The other day at FB, Dan Fincke posted a quote that has stuck with me. Specifically:
"Dear liberal, enlightened Christian: I'm not lumping you in with fundies – you are. Get a new name and new holy book to selectively cite." (Matt Dillahaunty)
This is actually a topic I've thought about a lot myself, and I hinted at it in my post on gender last night. While I definitely consider myself a Christian, I get the sense that I don't practice Christianity the way a lot of people do around here. "Here" to my mind is the United States, particularly the various places I've lived as an adult (rural NC, in a mid-sized NC city, in Cleveland, OH, and now in NYC). I guess we should also include the various the various online outlets where I discuss religion, most notably Sojourners, Christianity Today, and Fred Clarke's blog over at Patheos. (I also read Aish.com and for years Brad Hirschfield was a big influence as well, but as those are Jewish groups and I'm talking about Christianity here, I suppose that's not all that relevant.)
Anyway, the Christianity of my experience really can be broken down into two groups. First, there are the fundamentalists. Certainty and even simplicity here is the key; the whole movement started with revivals urging people to get back to basics, IIRC. I'm not a big fan of fundamentalism, so much so that I have a hard time giving a sympathetic description of them. I know that I associate them with the "God said it, that settles it" approach to theology. More distinctive are the social and ethical positions like the idea that women and men should fulfill different roles in society, that all extramarital sex (and by extension, homosexuality, contraception, and sex education) is deeply immoral, and that life begins at conception. There are also political positions, like the idea that America should be distinctly Christian and that Israel must be supported.
As I said, I'm sure someone could give a more sympathetic description here. I don't mean to beat up on fundamentalists. But if you follow this blog or know me at all, it should probably be fairly obvious why I'm not one.
Then there are what Matt calls "liberal enlightened Christians." Sojourners is a great example of one such group. Politically, the focus is more on environmental issues, social justice, and immigration reform. And the approach tends to differ as well. Liberal Christians are usually more focused on relationships and grassroots work than passing laws. Those interested in LGBT activism are probably the big exception. Some liberal Christians hold similar views to fundamental Christians (like with abortion – many are very anti-abortion, but prefer to work to avoid pregnancy through contraception and to make adoption a feasible option, rather than focusing on making abortion illegal).
I'm mostly on board with their social/political project. The theology, on the other hand, always rubs me the wrong way. Matt's quote is right on that much; many liberal Christians will keep their Bible interpretations vague, along the lines of "God is love so how can God be against two adults loving each other?" Now, as it happens I believe the Bible doesn't condemn what we moderns mean by homosexuality. It does teach against specific temple practices that are more akin to sexual slavery than anything, But this isn't something good theology should just brush over by ignoring passages fundies point to to explain why homosexuality is an abomination. Similarly for other issues, like global warming and immigration reform; the connection to the Bible liberal Christians rely on is often tenuous and general at best.
I'm not a conservative in the sense used in the sense American political pundits mean – a Republican or a Tea Partier or whatever. But I am enough of a traditionalist that I don't just want to throw out the history and writings and culture of a certain religious tradition. I think living with those things and making sense of them is a good thing (and I know everyone here won't agree with me on that point). It's like Aristotle's aporiai, the puzzles between intuitions and experiences that seem to contradict each other. Religion, done right, forces people to confront the mystery. Both fundamentalism and liberal Christianity fail here because they ignore those factoids that lead us to the puzzle rather than exalting in it.
In light of that I find myself wondering, should I call myself a Christian? Why would I want to, when I reject so strongly most of the associations people have when they hear the word "Christian"? Because I'm definitely not a fundamentalist, but neither am ever going to match what people expect from a liberal Christian. Because, you know, I'm not that either.
But back to Matt's basic point. He suggests that liberal Christians (or those who reject fundamentalism even if they don't embrace liberal Christianity) have only ourselves to blame for being lumped in with fundamentalism, because we insist on calling ourselves names. That's not really fair, though, because it lets fundamentlaism define Christianity. Say I was Irish-American and was frustrated by the way my millennia-old culture got boiled down to leprechauns and Guinness – would you say I was wrong to insist that "Irish" meant more than that? Just because something is the most obvious association a lot of people have, that doesn't mean it's the right one.
I had a similar reaction after Anne Rice "quit" Christianity two years ago. She famously said:
"In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen."
At the time, I found myself agreeing with everything she said, right up until that last sentence. I'd add one more thing, though: I refuse to let the fundamentalist define Christianity as being any of those things. Christianity is not anti-feminist at heart; anti-feminists twist it and use it to support it. And on down the list. Explaining why would take a post – probably multiple posts – on each point. But here's the thing: if you say Christianity is these things, then you're giving away the game before that conversation has ever happened.
That's reason #1 why I won't ever stop calling myself a Christian. Because, contrary to what you hear in the news, the bishops protesting birth control mandates and the Baptists saying we should round up all the gays and put them behind electric fences aren't all Christianity has to offer.
And while we're at it: simply because I say the world wasn't created in seven days or that the Leviticus verse calling "a man lying with a man" an abomination doesn't mean what fundamentalists say it means doesn't make mean I'm reading selectively. I'm not ignoring those passages; I'm simply using a different hermeneutic. Simply because my reading of the Bible is more consistent with liberalism and secularism than the fundamentalist's reading, that doesn't mean my position is watered down or inauthentic. The "real" Christianity isn't necessarily the one that contrasts best with secular humanism, as nice as that might be.
Reason #2 why I insist on calling myself a Christian is related to what I said a few days ago on my post looking at why atheists should want smart theists. I think it's in everyone's best interests to have an intellectually sophisticated faith. And not just intellectually sophisticated; nuanced full stop. Claiming, as Anne Rice did, that Christianity is (say) anti-science offers people a stark choice: your God or your microscopes.
That's a false choice, but even if it wasn't, I'm not sure we'll like the results of forcing it onto people. It's simple psychology: people are reluctant to give up something they have and they like, even for something you tell them is better, because that other thing simply doesn't seem "real" yet.
If you want to get them to "evolve already" (as I heard lots of non-religious people say in response to Obama's statements that his views on gay marriage were evolving), you get them to ask the question: can I be for LGBT equality and still hold on to my other beliefs that I'm committed to? You don't ask them to change all those beliefs at once, because it's too scary for them, and even more important, sincere moral change is a process of evolution. You can't change all your beliefs at once, or quickly, if you want the person to have thought through and really accepted those beliefs.
If Christianity = fundamentalism then the conversation stops there. But if Christianity can be something more nuanced, then you have a much better chance to get your average pew-sitter to do some (if I can be excused the religious phrase) serious soul-searching that leads to real character growth.
So with all respect to Mr. Dillahaunty, he's wrong here. Fundamentalists don't get to unilaterally decide what it means to be a Christian, nor do any other group. It's an open question that's been going on since at least the days of Peter and Paul – and I highly suspect it will continue on until Christ returns or the sun burns out, whichever ultimate ending you prefer.
That's not a bad thing, btw.