In a recent article, Nathan Sanders addressed the question, “Has Christianity Become Foreign to the Western World?” He sees a bidirectional strangeness: the Christian faith is strange to outsiders and the outside world is strange to Christians. This strangeness lies not only in beliefs but also in values and practices. The point of his piece is to explore ways for engagement to happen across this line of strangeness.
I’d like to discuss the phenomenon from a different perspective. My root assumption is that non-Christians, i.e., “the world,” ought to find Christianity strange. One of the advantages of living after the end of Christendom is that we can finally be honest (one of Sanders’ suggestions, incidentally) about the difference between being Christian and being American (or Western). Christians have long been hampered by the desire, nay, the expectation, that we fit into the world as it is. In fact, we’re not only supposed to fit in, but we’re supposed to excel on the world’s terms. If we excel in the world on the world’s terms (interesting new discussion here) it shows (a) that Christianity is relevant (and boy do we want to be relevant!), and (b) Christianity works.
On the one hand, if we live in a Christian nation, or if our society can be reckoned as “Christian” or “under God,” then one would expect little to difference between achieving the Christian telos and achieving the cultural telos. If you reach one, you reach the other. It’s not only the case that we’ve believed this for so long that it seems unquestionable (well, at least unChristian to question it), but also that Christianity has influenced the way the culture thinks about what is good. In other words, even when I want to make a strong claim distinguishing being a Christian from being at home in our culture, I cannot say that everything about our culture is bad or to be rejected (and lapse into what Roger Scuton calls “oikophobia”). So as you read my arguments for refusing to identify the Christian way with the American/Western/Modern way, don’t read them as a total repudiation of these other ways.
So there is a gap between the church and the world, a perceived strangeness of Christianity. What strikes me is that this gap bothers us. We think it’s a problem. But if we’re supposed to be different, why is this a problem? Well, that’s the thing: in the church we’ve so downplayed being different (that’s what the abysmally ignorant Fundamentalists do!), that we’ve forgotten our calling. Our models of discipleship have majored on creating nice people who are god citizens. We mold church members who are good Americans: they cooperate with civic institutions, they pay their taxes, they smile and have neighbors over for barbecues. But we’ve left behind too much of the substance of the Christian faith.
When we build discipleship around substantive Christian doctrines – I think here of the Incarnation, Trinity, and Resurrection, in particular – we begin to see some oddness. We also see particularity, and that’s a problem in a culture that worships universality and inclusion. If our discipleship practices build Christians whose identity is rooted in the what God has done in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – and all that includes – we will doubtless have some rather odd looking beliefs, values, and practices.
If we Christians want to communicate with the watching world – Sanders’ worthy goal – then the exactly wrong thing to do is to minimize our differences. While saying we’re really all the same may be comforting, it is profoundly dishonest. Instead, I propose the strategy of intentionally maximizing differences. When our Christian identity is formed clearly and distinctly in Christ, then love (love like Jesus, not just some vague, feel-good emotion) will characterize our dealings with insiders and outsiders. Difference will not, in such a context be an excuse for violence or hatred. It will be seen as an invitation to sacrificial love.