Last week, I shared this Rollie Williams link in praise of Fred Rogers on my FB page: http://www.upworthy.com/the-nicest-man-in-history-had-a-shocking-secret-you-never-knew-about?c=ufb1 The basic point was that Fred Rogers was a great guy and his shocking secret was that he was a Christian. The author said Mr. Rogers’ message was the opposite of the “lack of love and compassion” that characterizes most of Christianity. It praised Rogers for his caring, generous spirit (my words) and for keeping his faith secret (actually, he was not at all secret about his faith. See. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/eliot-daley/fred-rogers_b_862976.html While proselytizing was not his ministry – and that could never have happened on publicly funded TV even if he had wanted to – Mr. Rogers’s religion was never a secret. He even concluded his acceptance speech for his Emmy, “May God be with you.”) I take the thrust of Rollie Williams’ post to mean that secularists should not despise all Christians because, although most of us are harsh, judgmental jerks, some Christians are ok – so long as they keep their relationship with Christ a secret.
Feeling my faith damned by faint praise, I shared the Williams link saying I was left perplexed. While Rollie Williams’ view of Christians is wrong on the facts, I still want to know how he came to think this of us. He is clearly a well-intentioned person trying to be magnanimous and affirming the core values we actually hold. His objection isn’t to our message, but to us, the messengers. He reminds me of a seminary classmate who in her younger days rejected Jesus, claiming she believed instead in Aslan – only later to learn that Aslan was C. S. Lewis’s fantasy avatar (so to speak) of Jesus. I want to understand how we look to Rollie Williams and why. I received a number of very good, insightful comments. I was particularly engaged by three comments taking different perspectives:
Fr. Torey understood the Mr. Rogers article as reflecting the narcissistic, solipsistic (my words) culture in which “there is nothing more worship-worthy than one’s opinions.” (He was not talking about the author of the article but the cultural context). I agree wholeheartedly with Torey’s view of our culture and the state of religion in it.
Dave was one of several voices denying that Christianity is generally “lacking in love and compassion.” I focus on Dave because of his broad encounter with Christianity. He has been an Episcopalian, a Presbyterian, a Southern Baptist, and a “contemporary Evangelical.” Yet he has not found the kind of Christianity Williams decries in any of the churches where he has worshiped. I mostly concur with Dave. While I have, on occasion, encountered mean-spirited bigotry in churches of several stripes, I have encountered more of it in secular settings. Like, Dave, I have never personally been in a church where love and compassion were not the overwhelming moral message.
Deacon Scot may, at first, seem to be at odds with Torey and Dave. But I am going to substantially agree with him too. Scott lays the blame for the ill-repute of Christians with the Christians themselves, saying we have portrayed Christ as a fool and God as a “petty tyrant,” and that if we presented a faith people with half a brain or half a heart could accept, the churches would be full. I don’t think Dave is talking about the hate-mongering Westboro Baptist Church or Franklin Graham’s Islamophobic prejudice. He is a Deacon of a progressive Episcopal Diocese. But Dave is saying that we mainline Christians have not presented a true account of our faith, that we have not been outspoken in presenting the God of Love in contrast to the hateful God of the Left Behind Series brand of Christianity. We have ceded the name “Christian” to the crazies. I think Scott is right. We, mainline Christians and moderate Evangelicals, bear our share of responsibility for the low stock of the gospel in society, and the part about our portraying God as “a petty tyrant” is precisely right.
So after giving credit to these insightful commenters who have sparked my thoughts, here’s my take on why so many people regard Christians as mean-spirited bigots, when on the whole we are not.
I. PERSECUTED FOR RIGHTEOUSNESS SAKE?
Psalm 44: 22; Isaiah 53; 1 Peter 3 & 4; and Matthew 5: 10 all say that righteousness will subject us to persecution. “Righteousness” does not mean stern faced judgmental piety. It means “right relationship” with God, the earth, and each other – right relationship with the past, with the present, with the future, and with eternity. In a culture drunk on subjectivity and pathologically averse to deep or committed relationships, especially those rooted in tradition, faith in transcendent mystery, and inconvenient moral duties, a lot of people are going to find us problematic. The Wisdom of Solomon Ch. 2 is in point. To the extent that we assert that there is such a thing as righteousness (a network of right relationship) and try to adhere to it, we make ourselves unpopular in a culture that finds righteousness objectionable.
But is that what is going on? 1 Peter 4:15 reminds us that just because we are Christians, that does not mean our persecutions are necessarily unjust. Christians can do wrong and be called to account for it by non-Christians. Which of these two scenarios is going on? The answer is: both.
There are Christians who are hate-mongers. Take a look at http://www.godhatesfags.com. There are also Christians who have stood silent while the hate-mongers act in our name. Good people, like Rollie Williams, object. So let’s give our critics that much.
But then there are times when Christians act righteously and are persecuted for it, sometimes by other Christians. Christians were beaten and jailed in the Civil Rights Movement and various peace movements. Those churches, such as the Episcopal Church, that have defended the rights and dignity of LGBT persons have paid a huge price. We have been slow and inadequate in our stand for LGBT persons, but to the extent we have done the right thing, we have paid a price.
But mostly we are judged, not from the religious right, but from the secularist perspective of the Williams post. What is going on there? Sometimes it may be innocent confusion. But I know Christians whose secular friends know good and well that they are not bigots. Yet the friends are distinctly uncomfortable with their religion. It is an elephant in the room. It is a disfigurement from which even our friends avert their eyes.
If asked their view of Christians, such secularists will say it is our judgmental bigotry, though they know that is not the case. It is our inconvenient insistence on a transcendent reality from which arises a moral order, our claim that there is a network of right relationships in which life flourishes. Some things are true which is inconvenient for those that are false; some things are right and others wrong. We may be wrong about truth and we may behave wrongly, but we still insist that there is Truth, there is Goodness, there is Beauty – which just makes us Platonists – but we go on to insist that all these transcendent values are One and that One is personal, which makes us Theists, and so on until we turn out to claim that God has come to us in Jesus – we are, like it or not – and many do not – Christians.
I believe this is Fr. Torey’s point. Some of our persecution is “blessed” and it is our place in a fragmenting disempowering society of solipsists to be Socratically inconvenient.
II. DISENGAGEMENT FROM THE WORLD
But what about the increasingly large number of people who genuinely, sincerely believe what the Mr. Rogers article says – that “love and compassion” are the opposite of the Christian message presumably of hatred and dismissal? Let me tell you a few very short, super simple stories.
After my mission trip to Kenya, my luggage needed a new zipper. The young man at the luggage repair shop asked me what I’d been doing in Africa. I told him about the Anglican Church’s work to save young women from genital mutilation and forced marriages and our efforts to fund their education. He said, “Where is your church? That’s a church I’d go to.”
When I went to help clean up a community center in Las Vegas on MLK Day, several young people who were there working on behalf of Starbuck’s or their fraternity, discovered I was a bishop and said, “Where is your church? If you’re here, we want to be there.”
I went a community organizing training in Texas this year. All of us trainees who were over 50 were church folks. The ones under 30 were not.
But two of the young adults said, each in their own way, “if I’d known Christians like the ones here I’d still be in the Church. In fact, I’m going to give it another try.”
My point: a lot of people, especially young people, don’t know anything about Christians except the bigots. Whose fault is that?
James Davison Hunter, in his book, To Change The World: The irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_0_17?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=hunter+to+change+the+world&sprefix=Hunter+to+change+%2Cstripbooks%2C295 traces the story of how mainline Christianity began to systematically withdraw from the wider culture in the mid-19th Century. We sold the hospitals, gave away the colleges, entrusted social services to the state and to secular non-profit agencies.
Mainline Christianity withdrew from a challenging world in which righteousness makes inconvenient demands on us. We withdrew inside the four walls of our churches and became a spiritual support group to each other. We have progressively made ourselves largely unknown and utterly irrelevant.
Those Christians who still live “in the world,” confront the larger culture in aggressive domineering ways reflective of their belief in an aggressive domineering God. Hunter analyzes the failures of both the Christian right and the Christian left to dominate the culture through power politics. Another example of aggressive domineering confrontation is proselytizing, selling the gospel like a product, using manipulative threats and promises. People rightly reject aggressive domineering confrontation in both cases.
Hunter invites Christians to “faithful participation” in the larger society, working alongside people of other faiths and people of no faith, for the common good. His point is that “faithful participation” is socially and politically effective. My experience is that when we engage the world through “faithful participation,” people learn that we are not bigots and some of them even want to join us. Those who continue to despise us will at least be harder pressed to despise us for the wrong reasons.
In sum, the negative impression so many secular people have of Christians is, as Scott says, a case of our reaping the whirlwind. If we want people to believe we stand for something good, decent, kind, and compassionate, then it is incumbent on us, not just as individuals, but as churches, to act boldly in the larger society.
III. UNPERSUASIVE, BORING, AND BANAL BELIEFS
Scott also argued that our belief system isn’t persuasive to people who have half a mind and half a heart. In my opinion, Scott is right, but I want to take this more expansive format to flesh out the problem more than he could in a FB comment.
A. The Petty Tyrant Versus The Fellow Sufferer
Many clergy today are more at home with a simplified psychology than they are with a mature theology. The result is that some of us don’t talk about God much and those who do don’t speak of God very well. Even in mainline churches, I hear God talk that betrays a very problematic image of God. In fact, some mainline Christians don’t like to talk about God because the only God they know is the Petty Tyrant.
The Petty Tyrant God is the one who sends all sorts of blessings and curses into our lives to reward, punish, teach, test, or otherwise manipulate us into doing what pleases him. Or he (and it is a “he”) pulls the strings of the universe to accomplish a secret plan in which all will work out – but he doesn’t plan to let us in on it.
No one with half a heart is going to love that kind of God – fear maybe; cow tow before, maybe – but love, no way. So 20th Century theologians gave us another God – the helpless God who really can’t do anything about this mess the world is in, but this God is infinitely empathetic – the Fellow Sufferer Who Cares.
Misery loves company. The folks with half a heart can like this God well enough, but the folks with half a brain will know such a God is not much help in a crisis. The Fellow Sufferer is an Innocent Bystander – but is that what we mean by God. It’s a far cry from “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light in accessible hid from our eyes” or “King of Gory, King of Peace.”
Short simple point: We aren’t offering the world a compelling portrait of God. Our better theologians actually are offering a profound, beautiful, intellectually credible, compelling portrait of God. Unfortunately, they don’t speak the language of the people in the pews or even a lot of the people in the pulpits. It isn’t that people aren’t smart enough. People are plenty smart. The problem is that academic theologians are talking to each other in the language of academic theology. That’s what they are supposed to do. But we are not training clergy to translate the deep wisdom of our faith into English – not dumb it down – people are smart – translate deep truths into common language. Take the trouble to explain it.
This is do-able. Commercial break for a moment of shameless self-promotion: My forthcoming book God Of Our Silent Tears may be challenging at times, but it is in English. It does take the God images of Rahner, Hart, Sobrino, Hick, Adams, et al and make them accessible to bright people who want to think about what they believe. I am not alone. Shirley Guthrie’s Christian Theology does a good job of it as well. If clergy make the effort, we can present a God who will be more than acceptable to people with half a brain and half a heart. We can present a God who will enrich people’s lives beyond the reach of imagination.
B. Triumph of the Therapeutic
Know that I write this as one who has spent more time on the metaphoric couch than most and do not regret it. I respect therapy. Three members of the next generation of my family are therapists. I have been to Esalen, Omega, the Gestalt Institute, etc. etc. etc. I do psychosynthesis work almost daily.
But therapy and religion, while touching each other and sometimes overlapping each other, are not the same thing. Philip Reif wrote 40 years ago about the displacement of religion, which offers a large frame of reference for life, with the therapeutic model focused on the individual self. Eventually we came, as Reif predicted, to a society in which the most influential spiritual leader was a talk show host. http://ncronline.org/blogs/grace-margins/oprah-and-triumph-therapeutic
Since mainline Christianity abandoned the larger society, I am glad someone as beneficent as Oprah stepped in to take our place. But the cultural shift in Western religion has been the replacement of Christianity with a creed that is currently known as Moral Therapeutic Deism. This short article truly is worth a read. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/aprilweb-only/116-11.0.html.
Again in the absence of a healthy robust Christian presence in the world, MTD is not that bad. As a trend of the rock of intellectual culture rolling steadily downhill from Kant to Kierkegaard to Camus to – God help us – John Lennon, it was inevitable. In the absence of authentic witness from Christianity and other world religions, this is what we got. God became the “cosmic butler and on call therapist.” We learned to be nice, get help as needed, and hope to go to heaven when we die. As secularism goes, it could be a lot worse. But the Christianity Today version of MTD[i] is sometimes not so different from what mainline churches, mega-churches, and even contemporary evangelical churches offer as an alternative to the angry judgmental religion that rightly offends moral secularists. Such an innocuous worldview is a far cry from the Christian faith people have gone to the stake to defend.
Another social media discussion I am following has leading Christians saying of MTD, “what’s wrong with it?” Again, I say, “not much” for secularists. For the intentionally “spiritual but not religious,” it’s fine. But for the Church: As practiced by some, it is the brand of religion Marx called the “opiate of the masses” helping people adjust to the world instead of changing it. MTD can easily reinforce the ego; indeed make ego-goals the be all and end all of life, instead of the fundamental problem with life as it has been held to be by the great religious teachers from Buddha to Jesus to Mohammed. For the Church, it is offering a cut rate watered down version of what psychotherapy can do considerably better than we can.
Finally, if Christians are right that Creation and our spiritual journey through it are wonderful and mysterious gifts, we need a word view larger than the version of MTD that Christianity Today describes. If St. Augustine is right that human beings have an innate sense of the vast mystery, that we are wired for God (and there is neurological evidence that we are wired for God), that “our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee,” then MTD is ultimately not satisfying.
I offer no defense for aggressive domineering Christianity. I am against it. I offer no defense for the inward looking disengaged from the world support group churchianity of the modern mainline denominations – except that I do deny that they are hate-mongers or bigots. For those who are outside the Church, if MTD offers them some modicum of grace and comfort, then I am glad for it.
But if the Church is to be the Body of Christ, we need meatier stuff. We need faith and spiritual disciplines that equip us to engage in the world-changing Kingdom Mission. We need spiritual resources for an adventure in which we will have to contend against powers and principalities – both spiritual and temporal that repress the children of God and make us less than we were created to be.
If we are not a crucible of transformation in which lives are set on fire for a mission that invests this life with deep meaning and offers hope for joy in eternity, then we are boring. Domineering aggressive Christianity is at least interesting, albeit in a bad way. If we are boring, then we will understandably be either ignored entirely or tarred with the same brush as the bigots.
The stock of the gospel in our culture is low. We can blame the culture for that, and we will be partly right. The technological juggernaut of consumerist culture is not as God would want it to be. If this were the Kingdom, if this world were already as God wants it, we would not be praying, “Your Kingdom come.”
But our mission is not to blame the culture. It is not to condemn, harangue, or berate the culture. Our mission is to faithfully participate in the culture. That will not be easy. But as Chesterton said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried.” I hope we try it and see if it changes Rollie Williams’ opinion of us.
[i] From following social media conversations, I know that some people like to embrace the label of MTD but actually adhere to a larger worldview than the definition that arose from a survey of adolescent beliefs.