I read two articles on American religion today. Tom Ehrich bemoans the rise of conservative Christianity. Narrow-minded, unquestioning, dogmatic, they go to church for comfort as they face economic stresses of trying to keep up with the Joneses. Fear. Ignorance. Certainty. Ehrich sees these as the building blocks of conservative Christianity. He recognizes that this kind of Christianity seems to be “working” – it draws the crowds. Their way of doing things, however, contrasts with Jesus, and will have dire consequences.
What concerns me is the emergence of a religious leadership cadre that doesn’t hesitate to turn fearfulness into rage, hatred and scapegoating. They, of all people, should know better. They should know that the answer to fear is faith, not hatred. They should know that Jesus didn’t name enemies, launch moral crusades or wage culture wars. He didn’t exercise thought-control with his disciples. He didn’t insist on one way of thinking or believing. He wasn’t legalistic or rigid or conformist.
No, Jesus was a good modern American liberal, thoroughly open-minded. He wouldn’t hurt a flea. And since his world was ruled by evil conservative republicans – oops! strike that – Romans – they killed him for it. Or so it appears.
Jesus had disciples. A disciple is a learner – a student. He taught them not merely a method (critical thinking) or a moral directive (be loving and kind) but actual content about the nature, purposes and action of God. Through his actions and words he embodied the Kingdom of God, not just as a theory, but with himself – strangely – as the King. Was his method “thought control?” Well, he like other rabbis (and other teachers throughout the ages) wanted his students to learning something. He thought this teaching to be important enough that he spent three years with them – and continued teaching even when it led to death threats. If Jesus was a good teacher (not just a teacher who happened to be a good person) then it would make sense that his students actually learned from him. When students attach themselves to a teacher one might imagine them doing so because they want to learn something, perhaps even how to think better. Jesus certainly didn’t treat them as robots – in John 6 he even encouraged them to consider what he had said and to leave – if they thought that appropriate.
Though I wouldn’t call this “thought control” – which may just function as a “boogie man” term for Ehrich – it is a far distance from Jesus to modern autonomous individualism, which might be more amenable to Ehrich’s desires. Think and let think. Treat everyone as fully rational already (unless they’re conservative and act on their beliefs).
Dave Shiflett rights from the opposite point of view in National Review Online. Author of a recent book on the collapse of liberal churches, Shiflett emphasizes the different views of God in liberal and conservative churches. The former, he suggests, proclaims a God of infinite mercy and niceness, who “understands” the hardships we face, and wouldn’t (and probably couldn’t) deign to lift a finger to correct (oppress) us when we stray from what some idiosyncratic preacher might proclaim as “the way.” Sometimes this God even seems to blink out of existence.
Writer Andy Ferguson encountered the lesser god while taking a class at a West Coast Episcopal seminary. Andy sometimes argued basic Christian beliefs with a professor. After one such discussion he repaired to the lunchroom, where he was approached by a fellow student. ‘Â“We have finally figured out what your problem is,’Â” the classmate said. ‘You are the only one here who believes in God.’ Andy thought it over and concluded: This guy is right. Thus began a journey that recently took him into Catholicism. In economic terms he had switched brands. It’Â’s highly unlikely he’Â’ll be switching back.
The latter group proclaim a stronger more serious God – a God to whom we must adapt or pay a huge price. People are hungering, Shiflett says, for a God who is bigger and stronger than they are.
What do we do with these divergent evaluations of American religion? Does it work to explain away our opponents as mere projectionists (following Feuerbach) who create a god in their own image – either the pipe-smoking, tweed clad, bearded deep thinker or the macho, brusque, impatient strong man? Or are both sides pursuing an illusion (following Freud) , who excuses their immorality (the economic immorality of the conservatives and the sexual immorality of the liberals) and makes them feel better?
When I read the Bible I find a God who is way bigger than I am. This God wants people to come into a love relationship – a relationship that includes increasing understanding. I know this, but I also know that because God is so much bigger than I am, my understanding is always partial. And because I am a sinner, my knowledge is also often distorted. But the mistake of moderns is to look at this word knowledge and pursue an objectivist epistemology leading to certainty. Liberals may be pessimistic when it comes to knowledge about God, while conservatives may be optimistic about the same, but insofar as both count this kind of knowledge central, both will fail. While factual knowledge of God is important (and possible), it will not work when abstracted from a living relationship with God. As we live in this relationship God not only offers us forgiveness and deliverance from fear, but we also hear Jesus’ invitation to take up our crosses and follow him. Whether one thinks of oneself as either a liberal or a conservative (or anything else) that is not a comforting thought. But it is a good – because on the other side lies resurrection.