God(s) of Conveniences

An interesting op-ed piece this last weekend in the New York Times’ SundayReview section.  

For those unaware, the percentage of Americans who do not associate themselves with any particular religious tradition or denomination is growing, though most of this growing demographic still professes a belief in some sort of higher power.  In other words, they aren’t necessarily religious in the traditional sense of that word, but they aren’t atheists either.  
The author offers two possible suggestions.  The first is that they are avoiding the political associations that often come with official religious affiliation.  If you’re a Protestant, for example, you’re assumed to be Republican-leaning.  Because people dislike this (and younger people more so), they aren’t associating with religious affiliations.
Frankly, I see that as a pretty lame excuse.  While an argument can be made for the postmodern distrust and dislike of any monolithic entity, to attempt to couch the religious issue as a political one is rather feeble.  Fortunately, he offers a more compelling explanation a few paragraphs later.
He talks about how the “Nones” are not concerned with Truth in an objective, eternal sense, and are far more interested in truth as what works.  Is a particular belief comforting in a time of stress?  Then it’s ‘true’ and they’ll incorporate it into their patchwork of faith.  I once had a student tell me, while describing his religious views, that he ‘liked’ the idea of reincarnation, and so believed in it.  As though Truth can be something that is a matter of personal preference and convenience!
But that’s what our young people are being taught today.  Watch their television shows.  Read their literature.  Listen to the increasingly narrow language being demanded by the anti-bullying movement, the heir of the crusade for tolerance, which was itself the offspring of the ridiculous political correctness rage.  If we are not allowed to critique – however politely and respectfully – the assertions and beliefs of others, we are left with the understanding that truth is indeed relative.  Not only is there not ultimate Truth, ultimate Truth must not exist because otherwise the fragile framework of tolerance comes tumbling down.  If Truth exists, not only can I not ignore what my neighbor believes, I am suddenly compelled – not out of self-interest but out of genuine love for my neighbor – to try and share that Truth with them.  
And this is more and more exactly what will not be tolerated.  Believe what you want, so long as you keep it to yourself and don’t let it interfere with real life.  
This is certainly a compelling issue.  But he concludes his essay with a rather interesting tangent.  If the problem is really that we are not teaching Truth in an objective sense any more, leading more and more people to decide that Truth is purely personal and subjective, there  is a clear solution.  Quit teaching relativism.  Admit that we’ve made a terrible error in our zest for reduced social conflict and go back to the idea that Truth has a meaning beyond what I choose to create for it.  But this isn’t the solution that Weiner winds up with.
Rather, he winds up with the idea that if Christians would take themselves a bit less seriously, then they would be more appealing to the Nones.  That idea is echoed in this commentary on the editorial.  This is undoubtedly true, but it’s also fundamentally missing the very critical point he just made about how increasingly people see truth as a relative matter of what makes me feel good or what works personally for how I want to live my life.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that Christians could use some lightening up.  I run into example after example – primarily Evangelical Christians outside my own Lutheran tradition – that are crucified on the poor theology of works righteousness.  Who bleed daily to the point of hopelessness because they have been taught by their churches and their Christian motivational speakers and the Christian best-sellers they’re told to read, that their life can be this totally wonderful awesome thing if they just do what it takes to allow it to happen.   Jesus is waiting to pour out his love and fill your life, if you’ll just pray/study/give/meditate/desire enough.  If you just have the heart of Jesus, then Jesus will love you and your life will transform into this beautiful and peaceful place.  
It’s a crock of crap, to be sure, but the more I listen, the more this is what I hear from broken, hurting people who are not being given the Gospel and who are despairing because they’re told the Gospel depends on them.   And if this is what you’re being fed, you’re certainly going to take on a rather dour and sober tone when dealing with yourself and others.  If your every failure and shortcoming is another nail in the coffin of your hopes for a happy and fulfilled life in the love of a God who has sacrificed himself on your behalf, then there’s no room for compassion or understanding or joy.  Only the rigor of relentness effort towards a self-transformation that we never achieve.
So yes, we need to lighten up a bit, which would fundamentally rock the boat of a major section of American Christianity, and frankly, that boat needs rocking.  But this doesn’t solve the dilemma posed by this essay.
Christians who can laugh more will certainly be appealing to more people.  But those people are going to see Christianity as just a smorgasboard of things that may or may not be helpful or convenient for themselves.  They may show up in worship more if it helps them feel good, but you can bet that they’ll quit coming as soon as it doesn’t feel so good, as soon as they feel the bite of the Law demanding not simply their assent but their submission.  As soon as the reality that not all things are equally valid begins to strike home.  
Unless we recognize that a fundamental disjunct exists between what people are taught and learn and hear everywhere else in their lives, and what they might hear in a congregation where the Word of God is more than a self-help book, we’re deceiving ourselves.  If we make the dangerous assumption that sitting in the pew or even giving to the Church equals an understanding (let alone an acceptance) of what that congregation preaches and teaches about the Word of God, we’ll continue to see people come in the front door, drawn by winsome and humorous preachers, but slipping just as quickly out the back door when they realize that no matter how good the jokes are, the preacher really believes what He’s talking about and expects them to as well.  
Christianity is not simply competing for market share, and being more cheerful is not going to address the massive chasm between the subjective realism taught in the public arena and the objective realism that the Bible insists upon.  Our congregations need to be places where these fundamental differences are laid out and clearly articulated, where people who have wandered in because someone suggested they’d like the pastor are confronted with the truth that Truth is not a matter of personal convenience, and that we can respect those around us without agreeing with them and accepting their views on things.  
Christians can and
should be able to laugh at themselves appropriately, but it’s naive to believe that this is going to make much of a difference in and of itself.  

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