In 1995 Billy Abraham published a book called Waking from Doctrinal Amnesia. Its basic premise is that, within the United Methodist Church, we have forgotten who we are and what we stand for. United Methodists are not the only Christians to have forgotten these basic markers of Christian identity. Throughout mainline Protestantism, increasingly in evangelicalism, and even through much of the Roman Catholic Church, we Christians have forgotten who we are. We see ourselves as bearers of Western culture interpreted through the lens of a rather unthreatening Jesus. This is a Jesus who tells us we are right and calls our ideological opponents to repentance, rather than one who confronts each of us with both compassion and judgment, calling us all to repentance and offering us the gift of the Holy Spirit for our moral transformation.
We have forgotten who we are, not just as the church, but as human beings. The decline of the church in Western civilization has meant a decline in its influence upon the ambient culture. The values that people once learned growing up in Christian environments are now judged antiquated, even harmful, by the power brokers of our society. They are cast aside in favor of instrumental notions of human life, and new values, directly opposed to those traditionally associated with Christians, are emerging. I’m not just looking left here. I’m looking right, too.
I’m troubled–deeply troubled, in my bones–by the recent change in abortion laws in New York. I wonder what has happened to us culturally when we are content with a a seven- or eight-month old fetus being given a lethal injection and aborted. Yes, there are qualifications. The law allows these abortions only when the fetus is non-viable or when a healthcare professional deems that the health of the mother is threatened. The stipulation related to the health of the mother, however, is broader than it may first appear. In fact, it is so vague that it establishes virtually no parameters as to when the health of the mother is endangered. The health exception may be “broadly interpreted by courts to include age, economic, social and emotional factors, rather than the biological definition of ‘health’ that normally comes to mind.” It is noteworthy, moreover, that healthcare professionals under this law do not have to be licensed physicians.
I have a particular interest in this matter since kids like my son Sean, who has Down syndrome, are aborted 80-90% of the time. I wrote about this recently in Touchstone.
We have forgotten who we are, both as Christians and as human beings, and with tragic results.
In his book, So You Think You’re Human? A Brief History of Humankind (Oxford, 2004), Felipe Fernandez-Armesto begins with the following provocative statement:
Here is a paradox. Over the last thirty or forty years, we have invested an enormous amount of thought, emotion, treasure, and blood in what we call human values, human rights, the defence of human dignity and of human life. Over the same period, quietly but devastatingly, science and philosophy have combined to undermine our traditional concept of humankind. In consequence, the coherence of our understanding of what it means to be human is now in question. And if the term ‘human’ is incoherent, what will become of ‘human values’? Humanity is in peril: not from the familiar menace of ‘mass destruction’ and ecological overkill—but from a conceptual threat (1).
I would argue that this conceptual threat involves the exchange of a theological understanding of humanity for a pragmatic and instrumental one. We have assigned human life primarily instrumental value. Hence the increase in euthanasia within parts of Western culture.
Evangelicals have traditionally opposed abortion on moral grounds, but to many in our culture these protestations ring hollow because of our alignment with political systems that seem to devalue life in other ways. If human life is so valuable, why are we not doing more to protect the lives of immigrants who are desperate for opportunity? The ontological value of one human life should extend to all others. Let me anticipate an objection I know is coming: no, I’m not suggesting simply opening the border. What I am advocating for, rather, is a renewed discussion about immigration among Christians rooted not in political values but in theological ones. What courses of action does Scripture suggest? Given our understanding of human life, what courses of action are most ethical? What guidance does our doctrine offer us? In what ways does Christian identity supersede national identity?
Another question that evangelicals must answer is, if human life is so valuable, why do so many evangelicals support the death penalty? I get the difference: a baby has committed no crime, and convicted criminals presumably have (though the number of people sentenced to death and later exonerated by DNA evidence is alarming). But for Christians, the burden of proof is on those who would suggest that some crime diminishes in inherent value the life of the person who committed it. By the same token, Andrew Cuomo evinces deep moral confusion when he asserts that the death penalty is immoral on the one hand and his state’s new abortion law is entirely moral on the other. The Babylon Bee is savage on this point. It is especially ironic that in announcing his opposition to the death penalty, Cuomo invokes solidarity with Pope Francis.
Each of the issues I have touched on in this article is extremely complex and requires more discussion than I can offer here. We need a sustained discussion on a consistent ethic of life. (Any bishops listening out there?) It should start in the church, but my hope is that it would catch on more broadly. We need a discussion that will remind us of who we are, first as Christians, and more broadly as human beings. We will never have that discussion, however, until we recognize that we have a conceptual problem.
Here’s another way of thinking about the same thing: if you went up to your average United Methodist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, or evangelical and asked, “What is a human being?” would there be any consistent answer either within or across traditions? I would think not. And what resources would they draw on in answering? What would be the dominant narratives that would inform their answers? We Protestants have fallen short in identifying and teaching theological anthropology. We have abdicated the formation of our identity as humans to the cultural narrative that may be most compelling in a given time and place.
The church must be the church. To do that, we must recover the memory of who we are. We must recover metaphysical, ontological understandings of human life. Scripture teaches us that human beings are created “a little lower than the angels” (Psalm 8:5; Hebrews 2:7-9). If we believe we can “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” we will need more than hammers and nails, more than protests and social media. We will need deep theological engagement and a commitment to deep theological formation in our churches. Then, and only then, will we begin to remember who we truly are.