try driving to heaven in a Mercedes Benz.
CHRISTIANITY MAGAZINE JANUARY, 1984