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Rallying Relevance

TIMES RELIGION WRITER

Why should anyone bother with God?

It is a question with which Christian apologists have wrestled through the ages, from St. Thomas Aquinas and his five ways for reasoning the truth of God’s existence, to the down-home sermons of country parsons.

Now Luis Palau, an evangelist who like the Rev. Billy Graham holds mass rallies around the world, is entering the fray with a book titled “God Is Relevant.”

It is no surprise that a Christian evangelist would publish a book to win converts. But in analyzing what he argues is the irrelevance of “cultural Christianity,” Palau and coauthor David Sanford--an associate in his organization--take on many of the intellectual giants of the Enlightenment, when skepticism and rationality transformed Western civilization.

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It was during the 17th and 18th centuries that Rene Descartes, Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel laid the groundwork--as Palau and Sanford see it--for outright cynicism and disbelief of more contemporary thinkers such as David Friedrich Strauss, Arthur Schopenhauer, Ernst Haeckel and Karl Marx.

“I sometimes think how different the world might have been if, in their youth, Descartes, Kant, Hegel and their followers had come alive to God through true conversion to Jesus Christ,” the authors wrote. “Change the life and thinking of less than a dozen men, and the history of the 20th century would have taken a much different, far better course.”

Palau, a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Argentina, argues that the church is a problem today even for those who want to believe: There is a mistaken impression--sometimes encouraged by churches--that if people attend services, receive Communion and sing a few hymns, everything will be right in God’s heaven.

“Many sensitive people are rejecting Christianity because they think that’s what they are rejecting, a mechanical, dead performance-oriented faith,” Palau said in a recent interview in Woodland Hills.

The result, in his view, is that “cultural Christians” are leaving the proverbial faith of their fathers behind to seek meaning elsewhere.

“Christians and Jews are going to Buddhist retreats or temples because they imagine there’s more depth there,” Palau said. “They imagine there’s more meditation and that meditation will take them deeper with God or the spiritual life.”

Although Buddhists and Hindus would undoubtedly disagree, Palau--ever the Christian evangelist--argues that the search may be sincere but is misguided and undiscerning. Although cultural Christianity may be irrelevant, he says, “Jesus Christ is not.”

“Americans are at the point now of ‘You’re OK, I’m OK, we’re all OK,’ ” said Palau.

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And so, he continued, the spiritually minded turn from formal creedal beliefs and established churches to a kind of cafeteria religiosity or syncretism in which they take a little from one faith and a little from another and fashion their own ideas about God.

“Many people say in America, ‘Don’t all religions eventually lead you in the same direction?’ ” he said. For Palau, the answer is a resounding no.

Quoting Drew University theology professor Thomas Oden, Palau and Sanford write: “To proclaim generously that anyone’s truth is as valid as anyone else’s truth is to deny the existence of truth altogether.”

In one sense, Palau is yet another religious leader engaged in the “culture wars.” He shares the alarm found among some who see their religious traditions challenged both by a secular culture that exhorts materialism and situational ethics, and by the emerging claims of other faiths in an increasingly pluralistic society.

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All this may sound familiar to Christians. In the 30 years of his ministry, Palau has said much the same at rallies, which his organization estimates have drawn 12.4 million people around the world.

But Palau said he hopes the book will encourage churches--both old-line denominations and evangelical congregations--to move beyond the “mechanics” of Sunday worship services and delve more deeply into the meaning of life sought by a generation of seekers. By commenting--however briefly--on the skepticism of the Enlightenment, Palau said he hopes the book will give non-Christians, particularly agnostics and atheists, a rational argument for reconsidering the relevance of God.


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