Christianity in Public (holy ship!)

As a Christian, I’ve never had a great deal of time for Christians. Perhaps it’s just the younger generation, but to my experience Christians are insufferably self-centered. Bored by their heritage and history, barely stopping to think about their Holy Book beyond its immediate application to their own petty lives – I don’t want to be too bitter, but for my part, the people who taught me the most about God’s love were my largely agnostic group of high school friends. I was an insufferable little shit who knew God and, therefore, thought he knew everything else, and they taught me humility, patience, and respect for folk outside your own world view.

For those reasons, and more besides, I promised myself upon starting this blog that I’d try and stay away from the ugly little sermons and testimonies that seem to make up the bulk of Christianity online (that, and asshole Republican blogs with names like ‘The Kindly Conservative’). If I don’t know somebody, and their prose is no good, by and large I’m not interested in their post about how Jesus loves us. That’s why I have the focus on theology – because at least this way you can’t read my blog without learning something about Christian heritage. However, in writing my last post on suffering, I noticed that there were aspects of contemporary Christian culture coming up that were probably worth addressing in more detail. We’ll call this little deviation an experiment, and if I read it again in two weeks and find it’s narcissistic and whiny I’ll delete the stupid thing, and we’ll say nothing more about it.

So last time I said that some Christians seem to have this self-righteous attitude where because they know the answer to some emotional turmoil, they feel as if they have the right to intrude on other people’s lives and tell them what’s what. In retrospect, this isn’t entirely fair (perhaps something of a trend in my attitude towards Christians). I think there’s actually a sort of cultural tension within Christian culture – and it’s got to do with a shift in terms of the role our beliefs play in our lives.

So the basic conception of Christianity in society can be found, Biblically, in the Great Commission. This is a passage at the end of Matthew where Jesus tells His disciples to go out and evangelise: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, as you go, disciple people in all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you.” It’s kinda like the New Testament version of God’s instruction to be fruitful and multiply, except it’s about converts rather than babies (could be about both, I guess). 

Earlier in the same book, Jesus has said that Christians are “the light of the world”, and that nobody puts a lamp under a basket: “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in Heaven” (Matt 5:16). There’s this big emphasis on being a Christian in the world, in the public square – and not just in the church choir on a Sunday morning. That’s all well and good, but I feel like it’s in the application of that theory that Christians today run into trouble.

Obviously we’re a much more diverse society now than we would have been during the reign of Christendom, where there was one big overarching moral and social law which governed everything. It was a stable point of reference, an authority you could invoke that everybody would understand and respect. That suits the more aggressive not-hiding-your-lamp model of telling people what’s what when it comes to God, or other faith-related matters like suffering. Today’s society doesn’t really suit that model, but many Christians seem to have not picked up on that fact. Gay marriage is a really topical example of this – the Christians who disagree with gay marriage tend to do one of two things:

A) Tell you loudly and insensitively about why they think you’re immoral; or

B) Quietly feel guilty for not picking Option A.

There’s this feeling that in order to be true to the faith (not hiding their faith under a basket, Great Commission, etc), Christians have to actively denounce these ‘evil’ things like gay marriage – especially because homosexuality is being presented as a morally acceptable thing. Christians who’re anti-gay feel like they have to assert the priority of their beliefs over those of other people – because it’s not just about individual opinions, it’s about God, and the nature of goodness. This is where the tension comes in – on the one hand, you can’t tell people about God if you’re an insensitive shit of a human being, because they won’t listen to you – but on the other hand, you shouldn’t compromise your faith just to make everybody else happy with you. That would be hiding your light under a metaphorical basket.

I read a fascinating article the other day about how, historically, Christianity has always claimed the moral high ground in opposing various social doodahs. This article suggested that gay rights was unprecedented in church history simply because, in the eyes of the public, they’d seized the moral high ground from the Christians, portraying the anti-gay movement as committing that most heinous sin, the inhibition of personal freedom. It’s actually kinda funny to watch, because you see Christians getting high and mighty about the morality of gay people, and then you see the liberal community getting high and mighty about the Christian understanding of freedom.

Anyway, I’m getting off-topic. The basic point is that our culture’s shifted, and Christians are still trying to figure out how to be Christians in this new culture. We notice the twerps who overstep social boundaries because there’s a new understanding of social boundaries and the nature of individuality. Christians are still playing catch-up, trying to figure out exactly what public faith looks like in the face of massive diversity – because diversity is what’s causing this moral low ground that (anti-gay) Christians appear to be on. There’s the logic of ‘People are diverse, tolerate difference, these Christians are unwilling to tolerate difference (and therefore inhabit the moral low ground)’. Either the Church will develop a new theology and culture to fit into this new culture, or it has to formulate a culture that actively resists the mainstream attitude of diversity and tolerance – and if it goes down the second path, it has to find a viable solution that doesn’t alienate every other human being on the face of the planet. Food for thought.

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