If you’d like to read the first two installments of this series, you can click here for part one and here for part two.
The church has always faced ongoing pressure to adapt itself to the preferences, morals, and worldview of the broader cultures within which it has existed. I’ve said before that reading Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony was a watershed moment for me. I read this in the 90’s when the de-Christianization of the United States was beginning to accelerate. The idea that Christians are aliens and exiles, even in the midst of cultures that are ostensibly “Christian,” has defined my understanding of the church ever since. Today we have The Benedict Option. I’m still not sure what I think of this book. I wrestle with its diagnosis of our cultural and ecclesiastical problems. I’m not sure what to think of its prescriptions for how to survive in a Western culture where increasing segments of society are not just non-Christian, but anti-Christian. I can’t decide if Rod Dreher, its author, is a pessimist or a realist.
The question of Christian identity is ever more acute today. What is a Christian? What is it necessary for Christians to believe? What is essential and what is negotiable? How should Christians engage the wider culture? How are we to live in a culture that does not acknowledge the validity of our sources of religious knowledge–Scripture, tradition, and the witness of the Holy Spirit?
I suggest that these sources of knowledge do in fact provide a compass for navigating the waters of lies, bias, ad hominem attack, and simple nonsense that have flooded Western culture. They will, however, inevitably lead us to different conclusions than processes of reasoning that omit them.
A recent article in Vox suggests that American conservatism has an “epistemic crisis”–a crisis of knowledge. In other words, the conservative reactionism against liberal media bias has caused us to distrust trustworthy sources of information and trust untrustworthy ones. Conservatives don’t know truth from falsehood anymore. The article affirms that “the conservative base will believe anything. And they are pissed about all of it.” Like most such sweeping statements, this one generalizes beyond the limits of credulity.
I do agree, though, that we in the United States have largely succumbed to intellectual jingoism. Reports we don’t like must be “fake news.” Reports we like are posted in social media, often without sufficient fact-checking. Conservatives claim liberal media bias. Liberals point to Fox News and hold their noses. We are indeed in an “epistemic crisis,” but it is in no way limited to the “conservative base.” Universities, which are supposedly sites of intellectual inquiry, virtue, and advancement, have in some instances become just the opposite. A “liberal” education no longer means one marked by free inquiry, but by mandatory compliance with left-wing dogmatism. Students protest–even violently–the presence of conservative speakers who represent ideas they find offensive. When ideas are too threatening, these same students can retreat into “safe spaces” where the challenges of actual thought dare not tread.
Christianity is a faith. It is a religion. It is a collection of beliefs and behaviors. It is a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. It is also an intellectual tradition, which is in part why it has been able to stand, and even thrive, in the midst of so many different intellectual movements over the last two millennia. The great intellectual tradition of Christian faith has shown itself capable of facing any intellectual challenge. Christianity becomes dangerous, however, when it succumbs to anti-intellectualism, and we in the West have entered into a time of popular anti-intellectualism.
We have a Great Tradition with great teachers, going all the way back to Jesus. Jesus himself was not a person out of time, but instead drew upon the intellectual rabbinic traditions of his own culture. Think of the incredible creativity and innovativeness of Paul, or the powerful engagement with tradition spanning from Irenaeus to Aquinas. We have a rich mystical tradition, represented by such figures as Julian of Norwich and Teresa of Avila, who show us a side of reality that is normally hidden from mortal eyes. Luther insisted on deep, personal engagement with Scripture, and Calvin and his predecessors developed a rich intellectual tradition that we now call “Reformed.” When I was a graduate student I even studied “Reformed epistemology,” which is a downright fascinating subject. John Wesley, who spoke of “plain truth for plain people,” nonetheless engaged Scripture in the biblical languages, drew extensively upon the Book of Common Prayer, read widely, and formed his own ideas in dialogue with the church of the first three centuries. The Roman Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor engaged an American South she called “Christ-haunted” with exquisite description and shed light on the complexity of the religiously-formed mind. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr. have bequeathed to us masterful theological reflection on how Christians should think about and respond to institutionalized sin carried out through the power structures of the nation state. And we mustn’t forget about the great twentieth-century apologist C. S. Lewis, or his contemporary successors such as Bishop Robert Barron. Yes, I have left many, many great Christian thinkers out of the sweeping survey. This is a blog post, after all. But the obvious omission of so many goes to show the breadth and depth of the Great Tradition of Christian faith.
We do ourselves a deep disservice if we succumb to the intellectual partisanship that has come to characterize our culture. Our Christian intellectual tradition is too rich, too generous, too rigorous, and too expansive for us to fall into easy traps of voluntarism (right and wrong, truth and falsehood are determined by my own will) and emotivism (right and wrong, truth and falsehood are subject to my feelings).
I’m not suggesting some kind of intellectual elitism whereby only the most educated can be truly Christian. What I’m saying is that Christians should adopt different habits of thinking than they had before. We are not afraid of different ideas because we know that both truth and history belong to God, and God will always eventually win out. We will counter false ideas as a way of honoring God and loving God with our minds. We can receive criticism, even insult, without striking back because that is what Christ did before us. We know that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, even if this isn’t our first inclination all of the time. In those cases in which we realize that we are failing in this regard, we can ask God for help. We accept that the world around us will think differently than we do because, as Paul teaches, it is necessary that God renew our minds. Once that happens, we can no longer see things in the same way. We know that we ourselves can be tempted to sin, and sometimes we will succumb to temptation and have to confess and repent. Thus we know that our judgments are imperfect, and that the counsel of others can help us understand our problems and circumstances more clearly.
We can pass these habits of mind down, one generation to the next, through the process of catechesis. They depend upon our intentional ownership of a clear, Christian identity. If we don’t know who we are in Christ, if we do not know the Great Tradition in which we stand, if we forget about the sacrifices of the saints and martyrs who went before us to claim this same identity in Jesus, we will no doubt be swept along in the currents of popular ideologies.
We stand in a Great Tradition. Within this tradition is a diagnosis of the root problem of the human condition (sin) and God’s solution to that problem (Jesus). In the midst of this world we are aliens and exiles (1 Peter 2:11). If we allow this world to claim our primary identity, we are lost.
Dr. Justus Hunter and I plan to start a Doctor of Ministry group focused specifically on this Great Tradition of Christian faith and the resources it provides for the life of the Christian congregations. We’re calling it, “Living the Historic Faith: Christian Wisdom for Today’s Church.” If you’re interested, please be in touch with me. I’d love to visit with you about this.
“Living the Historic Faith” will focus on the resources of the catholic doctrinal consensus that developed over the history of the church, beginning with the apostolic witness, continuing through the Rule of Faith and the ecumenical councils, through to the present day. We will look at issues such as doctrine, preaching, prayer, and catechesis in the practical life of the church and explore ways in which the resources of the historic Christian faith may contribute to these activities in the present.