Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

On the defense

Hi there - Joe, thanks for your comments; Abby, thanks for your statements.

Progressive Christians tend to spark a lot of sensitivity both to the right and the left. On the Right we tend to scare a lot of people (including my mother) who aren't yet convinced that there's a lot of coherence to our positions. See the recent responses to the Nerve article discussion below. They're not sure that one can be open to change while still keeping values, that one can understand coastal culture for its egalitarianism while still complaining about some of its excesses, like the occasional reaction against all forms of institutionalized religion -- which is one reason I wanted to start this blog.

On the secular Left there are a lot of individuals who have been scarred by coming up against the worst of hierarchy, the worst of corruption and power in the guise of benevolence. Those scars are real and we have to acknowledge them. I find a gap of compassion in reactions like that of Anonymous (further below, reacting to Nerve) who can in no way understand why the church has come under attack in the last fifty years, or why Christians in Oklahoma should feel compelled to apologize to the armies of college professors, secular activists, Jews, Muslims, and hipsters who resent church political privilege in America. The critiques of coastal society, postmodernism, radical leftism, and feminism have their limits, but at their heart they represent a utopian impulse to reform a society that has failed them -- failed to stop the abuses of power they've seen, failed to stop certain of its ministers from actively encouraging actions of hate, categorically failed over centuries, over an array of problems. See above about the Democrats voted out of the church in North Carolina.

The church is a human institution composed of an extremely diverse body of grass-roots activists united by symbols that remind them that they're supposed to work together. Among Catholics, the pope functions primarily as such a symbol: his edicts are overtunred by successive popes; pope after pope has sponsored whores and wars and torture. But the pope stands in to insure some possible unity of discourse between elitist Jesuits and leper-washing Franciscans. The church is a human institution about making people with different ways of loving the world come talk to each other. This is a foolish, terrible, pointless exercise. It's a lyrical gambit. It's a utopian mission. It may be doomed to fail. It certainly, like Democracy, creates as much secrecy and warfare as it hopes to destroy. But maybe some of us, as individuals, have less hope for other institutions. And some of us need the lyric voice of its hope: that we can and should talk to the redneck and the elitist about each of their utopian vision, that some common ground is possible, especially if they are called back to talk about Jesus the washer-of-lepers and healer-of-the-sick.

The church is a human institution. God isn't human. I have hope for the church in the long run: in eternity, where God reigns, the argument that we should be talking and caring and giving and celebrating and arguing together ought to produce something good. In its founding texts, the church stands for this kind of openness within its walls. The same utopian argument underrides all hopes that civil society will build a better world, that Enlightenment makes for a better world, that democracy improves lives, that the free market could save mankind: systems of openness closed to everything on the outside, staking everything on the hope that they can set the world right. For the Christian there was already a revolution, already an event and a sacrifice: the irreversibility and severity of that event makes it the one path, the one gateway through which the Christian goes forward. There is no other way but this. If I don't grasp that revolution, I grasp nothing.

I didn't plan to write a defense of the church here. Abby's right: in the church we take the liberty of assuming that we have offered a place for free exchange. We want to talk to other people who have the same assumptions about the worth of other human beings and the significance of one revolution, in much the same way as secular humanists all accept the French Revolution as the starting point of something called "modernity" which is always better than the world that came before it. The Secular humanist has a hard time having the conversation about how relative modern democracy is to the world that came before. If he accepts the relativism of tradition and modernity, he can no longer judge his actions and communities based on how far they enable individual liberty. The Christian has a hard time engaging other systems of belief. If she acknowledges the relativism of Christianity against the Other Spiritual Regime, she has a hard time judging her actions and communities relative to how hard they conform themselves to the commandments to compassionate love.

There's much more there to be discussed: about how evangelical the Christian should be, how much she has a duty to cure all the souls in the world or to make them conform. This is a long discussion. Suffice it to go into shorthand. Augustine said that Christians are citizens of two cities: both the church and the state claim their participation. The Christian can't leave the City of Man until her death. And she has the duty and responsibility to behave appropriately while a citizen of that regime.

In this blog I expect to talk not only to Christians but to the great swarm of progressive secularists who compose most of my friends, colleagues, and peers, out here on the coastal city. Without doubt, aside from religion, I owe you the respect due you in civil society. I can share with you what I know about the world, what works, what fails; but I'm compelled to share with you nothing. I have to acknowledge the evil that's been done against gays and women, the losses to the world, the evil suffered by any man or woman personally at the hands of an individual or group that believed themselves inspired by my God.

According to the bounds of my religion my duties are separate and different. I must listen attentively and lovingly to other Christians -- even if they seem to be filled with hate, I have to keep listening and engaging them and arguing them, acknowledging the common ground wherever it lies, challenging them on our differences. It's one of the earliest commandments of our church that I do so, in order that if I'm right, I eventually change them. But outside the church, my religion gives me duties. I have to acknowledge your worth: I have to respect you, defend you, and if you brush close to my experience: suffer with you, love you, work for your benefit, pray for you, encourage you. I must share with you the joys of my life and offer you my sympathy and wisdom if they're appropriate, withold them if they're useless. I must practice good works. I must listen. I have no business judging you: only judging my actions as they relate to you.

For the Christian, there was one historical event. Do I judge your grasp on our history? I have a duty to offer you what I know about. I have no right to judge you against it. The teacher judges the student who has enrolled, and talks to the woman on the subway, to whom he owes a different, and no less important, kind of love and humility.

We've talked about "excuses" made by secularists who don't want to have a serious conversation about progressive Christianity. I have lots of excuses for not moving back to Texas, some of them good ones. But yes, I want secularists to challenge Christians. I want Christians to challenge Christians. And Christians secularists.


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