We Must Begin Again

I often wonder if a growing number of dedicated and well-taught Christians began to live a love-directed life with their neighbors what would happen to the churches of our land? America just may not see another great awakening. (I’ve been around revival movements for four decades-plus and I have to say we seem further from anything like true revival than ever.) Let’s face it, this republic may collapse much as ancient Rome did. But what would the City of God look like in the midst of such a major historical change? That is the question that ought to stir us as Christians, just as it did the famous Augustine of Hippo when he wrote about it in his time.

Having read Ross Douthat’s book, Bad Religion, and having commented on it here for several weeks now, I conclude today with his three positive prescriptions for what we can and should do to renew orthodox Christian faith and practice in America’s churches.

1. A renewed Christianity should be political but non-partisan. 

This means that we should avoid the nationalist tendencies of Americanism that I wrote about yesterday. We should also resist the temptations that lead us to fall prey to quietism or indifferentism. There is no single model for Christian politics, no single party and, most certainly, no single person to lead us into the uncertain future. This means that principle must triumph over party and that no party should gain our devoted allegiance. We are Christians first. Everything else must be a distant second. Have we forgotten this simple truth, which was so central to the survival and ultimate triumph of Christianity in the past?

The approach Douthat suggests begins with heeding Jesus’ counsel to “remove the log from our own eye; and then you can see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Christians can disagree about economic policies, social programs and the ways our government seeks to solve urgent problems. (The Supreme Court’s decision on Health Care announced yesterday comes to mind today!) The libertarian and conservative must be on guard against those places where their often rigid individualism leads them to idolatry. They are legion and they are closely linked with the rise of the modern Christian right. Liberal Christians must be on guard against the ways that they promote solutions within a statist and growing government that can become inhumane and then give us gigantic power that could well be used for immoral ends. To quote Douthat, “[Conservatives] must be constantly aware that Rush Limbaugh’s take on tax policy and Donald Rumsfeld’s views on water-boarding are not inscribed in the New Testament.” And, for good and necessary balance, he adds, “Those Christians for whom the Democratic Party still seems to provide a more natural home should make it their business to speak out loudly against the ways that liberalism can provide a warrant for libertinism.” But, quite sadly, “Our politics do not exactly overflow with examples of this kind of engagement” (Bad Religion, 285). This underscores my present concern for the stance of the U.S. Catholic Bishops. They have traditionally struck a prophetic balance here but recent concerns regarding the Health and Human Services debate may be ending this moderate and balanced stance. Time will tell.

The problem is that we honestly have very few examples of what Douthat appeals to in these three corrective steps. He cites examples from our past, from leaders like the late evangelical Baptist Mark Hatfield, who was an ardent anti-war Republican and an outspoken environmentalist. On the Democratic side he cites the Catholic legislator Sargent Shriver, a strongly pro-life, Catholic Democrat. (He names a few contemporary pro-life Democrats but shows how their stance has often been muted by party powers and concerns.) The fact is obvious–we have very few such leaders today. It is to our great loss as a people. Serious attempts to find a middle way that allows for dissent and yet seeks to find consensus for governance is all too rare right now.

2. A renewed Christianity should be ecumenical and confessional.

I write about this subject more than any single topic of interest to me personally. This is why this blog is sub-titled: “The Reflections of a Missional-Ecumenist.” It is, as my friends well know, the specific burden of my life. Douthat rightly says that robust ecumenism cannot become a watered-down version of weak faith with no conviction and  complete agreement. We can, indeed we must, have robust disagreements while we seek for new forms of Christian unity. C. S. Lewis, the man who coined the phrase “mere Christianity,” warned against allowing the word “mere” to become an alternative to the creeds of existing churches. We can do no less if we have a robust missional-ecumenism.

I am still amazed that people who hear me talk about my grand vision of a renewed Christianity rooted in unity and confessional orthodoxy cannot grasp what I mean. It is really not that complex an idea. Yet people react to my appeals for unity in various negative ways. They especially dislike the word ecumenism! I shall continue to answer their questions. I hope I will do so with patience and love. I will also explain my understanding as simply as I can. I am refreshed by the fact that Ross Douthat believes this vision is central to the future of Christianity in America.

3. A renewed Christianity should be both moralistic and holistic. 

“No aspect of Christian faith is less appealing to contemporary sensibilities than the faith’s long list of ‘thou shalt nots,’ and no prohibition attracts more exasperation and contempt than the Christian view of chastity and sex” (Bad Religion, 288). But continued efforts to downplay the moral demands of Christian faith have re-contextualized Christian faith and practice beyond anything remotely like historic and confessional Christianity. “The Christian view of sexuality is more essential to the faith as a whole than many modern believers want to acknowledge. Like most Christian dogmas, from the identity of Christ to the doctrine of the Trinity, it doesn’t just rest on a literal reading of a few passages of Scripture, which can easily be revised or reinterpreted” (Bad Religion, 288).

The church’s stance on sexuality should be rooted in ancient and modern ideas both. Douthat accurately writes that this orthodox stance is, “the fruit of centuries’ worth of meditation and argument on the whole of the biblical narrative, from the creation of Adam and Eve to Jesus’ prohibition on divorce” (Bad Religion, 288). Yes,  and we have changed this teaching rather radically, almost always (it seems to me) to our moral demise. This present debate did not begin in the last decade. Let those with eyes to see, truly see.

Yet so many of us who emphasize the sexual morality of the Bible, which has become an all too-easily politicized moral issue, can easily forget that there are seven deadly sins, not just one! What have we to say about avarice, gluttony and pride? The hypocrisy of our moral stance is so striking that multitudes of young Christians are now rethinking the entirety of our historic stance. If we continue down this path the Christian answer to questions of sexual morality will rightly be seem as “partial and hypocritical” when it turns its attention to the specific issue of homosexuality. It is, as Douthat reminds us, “the heterosexual divorce rate, the heterosexual retreat from marriage and the heterosexual out-of-wedlock birthrate that should command the most attention from Christian moralists” (Bad Religion, 289, italics are his not mine).

Ross Douthat concludes that religion and culture cannot live by instrumentality alone!  “It is not enough for Americans to respect orthodox Christianity a bit more than they do at the present” (Bad Religion, 293). To make any real difference we must understand the faith and live it. Christian faith is not a means to an end (think instrumentality again), even the end of a great national revival. Douthat concludes, “It is an end unto itself.” If we would change America then we must begin by changing ourselves first. Then, and only then, can we intentionally labor to change our churches. “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” There’s the place to begin again.

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