My last post prompted a friend of mine to write a response which was nearly as long as the post itself. When that happens, and when the response raises some questions and challenges some of my assertions, it probably means that I have not been clear or comprehensive enough in my original piece. I am grateful that even one reader would take the time to read my blog post with care and then compose a thoughtful, if somewhat critical, response. I want to encourage all of my readers to do that, and so I have decided that the questions asked and the issues raised in my friend’s comment warrant an equally serious and thoughtful reply in the form of a follow-up post.
Given the constraints on this form of communication, determined, as they are, by how much of my convoluted thought processes I am willing to impose upon my readers in any given post, I will focus here on only two of the issues my friend raised: (1) Christianity and culture, and (2) the nature of right and wrong.
In the first instance, my friend, whose name is Howard, found the quote by Philip Yancey in my last post to be “both spot-on and totally point-missing.” In that quote, Yancey acknowledged that he had no defense against the arguments of people, living in countries where Christianity is not the dominant faith, who found inconsistency between Christian truth claims and the behavior of Christians over the centuries. Howard believes it is inaccurate and unfair to defame the Christian faith on the basis of the despicable behavior of some who just happened to live in countries where Christianity is a prominent belief system. I believe that such criticism is altogether appropriate.
In the first place, numerous wars have been waged and untold atrocities have been committed, not just by people who came out of cultures influenced by Christianity, but in the name of Christian faith. Even in our own country’s history, it would not be difficult to find examples of Southern slave owners who believed that ownership and subjugation of some human beings by other human beings was justified, if not demanded, by the Christian Bible. And the policy of “Manifest Destiny,” the belief that God had destined America for national prosperity, gave rise to a westward expansion accompanied by the shameful, systematic abuse and exploitation of Native Americans, an evil for which we have not yet demonstrated ample repentance and contrition.
It is not enough to condemn this behavior in retrospect and attribute it to a misperception of true Christian faith. Genuine believers need to confront the reality that these deeds were carried out by people whose orthodoxy would have qualified them to serve as leaders in many Evangelical churches. In this regard, Yancey is altogether justified when he writes, “My deepest doubts about the faith can be summed up in a single question: Why doesn’t it work?”
Truth be told, there is some flaw in the way the teaching of Jesus has been interpreted and applied in Western culture over the centuries that would make it possible for people to profess to follow Jesus, to gather for worship on Sundays, and then enslave, exploit, impoverish, and destroy—both literally and metaphorically—their fellow human beings when they leave church. Writing these tendencies off to a few, or even many, “bad apples” won’t cut it. Christians are supposed to be “salt and light” in the culture. Blaming atrocious behavior on the culture, when Christianity has supposedly been a dominant presence in that culture is, it seems to me, self-incriminating.
I agree that Christianity is counter-cultural, but I fear we have sometimes interpreted that characteristic to mean we have no responsibility for the culture around us or that there is nothing redeemable in the prevailing culture. In the fifth century, Patrick of Ireland challenged the assumptions of the pagan Druids with regard to the nature and character of the true God. At the same time, he was not so counter-cultural that he failed to recognize and embrace many of the Celtic sensibilities toward the natural world and the created order. The result was the only example in all of history where an entire pagan culture came under the influence of Christian faith without violence or coercion of any kind.
Finally, in my last post I mentioned that I had once told a student of mine, who differed with me on a particular matter, that I gave him the freedom to be wrong. I wrote that I now regretted saying that and hoped I would never say it again. Howard found my comments “disingenuous.” I’m not sure why. I wasn’t commenting on the rightness or wrongness of my opinions, or those of my student. I was simply noting that I have had a change of heart with regard to my attitude toward those who differ with me.
I grew up in a religious environment where I was taught that, if I concluded that my position on any matter was correct, then all other positions, by definition, had to be wrong. I no longer believe that. Oh, I’m not talking here about the creedal formulations which are the bedrock foundation of Christian belief. I’m not a relativist when it comes to the triune nature of the Godhead, the deity of Christ, and other matters which the historical Creeds affirm without ambiguity.
I find, however, after six decades of life experience, that there are far fewer issues than I had previously thought where differing perspectives are starkly black and white. And I now acknowledge that, in many areas, believing that I am right does not automatically require me to regard every other position as wrong. Yes, the course I am pursuing is one I believe is right for me, and in most matters I believe that others could benefit from coming to the same conclusion I have embraced. In most matters, but not all. And even if they don’t come around to my way of seeing things, it is really not up to me to say that others are wrong. That applies to the opinions of my good friend, Howard, as well. Thanks, brother, for your honest inquiry. I respect you even more because of it.