In the midst of reading up on diverse reviews of Rod Dreher’s new book, The Benedict Option, (here) (here) (here), before going to see him on a panel in DC next week, I realized the question of what Christians are to do in present-day American culture should go back to the more basic question of what Christianity actually is. Sounds boringly theologian-ish. But we spend enough words arguing about other stuff.
I think there is a widespread, often implicit identification of Christianity with three core commitments:
- A relationship to God, mediated through some kind of practice that nurtures an interior sense of the divine, which we usually end up calling a “spirituality.”
- A commitment to the service of others, in particular those most in need, those who are suffering, people who seem left out, etc.
- A belief in some sort of an afterlife, to which we can refer especially in times of tragedy and loss, as well as in our desires to maintain connection with family and friends who have died.
I don’t want to identify this cluster of commitments in ideological terms, especially as “liberal Christianity.” Such a term is often used synonymously with derogatory names like “Christianity lite,” and it is very clear that many people I know who have the above commitments are serious people who seriously live out these commitments. Moreover, in the way I’ve expressed them above, they cover a lot of people who might get labelled “conservative,” too – sure, their form of “spirituality” might look more traditional, and their commitment to service might take different forms. But it’s hard for me to recall a parish I’ve ever visited that doesn’t have a poor box, doesn’t engage in some sort of charitable giving, and doesn’t push people to develop some sort of spiritual practices. So these three core commitments aren’t really about serious vs. non-serious or liberal vs. conservative. Rather, they are an implicit creed, an implicit understanding of what Christianity is supposed to be about.
Dreher makes much of sociologist Christian Smith’s “moralistic therapeutic deism.” I’ve used MTD as a tool for building awareness of the residual Christianity that still pervades culture. It’s useful. Smith is surely right that many people believe something like this. But MTD isn’t a very useful tool for understand disagreements among public commentators, all of whom take their faith seriously. Beyond that, I’d say there are plenty of people at plenty of churches and parishes for whom the above three commitments are a much better descriptor of their core commitments than are the five marks of MTD.
And I hasten to add: unlike MTD, they are all true. Christianity really is about those things. I’m not heading toward a denial of them, or even a claim that the list doesn’t include something. The problem isn’t that the list is in error or incomplete. What the problem, then?
The problem is: these are key elements of Christianity, but they are not what Christianity is. It’s as if we have several parts of something, but not a conception of the whole. The best way to explain this is how I think I came to learn it over time: these core commitments can’t account for large parts of the New Testament. I don’t mean something trivial like proof-texting Jesus on “the poor you will always have with you.” Rather, these commitments leave one wondering: what exactly is St. Paul going on and on about in the first ELEVEN chapters of Romans? And what’s with those long, long speeches Jesus gives in John’s gospel? Why are they all about believing in him? And, while we’re at it, what’s with these huge books of laws and histories in the Old Testament? If one is looking for a nice, neighborly ethic or a bunch of virtuous exemplars, you’d better look elsewhere.
So, in the course of several years of graduate school, I more or less came to an understanding that what Christianity is is the story of how God is saving the world by gathering a people, and that the climax (though not the ending) of this story is God showing up in the flesh and dying, a mystery in which we participate not only in a paschal spirituality of dying and rising, not only in our self-sacrifice in service to others, but also in the rituals we call “sacraments,” which re-present the depths of the mystery. People who know me (and know where I went to school) won’t be surprised by what amounts to a “postliberal Catholic” definition of what Christianity is.
This overall story is the “absent context” within which I think the core commitments above make sense. That’s partly because I assume Christians do need to be accountable to the overall shape of Scripture. We do have to say, “Here’s how Romans makes sense.” But I admit that another deeply-motivating reason is because this is what prevents Christianity from becoming a tool – a tool for any worldly power, a tool for clerical excess, a tool for self-actualization (even when that self-actualization is a heavenly reward for good behavior). In short, we turn Christianity into something “for us,” when participating in God’s project of being “for us (sinners)” is the real point.
I have taught the scriptural story enough in introductory courses to know that… well, this is a very hard context to deploy. I don’t think it’s that strange, in a theological sense. It reads Scripture as a unity (as Dei Verbum asks), it links God’s self-revelation with God’s call to mission, it basically understands the Church as the people of God being a sacrament of Christ for the sake of the world (thank you, Lumen Gentium), it suggests the joy and hopes and griefs and anguish of the world are what the God seeks to engage through the Church (Gaudium et Spes), and it manifests liturgy as “source and summit.” But of course often enough none of these claims means much to students.
Why the miss 50 years later? Well, I’m partly writing this because I’m still trying to answer that question. Usually, I first think this is difficult to understand because it is eschatological – and saying that just adds another wrench. Put another way, I think people have difficulty understand God’s will to salvation being manifest in a particular, ongoing, cooperative historical project. Such a meaningful drama wrapping together spirit and history, God and humanity – it seems like either a (weird) movie or a bad joke. The whole notion of election and particularity is also tough. Even when one bends over backwards to emphasize that the call involves a task – better, than it involves giving of yourself so completely that the world might kill you for it – being a particular people is hard to swallow.
Yet whenever I sing “Here I am Lord” or “Be Not Afraid” or “Table Song” or “We Are Called” or “Gather Your People” or “One Bread, One Body” or “City of God” or … I’m like, it’s all right there! That’s exactly the kind of historical-spiritual happening being described. If we don’t mean “theocracy” – let’s assume this is not what people are thinking! – then we must mean something like what I’m describing.
In a time when our national politics feels like it is some kind of Star-Wars-esque battle between ultimate good and evil – one filled with what would be bad jokes if they weren’t real – and one where every day and every word seems designed to make sure you are on one side or the other – isn’t THIS the Christianity we need? But even more, isn’t this the Christianity we need because it is what Christianity is?