The Gospels of Conditional and Unconditional Love

I stayed in Cambridge last week with a gay priest friend who recommended Jeremy Young’s book The Cost of Certainty: How religious conviction betrays the human psyche (2004, DLT, ISBN 0232525803). My copy arrived yesterday and reading the first four pages has given me material for a timely blog.

Young expresses succinctly the Gospel as I, and clearly he, and the CA trustees, and many people in the CA network, understand it. The Gospel of Unconditional Love underpins Changing Attitude’s conviction, expressed in my letter to the Church of England Newspaper last week, that any challenge to the full inclusion of LGB&T people in the family of God and the human community is based on prejudice and is homophobic. Christian prejudice is based on the Gospel of Conditional Love, which tragically and disastrously continues to be the Gospel followed by many Christians and Christian leaders and congregations. It is not Christian and it results in evil.

Jeremy Young puts it like this:

“It is my belief that many of the evil or injurious deeds performed by practising Christians originate in specific core Christian beliefs which are usually regarded as ‘orthodox’. Far from being distortions of normal Christianity, such ills are engendered by it; and the more uncritically these beliefs are held, the more destructive they are likely to be.

“The origin of the maleficient effects of Christianity is, I contend, to be found in the stark dualism enshrined in the belief in a Day of Judgement at which the human race will be separated into two groups: one which will be saved and go to eternal bliss in heaven, and the other which will be dammed and experience an eternity of torture. This division creates deep-seated anxiety in believers, who may fear for their eternal fate, and this anxiety, in turn, interacts with a fundamental ambiguity in mainstream Christian teaching about the love of God, namely, that although the Church claims God’s love is unconditional, he only accepts those humans into heaven who believe in Jesus Christ and have repented of their sins. The rest he damns. The unconditional love of God is actually hedged about by conditions and the threat of damnation for those who do not fulfil them.

“Because of these presentations of its central doctrines, far from offering healing and liberation, the Christian faith may easily become an emotional, intellectual or spiritual prison, inhibiting the growth of churchgoers towards both psychological and spiritual maturity….  Rather than being liberated from false restraints upon their lives, Christians frequently seem afraid of doing the ‘wrong’ thing or expressing the ‘wrong’ opinion.

“Fear and love are incompatible in Christian teaching, but fear, or at least anxiety, is one of the commonest emotional states among the devout. It appears to be endemic to Christians. Such apprehension is not … the awe and reverence of God which is a necessary part of a healthy spiritual life, but is rather the product of emotional immaturity or inadequacy. The Gospel is supposed to bring an experience of the love of God … and of freedom, but the emotions of those within the confines of the Church are very frequently those of prisoners: fear, anger, blame, guilt, self-hatred; or, depression.

“God’s acceptance is presented as very much conditional on the response of the one who wishes to receive it, which means that God’s unconditional love only becomes operative as a relationship of acceptance and intimacy after the believer has fulfilled certain conditions.

“I call this interpretation of Christianity the Gospel of Conditional Love and believe that this is the understanding of the gospel which is responsible for the underlying anxiety experienced by so many practising Christians.”

I, Colin, have often lacked the courage and confidence to say to the Church, “I think your theology is profoundly misguided and un-Christian in certain fundamental respects. God’s love is unconditional but you don’t really believe it or preach or teach it.”

What Jeremy Young is writing about is, of course, grace. I have always felt grace to be a rather naff, wishy-washy concept. I now realise this is because many evangelicals, and especially those for whom grace is as important as the fundamental belief that scripture judges LGB&T people harshly and condemns us to judgement, these evangelicals have no idea what God’s grace really is, how infinitely generous God is in the scope of grace.

Those people who are abandoning the Church and those, especially the young to whom the Archbishop of Canterbury would like the Church of England to appeal, reject the Church because of its unchristian attitude to women and LGB&T people. This unchristian attitude is fuelled by a lack of grace and a Gospel of Conditional love. Thank God people reject this false Christianity. It is, as Jeremy Young identifies, damaging to human self-esteem, health and well-being, values God cares about deeply.

Comments

  1. Roderick keefe says

    I agree with Colin’s comments, similar views are expressed in Bishop John Shelby Spong’s book a New Christianity for a New World, he talks about the condemnation of gay people, women, black people, by as he calls them ” Toxic Christians” the so called fundamentalists, surely the fundamentals of Christianity is Love and Tolerance, condemnation is not a Christian virtue.

Join the discussion