Sunday, July 5, 2015

Church and state.

I ask your indulgence; I don't write much about religion, and I haven't written a book about it to date, but this has been on my mind for months.

Last Lent I mentioned a book I had started to read (as I usually try to do some devotional reading during Lent and Advent) but put down a few chapters in. It was by a well-known and extremely well-meaning layman about spreading the faith and helping bring others to salvation. I know he is well-educated; I think he is also wrong-headed. 

Here is the problem: His premise is that young people are hungering for authenticity above all things; they hear lots of words from their elders but see few actions. The way to bring the faith is to put our love into action and demonstrate that we are what we say we are---we must feed the hungry; visit the homebound and sick; clothe the naked; shelter the homeless; show mercy to all; love those who hate us.

You can't argue with that, or at least you shouldn't, right? This is our mission statement as Christians. This is the Imitation of Christ. In fact, it's not what we must do to spread the faith; it's what we must do, period. 

My argument is: It is not going to work. 

Of course it will work in one sense, to help those directly affected. But as a means of teaching others that here is the spirit of authentic goodness for which you long; here is the faith that works? I doubt it. 

Political writers (I don't know who first) have long noted that politics is downstream from culture. We think that it was political machinations that cause major upheavals in our cultural landscape, but it's the other way around. Have we become a people hopelessly and helplessly addicted to government largess, like My Big Fat Greek (But Not Yet So Far Along) Twin? This theory says that it's not the politicians who led us in like a guy with a ten-dollar bill on a fishhook; it's us who voted for the politicians who promised the free stuff, because our culture said it was our right to demand it. And now it's we the people of the United States who will fight anyone that threatens to take our freebies away, with viciousness and invective and verve we should use for nobler and more useful things. 

The same goes for religion. As David French recently wrote, as regards the Supreme Court's gay-marriage decision:

For many believers, this new era will present a unique challenge. Christians often strive to be seen as the “nicest” or “most loving” people in their communities. Especially among Evangelicals, there is a na├»ve belief that if only we were winsome enough, kind enough, and compassionate enough, the culture would welcome us with open arms. But now our love — expressed in the fullness of a Gospel that identifies homosexual conduct as sin but then provides eternal hope through justification and sanctification — is hate. 

French doesn't go far enough, in my opinion; the problem was deepening before the culture made a major shift on the definition of marriage. Any faith requires belief in its tenets, but nobody believes anything. We could be an army of Mother Teresas, but someone who refuses to even consider accepting the divinity of Jesus Christ is not going to come within a mile of us unless they plan to take something and get away. Having come through a long and hard road of agnosticism, paganism, and half a dozen other -isms, I'm amazed to find myself standing amid many people who claim to want to make up their own minds, but whose interest in educating those minds so they can make them up is zero. In truth, they think they have no soul to save, or that God is nice and will save them no matter what. 

That's the culture; that's what we're up against. Be as authentic as you want; the moment you explain that our faith requires Shirley to stop doing something Shirley likes doing (random sex with strangers, drinking to excess, ignoring church services, ruining the reputations of others online)---especially if it's something of which the culture tacitly or implicitly approves---we've lost Shirley. In other words, people may claim to want authenticity in others, but I suspect it is really a cover for not wanting to have to be authentic themselves. And that's a problem no matter who the church says you can marry.

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