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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
14.4 (Fall 2014)
Faith & Cultural Meltdown
The Christian Church in Progressive Meltdown: A Continuation of the Previous Discussion
John R. Harris and George Shirley
The co-authors of the essay preceding this title in the Table of Contents sustained an extensive back-and-forth series of emails on the subject afterward. The editor has decided to condense that exchange into the form of a dialogue or conversation for those who might find the topic of special interest. The reader should understand that more attention has been paid to creating a conversational sense of directness and honesty than to avoid offending delicate sensibilities.
G.S.: It is frequently said in charismatic circles that the Christian church is supposed to make a difference in the world—that the salt must not lose its savor and the light not be hidden under a bushel. A typical comment with regard to current events would run something like this. “We know that immigrants are in the US illegally from other countries, but that’s a concern of the state. A Christian shouldn’t believe in a world divided up into secular political powers. Where would the early Christians have been if they had found no patrons to give them shelter in Greece and Rome? We need to comfort these poor people and give them refuge. If we’re passively breaking some law by doing so, then so be it. We will be ready to suffer the penalty for breaking an unjust law. But we break a much higher law if we turn them away from our door as they knock for food and water.”
Of course, the situation in the Rome of Tiberius or Marcus Aurelius wasn’t remotely similar to that in Phoenix or San Antonio. The early Christians were not boat people fleeing gang warfare or pouring across a national boundary to exploit incoherent tax policies and bitter management-labor quarrels on the other side. It’s ridiculous. The accepting of refugees from a killing zone might well be a moral duty, but that proposition becomes garbled in several others, like a nest of mixed metaphors. If we would handle the mass exodus from Mexico as refugeeism, then we could set up temporary camps, funded and equipped appropriately, and sort out the real thing from gang members and adventurers. But it doesn’t seem as though those who claim to speak for Christianity are interested in having that much political light shed on the issue.
J.H.: The Light under the Bushel and other highly selective and context-free citations of Scripture are classic. They seem always to go with the turf. I can think of any number of responses to these delirious debauches of pathos—so many that it’s hard to choose one over others. From a practical perspective, for instance, very few of these santinos (“little saints”, the Italians call them) are inviting refugees into their own homes. The “home” mentioned in the invitation includes their nation and perhaps their state, but perhaps not their county—and certainly not their domicile. Poorer people than they are having to carry the burden of rising taxes and, all too often, rising crime that goes with this grand gesture. Our compassionate visionaries live in exclusive communities well patrolled by police, their houses have state-of-the-art security systems, and their wealth is so tidily squirreled away in tax shelters that a bond issue to fund hard-pressed local schools and hospitals scarcely draws their attention.
This raises the most disturbing side of the question, spiritually speaking. I think the person you describe is on an ego trip. He wants to think himself a model Christian, so he denounces the practical necessity of borders as a corrupt habit of this fallen world and lectures the rest of us on how to rise above it all. He’s giving himself a lot of love as he delivers these sermons. And I’m very much afraid that the practice of Christianity in Middle American Suburbia often has just this kind of pedigree. It’s a way for people to feel good about themselves at the expense of their neighbors—to feel superior by having (or at least publicly voicing) broad-minded, tolerant views on subjects whose negative consequences are unlikely to touch their lives. A prosperous attorney with a wife and two healthy kids isn’t touched by gay marriage: what’s that to him? Perhaps he has a brother who’s gay, into the bargain… so why raise a fuss about some arcane, archaic distinction between sexual attraction and a solemn vow of self-sacrifice to a complex and intimate human unit? He probably doesn’t even regard his own marriage as a species of the latter. He hooked up with Pam in law school, they made a great team, and they said their vows to legitimize and stabilize their public image. Live and let live! What does he care about abstraction?
The same thing happens with “patriotism” when wars are looming. Those who have no service-eligible children rattle their sabers the loudest.
G.S.: The hypocrisy is hard enough to swallow. But, purely from a political point, I don’t accept that we’re really helping anybody over the long haul when we dissolve our borders. I’ll stick with that example since it has come up, although it’s only one of many, and also because it has torn several denominations apart in my section of the country. A border is a political necessity. We have laws that differ from laws in other countries. Maybe more importantly, we have customs that differ from other customs. I happened to notice some footage lately of native peoples protesting around Mexico City as the government prepares to relocate them and use their land to build a new airport. A private citizen is scarcely allowed to own any sort of firearm in Mexico. Being found with a handgun could get you a year in jail. But carrying around a thirty-inch machete is perfectly legal. Every one of these protesters had machete in hand, and they all appeared to be sharpened. There was no mention of any violence. The gesture was somehow symbolic, as if the weapons were placards. But in our nation, such an act would arouse the greatest alarm and bring instant jail time. A privately owned handgun obtained for self-defense is often encouraged here, though not by clerics, of course—but you simply don’t see people carrying machetes in public, and especially en masse and in the act of strongly protesting some policy or occurrence. Imagine if the protesters in Ferguson had been carrying thirty-inch blades!
These are facts of human existence. People are reared differently in different places. Other facts include eating and dressing habits. We don’t like to see people eating animals that we consider house pets. We also don’t like to see women stalking about in public like risen corpses wrapped in their shroud. It’s extremely disconcerting to us. The Church’s message, to speak of all denominations as one (which I admit is a bit careless), seems to be that we should get over our cultural prejudices and accept Otherness in all its forms. That, in fine, is our Christian duty: to accept any behavior that any person embraces as his special practice. That is the twenty-first century gloss or paraphrase of, “Love thy neighbor”: “Accept all behaviors of any kind.” Now Cardinal Dolan of New York has announced that he wants homosexual demonstrators admitted into the Saint Patrick’s Day parade—advocates of a behavior that Christian tradition has held as explicitly forbidden for centuries. So what behavior is not to be admitted? It would be argumentative to say that killers or kidnappers will be the next to achieve acceptance; but what about polygamists? When does child abuse ease into man-boy love? We know all too well which major religion accepts the former, and we know that the ancient Greeks accepted the latter.
So if we have no physical borders, how do we declare to others, “We don’t do that here? You may come if you like—but you may not practice every particular behavior that is traditional in your own culture. You have to go back across the border to do that.” Why are we the bad guys for wanting to preserve our heritage, and why is the Church speaking up for this kind of laxity? You suggest that lay Christians may wish to advertise their piety by parading their superior charity before the world, like the Pharisees and their phylacteries. I think the clergy are suffering from the same disease. They want to establish their saintly inspiration to the world by permitting conduct that no Christian cleric before them has ever permitted.
J.H.: You managed to work back graciously to my first point, so I would like to emphasize what I believe was your major point just now. There is such a thing as political reality: you spoke more in terms of human nature, but I could dig through Montesquieu and find umpteen citations that cogently argue for the importance of avoiding civil laws that violate human nature. One could say that Christian law—the moral law—requires us to struggle against our fallen nature, and one would be correct in so doing. That struggle, however, is intimately personal. It has no value when the code is enforced through civil and criminal legislation. The spiritual plateau we try to reach as individual believers calls us to resist temptations that we will probably, in most specific cases, never confide to anyone else and that, frankly, are nobody else’s business. (Confession to a priest is not a sacrament in my faith. I sincerely hope that my Catholic friends faith know priests capable of bearing such an oppressive responsibility. I’ve known few ministers upon whom I would bestow it.) We hurt no one but ourselves when we backslide; or at least, the damage to others is not such as to deprive them of life, liberty, or property. A broken promise to watch over your neighbor’s house while he goes on vacation is not actionable, even if the house should be burglarized. You are not legally an accessory to the burglary: you’re just a negligent, undependable neighbor, with all the misery that such recognition must visit upon your conscience. If, though, you accepted money to guard the house and a contract, whether verbal or written, stood between the two parties, you become liable for damages. Formal laws make it possible for people to live together with a high degree of security and prosperity. Moral laws make it impossible for a conscientious individual to pass his life without ever examining his motives.
Our decadent Church spokesmen (who I’m sure would wish to be called “spokespersons”) no longer view their realm as that of the individual soul. They want to affect public policy. I’m convinced that most of them, if pressed—or even if simply given a chance to rattle on for five minutes—would proclaim that the duty of the contemporary Church is to advance its mission from the personal to the societal. Both neighbors must now be concerned about the burglar, and not about the treasure hidden in either’s house. They must ask themselves, Why are there burglars—what makes them burgle? In a truly Christ-like world, no one would be compelled by poverty or poor upbringing to commit crimes. Our duty (these good Christian neighbors should reason) is to create a Christ-like world. Therefore, we must suppress our obsession with our private property and address ourselves to removing poverty from society. The moral law must render civil law obsolete.
There’s simply no basis for this kind of utopian progressivism in a truly spiritual faith. The soul is on one side of the divide and the world on the other. Certainly moral law compels the individual to concern himself about the material misery of his fellow beings—but it compels the individual, and different individuals may respond to that compulsion in different ways. Shoveling money into “handout” programs is often far less effective than giving a delinquent youngster a few months in an competent correctional facility, if such a thing still exists; or the individual whose house was burgled may know the burglar and choose to handle the situation in some unique fashion. Assigning heavenly brownie points for money donated to a particular initiative or votes cast for a particular candidate is tantamount to promising salvation for any other kind of good work. That’s not the “deal”: that’s not the way.
G.S.: “Progressivism” may be the key word. What I am about to write is another generalization, not to be taken as applying across the board: but there is a kind of cleric now who views his faith in a Darwinist fashion, and his kind is fairly common. I don’t mean to say necessarily that he accepts Darwinism in a strict biological sense. The idea is one of a staircase. Different ages have different modes of believing. The Bible was literally believed by Hebrew tribalists for generations. Then the Church fathers began to interpret it allegorically—or at least the Old Testament—during the Middle Ages. Adam was a type for Christ; so was David. In our own sophisticated age, we can no longer believe in a force that defies scientific reasoning, but we can still accept the Bible as true if we engage in another round of allegorizing. This time we concentrate on the New Testament. There is no God, or Son of God, or Heaven; but there is an initial Life Force behind the Big Bang, and there is a sacrificial spirit in the progressive labor of solving the universe’s mysteries so that our species can one day move to other planetary systems as our sun declines. The life of our species can continue indefinitely as long as key figures in each generation commit themselves to the forward push.
From this mindset flow the various progressive positions on social issues that we have mentioned only in very small part. The concept of the family will be redefined to include the entire human race. We will all be responsible for each other, as parents and brothers and children. For the moment, this seems to mean that some of us will practice birth control so religiously that we leave behind no biological children at all. Hence the growing importance of sexual magnetism in marriage, to which you alluded: I see that as becoming the exclusive reason for marriage in the near future, if it isn’t already. Meanwhile, the masses around the world who are notorious for having far too many children will have to be reined in somehow before they smother the planet. This will be done, apparently, by what goes by the sanitized name of education—for I have honestly never met a cleric who believes in mass sterilization, let alone forced abortion. They should look a little more closely at some of their fellow travelers.
It behooves us to take seriously the notion that these clerics really believe in their belief. They are wholly, entirely convinced that their transformation of the soul into the generationally transcending figure of the social worker, eventually fading into the space traveler, is the true faith. This is the kind of mind now standing at the helm of the Christian faith, all too often.
J.H.: Why not? It’s the same mentality that we find bleeding into every other aspect of our intellectual and cultural life. I was watching a pretty good television drama recently (it shocks me to say that such things are still out there) wherein a teenager was mysteriously murdered. Very, very heavy stuff, and not handled from the remove of a “Miss Marple” or “Columbo” bowl of pabulum, or with the cliché grit of a Law & Order Episode. Very realistic, very intense. In one scene, the family priest tells the bereaved mother that her daughter is with God, and that God has always been with all of them. The poor woman tries to swallow the sugar-coating in polite silence, but suddenly has to vomit it forth. Where was God, she asks, on the night when her girl was murdered? The priest is aghast and speechless. What he should have done was point to the Crucifix over his altar and say, “There.”
God dies again every time an innocent is murdered. This anemic Church of ours has no more power to grapple with all the implications of such constant, torturous suffering. God can only be peace and love, because we can only assume a passive position before our day’s great moral challenges. Even our “action”—or activism—is dull passivity: protest marches that trash existing laws, passionate sermons that urge a “non-judgmental” stupor, costly junkets that muck up relief efforts in Third World backwaters. At the instant of this writing, a church group somewhere is protesting in front of a McDonald’s for not paying employees double the minimum wage… seriously. The posing never seems to stop: it’s out of all proportion to the occasion and lacking any relevance or efficacy in the specific crisis. Of course, God can never be any such thing as the wrath that hounds cold-blooded murderers of little girls to hell. He cannot be the sword of justice. His mercy must be extended to those who have never sought it and prize it at naught. We must learn to love the mentality that plunges a screaming girl into a lake to drown like some stray cat, turns away coolly, and walks back to the haunts of men with a slow pulse, prepared to lie unto the end.
That’s a pretty strong narcotic, that kind of God. I for one don’t think I want the anesthetic.
G.S.: To be fair—and any unfairness would be on my part, because I’m the one who insisted on the word “progress”—it must be said that the Christian faith is truly all about progress. The old way, the way of the Old Man, was locked in cycle. Primitive man, caught in Nature’s repetitions like any other beast of the forest or the field, knew no fate except that of his ancestors. As the Preacher sayeth, there’s nothing new under the sun. But Christ shatters the cycle as he was said to have shattered the gates of Hell during the Harrowing. Ascent is now a possibility, a calling. Man is called to be what he has never been before.
J.H.: But be careful how you use that collective plural. “Man” is called as an individual man, a single soul—not as “mankind”. “Man” meaning “all men and women” is still and forever locked in the same tragic cycle. The opportunity is one for single members of our sad species to break free and live by a law higher than Nature’s. Certainly we may—and certainly we indeed should—assist one another in striking off the shackles; but there is and can be no program of mass ascent. Those who would transform salvation into an agenda for raising up entire communities are talking politics, and politics breeds the power to make the elevation happen through law, and power breeds the arrogance of supposing that one can lead the masses through the inspiration of one’s inspired will, and arrogance of this sort breeds the terminal sickness of believing oneself to be God. There is no collective salvation, any more than there is collective sin. If we should ever come to realize that as a society, ironically, we would have taken a huge collective step forward.
G.S.: The founding of our nation was that collective step, in many ways. Now it seems that we are taking a huge step backward.
J.H.: Agreed. Much to my regret, agreed. And the Christian Church, rather than crying foul, wants a piece of the pie.