Posts tagged ‘Secularism’

The Church’s Durability

The Christian faith has staying power. This is both a biblical promise and a statistical reality. The biblical promise is that Christ’s Church is so strong that not even “the gates of Hades will overcome it” (Matthew 16:18).  The statistical case for the endurance of the faith was laid out by Ross Douthat in a column for The New York Times this past weekend:

Long-term Gallup data suggest that any recent dip in churchgoing is milder than the steep decline in the 1960s — and that today’s churchgoing rate isn’t that different from the rate in the 1930s and 1940s, before the postwar religious boom …

The recent decline of institutional religion is entirely a function of the formerly weakly affiliated ceasing to identify with religious bodies entirely; for the strongly affiliated (just over a third of the American population), the trend between 1990 and the present is a flat line, their numbers neither growing nor collapsing but holding steady across an era of supposedly dramatic religious change.

The case for the Church’s remarkable sociological durability is not new with Ross Douthat. Several years ago, Ed Stetzer, then the executive director of LifeWay Research, argued:

Nominal Christians are becoming the nones and convictional Christians remain committed. It is fair to say we are now experiencing a collapse, but it’s not of Christianity. Instead, the free fall we find is within nominalism.

So, what does all this mean?

For churches whose attendances are dropping, there are no easy answers, but there are some things we can and should consider in light of what we know about churches that are growing. Two things specifically come to mind.

First, pandering isn’t helpful. Hospitality, however, is. Pastors and church leaders have, in some corners, tried to pander to a progressive cultural zeitgeist that has a deep-seated distrust in and disgust at the Christian faith.  These leaders have discounted biblical authority and downplayed Christ’s ipseity.  In their rush to make the Christian faith palatable for the world, they have wound up with nothing to offer to the world.  These churches are collapsing.  In other more traditional corners of the Church, pastors and church leaders often spend more time pandering to longtime donors and power brokers within their congregations than they do reaching out to those who have questions about the Christian faith or to those who are skeptical of the Christian faith.  In these types congregations, traditions often trump mission.  These churches, too, are foundering.

Pandering stymies the Church’s mission.  Hospitality, on the other hand, calls churches into mission.  Hospitality is not focused on indulging people’s whims, like pandering is.  Instead, it is focused on loving them. This is why, when he writes about hospitality, the apostle Paul explains:

Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. (Romans 12:13-16)

For Paul, hospitality’s proving ground comes in how one treats their enemies.  How does the Church treat its enemies?  Do we lie to them by telling them what they want to hear like some supposedly “enlightened” and non-orthodox congregations do?  Do we reject them by catering to insiders and their preferences as some other congregations do?  Or, do we love them by living for them as Christ lived for us?  The Church must recover its hospitable spirit – especially to outsiders.

Second, faith is meant to be deep and go deep inside of us.  In a culture that is, in many pockets, post-Christian, a shallow or simple faith simply will not answer people’s big questions or stand the test of life’s terrible trials.  The studies above show, as other studies have before, that it is people with shallow faith who are falling away from the Church – not people with deep faith.  This means pep talks that pretend to be sermons will not keep people in church – but neither will dry doctrinal treatises that recycle theological buzzwords ad nauseam by pastors who are more concerned with brandishing their orthodox bona fides than they are with communicating Christ.  Only preaching that exposits the content of the Scriptures, explains how the Scriptures concern us and convict us, proclaims from the Scriptures what Christ has done for us, and then calls us to live out of what Christ has done for us will do.  The Scriptures present a deep faith in a clear way.  The Church should do the same.

Obviously, the Church has not done any of this perfectly – nor will it.  But we should consider how we can do things better.  Blessedly, in spite of our shortcomings, the Church will continues to endure because the Church is as durable as the One who died – and conquered death – for it.  Because Christ conquered death, the Church will not die.  He, finally, is the Church’s durability.

November 4, 2019 at 6:15 am 2 comments

The Big Apple And The Chicken Sandwich

A little over a week ago, Dan Piepenbring, writing for The New Yorker, derided what he called “Chick-fil-A’s Creepy Infiltration of New York City.”  He declared:

New York has taken to Chick-fil-A.  One of the Manhattan locations estimates that it sells a sandwich every six seconds, and the company has announced plans to open as many as a dozen more storefronts in the city.  And yet the brand’s arrival here feels like an infiltration, in no small part because of its pervasive Christian traditionalism.

Mr. Piepenbring goes on to single out the chain’s headquarters adorned with Bible verses, its policy to close its stores on Sundays, and its CEO’s publicly expressed concerns about same-sex marriage as examples of its “pervasive Christian traditionalism.”  As Mr. Piepenbring points out, the company’s purpose statement also betrays its founders’ Christian commitments.  Chick-fil-A’s purpose is:

To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us and to have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.

As a Christian, such a corporate purpose statement does not trouble me, as it does Mr. Piepenbring.  A cardinal claim of Christianity is that what Christians believe cannot be divorced from the work they do.  The apostle Paul summarizes this spirit when he writes, “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him” (Colossians 3:17).  A Christian’s creeds, Paul says, should always result in gracious deeds.  Chick-fil-A’s purpose statement teases out this connection.  The first part of the statement explains that the company’s leaders desire to give glory to God.  This is a commitment to a creed.  The second part of the statement explains that the company’s leaders desire to positively impact all who interact with Chick-fil-A.  This is a promise to do good deeds.

There is a secular trend to espouse a kind of happy humanism that claims that people are perfectly able to do good deeds apart from having to appeal to ancient and, according to the secular mindset, distasteful theological convictions.  In this way of thinking, Chick-fil-A would do better to fashion itself as an inoffensively affable and vaguely moral corporation instead of explicitly appealing to, again, according to the secular mindset, burdensome and superstitious Christian convictions.

But why would Chick-fil-A want to do this?  Its founders certainly aren’t secular.  Furthermore, extracting faith from goodness is trickier than many secular humanists care to admit.  Even if something is perceived to be good, without an external source of authority like Christianity, secular humanism still struggles to offer consistent reasons why anyone ought to do good.  Furthermore, apart from faith, people not only have no unifying set of compelling reasons why they ought to do good, they also have no set of stable standards as to what is good.  A coherent morality without a transcendent authority will be inevitably fraught with fragility.

The age-old philosophical conundrums of moral authority aside, there is widespread agreement between Christians and secular humanists on the morality of things like human dignity, community involvement, and good, old-fashioned geniality.  All of these are values that Chick-fil-A, with its evangelical roots, and New Yorkers, many of whom hold more secular sensibilities, espouse.  For this, at least, we should be grateful.  Mr. Piepenbring, however, asserts that, in a city like New York, “Chick-fil-A…does not quite belong here…Its politics, its décor, and its commercial-evangelical messaging are inflected with…suburban piety.”  This may be true culturally if one assumes there is some inherent and necessary pitched battle between a down-home corporation and a high-brow cosmopolitanism, but it is certainly not true personally.  The people who work at Chick-fil-A in New York are from New York.  And my hunch is, they care about New York and desire to serve people around New York.  Maybe we should let them.  And maybe when they smile, chicken sandwich and waffle fries in hand, we should smile back.  After all, one does not have to agree with every value and belief of a particular slice of society to treat them in a way that is neighborly.

I’m pretty sure someone said something about that, somewhere.

April 23, 2018 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Abortion, Absolution, and Pope Francis

francis

In a letter dated Sunday, November 20, Pope Francis announced that any woman who has had an abortion can now be forgiven for that sin by a priest.  This move toward priestly absolution for abortion began a full year ago when the pope announced a “Year of Mercy.”  Before this special year, only ecclesiastical higher ups could absolve someone of an abortion unless a particular region gave special disposition to its local priests to absolve this sin, which the Catholic Church in the United States had already done.  The pope’s announcement of a Year of Mercy gave this right to priests worldwide.  And now the pope has extended this right into perpetuity.  In his missive, the pope explained:

We have celebrated an intense Jubilee Year in which we have received the grace of mercy in abundance. Like a gusting but wholesome wind, the Lord’s goodness and mercy have swept through the entire world. Because each of us has experienced at length this loving gaze of God, we cannot remain unaffected, for it changes our lives…

Lest any obstacle arise between the request for reconciliation and God’s forgiveness, I henceforth grant to all priests, in virtue of their ministry, the faculty to absolve those who have committed the sin of procured abortion. The provision I had made in this regard, limited to the duration of the Extraordinary Holy Year, is hereby extended, notwithstanding anything to the contrary.

When the pope first announced his Year of Mercy, The New York Times ran an editorial by Jill Filipovic titled, “The Pope’s Unforgiving Message of Forgiveness on Abortion.”  In her piece, Ms. Filipovic decries the idea that those who had obtained an abortion should need forgiveness.  She writes:

Instead of treating women as adults who make their own decisions, the pope condescends to “all the women who have resorted to abortion,” saying he is “well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision.” The threat of excommunication, at the very least, makes the church’s views on women’s rights clear. Offering forgiveness is a softer version of the same judgment: that the millions of women around the world who have abortions every year are sinners. Inviting women to feel shame and guilt for their abortions isn’t a mercy; it’s cruelty.

At issue for Ms. Filipovic is the fact that abortion would be classified as a sin at all.  For her, forgiveness for an abortion is neither needed nor desirable.  What is needed is a wholehearted endorsement and promotion of abortion itself.

The biblical position on abortion and forgiveness undermines both the Roman Catholic Church’s strange view of absolution, especially before this recent papal pronouncement, along with the secularist’s cynicism toward the sinfulness of abortion.  The secular view of abortion and forgiveness is inadequate precisely because the emotions of “shame and guilt,” contrary to Ms. Filipovic’s assertion, should be the affective outcome of any sin, including abortion.  Our sin should make us feel bad – at least if we take what God commands seriously.  Only God’s gospel can remedy our shame and guilt as it releases our sins to Christ on the cross.  Abortion cannot be excused and explained away.  It can only be forgiven.

Likewise, the Roman Catholic Church’s view on abortion and forgiveness also will not do.  The now former restriction on priestly absolution for abortion seems to have been largely meant as a threatening deterrent against particularly grievous sins, as is explained in the Baltimore Catechism:

The absolution from some sins is reserved to the pope or bishop to deter or prevent, by this special restriction, persons from committing them, either on account of the greatness of the sin itself or on account of its evil consequences.

This restriction overlooks the fact that, theologically speaking, every sin is an affront against all divine law, therefore making any sin damnable.  It also overlooks the fact that to make forgiveness difficult to obtain via a barrage of ecclesiastical red tape takes what is meant to be a gift from God and perverts it into a work of man.  This makes the forgiveness spoken of here antithetical to the gospel rather than the center of the gospel, for the gospel is never about what we do, but about what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.

So where does this leave us?  It leaves us here:  if you are a woman who has had an abortion, there is hope beyond shame, release beyond burden, and wholeness beyond brokenness.  Not because there shouldn’t be any shame, any burden, or any brokenness.  And not because you can somehow claw your way out shame, burden, and brokenness by a work, even if that work is a work of self-debasing sorrow before a bishop or a priest. No, there is hope and release and wholeness because of Jesus.  After all, He suffered death to conquer death, which means, even if a life has been lost to abortion, that life can be recovered too.  And your life can be made new.

That’s the promise abortion needs.

November 28, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Donald Trump’s Sandbox

Donald Trump

Credit:  Huffington Post

I decided it would be best to wait for a while to write on what has become Donald Trump’s now infamous proposal that there should be “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on” for a couple of reasons.  First, the outrage, predictably, over Mr. Trump’s ban was fierce and fast and I wanted to allow some time for it to cool.  Reacting to the hottest thing is not always the wisest thing.  Second, I wanted to take some time to gather my thoughts on what has transpired.  It is a tricky thing for a pastor to write about a politician and I never do so lightly.  This is why I also feel compelled to state upfront, lest there be any confusion, that, though I do reference certain political realities, the primary purpose of this blog is not to analyze Mr. Trump’s politics or campaign.  There are others who are far more adept at these types of analyses than I.  I do believe, however, that Mr. Trump’s ban on Muslims has worldview and theological implications that are important for Christians to recognize and to address.  Indeed, what fascinates me most about Mr. Trump’s ban is not so much what he proposed at first, but how he has continued to defend his proposal.  In an interview on Live with Kelly and Michael, the presidential candidate argued, “It’s not about religion. This is about safety.”

Mr. Trump’s claim that his ban on non-resident Muslims entering the country is not about religion, though it may be in some sense politically palatable, cannot be factually truthful.  He is, after all, singling out adherents of a religion – not citizens of a nation or members of a political party – in his ban.  This is about religion because it affects a whole group of thoroughgoingly religious people.

There is no doubt, as we continue to deal with the fallout from the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, that the threat of radical Islamist terrorism is real and that national security should be a top priority.  But what often gets overshadowed in so many of our frenetic discussions concerning radical Islamist terrorism is Islam itself and the people who practice it devotedly on a daily basis.   Islam, before it is anything else, is a religion with a developed theological system.  It makes claims about what is true and what is false, what is orthodox and what is heretical.  This is why I am sympathetic to the many Muslims who have claimed that the people who carry out terror attacks are not true Muslims.  In the eyes of these Muslims, radical Islamist terrorists have said things and done things that have placed them so far outside the pale of orthodox Islamic theology that they cannot be called Muslim, at least in any theologically responsible sense.  I would argue in like manner that what members of the Westboro Baptist Church have said and done has placed them so far outside of the pale of orthodox Christian theology that we cannot consider them to be Christian in any theologically responsible sense no matter what the marquis on their “church” may claim.  But it is only through explicitly religious and theological analyses of these groups that we can arrive at such conclusions.  Thus, a theological understanding of and, I would hasten to add, a theological repudiation of what has happened in these terrorist attacks is inescapable.

Though he probably does not realize it, Mr. Trump’s assertion that his ban on Muslims entering the country can be made without thinking through the religious implications could only be taken seriously in a secular liberal society like ours.  In a recent column for The New York Times, Ross Douthat explains how secular liberalism views Islam:

Secular liberal Westerners … take a more benign view of Islam mostly because they assume that all religious ideas are arbitrary, that it doesn’t matter what Muhammad said or did because tomorrow’s Muslims can just reinterpret the Prophet’s life story and read the appropriate liberal values in …

Instead of a life-changing, obedience-demanding revelation of the Absolute, its modernized Islam would be Unitarianism with prayer rugs and Middle Eastern kitsch – one more sigil in the COEXIST bumper sticker, one more office in the multicultural student center, one more client group in the left-wing coalition.[1]

The secular liberal view of religion is one where orthodoxy always takes a back seat to pluralism and transcendent ethics must eventually bow the knee to today’s contingent truths.  Theological claims must ultimately give way to political and cultural concerns.  Whether knowingly or unknowingly, this is precisely what Donald Trump assumes when he claims his ban on Muslims is “not about religion.”  He assumes the long-standing theological heritage of Islam can be quickly and easily ushered aside to make way for a security-driven ban on Muslims in the same way some progressives presume the theological distinctives of Islam can be breezily brushed off in favor of a Western-style spirituality that calls for no real doctrinal fidelity from its adherents.  In Mr. Trump’s case, the politics of security have, excuse the pun, “trumped” any real discussion of theology.  What other name can there be for this kind of prioritization but secular liberalism?

One need to look no further than to the middle part of the previous century to see what happens when secular liberalism gets what it wants.  Mainstream Christian Protestantism now lies in ruins because it bartered away its classical theology for a bourgeois intellectuality acceptable to a politically-minded modernity.

Confessional Christians are in a unique position to discuss with Muslims potential solutions to the crisis posed by radical Islamist terrorists because, for all we disagree on, we at least agree that theology matters and ought to be taken seriously.  It is a particular theology, after all, that, no matter how grotesquely perverted and morally repugnant it may be, drives, at least in part, the aspirations of ISIS.  Such a theology needs to be confronted, deconstructed, and condemned, which, thankfully, is precisely what some Muslim theologians are doing.  An appreciation for theology can also lead us to question whether or not a whole religious group should be summarily and indiscriminately dismissed with the wave of a hand and a flip explanation that a ban on this group is not about religion.  If a group defines itself religiously, as do Muslims, it probably behooves us to respect, study, and take this group’s theology seriously.

Certainly, there would be challenges in any honest theological discussions between Christians and Muslims.  I am no Islamic theologian, but as far as I can tell, Islamic theology does not conceive of an Augustinian distinction between a City of God and a City of Man like Christian theology does.  It is this distinction, outlined for us beautifully in Romans 12 and 13, that has allowed Christians to work comfortably and conscientiously in all sorts of governmental systems, including in American democracy, because they understand that no matter what the system of government, the City of Man that is human government is ultimately, even if hiddenly, under God’s control.  The Christian’s call, then, is not to try to create a Christian government, but to be the Christian Church. In Islamic theology, such a distinction between the City of God and the City of Man does not feature nearly so prominently, if, some might argue, at all.  Mosque and government go hand in hand.  Even so, many Muslim majority countries have figured out ways to create at least some distance between their religion and their rulers.  In this way, then, Christians and Muslims have plenty to talk about, for we both struggle with how to live out our respective faiths in our societies, even if our theologies of how our religions relate to our rulers differ.  Furthermore, we agree that traditional religious categories like orthodoxy, heresy, truth, revelation, prophecy, and deity are important, even if we disagree on how each of these categories, right down to the category of deity, should be filled.  But at least we agree that questions about theology are more important and, ultimately, more enduring than questions of politics and power.  This is more than can be said for some in the secular left.

I do not think that Mr. Trump has rigorously thought through the logical and theological inconsistencies of his statements about Muslims.  I suspect he offered his ban to score political points with his base while also tweaking the milquetoast de rigueur of many of the political elites.  I also have a feeling that Mr. Trump might take issue with me claiming that his ban on Muslims “is not about religion” actually shares with secular liberals an assumption about the nature and importance of theology.  But even if he’s doing so naïvely, his comments betray that Mr. Trump is still playing in the secular liberals’ sandbox.  And the consequences of such a foray, to use Mr. Trump’s own phrasing, are “yuge.”
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[1] Ross Douthat, “The Islamic Dilemma,” The New York Times (12.12.2015).

December 21, 2015 at 5:15 am 5 comments

The Pew Survey On Christianity: It’s Not As Bad Or As Good As You Might Think

Church and CrossThe Washington Post led with a headline that sounded nearly apocalyptic: “Christianity faces sharp decline as Americans are becoming even less affiliated with religion.”[1] The faithful quickly jumped in to temper the premature reports of Christianity’s cardiac arrest with op-ed pieces like this one by Ed Stetzer that ran in USA Today: “Survey fail – Christianity isn’t dying: Ed Stetzer.”[2]

The topic of discussion and debate is a new Pew Research Center poll that finds:

… the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4% in an equally massive Pew Research survey in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – has jumped more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8%.[3]

Taken by themselves, these statistics sound dire and dour. But, as Ed Stetzer helpfully points out in his article, there is more to these statistics than what first meets the eye:

Rather than predict the impending doom of the church in America, this latest study affirms what many researchers have said before. Christianity isn’t collapsing; it’s being clarified. Churches aren’t emptying; rather, those who were Christian in name only are now categorically identifying their lack of Christian conviction and engagement …

Nominals – people whose religious affiliation is in name only – are becoming nones – people who check “none of the above” box on a survey.

Those who value their faith enough to wake up on Sunday morning and head to their local church are mostly still going. What I have described as “convictional Christianity” will continue. Those who say their faith is very important to their lives are not suddenly jettisoning those beliefs to become atheists.

According to Pew, unaffiliated Americans grew from 16 to nearly 23% in the last seven years. That increase largely came from the ranks of Catholics and Mainline Protestants, religious traditions with high numbers of nominals.

Stetzer’s point is well taken. By no stretch of the imagination should we read the Pew survey as a funeral dirge for Christianity – especially for Evangelical Christianity, contrary to this misreading of the Pew survey.[4] Still, even if Pew’s numbers do not portend the sure demise of Christianity, they do indicate a real shift in Christianity. Here’s how.

For better or for worse, the nominal Christians who once warmed the pews in Mainline Protestant churches and are now hemorrhaging to the “nones” had as their counterparts the academic Protestant Christians among the elites. Names such as Reinhold Niebuhr, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Paul Tillich, and Karl Barth once held court as America’s public intellectuals – their books being widely read and disseminated not only into Protestant Christendom, but into society in general. These men enjoyed unrivaled cultural gravitas – so much so, that each of them took their turn gracing the cover of Time Magazine. And though none of these men can be considered orthodox in their doctrine in an Evangelical Christian sense, they nevertheless passed down to American society some generally and even genuinely Christian concerns and insights. Reinhold Niebuhr defended a robust doctrine of original sin, thundering against the pride of society and those who thought they were generally good people. Harry Emerson Fosdick, though he firmly espoused a liberal Protestant ethos, was not afraid to critique it by warning the Church against a blind cultural accommodation to the spirit of the age. Paul Tillich served as an apologist of sorts, explaining how life’s deepest existential questions can be answered by divine revelation. And Karl Barth bequeathed to us an 8,000 page series on church dogmatics that still informs – and occasionally irritates – Christian thinkers to this day. The work these and other men did kept Christian concerns in the forefront of people’s minds and Christian ethical commitments in the center of people’s worldviews.

The latest Pew survey reminds us that these Christian concerns and ethics are disappearing in broad society. The Protestant lions of old are being replaced by the secularist elites of today. The Pew survey, then, does not just tell the story of a non-committed Christian-esque demographic that, in a twist of delicious justice, is deservedly disappearing; it tells the story of a broader Christian influence that – even if it was of the liberal variety – is waning.

This, of course, is not all bad. The heterodoxy and, in some instances, the outright heresy of these Protestant theologians posed a serious challenge to orthodox Christianity. But, then again, the disappearance of influential Protestantism is also not all good. After all, these Protestant theologians did serve broadly, even if unintentionally, as a tenuous bridge between orthodox Christians on the one hand and powerful elites on the other, enabling the two sides to talk to each other.[5] But this bridge has now collapsed, leaving a yawning canyon between a group of orthodox Christians who are increasingly frightened by and hostile to secularism and a group of powerful elites who are increasingly uninformed about and uninhibited by a generally Christian view of life. Our challenge, then, is to bridge this canyon. And that is no easy task.

I agree with Ed Stetzer that Christians should not respond to the Pew survey apoplectically. But the survey does make me miss some of the Protestant leaders of yesteryear, no matter how much I may have been at odds with them theologically. They may have not always been right, but sometimes, they were helpful.

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[1] Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Christianity faces sharp decline as Americans are becoming even less affiliated with religion,” The Washington Post (5.12.2015).

[2] Ed Stetzer, “Survey fail – Christianity isn’t dying: Ed Stetzer,” USA Today (5.13.2015).

[3]America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” Pew Research Center (5.12.2015).

[4] Although I share many of Matt Walsh’s concerns with what he saw of Evangelical Christianity and would agree that many Evangelical churches need more robust and Christocentric teaching and preaching, his stated cause of Christianity’s losses is not specifically born out by the Pew data.

[5] For example, Billy Graham and Karl Barth were friends and were comfortable enough with each other to spar with each other on occasion.   See Mark Noll, American Evangelical Christianity: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001), 47.

May 18, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Spiritual Speech About Social Concerns

ConfusedLast week on this blog, I discussed a video showing some members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma singing a racist chant. In my analysis, I cited Byron Williams of The Huffington Post and his use of theological language to address the incident:

America’s approach to the original sin of racism maintains an aspect of arrested development. It is too easy to temporarily transfer our moral indignation toward a fraternity at the University of Oklahoma that no longer exists than it is to take the more difficult path that could lead to a meaningful transformation …

The expelled students have already succeeded in dismantling their fraternity chapter. Shouldn’t they be given opportunity for redemption? In lieu of expulsion, could the university have found another way to educate all involved about the poisons of racism?[1]

Williams attaches a lot of theological freight to his analysis of this incident – and, I would argue, rightly so – with words like “original sin” and “redemption.” But I would also argue that he does not frame his theological terminology in a particularly Christian way. Williams’ description of “redemption,” for instance, is more closely aligned with AA’s call to make amends than it is with Christ’s redemptive work on the cross. To be clear, I by no means think that these students should not have to make amends. Indeed, I think such action would be extraordinarily salutary – both for the people they hurt and for the offending students themselves. I only point out Williams’ unconventional use of theological language as an example of how, while many in our culture still have strong theological instincts, such instincts are often not expressly Christian in their content or context.

In an article for The Weekly Standard, Roman Catholic theologian Joseph Bottum frames the issue of racism and its attendant issue of white privilege, as does Williams, in the theological terminology of original sin:

“All have sinned,” writes St. Paul in the fifth chapter of his letter to the Christians in Rome, even those who have “not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression.” And so too are we all guilty of racism, even those who have never harbored an explicitly racist thought or said an explicitly racist word or performed an explicitly racist deed. “We have to get away from this idea that there is one sort of racism and it wears a Klan hood,” as Berkeley law professor Ian Haney-López explains. “Of course, that is an egregious form of racism, but there are many other forms of racism. There are racisms.” Racisms under which we all suffer.[2]

Bottum astutely notes that for all the talk of secularism’s encroachments on Western society, our essential impulses are still spiritual. Just look at how we talk about racism as not just a set of actions, or even as a worldview, but as a blight for which we must make atonement.

But as strong as our spiritual impulses may be, something is missing:

The doctrine of original sin is probably incoherent, and certainly gloomy, in the absence of its pairing with the concept of a divine savior – and so Paul concludes Romans 5 with a turn to the Redeemer and the possibility of hope: “As sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord.”  Think of it as a car’s engine or transmission scattered in pieces around a junkyard: The individual bits of Christian theology don’t actually work all that well when they’re broken apart from one another.

We are stuck in a societal Anfechtung, Bottum says.  For on the one hand, our culture does indeed have strong spiritual impulses.  This is why we confess and agonize over “original sins” like racism.  But on the other hand, our spiritual impulses do not lead us to the relief of Christ’s cross. Instead, our impulsive anxieties are left to stew in their own juices until they inevitably begin to search for relief and redemption in other ways – in our day, usually in the ways of our body politic. In large part, we in the West have traded the theologia crucis for legislative sausage making.

In many regards, this way of theologizing is merely the inexorable upshot of the liberal Protestantism of the twentieth century. As Bottum explains:

Early in the twentieth century … the main denominations of liberal American Protestantism gradually came to a new view of sin, understanding our innate failings as fundamentally social rather than personal. Crystallized by Walter Rauschenbusch’s influential Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907), the Social Gospel movement saw such sins as militarism and bigotry as the forces that Christ revealed in his preaching – the social forces that crucified Him and the social forces against which He was resurrected. Not that Christ mattered all that much in the Social Gospel’s construal. Theological critics from John Gresham Machen in the 1920s to Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1950s pointed out that the Social Gospel left little for the Redeemer to do: Living after His revelation, what further use do have we of Him? Jesus may be the ladder by which we climbed to a higher ledge of morality, but once there, we no longer need the ladder …

The Social Gospel’s loss of a strong sense of Christ facilitated the drift of congregants – particularly the elite and college-educated classes – out of the mainline that had once defined the country. Out of the churches and into a generally secularized milieu.

They did not leave empty-handed. Born in the Christian churches, the civil rights movement had focused on bigotry as the most pressing of social sins in the 1950s and 1960s, and when the mainline Protestants began to leave their denominations, they carried with them the Christian shape of social and moral ideas, however much they imagined they had rejected Christian content.

When I read Bottum’s analysis of our current situation, I can’t help but think of Rudolf Bultmann, the famed twentieth century German theologian, who sought to free Christianity from its so-called “mythical” trappings – trappings like Jesus’ miracles, Jesus’ teachings, and, ultimately, Jesus’ very resurrection. I wonder if this old liberal theologian isn’t smiling down on us right now. After all, his project of demythologizing Christianity has now been completed, probably more thoroughly than he could have ever imagined. For Christianity in secular society has indeed been stripped of all its mythical trappings – including, as it turns out, Christ Himself.  We are left only with the residual ghosts of Christian morality to convict us of socially abhorrent sins without the historical cross of the resurrected Christ to comfort us in all sin.

Of course, orthodox Christians cannot accept Bultmann’s project or its outcome. But even if we cannot accept it, it is important that we understand it. For if we do not understand the theological shape of our secular society, we will perhaps miss opportunities to offer our salvific rest of the story to our society’s guilt-ridden part of the story.

And that would be a sin.

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[1] Byron Williams, “It’s Not Unconstitutional to Be Racist,” The Huffington Post (3.11.2015).

[2] Joseph Bottum, “The Spiritual Shape of Political Ideas,” The Weekly Standard (12.1.2014).

March 23, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Thoughts on Christianity and Secularism

Old ChurchIt’s hard to deny that secularism is on the ascendency in America. Indeed, even if one points to the fact that roughly the same number of adults believe in God now as did in 1947, secularism’s intellectual and cultural capital in broader society has steadily increased. As James Davison Hunter deftly notes, the raw numbers of a thing don’t always indicate the influence of a thing. He explains:

With cultural capital, it isn’t quantity but quality that matters most. It is the status of cultural credentials and accomplishment and status is organized between the “center” and the “periphery.” The individuals, networks and institutions most critically involved in the production of a culture operate in the “center” where prestige is the highest, not on the periphery, where status is low.

And so, USA Today may sell more copies of newspapers than the New York Times, but it is the New York Times that is the newspaper of record in America because it is at the center of cultural production, not the periphery, and its symbolic capital is much higher.[1]

Secularism’s proponents may not be large in number, but a great number of them are certainly at the center of our cultural production. And they are working hard to move Christians to the periphery. Even more, secularists are working hard to shift the center of Christianity itself to something that is closer to their way of thinking, even if it is not in perfect alignment with it. This is why there are great numbers of what could be called “secular Christians” who, though they may pay certain homage to the artifacts of their faith, are largely either politely mute or openly in disagreement with much of what historic Christianity confesses.

So how are Christians who are more traditionally orthodox in their confessions to respond?

In my sermon two weeks ago, I outlined three ways that Christians have sought to respond to secularism’s inroads over the past few decades. They are worth rehearsing here.

The first is that of capitulating. There are some Christians who, be it happily or reticently, capitulate to many of secularism’s tenets. These are the “secular Christians” of whom I spoke above. So, for example, one of secularism’s primary tenets is tolerance, or, stated more forcefully, relativism. In secularism’s creed, one religion’s claims cannot be truer than another religion’s claims unless, of course, that religion’s claims conflict with the claims of secularism. Christians who capitulate to the secular tenet of tolerance may speak of their personal path to God as through Christ, but will deny that Christ’s claims are exclusively true for everyone. There must be other, equally true, paths available to these people. These Christians thus capitulate to secularism’s tenets of tolerance and relativism.

The second response to secularism’s inroads is that of cloistering. There are some Christians who, horrified at secularism’s ascendency, immerse themselves in a Christian culture that breezily and probably unknowingly separates itself from broader culture with its many secular entailments by creating its own subculture. The Christians listen to Christian music, read Christian books, and frequent Christian businesses while looking with skepticism at what they perceive to be the irreversible corruption of broader cultural trends. They cloister themselves off in hopes of maintaining more “traditional” values.

The third response to secularism’s inroads is that of conquering. Christians who conquer are fully engaged in what is popularly known as “the culture wars,” launching a virulent apologetic against everything from abortion to gay marriage to Hollywood. They hope that if they can just take these institutions – as well as their sympathizers – down, usually by political means, a sanctified sanity will be restored to the culture-at-large.

I must say that I am largely disappointed by all three of these strategies for stemming secularism’s tide. I think each of these strategies, though they may have certain useful elements that should be retained, are largely ineffective and theologically anemic. Indeed, Scripture already outlines a strategy for engaging secularism in all its forms and with all its tentacles – that of converting. Simply stated, Christians are to seek opportunities to present Christ’s claims to as many as possible so that as many as possible – including secularists – may come to faith.

One of my favorite insights concerning secularism and conversion comes from Søren Kierkegaard, who wrote:

The world and Christianity have completely opposite conceptions. The world says of the apostles, of the Apostle Peter as their spokesman, “He is drunk,” and the Apostle Peter admonishes, “Become sober.” Consequently the secular mentality considers Christianity to be drunkenness, and Christianity considers the secular mentality to be drunkenness. “Do become reasonable, come to your senses, try to become sober.” Consequently the secular mentality considers Christianity to be drunkenness, and Christianity considers the secular mentality to be drunkenness.[2]

Here, Kierkegaard uses Peter’s speech in Acts 2 as a case study in just how far apart secularism and Christianity really are. Somewhat hyperbolically, Kierkegaard says they “have completely opposite conceptions.” So how does Peter counter the “completely opposite conception” of the secularism of his day? In Kierkegaard’s paraphrase, he admonishes the secularists, “Become sober.” In the Bible’s text, he says:

“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:38-39)

Peter calls for conversion. And “those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day” (Acts 2:41).

Peter’s call to conversion, it seems, worked. Perhaps his call still ought to be our strategy – no matter how secular our age.

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[1] James Davison Hunter, To Change The World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 37.

[2] Cited in Lee C. Barrett & Jon Stewart, Kierkegaard and the Bible: The New Testament (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2010), 89, ftn. 62

March 2, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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