In a recent interview with Danica Patrick, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers discussed his Christian upbringing and how he began to question his faith. The interview has generated some controversy and negative comments including from Rodgers’ own family and has raised concern in the Christian media, as well, such as here and here.
I am a big fan of Rodgers as a quarterback; he’s just so great at finding ways to win. Off the field, however, I really don’t know much about him. I also didn’t know much about the comments he made to Danica, other than the quotes used in news articles about it. So I decided to watch the video for myself. As a Christian writer and apologist, I was surprised to find myself agreeing with many of Rodgers’ sentiments.
What I heard was a thoughtful, intelligent man sharing part of his personal faith journey in an articulate way. Rodgers made two points in particular that are worth taking a look at; they reveal a lot about the culture we live in today and what it means to believe in God.
Rodgers talked about the vastly different experiences he had in high school between going to church on Sundays and the youth ministry Young Life on Mondays.
“Young Life welcomed everyone. Come as you are . . . Church on Sundays was more, you know, make sure you dress a certain way, and don’t bring that person, and this person’s going to get looked at strangely if they show up.”-Aaron Rodgers
This sentiment resonated with me because I know many people including former believers and Christians (like myself) who have been disappointed or hurt by the church acting in that way. Rodgers added:
“Religion can be a crutch, it can be something that people have to have to make themselves feel better. Because it’s set up binary, it’s us and them, saved and unsaved, heaven and hell, it’s enlightened and heathen, it’s holy and righteous…that makes a lot of people feel better about themselves.”-Aaron Rodgers
Many of us have seen attitudes like this in churches and Christian communities. And it turns out that this sort of “tribalism” is actually not a church thing; it’s a human thing. I believe it just happens to be more egregious when it occurs in a church setting because, as Christ-followers, we are called to a higher standard.
Several years ago, my church addressed this issue in a teaching series on the book No Perfect People Allowed by John Burke. It was an eye-opening exercise that challenged us as a church to create a culture that reflects Jesus’ love for all people, even those who look, dress, and think differently than we do. Jesus associated with and (as we say in the South) “loved on” sinners and prostitutes. So how would His church react today if just as the Sunday service was getting underway, a hung-over prostitute came walking down the aisle looking for a place to sit? Would we, as the church, welcome that new visitor in love and grace? I hope so. Christ died for us while we were still sinners (Rom 5:8), He didn’t require us to get our act together first. Likewise, our churches should be safe places for people of all stripes to “come as they are” and find love and grace. As the old saying goes, “The church is not a hotel for saints, it is a hospital for sinners.”
The arrogant “us vs. them” attitude that turned off Rodgers is precisely what Jesus saw and condemned in the religious leaders of His day (Matthew 23:13-39). Christianity is not about building fences between the “enlightened” and the “heathen.” Rather it teaches that we all fall short of God’s standard of perfection (Romans 3:23), and yet, astoundingly, He invites us all into a relationship with Him anyway (1 Timothy 2:4). As a pastor at my church, Curtis Zachary, likes to say, “Sharing the gospel is just one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.”
Religious organizations that mislead and preach division are doing evil in God’s name, and I can understand how that could drive someone from their church. At the same time, those of us who have experienced this kind of treatment have a responsibility. If we end up walking away from our faith because religious people have let us down or acted wrongly, we need to pause and consider the possibility that our faith may not have been in God in the first place, but rather in people. At the end of the day, we aren’t called to follow Christians, we’re called to follow Christ.
Find Your Truth
Rodgers did not refer to himself as an atheist—saying instead that he found a “different type of spirituality”—but his comments seem to reflect the sentiments of a growing number of Americans. According to a Pew Research finding published in October, the percentage of “nones” (people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular”) in the U.S. has risen from 17% to 26% in the last ten years. And the percentage of Americans who identify as Christian has declined by 12% in that same time frame. America is fast trending toward a post-Christian nation.
In explaining the path he took, Rodgers said, “I had some good friendships along the way that helped me to figure out exactly what I wanted to believe in.” For some reason, that statement really jumped out at me. I don’t doubt this was his experience, but the word wanted surprised me a bit. Maybe because it’s so different from my own experience as a Christian. Or perhaps its because I’ve recently heard similar comments from friends and family members. I realize Rodgers was speaking off the cuff and I am probably reading more into that word than he intended, but it does reflect a larger cultural mindset that is growing in popularity, the idea that we should each find our own truth.
America is the land of plenty. (As a point of perspective, consider that our poorest citizens are among the world’s wealthy.) In a society as affluent as ours, it’s not surprising that a sort of spiritual apathy might set in. With all our basic needs met, we can start to wonder why we need God. We think, “Maybe I can live a good life and be a good person without all that extra hassle.” Before we know it, rather than asking ourselves what is true, we are asking ourselves what we want to believe in. Our human nature tends to gravitate toward beliefs that validate the life choices we prefer and which require the least discomfort or disruption for us. And one day, rather than being on a quest for the truth, we find ourselves on a quest for happiness. There is a big difference between the two.
Changing the question from “What is true?” to “What makes me happy?” seems harmless enough. After all, what’s wrong with being happy? What we don’t realize is that when we choose to embark on a quest for happiness, we are essentially placing our faith in our own fleeting emotions and ever-changing personal preferences. As psychologist Dr. Susan David says, “Emotions are not directions.” What makes us happy at 20 is not what will make us happy at 50. Which is why, ironically, what starts out as a quest for personal happiness, in the end, leads to disappointment and frustration.
A quest for truth, on the other hand, takes us down a different path. I know from personal experience that challenging your own deeply held beliefs can be scary and uncomfortable at the beginning. But if we dare to follow where it leads, in the end, we will find the truth, and with it, something far deeper and more abiding than personal happiness. I firmly believe that every sincere and courageous quest for truth ultimately leads to God. And whether we are 20 or 50, His unchanging love and grace are trustworthy anchors for our lives, providing us with steadfast peace, hope, and joy. As C.S. Lewis once noted:
“Aim at Heaven and you will get Earth thrown in. Aim at Earth and you will get neither.”-C. S. Lewis
One last note of interest: In talking about the “us versus them” mentality of organized religion, Rodgers commented on the exclusive attitude of believers who claim “only 144,000 of us” will ever get into Heaven. This comment makes me wonder if he was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. Theirs is the only sect of Christianity I know of that believes the myth about the number of people allowed into Heaven. (And, by the way, Dr. Frank Turek does a great job of setting the record straight on the issue. )