What Christianity Means (Note: Not “to Me”)
March 31, 2013
One of the insidious developments among my students, readers, auditors, and interlocutors is consumerism about theology. Instead of arguing, say, about whether this or that understanding of the Atonement was right or wrong, was true to the Biblical data and faithful to the tradition or not, more and more one hears the assertion, “I don’t like that way of looking at it.”
In other discourses, that would be a sign of extreme ignorance or a form of mental illness. “I don’t like that way of looking at gravity” or “I don’t like that way of understanding compound interest” or even “I don’t like that way of theorizing about poetry.”
To be sure, intuition per se must be respected. Often people make sound judgments that they cannot (yet) articulate, much less can they outline a chain of evidence and inference that led them to this or that conclusion. So if someone tells me that she finds a particular interpretation of providence troublesome or a version of soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) problematic, I try to listen for what might be the issue at stake. Perhaps she is onto something important that is deficient about the theology and it just isn’t yet in focus.
What concerns me instead is the increased frequency with which I encounter well informed people who “just don’t like” one or another theological tenet and so feel utterly free to reject it.
Substitutionary atonement is a little too bloody for you, reminds you too much of your demanding parent, causes your friends to look at you strangely? Then don’t believe it!
Genesis 1-3 seems difficult to square with biology, makes you feel uncomfortable in school, causes you to wonder about the authority of Scripture? Just mythologize it!
Sexual intercourse being restricted to marriage strikes you as old-fashioned, cramps your romantic life, prompts your cool friends to mock you? Well, escape it!
Again, I offer here no brief for slavish devotion to tradition. I’m on record as espousing a variety of nontraditional views, from kenotic Christology to feminism, from a “just deserts” view of hell to a demurral from the ordination of clergy. And often theology emerges from initial feelings of dislocation and disquiet, from a sense that something is wrong with the teaching I have received and it warrants another look.
What I am troubled by is the blithe sense that if I don’t like a teaching, I am free to dismiss it. Not to argue with it, not to demonstrate the superiority of alternatives to it, but simply to ignore it as unpleasing to me in some way. And that’s just weird. If theology is anything, it is a description of reality.
Theology deals with Pretty Big and Complicated Subjects, as a rule, so its descriptions are always subject to the limitations of the theologians, and that means theology is provisional and therefore questionable. What theology is not, however, is a discourse of mere preferences.
You may wish the Bible authorized you to sleep with anyone you love (or even just like), but it just doesn’t, and you are not free in any responsible intellectual sense to think it does. You may wish that theology allowed you to be a shark at work and a martinet at home, but it doesn’t. You may wish that you could confess any doctrine and practice any ethic and worship any version of God you prefer and still call yourself a Christian, but you’re free in that case only to demonstrate your ignorance of how words work.
In a distinction I first encountered in Chesterton, you certainly are free (politically and socially) to call yourself a giraffe, but if you want to communicate, you’d better have a very long neck, a spotted coat, and backward-bending knees to be taken seriously as such. You certainly are free (politically and socially) to call yourself a Christian, but if you want anyone serious to take you seriously, your beliefs and practices have to conform with what literally defines Christianity—among which sources is not your own individual opinion.
Today is the day in which we Christians say to each other, “The Lord has risen!” Among the appropriate responses is not, “Well, I prefer to think otherwise. This whole bodily resurrection thing seems so primitive to me, rather embarrassing, actually, and I’d much rather affirm the glory of a new springtime, the miracle of the life cycle, and the promise of hope in everyone’s heart.”
By all means, let’s provoke each other to love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24), and among those “good deeds” can be better understandings of theology—that is, interpretations of the Bible and of everything else God has shown us that correspond better to the evidence; cohere with what else we hold as fundamentally true, good and beautiful; and issue in holy love. What isn’t on the table is milk and cookies if you just like them better than bread and wine.