A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Perils of Adjectival Christianity

Two of my favorite bloggers, John Meunier and Dennis Sanders, are playing off each other and writing about the problem of "progressive" Christianity. Dennis, who identifies himself as a progressive, writes,
I think in practice too much has been sacrificed in the name of appearing trendy and fashionable. Progressives dumped things like original sin or the divinity of Christ or atonement, but they have held on tightly to things like what is the proper stance on universal health care. They focus on the political nature of the gospel, but instead of seeing how Christ confronts all the powers of Caesar, they have just hitched themselves to a left-wing Caesar instead of the right-wing version.
John Meunier makes the following observation:
Just yesterday, my wife and I had a conversation that wound up the same place as Sanders' post. My wife is a proud "Jesus is a liberal" Christian. But she too often finds herself having to defend having a robust Christianity in her church or having Christ at the center of her social justice passions. She laments the fact that having "too much Jesus" at church is a complaint that gets made by people.
Both of their posts are worth a read; but what I would like to do here is expand the discussion and put forth what I believe are the perils of adjectival Christianity regardless of the adjective; that when a modifier is added before the word "Christian" too often it is the adjective that becomes more important than the noun that should be of central focus: "Christian." And when that happens one's adherence to the modifier becomes more important than one's identification with the noun.

I need to say that it is impossible to avoid such modifiers nor should we necessary eschew them. Modifiers help locate us in the midst of the diversity of Christian faith. I consider myself to be a Wesleyan Christian, which means among others things, I am not a five-point Calvinist. To be a Wesleyan helps to locate me in a general way in a specific Christian tradition. The peril of this is if I allow Wesleyanism to be more formative in my thinking than taking into account the entire range of the Christian tradition. Moreover, I must not allow my Wesleyan context to keep me from the richness of that overall tradition. In one of my introductory theology courses I draw heavily from John Calvin when I teach the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. I love much about Calvin's account. But in most of my courses there is at least one student, knowing I am a Methodist, who is baffled as to why I employ Calvin, as if Wesleyanism automatically means that Calvin is persona non grata.

And that, it seems to me is the peril of modifiers. They are important and they are necessary, but we must not identify with them more than the noun they modify; and that is what both Dennis and John are rightfully questioning. Now, to be sure, Christians who call themselves conservative or progressive would no doubt object. (I prefer the term liberal to progressive because liberal is a true antonym to conservative, and the word progressive can be used in very deceptive ways. More on that in a later post.) They would say that their Christianity informs their conservative or progressive views, and there is no doubt truth in that. John addresses that objection:
I suspect advocates of progressive Christianity would point to the writings and talks by the luminaries of the movement that are robust in their Christology and orthodox in their theology. But Sanders' observations ring true to the way on-the-ground and in-the-pew progressive Christianity often looks in many mainline churches.
Let me hasten to add one can substitute in that paragraph the word "conservative" for "progressive" and "evangelical" for "mainline." It is the peril we face with adjectival Christianity in general.

The question I would ask those who identify themselves as "progressive Christians" and those who embrace the label "conservative Christian," is how their being either one looks different from being a progressive atheist or a conservative atheist. How do their views, supposedly informed by their faith, not make them just one more special interest group on the political scene?

Stanley Hauerwas writes,
The politics of modernity has so successfully made Christianity but another life-style option it is a mystery why the new atheists think it is important to show what Christians believe to be false. Such a project hardly seems necessary given that Christians, in the name of being good democratic citizens, live lives of unacknowledged but desperate unbelief just to the extent they believe what they believe as a Christian cannot be a matter of truth.
As a result, Christians no longer believe that the church is an alternative politics to the politics of the world which means they have lost any way to account for why Christians in the past thought they had a faith worth dying for.
In recent years evangelical Protestantism has been going through a soul searching, questioning some of its cherished political and hermeneutical positions that have become so intertwined with evangelicalism. An increasing number of evangelicals are re-evaluating some of their "sacred" views on Scripture and science and politics. I think that has been a good thing. But I must say, I have not seen that same kind of soul searching among mainline Protestants. It cannot hurt to wonder if we always have it right. It cannot be a bad thing to remember that perhaps our views are not always biblical, but rather the opposite side of the same modern coin we share with those who are evangelical. Perhaps Dennis and John are beginning an important self-critical conversation that we mainliners need to have. If this is the start, I welcome it.

After all, the unexamined life, politic, and theology is not worth embracing... and it's not good for the soul... or the church either. An adjective is meant to describe a noun, not get in the way.

1 comment:

John Wesley Leek said...

This is a helpful addition.

I too have found our introspection lacking as a tradition. We can be as dogmatic (in the negative sense of the word) as those we'd like to call fundamentalists.

May we rediscover, myself included, a more humble hermeneutic.