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Christianity’s American Problem

The true American deity -- the Self -- prefers Vanity Fair to the Bible

Did you see that David Neff, until 2012 the executive editor of Christianity Today, has done the Full Gushee, following Tony Campolo’s recent announcement and coming out for “full inclusion” of same-sex couples in the church? David is an old friend, though we haven’t been in touch for years. I like and respect him very much, but of course I think he’s wrong here — and so do the editors at his old magazine, who wrote an editorial restating their commitment to the Biblically sound position. From Mark Galli’s editorial on the magazine’s behalf:

But we were surprised when former CT editor David Neff on Facebook praised Campolo’s move. As he put it in an email to me clarifying his comment, “I think the ethically responsible thing for gay and lesbian Christians to do is to form lasting, covenanted partnerships. I also believe that the church should help them in those partnerships in the same way the church should fortify traditional marriages.”

At CT, we’re saddened that David has come to this conclusion. Saddened because we firmly believe that the Bible teaches that God intends the most intimate of covenant relationships to be enjoyed exclusively by a man and a woman. We’ve stated this view explicitly in many editorials, and it is implicit but clear in many of our feature stories.

Still, many of our readers become alarmed when a prominent evangelical leader says otherwise. Add the changes of mind to the legal juggernaut sweeping through the land to legitimize gay marriage, and the orthodox can become demoralized. They fear that history will sweep all of us into this view eventually.

But it’s not at all certain that the rapid cultural shift in America on gay marriage will be mirrored in the Christian church. North American and European Christians who believe in gay marriage are a small minority in these regions, and churches that ascribe to a more liberal sexual ethic continue to wither. Meanwhile, poll Christians in Africa, Asia, and practically anywhere in the world, and you’ll hear a resounding “no” to gay marriage. Scan the history of the church for 2,000 years and you’ll have a hard time turning up any Christian who would support same-sex marriage. The church has been and remains overwhelmingly united. It’s undergoing stress, certainly. But the evidence doesn’t support a narrative of division and collapse on this point.

Read the whole thing. It’s good to keep a global perspective on all this. But we American Christians live in America, and are going to have to figure out how to live with the American situation.

I’ve heard from a couple of Evangelicals in the past two days that now is the time to push for an amendment to the US Constitution protecting traditional marriage. It absolutely blows my mind that there are conservative Christians living in that sort of bubble in 2015. Several versions of the Federal Marriage Amendment failed badly in Congress over the period 2002-2006, when the Republicans controlled both houses, and the White House — and when a majority of American voters backed the amendment. You have to be out of your mind to think you could win today what you couldn’t get a decade ago.

Scott Walker and Ted Cruz want an amendment allowing states to ban SSM.  Well, so would I, but in the extremely unlikely event such a thing were to come about, it would at best be a temporary roadblock. In Louisiana, one of the reddest states in the nation, a bare majority of overall voters oppose SSM, and a clear majority of voters aged 18 to 29 support it. This front of the culture war is over. Traditional/conservative/orthodox Christians have lost, and lost decisively. The battle is no longer in the public square; it is within our churches.

Writing in The Economist, Will Wilkinson astutely diagnoses the reason why sexual counterrevolutionaries, even within churches, are fighting a losing battle. Excerpt:

Ms Jenner, it bears mentioning, is also a committed Christian. In the Washington PostJosh Cobia relates what Ms Jenner, then known as Bruce, taught him about Jesus, and life, at a nondenominational evangelical church they both attended. “Jesus wasn’t one to turn away from those the world had labeled broken,” Mr Cobia concluded. “He was the one who would walk toward them with open arms”.

The tolerant Jesus of Mr Cobia and Ms Jenner may not be the Jesus of Thomas Aquinas or Martin Luther or John Knox or John Wesley. He is a Jesus perhaps more thoroughly invested in the “autonomous eroticised individualism” of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman than a first-century re-interpretation of the Judaic law. But that is the American and still-Americanising Jesus of many millions of American believers who, like Caitlyn Jenner, attend nondenominational evangelical churches, and who, like Caitlyn Jenner, vote Republican.

This is why going after Ms Jenner is ultimately a loser for Republicans presidential wannabes. Caitlyn Jenner of Malibu is a leading indicator not of the secularisation of America, but of the ongoing Americanisation of Christianity. There’s no point dying in the last ditch to defend Old World dogma against the transformative advance of America’s native faith if it may leave you out of step with a growing number of voters who find divinity by spelunking the self.

That’s good writing, that last paragraph. In the current age, not only has Christianity lost its hold on America, but America, rather, is conquering Christianity. You’ve heard it from me a hundred times, so you might as well hear it a hundred and one: this is why we need to pioneer the Benedict Option, new forms of living out the old faith, in community, that make it, and us, resilient in the face of this cultural revolution. That’s how radical the challenge is.

More Will Wilkinson:

Well, the game isn’t over, but the outcome is not in doubt. The social forces that brought us to the Caitlyn Jenner moment are irreversibly ascendant. The gulf between the anguished vehemence of religious conservatives and the timidity of their brightest political lights is a telling sign of the times.

This is not to say that conservatives are being bullied by cultural liberals or are ashamed of their deepest beliefs, as Mr French seems to think. Rather, the silence may reflect a dawning realisation that “our deepest beliefs” are not quite what we thought they were.

I would modify “irreversibly” by “in our lifetime, at least,” but yes, he’s right. On the other hand, some cultural liberals really are bullying conservatives, but don’t let that distract from Wilkinson’s point about “our deepest beliefs.” As Wilkinson avers, “our deepest belief” has been a Christianized form of what he calls “Americanism,” defined as “a frontier creed of freedom, of the inviolability of individual conscience and salvation as self-realisation.” In this sense, the Vanity Fair cover image of Caitlyn Jenner is a true icon of Americanist Christianity, which is to say, of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. 

And it is an icon of the ancient but persistent heresy of Gnosticism. Father Robert Barron writes:

As I hinted above, the gnostic heresy has proven remarkably durable, reasserting itself across the centuries. Its most distinctive mark is precisely the denigration of matter and the tendency to set the spirit and the body in an antagonistic relationship. This is why many thinkers have identified the anthropology of René Descartes, which has radically influenced modern and contemporary attitudes, as neo-gnostic. Descartes famously drove a wedge between spirit and matter, or in his language, between the res cogitans (thinking thing) and the res extensa (thing extended in space). In line with gnostic intuitions, Descartes felt that the former belongs to a higher and more privileged dimension and that the latter is legitimately the object of manipulation and re-organization. Hence he says that the purpose of philosophy and science is to “master” nature, rather than to contemplate it. One would have to be blind not to notice how massively impactful that observation has proven to be. Echoes of Descartes’s dualism can be heard in the writings of Kant, Hegel, and many of the master philosophers of modernity, and they can be discerned, as well, in the speech and attitudes of millions of ordinary people today.

All of which brings me back to Bruce Jenner … . In justifying the transformation that he has undergone, Jenner consistently says something along these lines: “Deep down, I always knew that I was a woman, but I felt trapped in the body of a man. Therefore, I have the right to change my body to bring it in line with my true identity.” Notice how the mind or the will — the inner self — is casually identified as the “real me” whereas the body is presented as an antagonist which can and should be manipulated by the authentic self. The soul and the body are in a master/slave relationship, the former legitimately dominating and re-making the latter. This schema is, to a tee, gnostic — and just as repugnant to Biblical religion as it was 1,900 years ago.

For Biblical people, the body can never be construed as a prison for the soul, nor as an object for the soul’s manipulation. Moreover, the mind or will is not the “true self” standing over and against the body; rather, the body, with its distinctive form, intelligibility, and finality, is an essential constituent of the true self. Until we realize that the lionization of Caitlyn Jenner amounts to an embracing of Gnosticism, we haven’t grasped the nettle of the issue.

Right, and incredibly important to say. But how do you suppose that stacks up against the Americanist competition:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eWCZIZwiCkY?rel=0]

Business as usual is over, church people. There will be no “taking our country back”; you will be lucky if our country’s fast-emerging culture doesn’t take our faith away from our kids. Don’t you doubt it. If you have been the sort of Christian who equated Christianity with the American way of life, you had better rethink that, and fast.

UPDATE: A reader writes:

Did you note that CT immediately needed to turn to a large view of Christianity — with the JPII ref, in particular — in order to back its point, rather than merely pointing to the Bible?

Campolo says that he still believes in biblical inerrancy. How do other Evangelicals argue with that? At some point your Benedict Option will collide with the essential mechanism of Protestantism — me and my Bible. I mean, Bill Clinton really believes in sola scriptura….



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