I Still Don’t Know What Christianity Is For
… on Matthew Sitman’s account, I mean. Here is the latest from his side in our friendly exchange over the Benedict Option. I appreciate Matthew’s tone, and the way he has made it possible for us to differ over these things civilly and respectfully. More of this, everybody! In my last installment, I told Matthew that it was not at all clear to me from his point of view what Christianity is for — that is, what it means to accomplish.
In his response, he says that he simply doesn’t feel the hostility to modernity, or the alienation from it, that many traditional Christians do. The world is always getting better, he says, and always getting worse. He says that even though he differs strongly from traditional Christians on the moral character of gay relationships, even traditionalists like me would agree that it’s a good thing that gay people aren’t treated harshly anymore, that those abuses are rapidly becoming things of the past. He’s right about that. We can agree that modernity is not uniformly bad, and that even out of decline (e.g., the move away from the Christian standard of sexual morality; I see it as decline), good things can come about, like a more humane standard for treating gays.
Here’s where Matthew loses me:
The word that I used to describe my approach to these matters is hopeful, and Rod wonders at my use of that term, at least with regard to Christianity’s place in the modern world. I’ve gone on at length – perhaps too long – explaining how I think about modern life because I believe it goes some way toward suggesting an answer. Living hopefully, in light of this, amounts to patiently, humbly sifting through the complexity I described. It means trying to see the truths revealed by modern life as well as working to restrain it’s excesses and problems. And I’m not sure Christians can best do this by withdrawing from the mainstream, rather than critically engaging it.
When we do engage the modern world, joyfully and without rancor or fear, I still believe Jesus’ message of grace and mercy will resonate. To see the good in modern life is not to deny the need for real, costly love in the world, a love that reaches out to the poor and the lonely and the marginalized, a love that looks with compassion on all who suffer and struggle. What is Christianity for? To teach us how to do that, which sounds awfully pious, I know.
That sounds great, and I can’t disagree with it. But when it gets down to the nitty-gritty, what does it all mean? What are the standards we use to “sift through the complexity”? How are we to discern between the “truths” revealed by modernity, and its “problems and excesses”? When we “reach out” to “the poor and the lonely and the marginalized,” what do we have to say to them? What do we have to say to them that’s any different from what a compassionate nonbeliever would say to them?
These are not ancillary questions; they are at the heart of the disagreement. If Christianity teaches us to love, well, what do we mean by love? Caritas — charity — is a love in which we connect love of others to our love of God. Who is God, and what does He want from us? Does the Bible tell us so? How can we tell?
If we don’t have answers to those questions, our Christianity is going to dissolve over time, because there is no real core. It’s well-meaning, but awfully vague, and therefore easily assimilated into the broader culture. I don’t at all doubt Matthew’s goodwill and sincerity, but I don’t see what makes Christianity in his view any different from secular idealism.
Let me use a different example, one that affects conservative US Christians. I heard this from a conservative Evangelical friend of mine yesterday. He is a moral, theological, and political conservative preparing for seminary studies. He agrees fully with me and with traditional Christianity on the matter of sex and sexuality. But he predicted that Evangelical Christianity is going to face a terrible crisis before much longer over the question of wealth. He said that many Evangelical congregations more or less endorse Christian orthodoxy on matters of sexual morality, but live as if the Bible’s clear, stern warnings on the corrupting power of wealth don’t exist. It’s a huge blind spot, he said, and not just among the prosperity gospellers (he said Osteen is terrible, but the black church is even worse). It’s true in mainstream suburban Evangelical churches, whose witness to the Gospel’s teachings on wealth is bad to non-existent.
I don’t know about this from personal observation; I’m only repeating what my friend, a very serious and thoughtful conservative Evangelical, is saying. (He very much admires Pope Francis on this point, by the way.)
If conservatives decide that modernity has demonstrated to us that what Jesus and St. Paul had to say about wealth doesn’t really apply to us (after all, how could first-century Palestinian Jews have known about capitalism?), they they have to jettison so much of the authority of Scripture and tradition that they hollow out the entire thing. Similarly with progressive Christians and their understanding of Christian sexual morality. If your Christian faith doesn’t put you in conflict with the world at some point, and force you to choose between the values of this world and the values of Christianity, what kind of faith do you have, anyway? It’s a question every Christian must ask of himself all the time, because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But if we don’t have any objective standards by which to judge where and how we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, standards to which we must be accountable, and which stand in judgment of ourselves, pretty soon we devolve into what the Protestant theologian H. Richard Niebuhr described as:
A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.
That formulation appeared in Niebuhr’s 1937 classic, The Kingdom Of God In America, tracing the history of Protestantism in this country. American Protestantism was at that time at the apogee of its cultural power, but Niebuhr feared that it had become too sedate and accommodating of the broader culture, and was fast losing its prophetic qualities. Now, of course, Mainline Protestantism has largely collapsed, in large part because it became hard to distinguish it from the culture. To the extent that Evangelicalism, Catholicism, or any other form of Christianity surrenders to the culture, it too will collapse. As my Evangelical friend indicates, surrendering to the culture does not simply mean accepting the Zeitgeist’s judgment on sex and sexuality. If the younger generations look to the churches — liberal and conservative both — and see nothing much different from what they see elsewhere, they will rightly wonder, “Why bother?” Wouldn’t you? If being a Christian means nothing more than being a respectable conformist — conforming to a suburban conservative culture, to a liberal urban culture, or anything else — then why be a Christian at all? To comfort ourselves psychologically? Is that all there is?