Asking Too Much of Christianity?

Paul suggested I do a few sessions on abortion. I’ll start next week. In the meantime, I decided to use the following Facebook post by Kerry Walters as a transition.

Kerry was a very respected and beloved philosophy professor at Gettysburg College. In his retirement, he serves as the pastor of the Holy Spirit Parish of the American National Catholic Church. My decision to publish it came after so many of my friends talked about appreciating his insights.

Don’t Expect More of Christianity Than It Can Offer
by Kerry Walters

The data are pretty clear. Christianity in North America is quickly losing both respectability and credibility. “Nones,” folks who claim no religious affiliation, account for nearly 27% of the adult population. Among young people, the None population is 40%. Even those who retain a formal affiliation with Christianity are increasingly lukewarm, while the few who attend services even semi-regularly are rapidly graying.

It’s easy to blame “secularism,” the usual and easy target. But doing so is rather inane. It’s more fruitful – and honest – to look to Christianity rather than secular society as the prime suspect in its own decline. The cruel bigotry associated with rightwing evangelicalism, the demand for lockstep conformity associated with Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, the clerical sexual scandals, not to mention Christianity’s too frequent substitution of platitudes for intellectual rigor and its feckless inability to speak to people hungry for deep meaning, are adequate although incomplete explanations for North American Christianity’s slouch toward irrelevance.

There are, of course, exceptions to this. Isolated church communities throughout the nation are thriving. But they’re the exceptions, not the rule. They’re islands in a rising ocean.

Even those of us who still cling to Christianity may well be feeling a certain slippage in our grip. Doctrines and even worship styles that once seemed reassuringly chiseled in stone may now appear to be written on sand. Nothing seems as certain as it once did, and alarming as this may be, to pretend otherwise comes across as uncomfortably dishonest.

So I get why so many people are opting out. They feel bored, unfilled, angry, or let down with the whole thing. Why cling to a belief system, much less the institutions associated with it, which no longer speaks to the human heart, satisfies human reason, offers comfort in hard times, or bestows a sense of purpose and direction? Why not just cut bait and walk away?

Fair enough. But what if a lot of the dissatisfaction with the whole Christian thing stems from simply demanding too much of it? Might another significant explanation for its waning appeal be the startling fact that we’re asking more than it can possibly deliver?

I know that many of us were taught otherwise by well-meaning parents and pastors, but the truth of the matter is that life in general and Christianity in particular are ambiguous. There are very few clear cut answers to the most important questions that any of us can ask about life, death, love, joy, suffering, and purpose. That’s just the way things are, and all the faith in Jesus (or Allah, or Krishna, or Richard Dawkins) isn’t going to change that.

Unless we slip into a buttoned-up dogmatism born of fear, which Christianity has often done, the best we can do is to tell ourselves stories that try to make some sense of what the world’s all about. The stories are built from reason and imagination, lived experience and abstractions, mythos and logos, literature, art, and science. We can celebrate that the stories help us navigate our ways through life and that many of them are wonderful catalysts for personal and social growth. But if we’re wise, we’ll also admit that none of them are or can be 100% accurate. The good ones gesture at truth, but for all that, they remain stories. They’re the lenses through which we see, but see darkly.

We just can’t live without the metaphors, similes, and symbols given us in stories. They enrich our existences, stretch us by challenging us, instill in us values and purposefulness. But they also sometimes frustrate because they’re never complete. Stories are always provisional; there’s never a nice neat “The End” to wrap things up. Their borders are porous.

The Christian story is no exception to this. In fact, one of the most admirable things about it is that it encourages the probing, exploration, and joy that all good stories do – exactly the kind of activity that Jesus in the synoptic gospels (not so much in John) typifies. This makes the closed system that Christianity too often becomes all the more deplorable.

So if one is tempted to leave Christianity because it isn’t a comprehensive and airtight explanation for everything that is, I’d offer two responses.

The first is this: in its best moments, it never pretended to be. Instead, it offered and can still offer a well-trod and hence amply-attested path to fulfillment, happiness, and decency. It’s a work in progress, and like all such things, it will have its good days and its bad days, its sprints and its crawls. Still, it’s a good lodestone for the journey. Why wouldn’t that be enough?

The second response is this: no story, not the story of science or atheism or hedonism or capitalism or dogoodism – absolutely no story whatsoever – can offer a comprehensive and airtight explanation for everything. If that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll never find it. All stories, whether or not their tellers admit it, run up finally against the inherent mystery of existence. And if that’s the case, surely a story like the Christian one that acknowledges this is preferable to those that don’t.

One final word. I think it’s much more likely that glimpses of the Reality which stories struggle to express are more possible precisely in an atmosphere of ambiguity rather than certainty. The former keeps us open, alert, attentive, and grateful. The latter can make us spiritually and intellectually sluggish, complacent, closed down to new experiences, and smug.

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