Disclaimer: as I’m covering a really tough subject, this post is really long, approaching the length of some of my undergraduate upper-level term papers. I’ve generally written shorter posts, but I’ve decided to lengthen my writing to give me more time to be thorough.
A Perplexing Problem
Despite maintaining Christian beliefs, I have wondered of late whether or not religion can ever avoid a natural proclivity toward evil. Before even asking if Jesus can “save” me, the question is, “Should I save Jesus?” That is, should I or anyone bother to salvage the idea of Jesus from its longstanding tendency toward cultural dominance to the exclusion and even subversion of outsiders? Not that I believe this is what Jesus taught, but this is how people use him. So, should I save Jesus? My answer for now is “I don’t know.” Jesus or really any god as a concept introduces so many problems that interfere dramatically with daily living, especially when people try to follow divine revelation, as I have outlined recently. When people suppose that some idea is the product of divine revelation, that idea is now incorrigible. People take this idea, close themselves off to reality, and do stupid, hateful things — things that they would never do in their right minds were it not for supposed divine revelation.
To compound all of that, the flow of time continually obscures the meanings of religious texts. Even though I know much of Genesis is myth and not historical narrative, maintaining this knowledge requires continual investment into generation after generation of scholars, not to mention educating churchgoers about developments in scholarship in spite of the fundamentalists who pervert learning with their boundaries on belief in spite of evidence leading outside those bounds.
So if we intend to save Jesus, he had damn well better be worth it.
This might all sound like a build-up to a dramatic conclusion where I tout the Big J’s wonderful attributes and consider this case closed. It’s not, and I hope any skeptics reading this find my ultimate conclusions less than cliche. I genuinely have a hard time answering this question. While I have been ruminating on this subject for a while, things changed when I read Zach Hoag’s post Three Reasons You’re Not Too Smart for Orthodoxy. The article brought to my attention serious problems with the usual methods of relating to our beliefs as Christians.
I lamented to Zach in the article’s comments that I did not share his optimism about the role of orthodoxy in the church. My critique was that even if we were to resolve the gay marriage debate and finally accept differences in sexuality and gender identity, there would very likely be another major culture crisis in 50 years’ time, and Christianity would fall flat on its face once more. I contended that without reinvisioning our relationship with belief altogether, Christianity will continually support injustice through its inflexibility.
As a result of Zach’s post, I began to wonder what it would be like to have what I call “sustainable orthodoxy,” where our beliefs compel us to progress past our current mistakes rather than chain us to how things have always been. Hopefully, by the end of this piece, I will have at least a rough outline of what it will require, though the feasibility of these requirements may still be up in the air.
On top of all this, atheist blogger and philosopher Dan Fincke wrote a post only a short while ago entitled Opposing the Jesus Meme. His stance on this has been to oppose even the rehabilitation of Jesus into anything positive, claiming that doing so only contributes to the “aura of holiness” which serves to support all the abusive and debilitating practices typically found in Christian circles. Supposing that Christians did in fact attempt to salvage Jesus, they may just wind up lending credibility to the ideas which they oppose.
When you add it all up, things really look poor, even if there is truth in the traditions surrounding Jesus’ teachings. Would the world be better off if we left the Jesus meme to die? Let me attempt a Jesus’ (rather than Devil’s) Advocate argument just to see where it lands us.
I will break this down into a few key segments. Two questions need answering: first, whether Jesus has anything to offer in the first place; and second, whether what Jesus has to offer is unique enough to risk lending credibility to spiritually abusive forms of Christianity. Having answered these, the question becomes what to do as a result.
1. Does Jesus offer anything at all?
This depends almost entirely on one’s interpretation of Jesus’ life and teachings, with much of the rest of your view on Christianity flowing out of this. As I see it, there are two primary interpretations, each with their various subtypes and nuances (I am aware that not all varieties of Christian belief will fit nicely into these two categories, but I have attempted to make them sufficiently broad to describe most commonly-held approaches to Christian belief).
The first interpretation considers Jesus as capping off the sacrificial system established by God in the Old Testament. Jesus came and completed a centuries-long process, sacrificing himself on the cross as a substitution for the death we should have endured. This is what I will call the conservative outlook on Christianity. It tends to view the Bible as a systematic revelation from God, where Jesus needs to fit nicely into place like the final piece of a jigsaw puzzle.
This is the interpretation which leads to all the aforementioned problems, because viewing religion as a systematized and final answer to life’s problems precludes the need for further investigation. There is a reason conservatives receive criticism for being prejudiced, and that is because conservative religion is prejudiced by its very nature. To be prejudiced is to assume one understands an issue prior to ever encountering it, which is exactly the structure of conservative belief.
The second interpretation views Jesus as a subversion or reinterpretation the systems established in the Old Testament. In as much as Jesus may have been a historical figure, he is also a mythical reinvisioning of the Jewish story which began (mythically) in Adam. Thus, we have the genealogies in the gospels tying us back to that myth and putting an unexpected twist on what it all means. The Jews wanted a political Messiah, and though Jesus was certainly political, he was not just for the Jews. Jesus took the Jews’ narrative of being a chosen people whom God would save from captivity, and he made that the story of humanity. This what I will call the progressive outlook.
This second outlook, I believe, has many metaphysical and ethical implications which are strikingly important, not to mention that I believe it is significantly more honest about the inconsistencies between the Old and New Testaments. Not only does this view preserve at least a modicum of intellectual integrity which conservative Christianity seems to lack, it also gives us two of the most important principles outlined in my previous post: cultural mediocrity and the importance of virtue over having the right beliefs.
These two principles are, I believe, readily discernible just from examining the world around us, but that is something of the point. Jesus came to dispel our artificial systems of exclusion to encourage us toward a more natural way of living. Whatever Jesus may have revealed, which is mostly unknown but can be inferred from trends within Christian tradition, it was not special revelation only knowable through God; it was a reorientation to the world which has always been there around us.
This being well and good, one might ask what supports the second view as the right view of Christianity instead of a reflection of liberal Protestant sentiment. Here, I will argue that the trajectory of the early church, at its inception, was toward inclusion. The sorts of things Jesus seems to have taught are, by my reading, very inclusive, but the early church certainly did not take inclusion as far as it could. In fact, as soon as it got the chance, it deliberately took a turn for exclusion, instead (I’m looking at you, Constantine).
Still, I count it as no accident that fairly inclusive sects have arisen throughout Christian history. While Christian hegemony in Rome set in very quickly, several of the Eastern Orthodox traditions remained very inclusive and nonjudgmental, today’s Russian Orthodox Church notwithstanding. Then, of course, sects like the Anabaptists, Quakers, and others have a long history of trending toward inclusivism.
Thus, I have no qualm about suggesting that Christianity, when it divests itself of the need to maintain political power, is inherently inclusive. What today’s progressive Christianity suggests about inclusion is, I believe, a next step in parsing out the implications of inclusion. And we take these steps because of the example set by Jesus, not because he gave us special knowledge, but because he helped us move past our prejudices to see what has always been in front of us.
It follows that atheism shares many causes with progressive Christianity, because both try to divest themselves of unnecessary prejudices in order to see the world as it is. Prima facie, it might seem the primary difference between the two is, obviously, God, but here God functions in such a way as to support an ethic and epistemology almost identical to that of an atheist. So while God is still a significant difference, the primary difference here is, in fact, the organized community and powerful vocabulary which Christianity provides through the church. In the ideal case, the church should foster ethics and sound reasoning, with participation in the church community building these virtues. Sadly, this is oftentimes not the case, which brings me to my second question.
2. Is what Jesus offers unique enough to merit saving?
In reality, the church ends up being a vehicle for many abusive tendencies and irrational ways of thought. So, if we can have what Jesus offers while avoiding the trappings of a culture which is prone to abuse, then all the better, right? Should we all go be secular humanists? Maybe. There is a lot here to consider.
First off, I believe virtue stems from participation in a community. Only to the extent that we feel we belong to a group do we reorient ourselves and our desires to fit into that group. Individualism by itself is, I believe, a great evil, alienating people from one another and ending with the complete dissolution of meaningful ethical choices. Philosophically speaking, my thoughts run alongside Alisdair MacIntyre, for any who care (i.e. virtue is an excellence relevant to a given society, not a timeless and immutable principle).
For example, consider science as a profession. Within the context of individualism and narrow-focused self-interestedness, it makes very little sense to be a scientist: you likely won’t make loads of money, you’ll have to study very hard to be any good at it, and much of your work could be fairly tedious. But within a community, you understand that your work contributes something worthwhile to the society, and thus you have a sense of accomplishment and belonging. The work is worthwhile because it helps people whom you value.
Though many churches do not, in fact, value science, the pulpit already exists a powerful platform which, used well, could transform and revitalize culture. This is, essentially, what Neil deGrasse Tyson has done through his reboot of the Cosmos series, using his place in the spotlight to draw people into the wonder of science not strictly as an academic activity but as a human activity. This sort of thing is precisely what we need and also what the church is so well equipped to do if it could only set its values straight. Because after the Cosmos series ends, Neil will resume his usual activities, and while he and others may make occasional public appearances, there will be little else to invite people into the science community.
Excellence in scientific study is one among many virtues the church could very well promote if it could pull its head out of conservativism with its apologetics and exclusivism. This is not just what the church could do but also what it should do if it wishes to adhere to the inclusivist and life-affirming trends which birthed it.
The problem in all of this is that even if we do experience a period of revitalization and renewal of virtue, we could very well relapse into religious fundamentalism at a later time. There is little to guarantee long-term renewal, especially given that inclusivism largely died within Christianity almost immediately. How can we expect Christianity not to repeat its own mistakes if we do not change its intrinsic structure? Is the Christian message unique enough to merit the risk of relapse, even if we should repair the damage today?
Here, I am at a loss to answer either way. On the one hand, I think Christian inclusivism is exactly what the world needs. Most of my thoughts on ethics today consist of inclusion and cooperation versus exclusion and othering, which is how I read the Gospel. Whatever mistakes Christianity may have made, we do not have to bind ourselves to those mistakes and may in fact admit and move past them. We need people in the world who champion such inclusion.
On the other hand, with Christianity’s history, it would be extremely easy for someone 100 years from now to dredge up Christian fundamentalism and revive it under the pretense that he/she has rediscovered “true” faith. Cue the crowds, the manipulation under spiritual pretenses, etc. We would have another Mark Driscoll or John Piper (or worse, a Fred Phelps) reincarnated for the 22nd century.
The Way Forward
Instead of answering affirmatively that yes, Christianity is worth saving, I will instead suggest some things that would need to happen for this to be the case. First of all, we need to increase the level of historical literacy within lay Christianity, establishing this not only as a thing some churches do but an integral part of Christian tradition. Every new church group that emerges these days believes that they are doing things exactly as Christians did it in some mythical time of the Good Ol’ Days, pretending their distinctively western, post-Englightenment views of the Bible and faith are the True Christian views. If you spread the facts, people will eventually disabuse themselves of such notions. There is a reason we don’t have to shoot down flat earth theory or geocentrism with each passing generation: people know enough not to give these views any consideration.
Additionally, those participating in the revitalization must state explicitly that inclusivism is key to Christianity. In the Gospels, this message comes in the form of various stories which shatter common Jewish expectations of being the Chosen People, showing that God loves and cares for all people in spite of their religious backgrounds. That message often flies right by contemporary readers. Today, we must re-express that sentiment in more intelligible terms for our cultures. We need new parables and new statements that affirm the fundamental importance of inclusivism.
This may require an explicit statement of separation from religious conservativism in order to prevent any sense of legitimacy from bleeding out of progressivism. This, of course, could be a tricky venture and would need for there to be some sort of way to avoid the pitfalls of the ever-splintering Protestantism. This could be fairly easy given the acceptance of cultural differences within more progressive churches — what would be an irreconcilable split in a conservative church could easily be a difference of opinion or taste elsewhere. Still, one would need to be mindful of such a thing.
Lastly, we need to reorient Christian epistemology away from its dependence on special revelation for making judgments about the world. As long as we are looking to our Bibles to understand the world rather than engaging with the world directly, we are using the Bible improperly, and we will continue to have these same problems. The Bible must inspire us to correct injustice in the world (see my post about the Bible as an icon); it cannot tell us the exhaustive list of all that is good and bad in an ever-changing environment.
If all of these things together can happen, then Christianity is worth rescuing by my count. It could be a dynamic and powerful force for good. If these things are impossible, then let Christianity die as a cultural force. The point of life for a Christian progressive is not to hold to the right beliefs but to live seeking goodness. If Christianity can’t do this, then let someone else take up the mantle for championing truth, love, and justice. If Christ must die again to bring the same restoration he sought at the first, then so be it. God will be dead, and Christians will have killed him.