It is kind of annoying how some posts seem to linger in my mind all weak, and I don’t mean to beat a dead horse, but I feel the need to continue to flesh out my take on Ross Douthat’s op-ed piece. Sure, the blogosphere has already moved on from his writing but I can’t let go of it just yet – especially since there were so many responses to that piece that I feel need a response.
First off, I really just want to expand a bit on what Father Anonymous wrote (and not just because of the shoutout he gave me). You could just head over and read what he wrote and get everything worth knowing. Part of the problem with the social/political/whatever Christianity that is promoted in some of the responses(such as from one Episcopalian here and this Huffington Post article) is that all the articles, while trying to appear forceful, argumentative, and powerful, they all seem to lack a punch. When Diana Butler writes that the current blend of “liberal” Christianity is “a form of faith that cares for one’s neighbor, the common good, and fosters equality, but is, at the same time, a transformative personal faith that is warm, experiential, generous, and thoughtful,” I find myself struggling. Care for one’s neighbor, equality, common good – all fine things. But that whole “personal faith that is warm, experiential, generous, and thoughtful” – what does that even mean? However is the power of the Christ even expressed and lived out in a personal faith that appears to be limited to a touchy-feely identity? I find this narrowing of Christian identity to be so unrepresentative of the expansive nature of the Christian message.
To say that “this new expression of Christianity maintains the historic liberal passion for serving others but embraces Jesus’ injunction that a vibrant love for God is the basis for a meaningful life,” while powerful, fails to acknowledge a very vibrant and core element of Christian faith. As Father Annoymous wrote, Christianity, in its self-understanding, is about the salvation of souls from eternal damnation. I’m not sure why that key seems to be missing in many of the responses to Douthat’s article. Love of God, while commendable, isn’t enough. Social justice while commendable and biblical, is not the key element.
Rather, Christianity, at its core, is about death and resurrection. It is about a cross and a Jesus who is slaughtered, abandoned by his friends, and resurrected from the dead. Christianity is a personal faith but it cannot be left there. I think that is partially why Rachel Held Evans can feel trapped between two forms of Christian faith. Within her framework, she sees the progressive Christianity as heavily tied to a Liberal Christian theological framework (like the whole virgin birth is a myth thing, etc) and she struggles to find a place where her faith fits with a progressive agenda within the mainstream Protestant churches. I think her struggle is common and is a similar barrier that Ross Douthat thought he was approaching (and battling with) when he wrote his op-ed. For me, in both their arguments, I see a struggle with what happens to Christianity when it loses its core self-understanding. When death, resurrection, and salvation is removed from the equation, or at least left alone as an statement that is not implicitly stated, the socially liberal/progressive/whatever side of Christianity loses its teeth. We might talk a good game and might even believe ourselves when we make categorical statements like “I’m socially progressive because I’m conservative theologically,” but we turn Christianity into a hyper-focused faith of ethics, values, morality, and practices. Christianity is reduced to a series of practices that fall dangerously close to becoming a theology of glory. The Cross, in this kind of framework, loses its shock, horror, fear, mystery, and we lose our wonder, thankfulness, and trust in God’s love and grace. Salvation is left as a church word without meaning or substance and any sort of radical inclusiveness or welcome ends up reducing Christianity to a cultural expression of a specific time, place, people, and economic class. Christianity, in many ways, begins to feel less authentic because it loses its identity. Christianity is, and always should be, in the death and resurrection business. Because the amazing thing is that when Christianity lives, dwells, and breathes there – we are not left with merely doom, gloom, and fear. We are not reduced to being angry street preachers, protesting in front of Comic Con in San Diego, being mocked (brilliantly) by Deadpool. Because the reality is that death and resurrection are different sides of the same coin. It is not a place of easy answers or where sin (remember that word?) is erased or forgotten. It is a place where God lives, acts, dwells, and where we are covered by the breath of God through the Holy Spirit. It is terrifying, mystifying, incredible, and beautiful. We shouldn’t run away from that place or pretend that it doesn’t exist – which seems to be a mistake that all sides of the political Christian spectrum seem to do.