Posted by: Ken Brown | August 4, 2008

"Practical" Christianity

I hope you all enjoyed your weekend. I’m probably up to my sleep-deprived eyes in poopy diapers, but hey, I wouldn’t have it any other way! The following was first posted here.

A common reason people reject or abandon Christianity is a feeling that it simply isn’t practical. For many in the average church, there is no obvious connection between what is preached on Sunday morning, and what they actually do the rest of the week. Talk of grace and eternal salvation, however uplifting, is often perceived as irrelevant to everyday life.

The problem is that we have shied away from the one aspect of Christianity that really is applicable – its moral teaching. Actually, that isn’t quite correct. The church hasn’t abandoned its moral teaching, but too often it has distorted it. Publicly, at least here in America, we have focused ever more attention on berating the surrounding culture for its sexual practices and selfishness, while paying ever less attention to the state of our own lives. Thus, the non-Christian world sees in Christian morality only a collection of harsh and unnecessary rules, because that is how many of our loudest advocates announce it.

Privately, countless churches do a wonderful job of living out the love of Christ, but as a whole, the Church in America has done a poor job of expressing its moral viewpoint to the outside world. How rarely do non-Christians hear that the heart of the gospel is actually a call to die to yourself, that you might live? How often do we show this by our actions?

The trouble is that we too often accept the assumption that the value of a thing lies in its utility. Dying to yourself is not practical; it doesn’t pay the bills or get you ahead on the ladder of success. Quite the contrary, it might even mean paying other people’s bills and letting them go ahead. In the long run, this results in community, love, and mutual encouragement, but in the short run, it is hard, so we avoid it. Instead of dying to ourselves, we rest content in our cheap grace or pile harsh condemnation on those around us. In all that, we forget that Christian morality is intended to be a lively and liberating way of life, the outlines of what it means to be truly human. As N.T. Wright puts it in Simply Christian (by the way, Matt, I’ve changed my view of this book; the second half is excellent):

Only when we have set all that out quite clearly can we ever speak of “rules.” There are rules, of course. The New Testament has plenty of them. Always give alms in secret. Never sue a fellow Christian. Never take private vengeance. Be kind. Always show hospitality. Give away money cheerfully. Don’t be anxious. Don’t judge another Christian over a matter of conscience. Always forgive. And so on. And the worrying thing about that randomly selected list is that most Christians ignore most of them most of the time. It isn’t so much that we lack clear rules; we lack, I fear, the teaching that will draw attention to what is in fact there in our primary documents, not least in the teaching of Jesus himself.

The rules are to be understood, not as arbitrary laws thought up by a distant God to stop us from having fun (or to set us some ethical hoops to jump through as a kind of moral examination), but as the signposts to a way of life in which heaven and earth overlap, in which God’s future breaks into the present, in which we discover what genuine humanness looks and feels like in practice. (pg. 224-25)

If we want to change our culture, we must start by changing ourselves.

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Responses

  1. Congrats on your sleep deprivation! BTW – I tagged you on my blog. (Don’t you hate when people do that?)

  2. Religious moralities are superficial. It is the requirements of our evolutionary biology which are the deep drivers (not necessarily in the right direction) of our behaviour.

  3. SCL,
    Thanks for the tag! I’ll try and get to the meme soon.

    Hugh,
    Religious moralities are only “superficial” in the sense that they are intended to make us better than we are by nature. Would you prefer that we all organized our lives by brute self-interest and survival of the fittest?

  4. The ‘fittest’ means the best adapted to the environment. We are social animals and it is in our best interests to work together with the other members of our community. You make the mistake of thinking that outrageous individualism is our natural state. The species would have long disappeared if we had acted simply as individuals.

    Why Christianity? Its morality is seriously out-of-date. A litmus test is the attitude to homosexuality. It’s accepted as a fact of life by secularists but opposed by many stick-in-the mud religious folk.

  5. Hugh,
    You make the mistake of thinking that outrageous individualism is our natural state. The species would have long disappeared if we had acted simply as individuals.

    Not at all; I simply observe that people “naturally” tend to seek their own advantage over the good of others, including society at large. “Evolutionary biology” itself provides no morality; it is merely a description of what has been the case, and what has been the case is that species and individuals have employed all manner of tactics (“moral” and otherwise) to survive. To say which of those tactics are good and which evil is to go beyond evolution.

    Why Christianity? Its morality is seriously out-of-date. A litmus test is the attitude to homosexuality. It’s accepted as a fact of life by secularists but opposed by many stick-in-the mud religious folk.

    Why should Christian morality be defined by homosexuality? I have not defined it so, and it certainly was not defined that way by the Bible itself, which only vary rarely even mentions the practice. For that matter, even where the Bible does condemn same-sex “fornication,” it is seriously questionable whether it has in view what we call “homosexuality,” rather than the cult-prostitution and pederasty which were much more common at the time. You can say that condemnations of cult-prostitution and the like are “out-of-date,” and you might be right, but that’s only because 2000 years of Christian civilization have virtually eliminated those practices in the West. Surely you don’t think we should bring them back?

    In any case, the whole point of my post was that Christians who focus their moral attention on condemning the sexual practices of others, while ignoring the far more consistent commands to love God and neighbor, are distorting their faith and abusing the Bible. What about that is “out-of-date”?

  6. I simply observe that people “naturally” tend to seek their own advantage over the good of others, including society at large. Ken Brown
    ———————————-

    You mean it’s unnatural for a physician to heal his patient, a teacher to teach to the best of his ability and a lawyer to act in the best interests of his client?

    The development of society has been in the direction of enabling us to serve our own interests by serving those of others. What further meaning do ‘good’ and ‘bad’ need to have? Does it have to be an action that is considered pleasing to Allah, such as stoning adulterers to death?

    Loving your neighbor seems a little excessive, while loving any of the millions of supernatural beings the human imagination has created seem merely silly.

  7. Hugh,
    Loving your neighbor seems a little excessive, while loving any of the millions of supernatural beings the human imagination has created seem merely silly.

    Excessive is right; as I said “better than we are by nature” (cf. Luke 10:25-37) As for the latter being silly, I can only speak for myself, but I have found loving God to be anything but silly, rather deeply engaging, challenging, and fulfilling.

  8. Ken,

    I would be rather disturbed if my neighbor loved me. It’s cheaply promiscuous to proclaim love for all and sundry.

    As to the god who is allegedly the object of your affections, which is that? Surely not the god of the Old Testament, the character so like an ancestor of Adolph Hitler. I have rather a weakness for Hanuman myself but love would be much too strong a word to use of him or any of the mythological characters I’ve heard of.

  9. Hugh,
    I would be rather disturbed if my neighbor loved me. It’s cheaply promiscuous to proclaim love for all and sundry.

    There are different forms of love. No one is asking that we love our neighbors in the same way as we love our wives, but to love “as you love yourself,” which seems to mean to seek their best un-self-consciously. Affection and care for those who cross your path (even one’s enemies) is not disturbing; it is the basis for community.

    As for your second objection, my latest post gives part of an answer.

  10. Ken,

    It’s simply inappropriate to indiscriminately ‘love your neighbor’. Of course, it doesn’t refer specifically to erotic love. It seems, however, entirely civilized to have varying emotional and practical responses to those around us, while remaining generally amicable and polite, though hostile when it is reasonable to be so; there is no obligation to be friendly towards all and sundry.

    Your latest post does not address the question that the Jewish tribal god of the Old Testament is a megalomaniac, despotic, genocidal individual. True, he is fictitious but he represents an ideal which should be discarded. Besides, you make the arrogant, or perhaps unthinking, assumption that only your pet god is worthy of attention and the millions of others can simply be ignored.

  11. It’s cheaply promiscuous to proclaim love for all and sundry…It’s simply inappropriate to indiscriminately ‘love your neighbor’

    why?

    there is no obligation to be friendly towards all and sundry

    why not?

  12. Hugh,
    You speak of an “ideal,” and suggest that the biblical ideal of God is of a “megalomaniac, despotic, genocidal individual,” but this is simply not the ideal the Bible presents. The harsh and horrible commands that are there (which, as I said in that post, I agree in rejecting) are very far from the center of the biblical picture, which is primarily one of a loving and forgiving God, who never abandons his people no matter how far they stray, and who even submitted to death at their hands.

    This ideal may not be “civilized,” “rational” nor “practical” (at least in the short run) but it is the only answer to evil that does not perpetuate the problem. Similarly, love of neighbor (even of enemies) is an ideal, among the best of them, for the closer we as individuals and societies can come to attaining it, the more we could overcome the hatred and prejudice that presently divide our world.

    As for your claim that it is “arrogant” (or ignorant) to trust the Bible without paying equal attention to all other religious texts, it is you who are assuming too much. I have not claimed nor do I believe that other traditions besides my own (religious and secular) have important perspectives to offer and truths to teach. In fact, I think Christians can learn a great deal from them, and I myself have done so (particularly from Rabbinic Judaism, with which I am most familiar, though not nearly as familiar as I would like). But, to turn your point about “varying emotional and practical responses” around, It isn’t “arrogant” to trust the one you know more than those you don’t. And I have a lifetime of reasons to trust the Bible.

  13. Ken,

    The picture presented of Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin by their followers was highly favourable. Nevertheless, from their horrible deeds, history sees them as monsters. Judged by his deeds, Yahweh, was an ultra nationalist, a mass murderer, a genocidal maniac and a cruel and capricious
    tyrant, like Hitler and Stalin.
    You may say of these three monsters that they meant well and were really good guys at heart but the same might be said (by their mothers anyway) of many a mass murderer who has been executed for his crimes. The alleged good deeds of Yahweh do not absolve him of his crimes.

    You observe, bizarrely, that a version of this god, submitted to a mock execution to show that he loved the world. This would tend to show that he was mad as well as evil.

    As to loving your neighbor, in the form of Hitler, Stalin or even George W Bush, it would be grotesquely mawkish to feel the same about them as about those who deserve love. Of course, you have a view of love which makes it sound like self-satisfaction about what a nice guy you are (as I’m sure you are).

    I know you are committed to Christianity (of some sort) but this says nothing about the wisdom of your choice. Islam might be just the religion for you. It certainly has a less absurd theology than Christianity.

  14. Hugh,
    How on earth do you get from my rejection of violence and genocide to “Islam might be just the religion for you”?

    I’m also curious, since you seem so adamantly against love of the other: If you found George W. Bush bleeding to death at a rest stop, would you leave him to die, or would you try to help?

    Do you really think believe selflessness is the Christian ideal because it makes us feel “self-satisfaction”? Anyone who feels that isn’t actually practicing self-sacrifice (and any time I feel like that, I’m not practicing self-sacrifice). The whole point of the ideal is that we should never be self-satisified, it is in fact the rejection of self-satisfaction.

  15. Ken Brown said ‘… adamantly against love of the other ‘
    ———————————-

    It’s highly presumptious of you to claim that the alternative to ‘Christian love’ is indifference or rejection. If I stumbled upon an injured man, I would call the emergency services, whether the man bore a resemblance to Hitler, Stalin, Bush or anybody else.

    As for a choice of a less intellectually confused religion than Christianity, there are many possibilities. Islam is just one suggestion.

  16. Hugh,
    It’s highly presumptuous of you to claim that the alternative to ‘Christian love’ is indifference or rejection. If I stumbled upon an injured man, I would call the emergency services, whether the man bore a resemblance to Hitler, Stalin, Bush or anybody else.

    That’s good, but it’s the opposite of what you said two days ago, when I gave exactly that situation (i.e. the Parable of the Good Samaritan, in Luke 10:25-37; recall that Jews and Samaritans were enemies at the time that Jesus said this) as the example par excellance of “loving your neighbor.”

    You responded:

    I would be rather disturbed if my neighbor loved me. It’s cheaply promiscuous to proclaim love for all and sundry.

    How would you describe that reaction if not “indifference or rejection”? Would you now like to retract your claim that “love of neighbor” is “disturbing” and “cheaply promiscuous”?

    As for a choice of a less intellectually confused religion than Christianity, there are many possibilities. Islam is just one suggestion.

    Since you have yet to prove that Christianity is “intellectually confused,” I think I’ll pass.

  17. Late coming to this: the pattern I see in the morality preached most loudly by “Christians” is that they only talk about the ones that they can pin on others.

    Perhaps Jesus told us not to judge because when we are judging our neighbor we are looking too far away. Jesus wraps it up nicely in the “speck in your neighbor’s eye” pericope. Homosexuality? Adultery? Specks or logs? Let’s talk. Greed? Pride? Indifference? Definitely logs!

    • Sad but true… Thanks for commenting!


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