The Problem of Contempt in Christianity
American Christianity today is largely schismatic and divided. Rod Dreher pinpointed this problem in a recent article, “The Problem of Truth and Triumphalism“: he writes that Christians are fragmented, and often sneering, about their denominational differences and preferences. This division and disdain builds resentment and anger amongst Christians. Rather than experiencing unity, they foster anger and derision. Dreher references an article by Alan Jacobs, in which Jacobs critiques Jody Bottum’s book on post-Protestant America:
As I commented earlier today on Twitter, in the last twenty years I’ve seen theologically-serious Protestants become more and more respectful of and interested in Catholicism — but I have simultaneously seen many serious Catholics withdraw completely into a purely Catholic world, with little interest in other Christian traditions except to critique them…
Dreher says he has experienced this as well: “I remember a professor telling me years ago at a conference that he might have left Protestantism for Catholicism, except for the fact that his Catholic convert friends were so intellectually haughty in their newfound Catholicism that they kept him away from the Roman church,” he writes. “What that man experienced is a constant temptation for intellectual converts to Catholicism.”
But I would argue that this is a temptation for any intellectually serious Christian: the more we pour ourselves into Christian study and thought, the more likely we are to become profoundly convicted and impassioned by a specific vein of study or a denominational tradition. And whether you’re Baptist or Orthodox, you will be a dogged supporter of your church.
This passion, by itself, is good. Love and devotion to the church is part of what creates a healthy and functioning “body,” so to speak—a congregation that works for the good of the whole, and believe in the mission of the whole. But as Rod points out, “the way in which we are faithful to the truth, as we understand it, is almost as important as the truth itself.” He sees a greatest danger in Christian intellectual thought in what he calls “triumphalism”: it’s an attitude of superiority that “blinds us to the faults within ourselves and our tradition. It also blinds us to what is good within other traditions, misguided though they might ultimately be … [it will] likely blind the Other to the truth within our tradition, and may well, in the end, keep the Other from embracing the truth as we know it.”
This reminded me of another article on kindness and the “other,” written by Emily Esfahani Smith for The Atlantic last week. She writes that the greatest destroyer of marriages is contempt, whereas the greatest builder of marriage is kindness:
Contempt, [researchers] have found, is the number one factor that tears couples apart. People who are focused on criticizing their partners miss a whopping 50 percent of positive things their partners are doing and they see negativity when it’s not there. People who give their partner the cold shoulder—deliberately ignoring the partner or responding minimally—damage the relationship by making their partner feel worthless and invisible, as if they’re not there, not valued.
In contrast, she writes, “If you want to have a stable, healthy relationship, exercise kindness early and often.” Smith lists several ways to be more consciously kind, but one of the primary ways it to be “generous about your partner’s intentions … The ability to interpret your partner’s actions and intentions charitably can soften the sharp edge of conflict.”
This simple advice should be applied to more than just a marital relationship. What if we treated church, and Christianity as a whole, in this way? Instead of responding to denominational and traditional differences with contempt, what if we tried to assume the best of the other, looked for shared truths, united on core doctrine, and spoke with combined honesty and generosity about the things we see as misguided or wrong? What if we spent more time in shared service, “showing interest and support” for those actions we see as laudable and important, rather than merely looking for things to critique in the denominational “others” around us?
Of course, this doesn’t mean neglecting the things we see wrong in our church or in other denominations. But we shouldn’t forget that every church is made up of weak, fallible, and limited human people. David Brooks wrote a column on Monday, reminding us that humans are imperfect—and therefore, their interactions will be, too: “We are, to varying degrees, foolish, weak, and often just plain inexplicable — and always will be. … Marriage is ironic because you are trying to build a pure relationship out of people who are ramshackle and messy. ” The church is quite similar. We need to see this irony, and understand our own weaknesses, even as we grow in love and truth.
According to New Testament teaching, the Christian church is a bride, a body—one cohesive unit. Sadly, we rarely act with this sort of cohesion. Is it impossible for us to ever achieve this sort of unity? We know it is possible, and will in fact happen, someday. Our goal, today and for the rest of our lives, should be to build loving, lasting relationships with the people we will spend eternity with: our fellow members of the catholic (universal) Christian church.