Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Adapt or Perish (and other follies of the time)

This article by Huffington Post blogger Alex Wilhelm really should not come as any surprise. I mean, seriously: the Huffington Post is a well known repository of inane progressive blather. Still, I find myself raised with what Brian Mclaren would probably call "conservative ire" at the article's ridiculous statements and conclusions made under the guise of the weak doctrine of egalitarianism.

The article starts out well enopugh, with Mr. Wilhelm stating what is indeed a "fundamental question" facing Christians today: "is it better to fit the church and Christianity to the world, thus keeping the faith relevant, or is it better to mold the world to the faith?" The use of the progressive buzzword "relevant" should probably cue you in to which side that he is going to take (if the very next sentence's not-to-subtle sneer at "conservative, literal Baptists" wasn't a larger and louder clue). Still, the issue he raises is an important one, as it has been the core question regarding the notion of "Christianity and Culture" throughout the ages. Of course, the Church traditionally (and even to this day) believes that its calling is to conform the world to the standards of God by calling all men to the Cross of Christ. Mr. Wilhelm's article takes the opposite view, however. As the article's title points out, Christianity must adapt or perish. Exactly why and how are where things get ugly.

How exactly does it get ugly? Let me count the ways:

(1) Egregious Historical Blunder: "The non-religious of the world will be quick to point out that this is in fact something of a new question, [i.e.] whether the religion should fit the culture or the other way about." 

As per the standard progressive repertoire, Mr. Wilhelm is incredibly ignorant of his own history, both as a Westerner and a progressive. The content and form of Christianity's relationship to the fallen world is not a new question or issue. The question has been around (and answered) since Christianity's inception (Matthew 5:13-16; 28:19-20), and the issue has been raised by progressives as far back as the 19th century (e.g., the students of the "higher criticism"). One can find "conservative ire" as old as Charles Spurgeon (in multiple sermons) or Dorthy Sayers (in her essays) railing against the notion that God's truth must be made "relevant" to suit the transitory whims of the surrounding culture (or as Sayers put it, "conforming Christ to men" rather than "men to Christ"). I must very "depressingly" say that, contra Mr. Wilhelm, there is nothing new under this particular sun.

(2) Outdated Humanistic Idealism: "As humanity progresses around the world, unlocking the science of the universe, time seems to move more quickly. The pace of progress accelerates, from the depressed call of 'nothing new under the sun' to the doubling of human knowledge every decade or so..., a more liberal interpretation of Christian doctrine could make space for science that promises the great, the life-improving, and the new...." 

Speaking with all the relevance and contemporaneity of the 1880s, Mr. Wilhelm seems to have entirely forgotten the twentieth-century (with its World Wars, Holocausts and other various genocides perpetrated in the name of revolutionary human "progress") and seriously thinks that we are any better now than we were fifty or even a thousand years ago. How could anyone be so naive? Yes, we have indoor plumbing and modern medicine. Well done. Nevertheless, it is still a fact of the real world that the generation of Facebook and the iPad still deals with man's inhumanity to man in the forms of genocide in Africa, terrorism in the Middle East, and political corruption and degradation in the West (just to name three). What, exactly has "science" done about these things? What can it do about them? Clearly, Mr. Wilhelm's notion of what is "great," "life-improving," and "new" only applies to the material world, of which we have progressed tremendously. But the human soul is still rotten, as rotten as it ever was; and "science," for all its wonders, cannot change or save it. More often, it simply adds to the problem, giving us new ways to degrade and kill each other.

(3) Bold-faced Contradictions: " is not necessary to replace the physical work and words of the Bible.... [This] adaptation of the religion's text and therefore the religion itself...manifests as a firm repudiation of the most odious passages (e.g., how to enslave, when to stone, and so forth are to be disregarded)..... The Biblical passages subjugating women to the back of the bus need to be let go.... The passages condemning people born homosexual as abominations need to be released.... The blatantly incorrect attempts at science and history in the book need to be shut out...." (emphasis added)

There is nothing else to say here, except that Mr. Wilhelm deploys a kind of new-speak typical of progressives: we don't have to literally "replace" anything. We can just ignore it and then it magically doesn't exist (or matter). Thus, we do not replace; we simply efface. I would like to ask Mr. Wilhelm what exactly is the difference in the end?

(4) Vacuous Post-modern Proposals: "[This is] the inherent problem with modern Christianity, and the exact thing that must change: the Bible [as] a ballast [i.e., a stabilizer, that which grounds and balances].... [The Bible can] become a new book via a fresh reading."

Speaking with all the relevance and contemporaneity of the 1980s, Mr. Wilhelm's central thesis (i.e., that Christianity must adapt or perish) is actually an odd attempt at decentering. If the current trend in culture is "a morality in flux" and thus a society in flux (one that cannot be "corralled"), then Christianity must adapt to the flux by fluxing with the best of them. If instability is the name of the "game" that Mr. Wilhelm claims we are so badly "losing," then all stability must be undone, viz., everything that is not in keeping with the times or is offensive to someone else's sensibilities must be jettisoned.

If that happens, however, whence comes Christianity? Does not Mr. Wilhelm realize the consequence of subjecting Christianity (or anything) to the fluctuating and unstable whims of the culture? Obviously not, or else he would have progressed beyond such peripheral issues as "how to enslave, when to stone, and so forth...." Where is your courage, Mr. Wilhelm? Why stop at such shallow waters? Why not throw in some core tenets while you're at it? Or did you not know that many consider the exclusivity of Christ (held as the gospel truth by Christians because of His death and resurrection) to be offensive and out-dated by many (e.g., those who disagree with the doctrine of limited atonement)? Shall we jettison that? What about miracles? Them too? You asked us to disregard our so-called view of women. What about ours view of men? Of humanity? Of the Church? Of Christ? What grounds can you give us for not simply tossing the whole of our theology out the window? None whatsoever if the fluctuations of culture are to be our only guide, and that is the point. This type of lassiez faire religion that you advocate is no religion at all. It simply dissolves in a vat of personal opinions.

Oddly enough (though I'm not really surprised) one of the best comments for this article came from an atheist who put the point plainly: "Isn't 'changing to get with the times' in and of itself contradictory to the premise of a supreme being...? To me (as an atheist), although I disagree with religion in general, the act of changing your religion to keep that particular faith relevant has to be detrimental to said religion.....[D]oesn't that diminish the power that is attributed to that specific deity? I mean how powerful is your faith if you are willing to just change it as you go?" How, indeed.

Conclusion: Mr. Wilhelm, typical of most progressives, succeeds (mostly) in sounding objective and fair-minded, but his errors (as well as his biases) come through with close reading. In the end, his grand talk of "new readings" of the Bible in order to adapt Christianity to the times is nothing more than an attempt to do away with Christianity in its entirety. If Christianity succeeds only in aping the world, what good will it be? Or as Christ put it: "You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men." (Matt. 5:13) Mr. Wilhelm asks us (in effect) to cease to be salty. Ah, sir, if we do that, then we cease to be Christian. Perhaps, however, that is what you wanted all along.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2010

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