Religion Isn’t the Problem

Christianity Today has an interesting interview with Ross Douthat the author of Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press). You can read the whole interview here.

At the end of the interview, Douthat is asked “How do you adapt to cultural forces while maintaining tradition?”

You have to address the issues and places where orthodoxy has lost people over the past few decades without just saying, “We’re losing people here, so we just need to change this teaching or jettison this,” which was the accommodationist answer. There’s evidence to suggest that churches that self-consciously surrender big chunks of Christian teaching don’t seem to thrive in the long run. Also, it has to be possible to be Christian on contentious cultural issues without making it seem like Christianity is just an appendage of the Republican Party.


Finally, it’s very important for contemporary Christians to be ecumenical and to see the best in one another’s congregations, but not at the expense of having a robust, resilient internal culture within their own churches. Lewis compares his “Mere Christianity” to a hallway with doors opening into various rooms, which are the actual Christian churches. You can’t spend all your time in the hallway. You can go out into the hallway to talk, but you have to go back in the rooms to worship.

There are a couple on interesting points being made here.First, Douthat is correct that Christians need to not conform their dogmatic and moral teaching to the spirit of the age. Seeking to keep people by compromise is a project guaranteed to fail if for no other reason than because what he calls the accommodationist answer makes the Church look more like the surrounding society and so less like herself. Yes, the Gospel in its fullness is not an “easy sale” but moral or dogmatic accommodation is only possible at the expense of what is distinctive–and so at least potentially attractive to inquirers and faithful alike–about the Church.

His second point–that it should be possible for Christian to offer a witness in the Public Square on “contentious cultural issues without making it seem like Christianity is just an appendage of the Republican Party”–is somewhat more problematic. The independence that Douthat calls for is certainly good and necessary but it is not wholly under the Church’s control. At least in the American context, the broader culture is increasingly polarized on a range of moral issues and public policy matters. In such a context even the most carefully crafted response is likely to be interpreted by many as the Church taking sides in partisan politics.

We simply cannot, for example, support legalize abortion or the re-definition of marriage to include same-sex couples. While there is likely a range of morally acceptable public policies positions we Christians can hold to help pregnant women or to protect the civil rights of sexual minorities, such policies we can’t do so at the expense of the moral tradition.

Likewise, Christians can–and in fact should–disagree on the best way to care for the poor and to preserve the peace. To the best of my knowledge what Christians disagree about is not whether to care for those indeed but what is the best way to do so. Likewise with issues of national security, what disagree about is not that justice and peace are good but how to promote them in the practical order.

Where I think Douthat is right is that whether from the political let or right we be very careful with (1) identifying our own prudential decisions with the Gospel and (2) assuming those who disagree with us as operating  in bad faith.

His last point–that Christians must both see the best in each other’s traditions while fostering “a robust, resilient internal culture” within their own community–is not just “very important” but foundational for an effective Christian witness in a secular and polarized culture. Like it or not, and I suspect many Christians don’t like it at all–my behavior as an Orthodox Christians priest has positive and negative implications for how people see the ministry of a Baptist minister. And the same is true for me, many people will see me in light of their experience with Evangelical Christians or Roman Catholics.

Whatever we make of it theologically–Christian witness is necessarily a shared witness that transcends our theological differences. It is to my advantage as an Orthodox Christian to help my Episcopalian or Presbyterian neighbor live more faithfully his or her life in Christ. Yes we disagree with much of what such a life means but we can’t allow these real–and often substantive–differences to blind us to the fact that in the eyes of the world we are all of us simply Christians.

This last point is one that we overlook to our own harm. The vast majority of people–including Christians–are not interested in the dogmatic differences that divide Christians. This is lamentable and we need  to the religious indifference that is common among American Christians. But as a pastoral matter  we can’t start with an approach that Christians look like simply one more group of individuals struggling for social or political dominance.

Much less can we as Christians allow out differences to become so important that we appear to outsiders, and even our own faithful, as merely two political parties each seeking victory over the other. We need, Douthat argue, to take a positive, more constructive approach.Without it, Christians appear to be simply another internally divided faction struggling for power.

What this more positive approach might look like is, alas, beyond me. But as always, your comments, criticism, thoughts and questions are welcome and actively sought.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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