Two Christianities

We are coming to the point where no one really doubts that there is a serious divide in the Christian world, a divide that appears to be getting wider as time goes on.  But I feel like people are struggling to give a name to this divide, and I would like to take a crack at providing some framework for talking about this divide.

On one side, you have a group of people who understand Christianity fundamentally and primarily as a way of life.  Under this view, we have been given by God a model of how to live our lives, a model that reflects the "best life" we and those around us can have, and our job is to go out and try as best we can to do that.  This model, above anything else, is to be found in the life and actions of Jesus of Nazareth as set forth in the canonical Gospels, and then secondarily in other parts of the Bible, and tertiarily in the lives of other Christian witnesses.  

Under this view, the ultimate measure of whether and to what extent one is a Christian can be found in the degree to which the person absorbs these lifestyle values and lives them out.  While there are disagreements on some of the specifics, the elements of this lifestyle are not infinitely plastic--there are some core commitments that are non-negotiable.  So, a person who is living the Christian lifestyle is obligated to engage in outreach toward the poor, they are obligated to at least attempt to renounce violence, etc.  One can get a sense of the degree to which a person is living the Christian way of life by looking at what they do.

On the other side, there are a group of people who understand Christianity in terms of a set of intellectual stances.  To become a Christian, one must adopt a set of ideas about God and about the world--you must "believe" these things.  "Belief" tends to be something of a slippery concept, but in any event you must have the right stance toward these concepts, and that is what is important.  The ideas to which you must have the right stance vary depending on which flavor of Christianity we are talking about, but they always include at least the statements in the Apostle's Creed--believe in God, believe in Jesus, etc.

Because Christianity is an intellectual stance, it is not obvious that there would be any identifying marks of a Christian--after all, you can't see what is inside anyone's head.  But, at least in my experience, the folks who view Christianity as an intellectual stance also view Christianity as an identity.  Once one has the proper intellectual stance, then one is part of (or perhaps should be a part of) a community consisting of other self-identifying Christians.

These two different visions have co-existed during the history of Christianity, so you can find countless examples of each approach and plenty of support for each view if you are looking to footnote your preferred method.  But, it seems to me that these two approaches are starting to come apart, and the folks that advocate each approach are increasingly going to their respective corners and entrenching.  In terms of my own spiritual life, I find myself increasingly and uniformly drawn toward the way of life view and away from a concern with intellectual stances.  Likewise, I think we are seeing the intellectual stance folks becoming increasingly insistent that only belief and identity are important, and that insisting on concrete actions as a follower of Jesus is Pelagian.

All of this came into focus when I thought about this week's Gospel--the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46).  The sermon I heard from the new priest at my parish was an intellectual stance interpretation of the passage, and it immediately rubbed me the wrong way.  It rubbed me the wrong way because I read the passage in a way of life way, and in many ways see the passage as the paradigmatic way of life passage from the Gospels.

If you are a way of life Christian, this passage is about the absolute priority of social justice and service to the public in the life of a Christian.  In its simplest form, you must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick.  This command is so important that to do these things for anyone, even (especially) the "least" among us, is the equivalent of doing it for Jesus Himself.  If you don't do these things, then no amount of talk about how much you love God is going to matter--you will be cast among the goats, and from there (at least by implication) end up in Gehenna.

Something else struck me about the passage as I was listening to it this time around.  The sheep--the people who feed the hungry, etc.--have no awareness of the theological significance of what they are doing, as seen by the fact they are just as incredulous as the goats at the idea that by serving the poor they are serving Christ.  But that lack of awareness appears to be no impediment to being counted among the sheep.  In other words, it doesn't really matter why you are feeding the hungry, only that you are in fact feeding the hungry.  It doesn't take much of a stretch to extrapolate this into a broader conclusion that belief or theology is far, far less important to God than the impact you make into the world.  In other words, as I mention, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats can be seen as a proof text for the way of life vision of Christianity.  [It also suggests that non-Christians who feed the hungry are going to be with the sheep and Christians who don't feed the hungry are going to be with the goats, for what it is worth.]

The sermon I heard this weekend took precisely the opposite tack, and argued that the thing that separates the sheep from the goats is that the sheep are doing what they do out of a notion of fidelity to God.  Now, on a basic level, I think this interpretation is simply not supported by the text of the passage--again, neither the sheep nor the goats understand what is going on, and the passage is clear that the sheep do things that the goats do not.  But, I think this interpretation (or, more bluntly, misreading) of the passage is premised on a pre-conceived idea that what one believes must be the determining factor.  It is precisely the possibility of my reading of the passage--that God doesn't really care what's going on in our head--that causes people to reject it.  If you already are committed to the idea that God is primarily concerned with what is in your head, then you have to read the Parable in a way that affirms the notion that "real" Christianity is about belief.

Or, alternatively, you can read the passage in an tribal way.  There was a Twitter kerfuffle a while back when conservative activist and provocateur Erick Erickson insisted that the people who need to be fed and clothed in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats included only fellow Christians, not people generally.  When I first read Erickson's take, I assumed that it must be made in bad faith--no one could possible read it that way.  But religion scholar Diane Butler Bass (no hardcore conservative) pointed out that, in fact, the Christians-only reading was a view with a long pedigree in especially the Western church.  Such a reading makes concrete social justice commitments described in the Parable a second-order concern, as they only apply once you have established the boundaries of the Christian tribe.  And since the boundaries of the tribe are defined in terms of belief, then the integrity of the intellectual stance vision of Christianity is maintained.

The point with all of this is that these two visions appear to be pulling apart, at least in American Christianity in 2017.  It seems increasingly as if the people who are intellectual stance Christians keep doubling down on their intellectual stance over and against any concrete policy claims that are asserted to be a key part of Christianity.  And the way of life Christians are increasingly asserting that the concrete policy claims are the primary, or maybe only, thing that really matters about being a Christian, de-emphasizing or re-contextualizing doctrinal orthodoxy.

It would be easy here for me to adopt a "wise centrist" stance and talk about how we need both aspects to work together for a full faith.  But I don't actually believe that.  I think we need to de-emphasize or re-contextualize orthodoxy; I think we need to be more insistent that following Jesus ultimately means doing the things Jesus did and living according to the model he set forth in concrete terms.  I thought the sermon I heard this weekend was kind of crappy, and part of the broader problem.  I am part of this coming apart.

In any event, it seems like it will continue to be increasingly difficult for both side to talk to each other going forward.  We can't even agree on what we are supposed to be doing with this Christianity thing. 

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