Monday, March 26, 2012

What Makes Christianity Distinctive?

A basic question, right?

I mean, we all hear (and say) that Christianity is different from other religions, and that Christians are supposed to be different from other people. It's on bumper stickers: "Christianity is a relationship, not a religion." It's even in the Bible: we are "a peculiar people," a people "set apart," we are "in the world, but not of it," etc. And, at one level, it is fairly simple--Christianity is the community of people who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. Christians believe several basic things which are unique to it: God is One, yet Three (Trinity); Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human; salvation and eternal life are found only in Jesus. And yet...

There are groups of people who call themselves Christians that don't agree with all (or any) of the above statements. Some would say that Christ is not necessarily the only way to eternal life, and yet they call themselves Christians. some would say that the doctrines of established faith are incorrect, and they they call themselves Christians. Of course, those Christians who hold to what is commonly called 'orthodoxy' would call these dissenters 'heretics', and that is fair enough, theologically. But, then, this simply leads one to ask: is that all there is to it? Is 'orthodoxy' what makes Christianity distinctive?

At this point, I think, the question becomes more complicated. After all, one might ask, who decides what 'orthodoxy' is? Is it the largest group? Is it the most consistent tradition (or is it traditions?) of the faith? Is it simply to be found in the Bible? Of course, all of these have merit, but there is still, it seems, an unanswered question here. After all, as many scholars have pointed out, the Bible says a lot of things, and some of them are not consistent--some are even contradictory (A recent worthwhile book on this topic is Christian Smith's "The Bible Made Impossible.").

So maybe it's the Bible, 'as interpreted by the tradition'. But this seems to fall short as well; after all, the history of Christianity involves an ever-increasing number of divergent traditions, many of which see the other traditions as 'not quite getting it right' when it comes to properly understanding Christianity. Thus we have Catholic/Orthodox/Coptic/Protestant/etc, and within each of those, multiple subdivisions, each of which claims to have found the most proper way to understand the faith. Whose interpretation of the Bible is the most accurate? Is it the group with the most members? The one with the longest history? The one currently growing the fastest?

Then, there is an even more potentially divisive question--the question of praxis, or how we should live our lives as believers. How much does genuine Christianity depend on living in a certain way? Here we find perhaps even more differences, and even more potential for confusion. Of course, often praxis is guided by theological assumptions (stemming from the Bible, usually), but that is not my main point here. The point is that there are so many divergent ways that Christians can choose to live their lives. Let me just mention a few. There are Christians who believe the right way to live is to be: politically conservative/liberal (or non-political!), rich/poor, immersed in culture/separate from culture, guided by reason/guided by emotion (or intuition), ethically strict/ethically relaxed, pacifist/warlike, exclusive/inclusive, etc.

Obviously, I'm creating strict dichotomies, and the reality of the situation is far more complex and less easy to categorize. Christians are often a mix of many different attitudes and beliefs, and I would guess that a lot of them (including myself) don't know what to think half the time! So, it seems to be the case that, whether we like it or not, there is a lot of inconsistency among Christians--perhaps more today than ever before--about what it is that we really are.

Why am I bringing all this up?  Well, I've had several conversations lately with fellow 'budding theologians' here at Oxford, and it seems we're all dealing with this issue in one way or another.  And, since as Christian theologians we (at least in theory!) are supposed to provide direction to 'Christianity' more generally, we feel a sense of responsibility to share what seems to be the most accurate presentation of the faith to people.  But I wonder whether it really matters, since it appears that most believers are more than happy to follow whatever 'Christianity' seems right to them, regardless of what anyone says, and there does not appear to be any sign of this changing.

So, how can the theologian, or church leader, or any Christian who desires to speak the 'truth' of the faith progress forward in this situation?  It is, I think, probably the most difficult and most important question facing Christianity today--what is it that makes us different?  And how can we effectively share this truth in a way that takes root in our lives, and the lives of others?  If we don't figure that out, then I suspect that we will continue to see more and more people grow weary of the faith and walk away.  I don't like that, but I think it's reality.

My suspicion is that we all need to start again, and keep returning every day, to the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) and seriously examine the life, teachings, and passion of Jesus Christ.  If we can't learn how to be distinctive as Christians from that, then everything else seems of very little value.  So, maybe stop reading Paul for a while and just focus on what Jesus apparently really said.  This doesn't mean I think the rest of the Bible is worthless; not at all.  But perhaps it's time to get back to the 'milk' of things, because I'm not sure most of us are really ready to 'eat solid food', so to speak. (And, yes, I'm aware that is a paraphrase of something Paul said. ;-D)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

I think I've figured out what it is that bothers me about the Kony 2012 campaign...

I wasn't going to write anything about the "Kony" video or Invisible Children, since so much has been said already -- just do a Google search for a plethora of information.  And, it's not that I disagree with the basic premise: clearly, bringing Kony to justice and helping the children who have been harmed and brainwashed by Kony are good things.  I won't  begrudge anyone who has signed on their support for such an endeavor.

Still, something about this whole situation has made me uneasy, and I wasn't sure what that could be, until today.  I think, now, I can say what bothers me about the campaign more clearly.  My primary concerns have little to do with the common accusations being tossed around ('they didn't think it through carefully enough', 'they aren't really spending their money wisely', 'this is just a superficial fix on a very complicated problem', etc).  Those may or may not prove to be true.  Yet, as has also been pointed out, at least they are trying to do something to help.

My actual concern stems from the 'media hype' mentality that such a campaign needs to thrive.  And that reflects a deeper concern: Why is it, exactly, that so much attention and response has been given to this issue, when there are many more serious (at least in sheer numbers of deaths) problems in the world that don't seem to register with people?  For example, it's a well-known fact that thousands of children die every day from hunger and treatable diseases.  It's something we all know, and yet it barely tends to register a blip on the 'social media outrage' meter from day to day.

I'm afraid to say that the answer is fairly simple: people quickly become desensitized to suffering, especially overwhelming suffering that isn't directly facing them.  I'm not blaming anyone for this.  I'm no better.  It seems to be just the way human beings deal with life.  But that bothers me.  It bothers me that most of us will see images and information at least several times a day detailing the vast amount of suffering in the world, but it barely registers.  It bothers me that, apparently, in order to get our attention, we need to be shocked into recognizing a problem.  Since the Kony situation is quite shocking, it gets our attention.

And, I think, that is what bothers me most about the situation: the fact that we need to be shocked into paying attention.  At first blush, that may not seem like such a big deal.  So we need to be shocked into paying attention once in a while, what's the problem?  We just have to find new and creative ways to shock people into paying attention.

But, I'm afraid, that will only exacerbate the problem.  Think about the first time you were shocked by some serious problem in the world.  Now think about how you view that problem several years on.  Very few of us, I'm afraid, maintain the same level of outrage or concern.  Those that do tend to become humanitarians and work directly with the people being affected by the issues.  Most of us do not.  This isn't meant as a guilt trip; it's simply the fact of the matter.  Unless we are committed to lifelong personal/vocational involvement, we will grow dissociated from what shocks us after a while.

The Kony 2012 campaign probably can't be replicated.  A Kony campaign every year would soon be tuned out by all but the most committed individuals.  And, if people get used to being shocked, then the effect simply won't be the same.  Now, hopefully it won't need to be repeated, if Kony is captured and brought to justice.  But what about all the other issues that face our world?

In the long run, if we fall into a pattern of 'shocking' people using social media, like the Kony 2012 video does, with causes that deserve immediate attention, what will happen to our desensitization?  Will it -- as seems likely -- simply grow?  This ultimately would be a very bad thing, I think.  Can such an increase in desensitization be avoided, given the ubiquity of social media, and the likelihood that those who, in the future, want to draw attention to an important issue, will use similar methods to Invisible Children?  Will we start tuning out Youtube videos the way we tune out Feed the Children commercials?

It seems to me that there should be a different way of getting people to pay attention and become involved in the sufferings of the world.  But, honestly, I'm not sure what that might be.  And that bothers me.  Perhaps someone out there in the blogosphere has some insight to share?  On the other hand, perhaps I am wrong, and people will not be so quickly desensitized to issues like the ones raised by Invisible Children.  I hope not.  But it still bothers me.  Should it?  What do you think?

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Is there such a thing as "Christian" philanthropy?

This week I read an article in The Guardian newspaper. It was about the "new breed" of philanthropists, very wealthy people who are looking for ways to give away more of their money to those in need. I suppose that people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are largely responsible for this trend, and I certainly won't complain about that. I'm very thankful that there appear to be more rich people currently willing to give away their money to help the impoverished and oppressed peoples of the world.

But what struck me was a comment by one of these philanthropists, who said: "Tax... is compulsory. There's no joy in paying it. Philanthropy is about: This is my money, I can do what I like with it. It's people with surplus money wanting dreams, visions, opportunities. It's an identity question, what you feel your purpose in life is."

Now, of course, I agree that the joy that comes from helping others can be a powerful motivator, and that's fine, as far as it goes. But it occurred to me that this motivation stems from a basic assumption that is, at its core, in direct opposition to what Christianity seems to tell us. It is seen in the statement, "This is my money." Here we find an assumption that is at the core of most western worldviews today: that when I work for something, and achieve something, whatever I get is "mine."

But doesn't the Bible tell us otherwise? Doesn't Christ, especially, remind his followers again and again that all things belong to God, and that we own nothing? Doesn't he say that we shouldn't worry, because God will provide all of our needs? Doesn't he tell us that even our lives don't belong to us? Paul tells us that we ourselves have been "bought" at the price of Christ's death, so we belong to God. That would, implicitly, make everything that is "ours" actually God's.

But if this is the case, then how should Christians view something like philanthropy? How should we view our lives in general? Shouldn't we be giving away as much as possible, even if we aren't Warren Buffett? It seems that we run into a kind of cognitive dissonance here: surely, God doesn't expect us to give everything away. Yes, Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all he had, but that was just rhetorical, right? Obviously, we can't live and feed ourselves if we have nothing at all. And what about our responsibility to our families?

I'm not trying to suggest that there's anything wrong with having things, or with caring for one's family; not at all. But I do think that we begin to get to the core of what Christianity is all about when we start thinking about the fact that, if I am a follower of Christ, what I have is, at the most basic level, NOT mine.

Which means that it is not up to me to do whatever I want with it. We hear this often in Christian circles--"the earth is the Lord's, and everything in it"--but I wonder what would happen if we actually lived as though this were true. What would it mean for philanthropy to be genuinely "Christian" in this sense? What would it be like if wealthy Christians gave away their money, or even their belongings, with the recognition that "this isn't mine, it's God's, so I would like to share it with you, since you need it."

What would it mean if I, as an Oxford doctoral student who has educational debt and a dissertation to write, were to think about everything I have, including my academic pursuits, as belonging to God, not to me? What would it be like if you, with your mortgage, and two cars, and wife, and two kids, and yearly vacation to wherever, were to live in the truth that none of that--house, wife, kids, even your own life--actually belonged to you?

Quite honestly, it scares me. I'm not sure I want to live that way. It means giving up too much control. It means a lack of security. And yet, apparently, that's what I'm called to do as a Christian. What do you think? Is this too much? Is it simply impossible? Are those good enough reasons for me to stop going on about it? Or does our unwillingness to really live that way reveal a deep rift in our Christian faith?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Podmore on Kierkegaard's infinite qualitative difference...

"Kierkegaard's writings express their own vitriolic offense toward any blurring of humanity and divinity that denies the infinite qualitative difference; and yet the (typically Kierkegaardian) irony is that the Christianity one finds in these writings is one which itself teaches that God has actually defied that very distance. This divine defiance... is identified as being an offense to reason in the highest degree: an offense that is at the dialectical heart of the struggle for faith. The essence of the Kierkegaardian offense toward Feuerbach, Hegel, paganism, Christendom, etc, is an offense directed toward every human denial of the infinite difference..." - Simon Podmore