Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Easter and its fashionable detractors: A response to Andrew Sullivan

Well, it's that time of year again. Time to fill Easter baskets with chocolate and candy, break out the eggs and food coloring, and ... respond to the cover stories on news magazines questioning the credibility of Christianity. It has become a customary part of the season.

Every year at precisely this time, Time or Newsweek or U. S. News & World Report (or all three of them) trot out a story discussing whether, in fact, Jesus rose from the dead, or whether he existed at all, or just what, in fact, Christianity really is, anyway.

Can you even imagine any of these periodicals doing an exposé on Judaism on Rosh Hashanah? Or on Islam during Ramadan?

Every year we are treated to the same, lame kind of piece which questions the veracity of Christianity's claims and, partly by giving a one-sided picture of the debate, fails to deal with the real historical arguments.

This frequently takes the form of a report on the most recent doings of the "Jesus Seminar," a group of "Bible scholars" who engage in the highly erudite procedure of taking a vote on whether various Biblical passages are historically authentic by dropping different colored balls into a box. If there are more black balls than pink or red, then the passage is rejected.

If such a procedure commonly used by fraternities to accept or reject new members were to be attempted in any other academic setting, the event would be laughed off as a ludicrous example of the trivialization of scholarship, but since it confirms a popular secularist prejudice, it is treated as a legitimate form of scholarship by journalists, who studiously write it all down in their little notepads and report it as if this is what responsible people in the academic world really do.

Clearly the standards one is required to meet in order to criticize Christianity are appallingly low.

Andrew Sullivan's piece this week in Newsweek, called "Christianity in Crisis," is not a full-scale assault on the Faith; it does not quite hit journalistic bottom like many of these kinds of pieces. But it isn't for lack of trying.

He begins with an admiring account of Thomas Jefferson's treatment of Christianity, which consisted in literally excising the miracles passages, leaving, says Sullivan, "the purest, simplest, apolitical Christianity, purged of the agendas of those who had sought to use Jesus to advance their own power decades and centuries after Jesus' death." These unfortunate supernatural claims, Sullivan continues, "fused with politics and power, gave successive generations wars, inquisitions, pogroms, reformations, and counterreformations."

Perhaps the reader can be excused for wondering what the exact connection is between the Virgin Birth, and, say, the Thirty Years War; or how Jesus opening the eyes of the blind contributed to, for example, the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre; or what precisely the Resurrection has to do with, oh, I don't know, the Pogrom of Lisbon?

And what is the argument for saying it was specifically the beliefs in supernatural events, rather than Christianity's ethical beliefs, that spawned any of these violent events?

He doesn't say.

Sullivan is too insignificant a character to usefully be called a heretic; in fact, he is nothing more than a garden-variety theological liberal. But like every heretic throughout history, he tries to found his own version of the faith on one or two things that happen to appeal to him, while dismissing the rest as apocryphal or irrelevant. Instead of letting his own beliefs be conformed to Christianity, he has conformed Christianity to his own beliefs. Religion, in such cases, is not an exercise in transformation, but an adventure in autobiography.

Like every other heretic, he talks of the "essence" of Christianity, and this "essence" is always some reductionist version of the faith founded on a favored doctrine. "[T]he liberal theologian," wrote Presbyterian theologian J. Gresham Machan in 1923, "seeks to rescue certain of the general principles of religion, of which these particularities [the supernatural beliefs of Christianity] are thought to be mere temporary symbols, and these general principles he regards as constituting 'the essence of Christianity.'"

Machan was the great conservative champion in the so-called "Liberal-Fundamentalism controversy" of the 1920s and 30s, which pitted him against the great liberal theologian of the time, Henry Emerson Fosdick. He was one of the two great enemies of the theological liberalism of the 19th and early 20th centuries (although its influence, as Sullivan's piece demonstrates, has never entirely abated). The other was John Henry Cardinal Newman, a Catholic convert from Anglicanism. "Liberalism in religion," said Newman:
is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another ... Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous; and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy.
The two men cleverly and capably tagged the Sullivans of their time, and they have been under observation by the orthodox ever since.

Sullivan says that he himself accepts Jesus' divinity and resurrection, but he makes it pretty clear that, to him, these things really don't matter. Like Jefferson, Sullivan believes it is only Jesus' ethical teachings that really matter. But not every ethical doctrine: just the ones that happen to strike his fancy.

Sullivan wants to go "back to Jesus." Only the Jesus he wants to go back to looks surprisingly ..., well, like Andrew Sullivan. Like most modern theological liberals, he reduces the whole teaching of Christianity to the Gospel accounts. Why? Because they seem (at least at first blush) to comport with his preconceptions:
The issues that Christianity obsesses over today simply do not appear in either Jefferson’s or the original New Testament. Jesus never spoke of homosexuality or abortion, and his only remarks on marriage were a condemnation of divorce (now commonplace among American Christians) and forgiveness for adultery. The family? He disowned his parents in public as a teen, and told his followers to abandon theirs if they wanted to follow him. Sex? He was a celibate who, along with his followers, anticipated an imminent End of the World where reproduction was completely irrelevant.
Of course, the Old Testament and the Apostle Paul have plenty to say about these things, but they don't count in the religiously reductionist view propagated by Sullivan. If it was the Apostle Paul or the writer of Leviticus whose teachings were closer to 20th century secular morality, it would be the Gospels being thrown in the scrap heap.

In fact, as Machan pointed out, St. Paul is the first obstacle the liberal seeks to remove:
Many attempts have indeed been made to separate the religion of Paul sharply from that of the primitive Jerusalem Church; many attempts have been made to show that Paul introduced an entirely new principle into the Christian movement or even was the founder of a new religion. But all such attempts have resulted in failure.
To try to separate Paul--or any of the apostles--from Jesus would be something like trying to separate Socrates from Plato.

It's not that some of Sullivan's criticisms are without plausibility; the problem is that he keeps getting in his own way, and refuses to apply them impartially. While he repudiates the social activism unique to religious conservatives, the social activism acceptable to religious and secular liberals are somehow still obligatory:
This doesn’t imply, as some claim, to the privatization of faith, or its relegation to a subordinate sphere. There are times when great injustices—slavery, imperialism, totalitarianism, segregation—require spiritual mobilization and public witness.
Abortion and the family are not relevant because they are not discussed in the Gospels, but slavery and segregation are? Of course, the Gospels say nothing about these things either, so all of this turns out to be a not particularly sophisticated case of special pleading.

Sullivan's version of Christianity is certainly simple: all oversimplifications are. It could also be called pure, if by purity we meant unsullied by fact and history. But it certainly is not apolitical.

The Religion of Sullivan hasn't found the real Jesus, and separated him from the corrupt church. What it has found are "those elements in the teaching of Jesus--isolated and misinterpreted--which happen to agree with the modern program." That's Machan again, writing about Sullivan 89 years before Sullivan proclaimed his new religion.

The liberalism of Sullivan and his ilk sees Christ as a good example to be imitated rather than as a divine person to be worshipped. In this view, wrote Machan, "Liberalism regarded [Christ] as an Example and a Guide; Christianity as a Savior."
But the essential thing can be put almost in a word--liberalism regards Jesus as the fairest flower of humanity; Christianity regards him as a supernatural person.
Even in Sullivan's abridged Bible--a product of his own set of theological scissors--there is no purely ethical religion to be found. The chief subject of the Gospels is not the acts of Christ, but Christ Himself. The supernatural aspect of the Gospels is far from a sideshow, as Sullivan would us to think. It is, in fact, the main event.

Sullivan gives lip service to the supernatural aspect aspect of Christianity in one brief sentence, and it comes as a concession, not a confession.

Sullivan argues that Christianity is "in crisis." Christianity is always in crisis. As long as there is a church trying to do what it is supposed to be doing and Andrew Sullivans criticizing it for doing it, it will be in crisis. Crisis is what happens when the supernatural impinges on the natural--and does it through fallen men.

No comments: