Quick Hitter--Re-Sorting

The great Bill Lindsey brought to my attention a piece from yesterday by David Gushee.  Gushee is a professor of moral theology and comes from an evangelical background.  Two years ago he wrote a book called Changing Our Mind, where he discussed his change of position on LGBT questions.  I have not read that book, but I have read other things he has written and have been very impressed.

His piece from yesterday really struck a chord with me.  In the piece, Gushee gives a name to something that many people have sensed without necessarily being able (or willing) to vocalize--Christianity is coming apart:

It is not just that many Christians fail to live up to the clear demands of Christian discipleship. It’s that we can’t even agree on what those demands are. We all say we believe in Jesus, but what we make of that belief is so irreconcilably different that I am not sure that we are in any meaningful way members of the same religious community.

Certainly, disagreements are nothing new in the history of Christianity.  Doctrinal disputes have existed in various forms all throughout the history of the faith, so it is foolish to say this is a wholly new development.  But the way in which the divide is happening feels different.  Previous doctrinal disputes, at least the big ones, have often had to do with one or more fairly discrete doctrinal points (i.e. the nature of the Trinity, or even the proper way to read the Bible), or otherwise can be reduced to a discussion of authority in the church.  There are certainly discrete doctrinal elements at work here, and the authority question is always in play, but in this case there seems to be a kind of moral intuition at the heart of this dispute.  Again, Gushee names this dimension clearly:

Worst of all has been my discovery in recent years of versions of Christianity that actually make people worse human beings than they might otherwise have been.

Here, churches, pastors or individuals interpret Scripture in ways not that different from good, old-fashioned pagans.

I never anticipated that I would think: “If we could just keep people out of (this version of) church, they would be better people.”

Christian leaders often puzzle over why Christianity in America is declining so rapidly. Here’s a reason: Some highly visible versions of Christianity are so abhorrent that reasonably sensible people want nothing to do with it or the people who practice it.

It is a serious claim, especially for an evangelical, to say that people would be better off with no religion than to be part of certain Christian bodies and that the religion of these folks is "abhorrent."  And yet, I agree with him.  And it's not just hardcore evangelical Christianity that falls into that category for me.  I look at many of my fellow Catholics the same way.  I think Austin Ruse would be a better person if he could not rely on his Catholicism to justify his bigotry.   Perhaps Bishops Jugis and Burbidge of North Carolina would not have publicly applauded naked (and, by the way, clearly unconstitutional--read Romer v. Evans) discrimination in their state if they were not knee deep in a toxic soup that facilitated their positions.  It's not that these position seem wrong or misguided; they seem to be shameful, and even "abhorrent."

And the feeling is mutual, as there is an equal and opposite moral intuition from the other side.  How many times do you hear more conservative types make some variation of the claim that you can't have morality without religion?  Or that any compromise on the moral issue de jour leads to the abyss of "moral relativism"?  In other words, one group of Christians claims you cannot be moral without the church (as they understand it), and another group says you cannot be moral with a particular vision of the church (the one that is held by the first group).  I'm not sure it is sustainable to have one group of Christians--including those within the same organizational structure--think that the other group are apostates, while the accused apostates think the religion of the first group is abhorrent.

But there is another side to the coin.  When I read people like David Gushee, or Brian McLaren, or Rob Bell, or Rachel Held Evans, I feel like my Christianity is much more like theirs than the religion of Austin Ruse and the North Carolina bishops and the Rorate Caeli folks.  On many days it seems like the things in which I would differ from these former evangelicals is far less significant than the things on which we agree.  Isn't it more important that we agree on what we mean when we say "God is love" than on how we understand the precise status of the Eucharist?  It seems that way to me.

Which leads me to wonder whether this process of splitting also involves a process of recombining on the other side of the split.  Does anyone (on either the "left" or "right" side) care about those old Reformation-era fights any more?  I mean, even the Vatican says that the fight with Luther over justification by faith was all a big misunderstanding.  There will still be disagreements over certain issues, and in some cases those disagreements will result in distinct institutional structures, but I doubt those differing groups will be engaged in the kind of trench warfare over same ground that has characterized the last 500 years of Christianity in the West (and, in any event, the old Reformation-era denomination model will likely be replaced with something else, anyway).  David Gushee and I might never worship in the same way, or in a congregation that is under the same organizational umbrella as mine, but it would not shock me if we found ourselves in arrangements that saw themselves as having far more alike than not.

I guess it would say it this way.  Catholicism is a real part of who I am, and I think that Catholicism as I know and understand and (by and large) experience it is the way to go for me.  But, if you forced me to choose between the Catholicism of Rorate Caeli or the Protestantism of David Gushee, there is no doubt in my mind I would find my way to where Professor Gushee is located.  And, likewise, I have a feeling that those North Carolina bishops would be more comfortable with their conservative evangelical counterparts than in the Catholic Church that I believe in.  That would have been inconceivable 100, or even 50, years ago.  But, it seems to me like this is a new day.


Excellent, Michael! Thank you for this. I'll be sharing it with many others.

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