June 20, 2009 in Features

Be wary of partial truths contained in clichés

Paul Graves

In response to last month’s column on religious clichés, some readers shared their own “favorite” clichés that bug them.

I appreciate their offerings, and welcome others to join us in this effort to de-bug religious clichés so we might be free to remember that the truth-pieces found in clichés are, at best, only partial truths.

A clergy friend in Oklahoma told me he is bothered by “God helps them who help themselves.”

This is one of those “if this isn’t in the Bible then it should be” phrases. Alas, it isn’t in the Bible. I’m personally convinced it is unhealthy theology.

Do you remember the 1965 Civil War movie “Shenandoah,” with Jimmy Stewart? He shared a supper grace that paid lip-service to this cliché. It went something like this:

“Lord, we plowed and planted our fields, and harvested this food, but you provided the rain, so I guess we better thank you for the food. Amen.”

His grace proportion was pretty much, man’s work, 98 percent; God, 2 percent.

There’s a subtle danger to this cliché. How much help from God deserves our acknowledgement? How much help from man should God expect before “helping”?

It becomes a debit-credit kind of issue that pretty much dismisses the whole notion of God’s grace freely given.

My friend puts his concern this way: “God’s gift of resurrection took place when the disciples were beyond any chance of helping themselves. It is often when we cannot help ourselves that we may become open to God.”

Think about that a moment: The partnership between God and us is a covenant based on God’s grace, not a contract based on fractionalized workload.

Certainly we are called to be actively accountable for doing “our part.” But that isn’t a clichéd condition of God doing God’s part to sustain us.

The other cliché I urge us to consider today is “America is a Christian nation.”

This statement can polarize a conversation more easily than most. It too easily suggests another cliché: “My way or the highway.”

There is no doubt that America’s founding was deeply influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition. There is also no doubt that many of the “founding fathers” were Christian, and the rest were familiar with biblical tradition.

But to label America as Christian at its founding, and especially today, is to diminish the fuller story of American religious history.

I am currently immersed in a well-researched and provocative book of American religious history called “Founding Faith: Providence, Politics and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America,” by Steven Waldman, founder of www.beliefnet.com.

The last paragraph of his introduction says: “The Founding Faith, then, was not Christianity, and it was not secularism. It was religious liberty – a revolutionary formula for promoting faith by leaving it alone.”

Waldman then spends 264 pages of enlightening text and footnotes documenting his belief. His scholarly yet personal approach is very engaging and persuasive.

If you have keen interest in this topic, you may be as enlightened as I’ve been as to the “rest of the story” behind our nation’s religious history.

I truly don’t understand why some people are so determined to dismiss anyone else who doesn’t believe America is more than a Christian nation. Why should our nation’s religious pluralism threaten those of us who are Christian?

Why does the freedom to believe as we choose threaten us as people – or even parents, when those we love don’t agree with us? I truly don’t understand that kind of fear.

I do understand that kind of fear misrepresents what a “Christian nation” can be at its best.

The Rev. Paul Graves, a Sandpoint resident and retired United Methodist minister, is founder of Elder Advocates, an elder care consulting ministry. He can be contacted via e-mail at welhouse@nctv.com.

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