Damned or Not
by John McLarty
On Sunday night I was at a dinner party. A psychiatrist asked me about some friends of hers: They called themselves Christians, but they did not believe in the Trinity. How could they call themselves Christians? They saw Jesus as more of a teacher and guide for life.
I accepted the question as a straightforward invitation to offer my professional assessment of the appropriateness of their self-identification as “Christians.” I talked about the history of the doctrine of the Trinity. I talked about the variety of views on the Trinity among contemporary Christians. Finally, I argued no one denomination or group of denominations is fully qualified to define Christianity.
Throughout the conversation, which must have gone on for half an hour, the psychiatrist never disputed my facts, but kept repeating her question: How can these people be Christians if they don't believe in the Trinity. I should have realized her question was not transparent. Her real question was not a question of mere labels.
Finally, after everyone else had been to the kitchen and back for dessert, I said I wanted to get some ice cream.
We went into the kitchen. As we served and began eating—she, her coconut, pineapple sorbet and I, chocolate—we continued our conversation.
She continued her story, “my parents were Buddhist but they sent me to Catholic school. So I guess you could say I grew up Catholic. For Catholics, the Trinity is the essence of our religion. Every religion teaches people to be good, to be kind and moral. Most religions believe in some kind of God. But the Trinity, that's what makes us Christian. That's the way I grew up.”
I still didn't get it. I repeated some of what I said about followers of Jesus in the 200s and 300s who are universally recognized as Christians and had unorthodox views on the nature of Jesus. I was still arguing about labels.
“One time when I was in the sixth grade, I told the nun I didn't see why people had to twist nature around. I thought Jesus would be just as special even without the Virgin Birth and the Immaculate Conception. I was just telling her what I thought. She was horrified. She told me with ideas like that I would burn in hell. So I've always wondered.”
Maybe the psychiatrist really did have friends who denied the Trinity and still called themselves Christian because they respected Jesus. But I think the reason she kept me in conversation about the proper use of the label “Christian” because she really wondered whether heaven had a place for her. In the world in which her deepest religious instincts were formed, the difference between non-Christian and Christian equaled the difference between damned and not damned. In the world of parochial education—Catholic and Adventist—it's easy for kids to become persuaded that unless they can fit their minds into elegant and venerable boxes of orthodoxy, the Kingdom has no place for them.
“The Trinity is an idea,” I said, “with ancient roots and broad acceptance in the contemporary church. But in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus explicitly and emphatically insisted that salvation came to those who followed his teachings, especially his teachings about mercy. You don't have to persuade yourself the Trinity describes a metaphysical reality in order to escape damnation. There will be no quiz about the Trinity in the judgment. You look up to Jesus? You see him as your guide? That makes you a Christian.”
“You think so? Really”
Her body relaxed. We headed back into the living room where we were teased about spending all night doing theology. Not that I minded.
Friday afternoon, I spent a couple of hours with a longtime acquaintance at Starbucks. In her voice mail asking to see me she had explained she needed to talk to a liberal pastor. Now, face to face, she apologized. She had deliberately avoided me for years because of her conservative convictions. Now, she was coming to me because if anyone could help her, I was it.
I was wondering where all this was going. Her congregation was about to split? Her pastor was in trouble? Her son? Her marriage? What?
She came right to the point. Her son had come out to her. The story line was convoluted. She jumped from descriptions of her bewilderment to outrage to concern for her son. She was furious at the callous condemnation expressed by church people and family. Urging her to disown him. Promising to pray for the death of her grandson (to spare him the shame of his father’s perversion). Quoting all the relevant and irrelevant Bible passages that supported their abhorrence of people like her son.
Why was she telling me all this? She loved him still. As she conversationally wandered around the devastation her new knowledge had created, she repeatedly talked about “my son.” She did not understand. She could not approve. She knew all the Bible verses. She was deeply enmeshed in the apocalyptic Adventist obsession with “a perfect final generation.” She studied her Bible and Ellen White's writings. Now all of that crumbled against the massive bedrock of her mother's love. She would not damn her son. Would God? Was there even the slightest hint in the Bible that God had room in his heart for her son?
“By far the most dominant metaphor for God in the Bible is Father. And Mother is in there, too. You as a parent cannot imagine cutting off your child. I've heard you say 'my son' over and over again as we've sat here. If your son still belongs to you, I know he still belongs to God, because I think God is at least as nice as you are.”
She thought that was something she could work with.
Not every idea or every condition of life is ideal. There is certainly a place for the church to put a lot of energy into articulating the doctrine of a Godhead that lives in community and the ideal of sweet, life-long marriages that give rise to healthy, happy, educated children. Advocating the ideal is easy. The great challenge for those of us who imagine we are followers of Jesus (and not merely part of a culture group called Christian) is how we respond to people whose ideas and bodies are other than our ideals. Damning those whose irregularities are different from our own misrepresents God and warps our own souls.