Culture and Spirituality

FAQ Guide

Today’s Christians are immersed in a world of rapidly changing social values and ultimate beliefs. Each day we face a sea of cultural confusion about human nature, social order, morality, and the meaning of life.

Many Christians fear their faith, or that of their children, will not survive.

But there’s no need to be afraid. God has provided us with the wisdom we need in engaging our culture as found in his Word. 

This guide is designed to bring you

  • Clarity to see in simple terms the basic and deceptive ideas that drive 21st century culture’s progressive values and beliefs
  • Confidence to see how and why the gospel of Jesus Christ, believed and professed by the church for 2000 years, is still the only truth that will transform people and give true life

    Questions

    Here are the questions we’ll cover:

    What does it mean to be spiritual today?

    Are there many paths to God?

    Do Christians, Jews, and Muslims worship the same God?

    What does it mean to be inclusive?

    What does it mean to be spiritual today?

    Not long ago being spiritual was equated with being religiously devout. In the generally Christianized West, it meant a personal sense of connection to God. This was usually demonstrated by religious observance, such as attending church, participation in worship, prayer, baptism, communion, etc.

    In this sense, the terms “spiritual” and “religious” were synonyms.

    However, research over the last 50 years has shown a steady decline in religious (specifically Christian) affiliation. In fact, the fastest growing religious segment in Western culture today are those who identify as “no religious affiliation”.

    Some see this development as the triumph of 20th century secularism. They believe that the secularization of the West will eventually produce a society of irreligious atheists.

    What this decline in affiliation has actually produced is a culture of individualism, where people feel free to leave the structure and authority of organized religion behind.

    Instead of a mass movement to atheism, in Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s words, “the Western march toward secularity…has been interwoven from the start with [a] drive toward personal religion.”[1]

    As Christian influence continues to wane in the West, the fastest growing segment of religious affiliation, especially among millennials and Gen Z, are those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR).

    With its heavy emphasis on individualism, it’s difficult to clearly define what SBNRs believe. But a growing body of research reveals some common characteristics. Here are four of the most predominant.

    1.   A rejection of Western Christianity

    SBNRs share a critique and rejection of Western Christianity, and especially institutionalized or authoritative church structure. Instances of corruption (for example, sex abuse scandals, televangelist scams, etc.) are the most easily associated reasons for rejecting formalized religion.

    But this is only a small part of the picture. Research shows that an even more crucial aspect relates to theology.

     “Two-thirds of former Catholics, and half of former Protestants ‘say they have left their childhood faith because they stopped believing in its teachings’”, notes Dr. Linda A. Mercadante from her research interviews with SBNRs.[2]

    The common teachings rejected by SBNRs form something of a “straw-man” caricature of Christianity, including but not limited to

    • claims of exclusive truth
    • a wrathful and/or interventionist God
    • a static and permanent afterlife in either heaven or hell
    • a view of humans as “born bad” (i.e. the sin nature)

    This helps show that spirituality today isn’t simply driven by a greater sense of individualism.

    It’s also based on a fundamental shift in ultimate beliefs.

    2.   A belief in and pursuit of transcendence

    SBNRs believe that the world is more than meets the eye. They believe there’s something beyond the mere material world. Galen Watts, a PhD candidate at Queens University who has extensively studied and interviewed millennial SBNRs states,

    Among the millennials I’ve interviewed, “spirituality” is generally contrasted with “materiality”. It therefore gestures towards that which we require to live, but which we cannot perceive or measure.[3]

    For SBNRs, this means that spirituality is something outside of the perceivable experiences of everyday life in this world. It’s something they don’t associate this with traditional religion (i.e. Christianity), with its apparent focus on authoritative doctrine and formal church participation.

    SBNRs are searching for something more “immanent”, more “core-to-the-self”, something which can be felt, entered into, and verified by inner personal experience.

    3.   Treating the self as sacred

    This search for transcendence through inner personal experience has produced what some scholars call a “self-spirituality”. Self-spirituality is based on the belief that people are essentially spiritual.

    Therefore, a true encounter with the inner, spiritual self is considered a true encounter with the divine. In essence, SBNRs believe that we share our being with God.

    As a result, self-spirituality means looking inside ourselves “in the hopes of gaining a certain kind of self-knowledge” since the “true self” is somehow united to the divine.

    4.   The quest for authenticity

    Associating the “true self” with the divine means that for SBNRs, authenticity is one of the highest goals of the spiritual quest. The “authentic self” provides spiritual guidance and can be trusted as a source for spiritual truth.

    This is often reflected in axioms like “follow your heart” or “be true to yourself.”

    As a result, SBNRs see any attempt by others to suppress or discourage such self-expression as a form of spiritual oppression.

    Conclusion on what it means to be spiritual

    It’s critically important that Christians don’t mistake our culture’s seeming openness to spirituality as an openness to Christ. The growing belief that people are spiritual by nature must always be checked against what the Bible reveals to be humanity’s true spiritual condition apart from Christ.

    The Bible teaches plainly that we are

    • sinful by nature (Romans 5:12),
    • spiritually dead in our sin (Ephesians 2:1),
    • under God’s wrath (Ephesians 2:3),
    • given over to a depraved mind (Romans 1:28ff),
    • darkened in our understanding and,
    • excluded from life with God (Ephesians 4:18).

    As a result, any spiritual path directing our gaze inward for the light of truth will only keep us in spiritual darkness.

    This is because the only light of truth about God and our spiritual condition before him is to be found in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus alone is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

    Read more: Why is Living by Faith so Difficult?

    Are there many paths to God?

    One of the least tolerated notions in our culture today is that any one religion or faith is in sole possession of the truth about God.

    As Oprah Winfrey once put it, “There are millions of ways to be a human being and many paths to what you call ‘God’…There couldn’t possibly be just one way.”

    According to a 2008 Pew Forum survey, 70% of those affiliated with a religious tradition, including 57% of evangelical Christians, said they believe “many religions can lead to eternal life”.[4]

    But can this even be possible?

    Multiple ways to God? Basic logic says “No”

    The law of noncontradiction denies the possibility that truth can contradict itself. Simply put, no proposition or statement of fact can be true and untrue at the same time and in the same sense or relationship.

    The Bible reflects this basic law of logic in many places. For example, 1 John 2:23 says, “Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also.”

    This simple either/or relationship is one of the most basic conditions for truth to exist. Something is either “true or false”, not “true and false”.

    Let’s go back now and measure the idea of “many paths to God” against the law of non-contradiction. If we take even the most basic religious belief, such as the idea of God itself, we’ll observe that there are some irreconcilable differences.

    Consider the following example beliefs:

    • Buddhism – No God to speak of
    • Hinduism – Everything is God (Brahman)
    • Islam – God (Allah) is “tawid”, which means that he’s absolutely separate in being and singular in identity
    • Christianity – God is Triune, which means that he’s singular in being (One God) but plural in identity (Three Persons)

    As you can see, there’s a fatal fallacy to the idea that all religions are true. So many of the most basic concepts among the world’s religions are not just different, but stand in absolute contradiction to one another.

    Multiple ways to God? The Bible clearly says “No”

    Of even greater importance for the Christian is to know that the Bible doesn’t make any allowance for the possibility of multiple ways to God. Both Old and New Testaments work together to absolutely deny the possibility.

    Old Testament: No other God

    If there’s one thing God made abundantly clear to the Jews in the Old Testament, it was that he and he alone was God.

    The “Shema Israel” was a daily prayer taught to every Jew from Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!”

    Israel was to live under the knowledge that the God of their fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the God who lead them out of Egyptian captivity—was the one, true God. There was none other than he.

    This reality is why the very first commandment given was “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3). There are many other passages affirming that there’s no other God besides Israel’s God.

    → Dig deeper: For further study, see Deuteronomy 4:35,39; 32:39; 2 Samuel 7:22; 1 Kings 8:60; 2 Kings 5:15; 2 Kings 19:15; 1 Chronicles 17:20; Nehemiah 9:6; Psalm 18:31; 86:10; Isaiah 37:16, 20; 43:6,8; 45:21; 46:9; Hosea 13:4; Joel 2:27; Zechariah 14:9.

    Turning to the New Testament, we find that Jesus’ Apostles and the earliest Christians viewed God in the same way.

    → Dig deeper: For further study, see John 17:3; Romans 3:30; 1 Corinthians 8:4-6; Galatians 3:20; Ephesians 4:6; 1 Timothy 1:17; 2:5; James 2:19.

    New Testament: No other way  

    Grounded in the firm foundation of the Old Testament truth that there’s only one God, the New Testament goes on to proclaim that this one God has made only one way for sinful humanity to come to him.

    This way is through the gracious sacrifice that he provided through his own Son, Jesus.

    → Dig deeper: See Mark 16:16; John 3:16, 36; 5:24; 8:24; 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 Corinthians 15:22; 1 Timothy 2:5; 1 John 5:10, 12.

    Conclusion on many paths to God

    In 1 Corinthians 1, the Apostle Paul reminds the Christians in his day how the gospel of Jesus seemed like “foolishness” to the religious sensibilities of the culture around them.

    Nothing has changed for Christians today.

    In a culture saturated with distorted messages about “inclusion” and “tolerance”, there’s (ironically) no tolerance for the gospel message of salvation in Christ alone.

    As Paul says, Jesus Christ is “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense” (Romans 9:33, see also Isaiah 8:14; 28:16).

    The temptation may be strong to remove this offense and present Jesus as simply one way to God among many.

    Jesus’ own words do not leave room for this as a possibility. As he clearly declares, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

    Jesus leaves you with only one choice.

    His claim to be the only saviour of mankind is either true or false, but not both / and.

    To go even deeper into this question, find out why there are only two religions.

    Do Christians, Jews, and Muslims worship the same God?

    Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are often called the three “Abrahamic” religions, because each traces its faith tradition to the Old Testament patriarch, Abraham (see Genesis 12 and following).

    This common connection to Abraham leads many to conclude that, despite their obvious differences and possible errors, all three religions worship the same God.

    Whether or not this is true can seem difficult to determine due to the similarities and differences between the three religions. We’ll evaluate both to determine a clear answer.

    The similarities of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam

    The three Abrahamic religions share a unique monotheism, which is the belief that there is only one God and that he alone is to be worshipped.

    They also ascribe many of the same attributes to this God, such as

    • God is the Creator
    • God rules over his creation
    • God reveals his will through prophets and scripture
    • God loves his people
    • God judges and punishes the wicked
    • God forgives the penitent

    There are other similarities extending from belief in God, such as calling followers to obey God’s divine law.

    They also share an eschatological (end-time) view of history. This view includes

    • seeing God’s active hand in directing world events,
    • history’s culmination in a final judgement,
    • the resurrection of the righteous and condemnation of the wicked,
    • and a new or renewed world to come where the righteous will spend eternity.

    Similarities like these are why many consider Christianity, Judaism, and Islam to be superficially different, but fundamentally the same in terms of their devotion to and worship of the same God.

    But now we must look at the differences to determine whether or not this can in fact be true.

    The differences between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam

    Before we get started, see if you can name this U.S. president based on the following description:

    • He was the second child to his parents
    • He was related to a U.S. Senator, Attorney General, ambassador to Great Britain, and the mayor of Boston.
    • He had previously been a boat captain.
    • In his thirties, he married a prominent 24-year-old woman who spoke French fluently.
    • He had a friend named Billy Graham.
    • He was assassinated while in office by a gunshot to the head while his wife sat beside him.
    • He was succeeded by his vice president whose last name was Johnson.
    • His last name contains seven letters.

    If you said John F. Kennedy, you’re absolutely right. But if you said Abraham Lincoln, you’d also be right.

    These two men, whose presidencies were 100 years apart, shared an unbelievable number of similarities. But while all these and many other descriptors may apply to both men, it’s obvious that Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy were not the same person.

    This odd fact of history serves to illustrate a very important point.

    Although the above characteristics of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam to describe God share some remarkable similarities, the similarities themselves don’t mean that they’re referring to the same God. No matter how similar the descriptions, they’re of little importance, unless we can clearly identify who it is we’re talking about.

    Who is God?

    If you ask a Muslim, “Who is God?”, they’ll most likely recite from the Quran, Surah (chapter) 112, which says, “Say, ‘He is God (Allah) the One, God the eternal. He begot no one nor was He begotten. No one is comparable to Him.’”

    For the Muslim, this confirmation of God’s “oneness” (tahwid) is the most important attribute of God.

    Right away, this statement presents a fatal incompatibility between the identity of God for Muslims and Christians. The denial that God could “beget” or be “begotten” is direct refutation to the Christian belief in Jesus Christ as the incarnate Son of God. Hebrews 1:1-3 says,

    In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.

    Jesus is God. As Jesus said, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

    The Apostle John confirmed this statement as core to the Christian gospel when he said, “No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also” (1 John 2:23).

    This fundamental difference eliminates all of the superficial similarities listed earlier.

    How do Islam and Judaism respond to the idea of a Son of God?

    In Islam, the Quran explicitly condemns to hell anyone who would affirm Jesus as the Son of God (Surah 5:72).

    Judaism similarly doesn’t recognize Jesus as the Son of God. Though Christians and Jews share the same Old Testament, it’s a fact of history attested to this very day that Jews reject Jesus Christ as God’s Messiah.

    The Jews were indeed God’s people in the Old Testament, but the earlier passage in Hebrews 1 confirms, along with the entire New Testament, that in rejecting Jesus, the Jews were in fact rejecting the very God they claimed to worship (see Romans 10).

    Conclusion to Christians, Jews, and Muslims worshipping the same God

    In summary, this analysis demonstrates that it’s false to say that Christians, Jews, and Muslims worship the same God.

    While Christianity, Judaism, and Islam may share many superficial similarities in their general descriptors about God, they’re fundamentally opposed to each other when it comes to identifying who God is.

    As in the earlier example of two famous presidents, while there are many shared similarities, when Christians, Jews, and Muslims refer to “God”, they aren’t referring to the same person.

    What does it mean to be inclusive?

    When we say “inclusive”, what we most often mean is “welcoming”. It signals whether or not we make others feel accepted and valued.

    Making others feel welcome is certainly something Christians should seek since Jesus taught us to welcome even the “least” in his name as evidence that Jesus, too, is welcome among us (Matthew 18:5).

    But that isn’t what inclusive actually means.

    In its most basic form, “inclusive” comes from the word “include,” which means “to make part of a whole or set”. It’s a simple enough idea when dealing with things like shapes or numbers, but becomes more complex when dealing with people.

    That’s because sometimes people really are included in a group, and other times they aren’t. The best we can do in these cases is to help them feel like they’re included, when in fact they’re not. We encounter this all the time.

    For example, my best friend growing up was from a large family who lived on a farm. They were extremely gracious, loving, and hospitable people. Whenever I was in their home sharing a meal, watching movies, helping with chores, or sleeping over, I was treated and felt like I was part of the family.

    But I wasn’t actually, because their family was defined by relational boundaries that necessarily excluded me. “Necessarily,” because without those boundaries there would have been no family to feel a part of in the first place.

    And this is the tension between the real meaning of “inclusion” and the meaning our culture has given to it.

    Our culture’s desire to make all people feel welcome is a worthy goal. But accomplishing this inclusion by insisting on the removal of boundaries excludes someone from belonging to a group, and essentially eliminates the group they wanted inclusion in in the first place.

    As Kevin DeYoung points out, the irony is that inclusion can’t exist without exclusion since “every group that can be meaningfully joined together stands against some other group.”[5]

    Conclusion on what it means to be inclusive

    When it comes to the message of salvation in Jesus, we must resist the temptation to promote inclusion in Christ according to cultural sensibilities.

    Jesus doesn’t include people by denying the legitimacy of any boundaries that would exclude them.

    That’s because there’s one boundary that excludes all of us from God, and that’s his holy righteousness. Since every person is a sinner, every person falls short and is outside of this boundary (see Romans 3:23), and is therefore by nature excluded from God’s Kingdom.

    In order to include people, Jesus doesn’t remove the boundaries of God’s holiness.

    Instead he removes the guilt of our sin, and remakes us with a new spiritual nature made in his image.

    We can find inclusion with Christ, not because we’re acceptable to God, but because by his sacrifice on the cross Jesus re-makes us to be acceptable.

    Inclusion is not ours by right. It’s the gift of God by grace.

    Keep reading: Learn more about today’s inclusion confusion.

    Conclusion on Culture and Spirituality

    In this guide, we’ve sought to help you begin to see through the confusing maze of spiritual messages in our culture.

    Modern day spirituality is characterized by a shift toward personalized religion. The majority of people who consider themselves to be spiritual view God as something that exists inside of them.

    Today’s “spiritual” person searches for spiritual truth by looking within themselves. How different this is from the biblical view of God.

    He says, “Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool” (Isaiah 66:1) and “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9).

    Unlike those who don’t know God and look within themselves, we’re called to look beyond ourselves to God, our source of true spiritual fulfillment. As we do, the power and mindset we need to live as Jesus did in the midst of our culture is available to us in relationship with Him.

    Find related resources below to help you get clarity and grow in confidence in the spiritual confusion of our culture.

    Footnotes

    [1] Charles Taylor, Varieties of Religion Today, Harvard University Press, 2003, p. 13.

    [2] Linda A. Mercadante, Belief Without Boarders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious, (Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 229.

    [3] Galen Watts, “What Does It Mean To Be Spiritual?”, www.theconversation.com, November 16, 2017, [Accessed online January 24, 2020].

    [4] Pew Research Center: Religion and Public Life, “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey: Religious Beliefs and Practices”, [Accessed online at pewforum.org, on Nov. 20, 2019].

    [5] Kevin DeYoung, “All Aboard the Jargon Express!”, www.thegospelcoalition.org, March 9, 2009, [Accessed online, Jan 24, 2020].

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