The Sky Is Not Falling

Icon of the Council of Nicaea

Symbolum Nicaeno-Constantinopolitanum (Wikipedia)

The astonishing rhetoric from the far right has reached such a level of absurdity, that is easy to confuse it with parody. Presidential candidate Ted Cruz called this “some of the darkest 24 hours in our nation’s history.” An American Family Association editorial by Bryan Fischer compared Obergefell v. Hodges to the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and D.C., and then made the even more astonishing claim that American citizens are now “serfs on a plantation run by cultural elites wearing black robes.””Crunchy Con” pundit Rod Dreher used an opinion piece in Time to continue to push for his “Benedict Option,” making the melodramatic claim that orthodox Christians “are going to have to learn how to live as exiles in our own country…with at least a mild form of persecution.

Common to these and other impassioned screeds from the far right, is the claim that full inclusion of LGBT persons is an attack on Christianity. In making their case, far-right Christians have even partnered with non-Christian groups to fight in every sphere against that inclusion. This means that socially conservative voices have elevated the issue of LGBT rights to the level that it trumps issues of actual theology, e.g. the nature of God, the Church, and humanity. The irony is that they make these partnerships, including with groups who actively work to undermine Christian orthodoxy, because of their desperate claims that it is Christianity itself that is under attack. This is patently absurd for several reasons, in particular: the nature of Christian orthodoxy, the diversity of Christian views on LGBT rights, and the actual impact of full LGBT inclusion on American life.

The Nature of Christian Orthodoxy

The history of Christian orthodoxy offers little support for the far-right’s claims that Christianity itself is under attack.  Literally meaning, “straight belief,” the concept of “orthodoxy” in Christianity grew out of the need for increasingly geographically separated Christian communities to establish a framework for what defined “Christian” belief.  Over the course of hundreds of years, through a process of ecumenical councils, Christian leaders worked to find consensus about what common, core beliefs defined our shared identity as “Christians,” despite our many differences in practice.  The foundational statements of those beliefs are found in the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.

Elsewhere I have written about how these beliefs break down, how fundamentalism damages the strength and meaning of traditional orthodoxy, and how orthodox Christian beliefs are not an impediment to social progressivism. I will not restate those essays here. The short version is this:  throughout history, Christians have disagreed about what it means to act as a Christian. The members of the early Church had no personal possessions and were pacifists. For over fifteen hundred years, most Christians were comfortable with the institution of slavery. Festal and feasting obligations, baptismal practices, and a wide range of other issues have been sources of disagreement and debate for Christians since the Apostles first argued about whether or not uncircumcised Gentiles could be Christians, twenty years after the crucifixion. And yet, despite our many differences, we have all remained Christians because what defines Christianity is not our diversity of beliefs about specific behaviors, but rather our common beliefs about the nature of God, the person of Jesus, the character of humanity, and the good news of the gospel. This is the totality of Christian orthodoxy. Consequently, unless there is a sudden and overwhelming cultural push to deny the Trinity, or the unique divinity of Jesus, or that humanity is restored to God through Jesus’ sacrifice, then there is no “attack on Christian orthodoxy” in mainstream culture. In fact,  the most prominent group in the US to attack the Christian understanding of the nature of God and humanity is the Latter Day Saints, but the opponents of marriage equality consider the issue of same-sex marriage so much more important than actual Christian orthodoxy that they are willing to overlook real doctrinal issues for the sake of their pet casus belli.

The Diversity of Christian Views on LGBT Issues

They have no choice, because their fellow Christians are not uniformly on their side. On the individual level as well as on the denominational level, Christians have a diversity of views on same-sex relationships. Beyond that, the trend is unambiguous: Christians increasingly affirm same-sex relationships as equivalent to opposite-sex ones, and the majority of mainline Protestants in the United States no longer view homosexuality as a sin. I have written on this subject, and the relevance of biblical studies, at length. As time moves forward, more and more of us concur with Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, that, “A parent who teaches a child that there is only one sexual orientation and that anything else is evil denies our humanity and their own too.

With these trends in mind, and recognizing the growing body of Christian scholarship in support of LGBT rights, it is virtually impossible to make the claim that “orthodox Christianity” is somehow under “attack” by the movement toward full inclusion of LGBT persons. Many of the people pushing for those rights are themselves orthodox Christians. It is not orthodox Christianity that is under attack, it is fundamentalism, a contemporary movement that emerged when the cumulative effect of hundreds of years of Enlightenment thinking eventually made a superstitious and overly-simplistic approach to Christianity and Scripture untenable. It’s hardly surprising that fundamentalism is increasingly under “attack” by social progress. The movement was created to fight against progressive issues. It is unlikely to survive their victory.

It important to note that fundamentalism is not, however, an implicitly Christian movement. If it were, it would not have so much in common with fundamentalist Judaism and fundamentalist Islam. Fundamentalism is a social movement by people who feel left behind by science, scholarly research, feminism, civil rights, and other areas of social progress. It simply dresses itself up in religious rhetoric in an attempt to deflect criticisms of its irrational claims. As an analogy, imagine if a building were on fire, and there is only one exit. Everyone inside the building is wearing a red shirt. One person, for some unknown reason, wants everyone to die in the fire, so he puts on a red shirt and blocks the only exit. His assumption is that, if he clothes himself like everyone else, his motives will seem to be beyond reproach. Now imagine that everyone in the building shoves him aside to get out of the building. Any claims the man might make that he was being mistreated because of his red shirt would sound absurd. Fundamentalist claims that their views are under attack (again, often by their fellow Christians) “because of their Christianity” are equally absurd.

The Realities of Same-Sex Marriage

Not all people opposing LGBT rights, however, are fundamentalists. There are deeply established cultural norms against homosexuality that are only slowly fading away in some places. Lacking a familiarity with the Church’s long history of diversity opinion, and even profound doctrinal shifts, regarding social issues, they assume that their beliefs regarding homosexuality are substantiated by Christianity. They are often unaware that, were they to be consistent, the same simple biblicism that allows them to casually condemn homosexuality would also require them to affirm slavery and give all their possessions to the poor. They are willing to accept complex theological arguments when it makes their lives more comfortable, and unwilling to do so when it might make them face their own prejudices.

In the coming years, that will become increasingly difficult to do. In the same way that few people feel justified in arguing against multi-racial marriages using religious rhetoric, the shifting cultural consensus will make arguments against same-sex marriage seem equally incomprehensible for future generation. So yes, opposition to same-sex marriage is under attack in the United States, but that is not the catastrophe that the right wing wishes to claim. Ultimately, only one thing has changed: people of the same sex can now get married everywhere in the United States. Some marriages will have two husbands, some two wives. Some children will grow up with two mothers, others with two fathers. Some of the couples growing old together, holding hands in their rocking chairs on their front porches, will be male-male or female-female. That’s the shocking thing about same-sex marriage – it’s just marriage. How can more people trying their best to sustain each other and their families, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, for their entire lives, be a disaster in any way?

The Sky Is Not Falling

The unequivocal answer: it is not. The sky is not falling, civilization is not coming to an end, and Christianity is not under attack. The claims of the politicians fighting this fight simply do not  hold water. “Christian orthodoxy” is not under attack, because social issues are not fundamental to Christian orthodoxy. Christians and Christianity are not under attack, because many of the people actively working for LGBT inclusion are, themselves, Christians. Ultimately, Western civilization is not in crisis, because all we are talking about is people having the chance to spend their lives together, raise their children together, and share in the joys and challenges of marriage.

In his own discussions of the nature of orthodoxy (defending, in fact, the pietist movement that was a forerunner to modern evangelicalism), Rupertus Meldenius concluded, “in essentials: unity;  in areas of question: diversity; in all things: charity.” That is the center of the two-thousand year history of Christian orthodoxy – finding common ground in God, recognizing the limits and diversity of our flawed human logic, and – when in doubt – erring on the side of love. If, in fact, all of us who have worked so hard for LGBT inclusion have erred, it is on the side of love, and the only thing threatened by love is hatred.

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What Do Christians Believe? A Response

Orthodox Icon of Pentecost (Wikipedia)

Orthodox Icon of Pentecost (Wikipedia)


This piece ran as a letter to the editor on the Religion Dispatches site.

My friend Dr. Gary Laderman led us into the Triduum by asking “What do ‘The Christians’ Believe?”  His thoughtful essay led to the inescapable conclusion that one cannot define a common “Christian” view on any controversial social, ethical, political, or moral topic.  Whatever the issue – slavery, polygamy, homosexuality, abortion, feminism, pacifism, genocide, ethnocentrism, kosher food laws, Sabbath observance – there is no definitive Christian position on any of them.  Our Scriptures were written and edited by too many people.  Our tradition spans too many cultural sea changes.  Our constituency is simply too broad.

That is a hell of a point to make right before Maundy Thursday.  If being a Christian is not, inherently, about believing the things that the media and televangelists claim we believe, then what is it about?  Why do we bother?  What does a Christian believe?

Some might argue that we should return to the good old days, when Christians were untroubled by the moral relativism of postmodern ideas and pluralistic friendships.  Unfortunately, even if we were to turn the clock all the way back to first-century Jerusalem we find, as Acts 15 reminds us, that even the Apostles who knew Jesus personally were divided on how Christians should behave.  This diversity of opinion continued into the fourth century, when the leaders of the Church gathered together to clarify what Christians actually believed.

Those meetings ultimately produced three documents that remain the only consensus writings on Christian identity.  Two of them – the Apostles’ Creed, and the Nicene Creed – provided the theological logic that guided the selection of the writings for the third:  the Bible.  It is worth noting that, in a time of profound Christian diversity, leaders from Christian communities from around the known world did not include a single social, ethical, or moral issue in either creed.  In addition, they were comfortable including in the canon of Scripture writings that offered a wide variety of ethical perspectives.  When the early Christians got together and described the consensus of their beliefs, they did not talk about social issues.

So what, then, does it mean to be a Christian?  In the hopes of standing in the tradition of the early Church, and limiting myself to where there is actual Christian consensus, my own answer follows the logic of the Apostle’s Creed…

“I believe in God…”

Christians are people who believe in a divine reality, one beyond the material world perceived by our five senses.  We believe that there is more to life than what we can control or understand.  We believe that there is something beyond our comprehension, and that “something” is conscious, vital, wise, and loving in a way that is not limited by space or time.  While Christians might have different perspectives on the value of the experiences and content of the material world, we are united in our belief that there is more.

“I believe in Jesus Christ…”

As Christians, we do not simply believe in a distant and untouchable divine presence.  We also believe in “incarnation.”  We believe that in some inexplicable way almighty and perfect God took on human form and stepped into all of the messiness of human experience.  As Jesus, God healed us, taught us, comforted us, and fed us.  To be a Christian is to believe, not only in the unique incarnation of Jesus – but also to have faith in the possibility of incarnation itself.  Christians believe, even when all appearances are to the contrary, that God is present with us.  We believe that, no matter how different the divine reality is from the world in which we live, God is able to reach into our lives and touch us.

“…[Jesus] was crucified, died, and was buried…”

For Christians, believing in the incarnation means also confronting the reality of the cross.  God in human form, despite power and wisdom beyond our comprehension, did not wipe out disease.  God did not overthrow oppressive empires.  God did not create a new, Christian empire (although many lesser leaders attempted to make that claim).  Having lived among us and walked beside us, God surrendered to the forces of greed, selfishness, and power.  God was tortured by them, and eventually God died at their hand.

Surprisingly, Christians do not have a consensus as to why.  By privileging certain biblical passages over others, Christians have offered a variety of explanations:  Jesus was a ransom, Jesus was a sacrifice, Jesus was an example, and Jesus’ death reconnected creation to the Creator – just to name a few.  No single explanation is normative or even completely satisfactory.  Where Christians agree, however, is in the inevitability of Jesus’ murder.  For whatever reason, the incarnation of almighty God leads inexorably to God’s death – at the combined hands of a self-serving empire, a cruel bureaucracy, and an ignorant crowd.

This gives Christians a rather odd perspective on suffering, grief, loss, and failure.  If God, who created the world in the first place, can experience these things – then they are not the ultimate defeat they can sometimes appear to be.  If the collision of what is true, good and perfect with what is venal, debased and selfish can lead to a painful defeat even for Jesus, then when we experience those same things in our own lives we are not truly defeated. Christians believe that sometimes, perhaps often, choosing what is truly good and noble means utter failure in the eyes of a world which limits itself to honoring the shallow gain of material wealth.

“On the third day he rose again…”

Ultimately, those apparent failures are vindicated.  Christians believe that death itself, the fear of which looms over nearly all human endeavors, is neither an ending nor a defeat.  In the days of the early Church the first “witnesses” to Christianity were those who staked their lives on that claim, and as a consequence the Greek word for witness (/martyr/) became synonymous with choosing death over infidelity.  At the close of the Easter Vigil, Christians around the world will share in their hope by standing before the mystery of an empty tomb and we will feast together, trusting that Jesus’ encounter with death means that someday all graves will be empty.  Christians believe that death is itself defeated.

“and [Jesus] will come again to judge…”

Christians believe that the choices we make, our actions and our omissions, matter.  As Dr. Laderman has rightly pointed out, we do not agree on which choices we should make or how we should act.  We are united, however, in our common effort to work to make choices whose long-term consequences lead us closer to the person and example of Jesus.  Young seminary students are often discouraged to learn, on studying the Scriptures and Church history more closely, how little clarity there is on the specifics of what we should and should not do.  It is impossible for Christians to be defined by being completely correct about what is right and what is wrong.  Instead, we are defined by our desire to try.

“I believe…in the communion of saints…”

Christians believe that we make those efforts as part of a community.  We are accountable to each other, and to the long history of those who have gone before – from Moses to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Christianity is not a faith of or for individuals.  It is a single body formed by the concerted efforts those who (guided by God as the Holy Spirit) seek meaning in the teaching, life, and death of Jesus.  To be “Christian” is to trust that humanity is greater than the sum of our individual abilities and limitations.  Christians value and nurture community.

“Amen.”

This leaves a lot of things out, and those seeking clear guidance as to what “Christians” believe on controversial issues are likely to be disappointed.  Those who make a living off of claiming Christian consensus where there is none are likely to be livid (if they even bothered to read all the way through).  On the other hand, those who fear that – because their own views have differed from the popular Christian stereotype – they are not “real” Christians, they should take hope!

Perhaps more importantly, those from other traditions and those who claim no tradition at all, should likewise be encouraged.  There is much common ground here.  Although this specific combination of beliefs is uniquely Christian, there are many areas of commonality with widely-held views.  Most of us believe that there is more to life than what we can see and touch.  Most of us believe that what we do matters, and that fighting against evil systems and greedy desires is worthwhile even when we pay a price.  Most of us, when push comes to shove, harbor at least a suspicion that death is not final.  Through this lens, Christianity looks familiar to all who have asked these kinds of questions.

Which allows us to return to Dr. Laderman’s question original query. “What do Christians really Believe?” If we limit ourselves to widely-held stereotypes, the answer seems filled with cognitive dissonance.  On the other hand, if we allow his response to help us brush away all the detritus of easy caricatures and selfish political agendas, we can then answer honestly.  When we do, we can preserve a voice that is uniquely Christian, and we can allow that voice to speak in a way that is neither shrill nor strident.  Instead, the Christian voice becomes one that can sing in harmony with the rest of us, the rest of humanity, as we all seek to find hope in the darkness of empty tombs.

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