There is no question that we have in this country a kind of grinding stalemate between conservative Christians and moderate thinking Christians as well as with those who may be lapsed in their faith or who have no religious faith at all.
There are two characters in David Lodge’s novel, “Thinks,” who give some definition to this stalemate. Ralph Messenger is a professor of cognitive science at an English University and is a convinced unbeliever. He is attracted to visiting professor Helen Reed, a writer and teacher of literature who is Catholic but is only loosely connected to the Church.
Ralph sees Helen across campus one Sunday morning and tries to catch up with her but she turns past a building and disappears. Later they meet and he asks, “Where were you?”
“I went to chapel.”
“Why do people usually go into a chapel on a Sunday morning?”
“Are you religious, then?” There’s a note of disapproval, or perhaps disappointment, in his voice.
“I was brought up a Catholic. I don’t believe anymore, but…”
“Why do you say that?”
“Well, it’s impossible to have a rational conversation about anything important with religious people. I suppose that’s why I didn’t think of looking for you in the chapel. I had you down as an intelligent, rational person. So what were you doing there, if you’re not a believer?”
“Well, I don’t believe literally in the whole caboodle,” she says. “You know, the Virgin Birth and Transubstantiation and the infallibility of the pope and all that. But sometimes I think there must be a kind of truth behind it. Or I hope there is.”
“Because otherwise life is so pointless.”
“I don’t find it so. I find it full of interest and deeply satisfying.”
So you have one person saying, “I don’t believe anymore, but…” And another person saying, “Well, it’s impossible to have a rational conversation about anything important with religious people.”
Both comments describe some of society’s lost romance with religion and Christianity. We have staunch conservatives and fundamentalists who believe that life without faith in Christ and the Church is completely pointless. But you have others, believers or not, who are not convinced that is so and have found life to be purposeful and good without any need for the Church or its creeds or dogma.
Who is right? Does there have to be a right way, an only way? Who has the most responsibility here? Shouldn’t Christians and the Church be the voice of reason, the catalyst for acceptance and welcome to all people whatever their beliefs or non beliefs? Instead they often appear to be the instigators of conflict and complaint.
There was a time when Christians and the Church were concerned about the eternal destiny of others, about the spiritual and physical needs of people. But that is no longer the focus of today’s far right Christians and even some pretty traditional ones. Today’s conservative believers seem angry and hostile and very political. They think if people don’t entirely accept their beliefs, don’t exactly follow their interpretation of the Bible, don’t support their political agenda and candidates that that in some way messes up the lives of believers, creates socialism and chaos and immorality in their city or town, ruins the economy for them, and somehow destroys their home life. They no longer see the prodigal son lost in his anguish and misery needing to return to the father; they do not see the beaten man on the road in need of a Good Samaritan; they do not see the widow and orphan and the homeless in need of the Church’s heart and help. Instead, they see liberals and socialists out there threatening to take away their guns and freedom; they see dark forces of godless evil trying to destroy Christians with gay marriage and immigration reform, with the right of a woman to choose how she manages her pregnancy, and with public schools failing to offer religious instruction.
The result is that too much about Christianity and church is being seen as nasty, hot-tempered, militant. A lot of people just think it is reactionary, crude and harsh.
I think of Cardinal Newman’s disturbing line, “Oh how we hate one another for the love of God.”
I watched on television a couple of Sundays ago a prominent Baptist minister in a large suburban church here in Texas tell his congregation how “the left” have it wrong. How they think it doesn’t matter what you believe. He said that is false. There is only one way to God, he fumed, and that is through Jesus Christ. Only one way. No other way. Do not believe anything but that! And the sermon was basically a partisan, one-sided harangue about how “the left” is trying to ruin society with their “just love everyone” garbage.
The ancient mystics used to say, “Whatever you cultivate, that you will be.” It’s hugely disappointing what conservative Christians seem focused on today and what they have become. If everyone has to believe your way or else be attacked or just out right dismissed as wrong and evil, then don’t be surprised if people refuse your great beliefs, your church and your God, and see it all as pointless.
© 2013 Timothy Moody