Christianity Needs Precipice Thinkers
Steven McAlpine, a Christian pastor in Australia, has some very sobering thoughts on religious liberty in light of the recent passage of same-sex marriage rights in his country. Excerpts:
For all the talk of slippery slope arguments, when it came to it the same sex marriage decision in Australia was not a slippery slope. It was a precipice after all.
And in such times we need precipitous thinkers. We need leaders in our church who are not content to wait for the cultural changes to come our way, dodging and weaving until the last minute, but who lean into the changes and prepare their people with the ropes and tackle a precipice requires.
Why precipice thinkers?
Because the recent vote was precipitous. It was ironically, a binary decision. It was a decision – no matter what was claimed before – that this vote would now determine everything about the direction of sexuality in our culture, not just who could marry who.
And it was precipitous too because it laid claim to determining the kind of Australia we are going to be publicly; and what is transgressive to bring into the public square and what is not.
McAlpine observes that as soon as the referendum passed, suddenly there was all kinds of talk in the Australian media about how gay teachers are suffering in Christian schools, and how state funding should not go to bigot academies, and the like. It’s all too predictable. The Law of Merited Impossibility (“It will never happen, and when it does, you bigots will deserve it”) is as solid as the Second Law of Thermodynamics. McAlpine says that in a way, this is a blessing, because it reveals without a shadow of a doubt where the faithful Christian churches stand in relation to the post-Christian culture:
That era [the one that just passed] was all about slowing down the slide down the slippery slope, getting the right pair of trial runner shoes in case we turn an ankle on the way down. And showing that, despite the fact we believe in some crazy stuff like resurrections and sex within marriage and all, we’re just like the rest of you at heart. We all seek the common goal of human flourishing after all, don’t we?
Actually we don’t. And the Yes vote showed up that sort of “we’re just like you” approach as hopelessly outdated. In fact it’s primary conclusion was that the biblical idea of human flourishing is not only not good, nor even a quirky but neutral position, but is bad.
The Yes vote pretty much ensured no Christian apologist will ever get a hearing about sexual ethics again on the ABC or in the public square – not in the sense of having something sensible to say, at least.
Besides, as Charles Taylor states, only in late modernity has human flourishing been the goal, not the means to a greater goal such as the glory of God. The future of Christian apologetics must be angular, gristly and repellently attractive in its insistence that we have our humanity in common, but not our destiny.
And that’s kind of refreshing too. The precipice gives us a sense of urgency and vigour that the slippery slope does not. It stops us becoming a whiney self-indulgent bunch worried about what we have lost.
What does this mean for the church going forward? More:
The precipice means that our primary task is to look the next generation in our church in the eyes and tell them that we will help equip and support them to stand firm in the face of a sexualised culture that refutes the gospel sexual ethic. To encourage them that we have their backs as they start their careers and raise their families.
I make no apologies for saying this: but the primary role of the church is not to be a place that tries to attract non-Christians to attend. The primary role of the church is to equip the church to live in the light of the gospel in a dark world.
Someone recently lamented that it’s no wonder we can’t get non-Christians to go to our churches because we won’t change our thinking on this sexuality matter.
Sorry, but our aim is not to get non-Christians to go to church. Our aim is to equip the church to go out into the world and lean into it, in all sorts of brave and noble ways for Jesus. I am confident enough that if we make that our aim then the byproduct will be that some non-Christians will come to church.
But they won’t be coming to be affirmed, they’ll be coming because no matter how much affirmation they’re getting out there, they don’t have the joy and peace and self-confidence of the young Christian woman who works at the desk next to them.
We welcome everyone and affirm no-one.
We welcome everyone and affirm no-one. What a line! A wordier way to put that is: “This is a hospital for sinners, and we are glad to see you. We’re all sick here, in our ways, and we are helping each other to find healing through Jesus Christ. If you expect us to say that your sickness — your lust, your greed, your gluttony, all of it — is actually health, we regret to inform you that you’re in the wrong place.”
Me, I go to church to worship and to receive communion. I also go to church to be confronted by my sins, both in the confessional and in the homily, and to repent, and to be forgiven. I do not want to be affirmed in my okayness. I want to be done with my vices, to be transformed, and to live. One more piece from McAlpine:
The problem, of course, is you can’t fatten the pig on the way to the market. If you haven’t spiritual, psychologically and emotionally prepared your people for precipice life by now, then it’s probably too late. If all you have to offer them is a dualist escapism in Sunday worship that is all sugar and no gristle, then you’ve doing them a great disservice. Quit now.
How then do we equip our people for life over the precipice?
His comments reminded me of something I read over the weekend in the Orthodox priest Father Alexander Schmemann’s great 1963 book, For The Life Of The World (you can get it on Kindle for only $2.99 — the best three bucks you’ll ever spend). The book is over 50 years old, but it feels as fresh as this morning’s newspaper. In it, Fr. Schmemann writes that Christianity surrenders to secularism when it accepts that the purpose of religion is to promote “the secular value of help, be it help in character building, peace of mind, or assurance of eternal salvation.”
He writes that it is amazing how widely accepted that therapeutic view of Christianity is across many confessions, even those whose dogmas are opposed to each other. And notice this, which Fr. Schmemann wrote decades before Christian Smith and his team defined the hollowing-out of American Christianity as “moralistic therapeutic deism”:
But if this is religion, its decline will continue, whether it takes the form of a direct abandonment of religion or that of the understanding of religion as an appendix to a world which has long ago ceased to refer itself and all its activity to God. And in this general religious decline, the non-Christian “great religions” have an even greater chance of survival. For it may be asked whether certain non-Christian “spiritual traditions” are not really of “greater help” from the standpoint of what men today expect from religion. Islam and Buddhism offer excellent religious “satisfaction” and “help” not only to primitive men, but to the most sophisticated intellectual as well. … It is a very serious question, indeed, whether under its seemingly traditional cover certain forms of contemporary Christian mission do not in reality pave the way for a “world religion” that will have very little in common with the faith that once overcame the world.
Fr. Schmemann says that Christianity is essentially for the world “the revelation of its [the world’s] meaning, the restoration of its essence, the fulfillment of its destiny.” There’s a lot more to this, and he draws it out beautifully in his slim masterpiece, which is about worship and sacramental theology. If what Pastor McAlpine resonates with you, by all means read Father Schmemann’s classic.