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What Is Christianity For?

A discussion with sociologist Jeff Guhin on religion and cultural change

A terrific post by sociologist Jeff Guhin, a thoughtful left-wing critic of The Benedict Option, talking about declining Christianity, social norms, and sexuality.  He begins by talking about MacIntyre and liberalism, noting that the philosopher went from Marxism to Catholicism without having had an intervening liberal stage (N.B., he means “liberal” in the historic sense of the term, in which most people who live in a liberal democracy are liberals):

Nowadays we’re a society a bit more aware of the difference between left and liberal, but there are still way too many people who just sort of figure freedom happens.  A certain kind of liberal thinks that people basically just grow up free you don’t have to worry too much about it, and the really important thing is just not to let other folks tell you what to do (or to tell others what to do).  Marxists-and in a different way, Catholics–recognize this as bullshit. We’re free in particular kinds of ways because of how we are raised (and, you know, our economic conditions, but this where the two groups might vary a bit).  And so when society changes, it can change us in ways that we can’t really be protected from, despite our earnest love of freedom, etc.

That’s very well and pungently said. Everything in a given society and culture is part of a grand liturgy, a narrative enacted, that forms us. More Guhin:

Now that’s a pretty harsh take on liberalism, which, you know, exists in no small part because the era before liberalism had lots of Europeans with very strong beliefs killing each other. Liberalism–and with it, democracy–trades the promise of utopia for the promise of not having your head cut off by utopians who disagree with you.

But what are we so afraid of? What’s the problem from which we need protection?  Dreher pulls from a lot of work by the sociologist Christian Smith to describe how contemporary young Christians basically have no idea what they’re talking about: members of a religion don’t know some of their own basic theological tenets, setting up what Smith calls a “moralistic therapeutic deism”: be nice and be happy is, apparently, all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.

That’s right enough, I suppose, even if it’s a very Evangelical Protestant way of thinking about religion, emphasizing right belief (orthodoxy) over right action (orthopraxy).  One of the weird things about the history of the category of “religion” is that it was developed by Protestants who are, on both global and historical scales, the weirdest form of religion.  Most things we’ve come to call religions care a lot more about what you do (praxis) than what you believe (doxa): so it’s actually not super surprising a lot of religious people have no idea what the hell they’re talking about.  Of course, Smith et al would say this is a problem not just for non-Protestants, but for Protestants too: the intricacies of belief don’t seem to matter even for the ostensibly orthodox.

Well, let me push back on this. I am part of the Orthodox Church, whose name means “right belief.” Theological orthodoxy is a very big deal to us. But that does not mean orthopraxy is diminished, not at all. The connection is this: if we do not know what to believe, then we will not know what to do. 

The relationship goes both ways. Practices can be catechetical. I wonder if a distinction Prof. Guhin is missing is that Christianity is supposed to bring about gradual inner change in a person’s life. All of mortal life is a time of pilgrimage, in which, if we are faithful, we are moving ever closer to the ideal of Jesus Christ, conforming our life to his. It’s not a question of earning salvation, not at all; it’s a question of inner transformation, of dying to self so that we may live in Christ. Orthodoxy (right belief) is the map, and orthopraxy (right practice) is what we do when we follow the map’s directions towards our ultimate destination.

(This description may not ring true to certain Protestants, but it is at least what Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians believe, and, I imagine, what many Protestants do as well.)

Guhin introduces the matter of sex into the debate, saying that I have a historically distorted view of how sexual the world was prior to the 1960s Sexual Revolution. I disagree. Nobody who has written a book about Dante, as I have, and read the history of Florence in the High Middle Ages, could possibly think there was a golden age of chastity. The point is that with the Sexual Revolution — which, as Guhin correctly notes, was driven by the advent of a new technology: the Pill — society changed the way it thought about sex and sexuality. Mind you, the social and moral groundwork for this revolution had been laid down decades before, but the Pill was the Martin Luther of the Sexual Revolution.

The Pill changed orthodoxy and orthopraxy about sex. In Christian thought, sex has a telos, an end goal, which is childbearing. It has a secondary goal (some would say an equally important goal), which is the total unity of the couple. Sex never was a casual thing, done for pure pleasure. As Philip Rieff has written, sexual discipline was one big area that distinguished the early Christians from the pagan Romans around them. A great book to read about this is the classicist Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among The People, which explains how teachings on sexuality and the role of women that 21st century Westerners find hard to take were in fact liberating to women living in the first-century Roman Empire.

As we have seen since the 1960s, the practices made possible by the Pill changed the beliefs people had about sex, marriage, and family. The divorce revolution in the 1970s and 1980s was phase two of the Sexual Revolution. The rise of gay rights and the normalization of homosexuality is the most recent phase, and we have now moved into obliterating the differences between male and female. So, when critics of orthodox Christians gripe that we’re all hung up about sex, I believe they have in mind some prudish vicar sniffing at the young people getting handsy with each other. No. We’re talking about a Revolution that overturned Christian beliefs in the meaning of sex, marriage, and even male and female. We’re talking a new anthropology; see a more detailed explanation in this short essay I wrote for TAC.

Back to Guhin’s blog entry:

But then there are hard questions about Christians’ specific roles to change the culture, something to which Dreher is (very) sensitive, though his critics are divided on whether he goes far enough. This raises some interesting questions about how religious conservatives think about culture and how people are able to change (and be changed) by it.  I can appreciate how certain religious conservatives like Dreher (see also Patrick Deneen) recognize that capitalism is not always so great, that it can, in fact, lead to a greedy, callous materialism (to wit: this fellow) rather than any sort of Christian leadership.  And I think people like Dreher are right that that sort of procedural liberalism is hard to escape, perhaps even requiring a tactical retreat.

And this gets to something Dreher is very worried about and for what it’s worth, I think he’s right! Christianity in a certain strong form might well be dying, at least in the United States and Western Europe.  Of course, Peter Berger famously changed his mind about secularization theory, so, you know, we might be wrong about this as well.  But it does look like a certain form of Christianity–the kind that insists only Jesus can get you into heaven and the institution of marriage must look a certain way–is dying out.

More Guhin:

It’s a fair point that once Christianity says you don’t need it to get into heaven, it doesn’t seem to do as well (though the strict church argument is still somewhat controversial and I’m not convinced by the rational choice underpinnings, it still seems pretty useful).  And Dreher’s right: robust pluralism is hard (even if other orthodox Christians think it’s worth it still tro try).

Yet what’s hard for some is whether or not the dying of a certain kind of Christianity is such a tragedy once you don’t believe you need Christianity for heaven.

I see what he’s getting at, though that’s a very Evangelical Protestant way to think about religion. 😉

The issue is a lot weightier and more complex than Guhin phrases it here. Christianity is not merely about getting to heaven. It is about inner transformation in this mortal life as we make our way towards heaven, and the outer transformation of this world as part of God’s creative work of redemption. Christianity, properly understood, is not a propositional belief system, but a way of life — and, as I’ve said, a way through life, a way of ongoing conversion, of ongoing repentance, of turning away from our sins and allowing the grace of God to dwell in us and change us. Losing that is what’s at stake.

Yes, ultimately, so is eternal life, and I don’t want to diminish the importance of that. But if we believe that the Bible is God’s word, and it reveals truths about the sacred order of Creation, and how we are to live in right relation to that order and its Creator; and if we believe that Christ gave us the Church (in whatever form) to lead us on this pilgrimage of life, and to make sure we don’t get lost — then the gift of the Christian faith is not merely a get-out-of-hell-free card.

So, I would phrase it differently than Guhin, though I believe we largely agree. I would say that if you don’t believe that the Christian faith reveals eternal truths that are necessary not only to our salvation in the afterlife, but necessary to live within the will of God in this mortal life; and if you believe that Christianity is something that people can re-form into a shape that suits our felt needs in this time and place, then you won’t agree that losing traditional Christianity is a big deal.

I would put it like this: if you don’t believe that the Bible and the historic faith that sprang from it is a roadmap to reality meant, to use Dantean language, to take us out of the dark wood and towards the mountaintop — and ultimately to heaven, then there is nothing to lose by losing the historic faith. If we are going to get to heaven no matter where we are and what we do, then there is no path, there is no pilgrimage, there is only sitting right here in the dark wood and calling it the Garden of Eden, until Jesus beams us up. Or, we can radically redraw the map (e.g., on sexuality) without worrying that it’s going to take us off the cliff.

Guhin seems to get the gist of it, though: if you don’t believe the form of the faith matters, only that you arrange your emotions in the correct way, so that you believe that you are loving Jesus, then a strong form of Christianity cannot survive. We are living through that reality now; this is what MTD is. And a soft form cannot long survive at all. The grandchildren of today’s young MTD Christians, or progressive Christians, will either be traditionalist Christians, or not Christian at all. We really are at a dramatic fork in the road, and Christians had better understand this.

One last Guhin quote:

Yet the basis of critique is an ongoing and important questions within the academic left, and it’s something that we too often take for granted.  If not because humans are made in the image and likeness of God, then why is racism wrong? What about sexism?  Autonomy you say? Sure, fine.  But why is autonomy so great? What is the vision of flourishing to which we should direct that “agency” we’re all so worried about?  You can make fun of critical realism all you want, but I appreciate that those folks are thinking about these questions, even as I really appreciate how other folks-like Paige Sweet and Timothy Rutzou– within critical realism are posing really important queer unpackings of what it means to flourish.

What he’s saying here, as an academic on the left, is that it’s one thing to dismantle and throw out Christianity, but it’s another to come up with a grounding by which the post-Christian world can decide what it means to live a good, flourishing life.

Please read the whole thing. If all my left-of-center critics were this good, we could have great and fruitful debates all day. Jeff posted these comments as a response to The Benedict Option. Maybe the best thing so far about the book is that it has occasioned conversations as interesting as this one. Thanks Jeff!



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