I just finished reading Ross Douthat’s (pronounced DOW-that) book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. As I have told you before, I highly recommend this to your reading attention. The book is an excellent summary of what has happened to the Christian faith in the last sixty years, especially in this country.
Mr Douthat especially emphasizes how the careful balance of classical Christian orthodoxy tipped and an unbalanced, pick and choose, heresy took its place for most Americans. Hence where things tipped left we got things like liberation theology, the “god-within movements and the syncretizing of Oprah, new age and other odd blends. Where things tipped right we got things like the prosperity gospel, and an odd blend of country worship generally termed, Americanism.
The level of detail and keen theological insight make the book an important resource for anyone who seeks answers, and a strategy out of the current difficulties.
The answer of course is orthodoxy, and orthodoxy seeks to hold the tension of somewhat competing biblical and theological teachings in balance, rather than to choose some and discard others.
In the final chapter Mr. Douthat offers some thoughts on what a recovered Christianity might include. I want to reflect on one of those thoughts in this post, namely that Christianity should be both moralistic and holistic (respecting of the whole). In other words, we must courageously proclaim the moral vision of the New Testament, but we must also be careful to proclaim the “whole counsel of God” (cf Acts 20:27). For it sometimes happens that we emphasize certain moral teachings which agree with our view, and neglect to preach others which challenge our view.
Orthodoxy must present the balanced and complete moral vision. Otherwise it too easily looks co-opted by other lesser agendas such as politics, economics, social science etc.
Let me have Mr. Douthat speak for himself. He begins by asserting the need to courageously proclaim our moral vision:
No aspect of Christian faith is less appealing to contemporary sensibilities in the faith’s long list of “thou shalt nots,” and no prohibition attracts more exasperation and contempt than the Christian view of chastity and sex. But, recurring efforts to downplay the faith’s moralistic side, to make his Commandments general rather than particular, to recontextualize Bible passages that offend contemporary sensibilities, to make the faith seem more hospitable to America’s many millions of divorced people, cohabiting couples, and (especially) gays and lesbians, have usually ended up redefining Christianity entirely. The traditional Christian view of sexuality is more essential to the faith as a whole than many modern believers want to acknowledge….[And] it doesn’t just rest on a literal reading of a few passages in the Scriptures which can easily be revised to reinterpreted. Rather, it’s the fruit of centuries worth of meditation and argument on the whole biblical narrative, from the creation of Adam and Eve, to Jesus’ prohibition on divorce
It seems easy enough to snip a single thread out of this pattern, but often the whole thing swiftly unravels once you do.
Yet many conservative Christians often make a similar mistake; they have emphasize the most hot-button (and easily politicized) moral issues, while losing sight of the tapestry as a whole. There are seven deadly sins not just one, and Christianity’s understanding of marriage and chastity is intimately bound to its views on gluttony and avarice and pride.
….It is rare to hear a rip roaring Sunday’s sermon about the temptations of the five course meal, and the all you can eat buffet, or to hear a high-profile pastor who addresses to sin of greed in the frank manner of, say, St. Basil the Great in the fourth century A.D.:
The extra bread you possess belongs to the hungry. The clothes that you store in boxes, belong to the naked. The shoes rotting by you, belong to the barefoot. The money that you hide belongs to anyone in need. You wrong as many people that you could help. (Basil, Homily on Avarice)
Note that Basil isn’t arguing for a slightly higher marginal tax rate to fund modest improvements in public services. He’s passing judgment on individual sins and calling for individual repentance. There are conservative Christians today who seemed terrified of even remotely criticizing Wall Street tycoons and high finance buccaneers, lest such criticism be interpreted as an endorsement of the Democratic Party’s political agenda.
Douthat goes on to warn that our partial outrage over certain things weakens our overall credibility before a skeptical world, since it seems that something, other than true and sincere Christian adherence to biblical norms, drives the concerns we express. And, since the world is particularly skeptical of the Church teaching on sexuality and beginning and end of life issues, our seeming silence on other biblical norms undermines our credibility. For indeed, considerable ink is spilled in the Biblical texts on issues related to greed, envy, jealously, anger, hatred, and God’s passion about how we care for the poor, as well as on sexual matters and concerns for the family and human life.
And even within the questions of sexual morality we need to be careful not simply to single out homosexuals and ignore many egregious examples of heterosexual misbehavior. Douthat writes:
…The Christian case for fidelity and chastity will inevitable seem partial and hypocritical if it trains most of its attention on the minority of cases – on homosexual wedlock and the slippery slope to polygamy beyond. It is the heterosexual divorce rate, the heterosexual retreat from marriage, the heterosexual out-of-wedlock birthrate that should command the most attention from Christian moralists……asking gays alone to conform their lives to a hard teaching will inevitably seem like a form of bigotry. [Kindle edition Loc 5771-90]
I have long held this same view and will almost never address the sin of homosexual acts without also cataloging and warning against heterosexual sins such as fornication, adultery, pornography, contraception, abortion, divorce and so forth. Frankly, it would seem the case can be made that, the emergence of more widespread homosexual tendencies, and homosexual demands, has come in the aftermath of over sixty years of widespread heterosexual misbehavior and our own redefinition of marriage.
We have insisted on easy divorce (biblically prohibited), and turned procreation and raising of children into an option (via contraception), and a way of accessorizing marriage, rather than one of its most central tasks (again, completely unbiblical). In effect, for most heterosexuals, marriage has little more meaning than two adults being happy.
We cannot prophetically stand against gay “marriage” with such a vague and unbiblical notion operative in the lives of most Christians. Only the true and orthodox stance that the Scriptures proclaim, can withstand the charge of duplicity by an increasing number of Americans. Namely, that marriage is a stable and lasting union intrinsically oriented to the procreation and rearing of children.
And, to disagree with Mr. Douthat a bit, I do not think that most Catholic priests would be found guilty of of preaching “rip-roaring” sermons on sex or even focusing much on it. Frankly, and I think most Catholics would agree, Catholic pulpits have been too silent on sexual matters, and to be honest, on most moral topics. Too many Catholic sermons of the past sixty years are a collection of generalities and abstractions. Not only would most Catholics not hear a sermon about sex, but they would not likely hear all that much about what Basil says either.
Our outrage at homosexual acts (which I fully think we should have) can seem very hollow when, for some sixty years we have tended to ignore heterosexual promiscuity on a wide and huge scale, and worked with, and largely facilitated, the divorce culture. And then, when the homosexual community steps forth with their sinful demands, we should not be surprised that our claims to oppose to them is only about protecting the sacredness of the family, falls on deaf ears. We have sown in the wind and now we are reaping the whirlwind.
To be fair, some of this is changing and, especially younger clergy, are more likely to address specific moral topics. And if that be the case, then we clergy ought to be willing to address a wide sampling of the Christian moral vision in a non-political bu clear way, as Douthat admonishes and exemplifies by quoting St. Basil.
And thus we are brought back to St. Paul’s insistence to the Church at Ephesus that he preached to them “the whole counsel of God” Acts 20:27. For the true and orthodox moral vision of the Church is wide, and embraces all issues and all people. And it is not so much a faith that prohibits, as it is one that points to freedom by Grace:
- Freedom to be able to experience and show mercy, forgiveness,
- Freedom and have authority over our anger and hatred,
- Freedom over our greed and the capacity to be generous and caring of the poor,
- Freedom and authority to love our spouse, and children and be faithful to the commitments we have made, even in tough times,
- Freedom and authority over our sexuality and the capacity to live chastely and joyfully,
- Freedom and the capacity to welcome immigrants, and be free of the fears related to bigotry, ignorance and prejudice.
- Yes, freedom, grace, power and authority over every sinful drive
- And the joyful openness to greater love, mercy, kindness, chastity, generosity, joy, serenity, justice, piety and growing love for God and neighbor.
This is orthodoxy: holistic (respecting the whole), wide reaching, comprehensive and transcending of political categories and boxes.
The whole counsel of God.
If you can tolerate looking at Bill Maher, Ross Douthat handles him pretty well: