Wednesday, April 22, 2015

What is going on with Christianity? Part III

This series of blogs began a few weeks ago as a discussion of what a post-Christian Canada entailed. The argument I was trying to put forward was that the relationship between state, civil society, and church had changed appreciably in Canada over the past couple of generations and created what I might call a 'post-Christian' country. By this, I did not mean simply the demographics of religion, although this is part of the equation. Instead, what I meant was a system of ethical, cultural, and political order in which there were other accepted bases of the good and which grounded morality that competed with Christianity to define the systems of social, political, and economic relations that marked the lived experiences of Canadians. Christianity continued to occupy a more favourable position regarding public policy than other religions (for a variety of reasons) but it no longer worked with a guaranteed connection to public policy that had to be taken into account by the state.

This issue is, of course, more complicated than a one-paragraph summary can allow. But, I did contend that (a) this issue was important and (b) it was far from clear what post-Christianity actually was. I suggested that Christianity would continue to influence Canadian policy and culture but in ways that were different from the experiences of the United States (again, for a variety of reasons) and so we should not confuse the two.

In this blog I want to approach the same issue from the opposite perspective. If the critics of Christianity approach Christianity in a post-Christian age with a series of misplaced stereotypes, how do Christians approach it? This short answer is: from no one single perspective. Some churches have attempted to deny the changes that have done on in Canada in the last several generations; others have made an uneasy peace with them; and still others embrace them and provide (say, in the case of equality and marriage) some measure of leadership. But, one strand of Christian thought that worries me, as Christians grapple with the post-Christian age, involves a similar process of forgetting. I'll again speak using some personal examples in the hope that they capture general dynamics.

Recently, we had a guest speaker at my church who told the congregation that the Christian worldview differed from that the wider culture in a number of respects. First, he asserted that Christians believe that there is truth and that the society at large does not. It is sort of a everyone do your own thing type of thing. Second, he argued that Christianity provided a grounding and a morality that was otherwise lacking in civil society. Without morals, in other words, the society slides to disorder.  These are points that are widely believed, from what I can tell, by devout Christians so let's address them, but from the historical-transitionary perspective I am trying to lay out in this series of blogs.

What Christians need to realize is that neither of these arguments are true in this sense. In the last few years, a number of my Christian friends have much-belatedly started using the discourse of postmodernism. Frankly, I'm not certain what the term really means but I don't recognize any of the central characteristics I've learnt in their definition. They assert that postmodernists deny truth, are relatively hedonistic, and place everything on the individual. Whether or not this view of a postmodern culture is accurate (and, btw, I don't think we have a postmodern culture), what it highlights is the fears of Christians and these fears are leading them to think about society in the wrong way. How so?

It is very important to many of Christian friends (people whom I love and respect) to assert that there is truth. This is a desire for certainty and to find that certainty outside of themselves. I don't blame them. I suspect most people want to do this but the idea that truth is denied in civil society or in secular modern culture is just plain inaccurate. In fact, the problem might be precisely the opposite: it is not an absence of truth but a profusion of them. Back in the day, the dominance of Christianity connected to a series of other cultural elements that tied together into a worldview. To be Christian meant to be more, "civilized," advanced/progressive, respectable, knowledgeable, in possession of certainty, and the like. I am not arguing that all of these different strands of culture and thought necessary fit together well. What happened, however, is that they merged into a single framework, despite some potential contradictions that were papered over or edited out. Hence, "back in the day" one could associate Christianity with truth in Canada, at least within the framework of the culture of the time.

But, this is no longer so and likely never was fully true. The absence of Christianity in a person's life does not mean that the stop believing in truth. It does not mean that they don't have an ethics that allows them to separate right from wrong, or a conception of history, a sense of justice, and conception of the good and it does not mean that these things are, for them, just assertions. In other words, Christianity needs to recognize that simply asserting that "there is truth" is not going win friends and influence people because most people who are not practicing Christians already believe this.

Likewise, the idea that culture is infused by a "if its good for you ..." mentality is also problematic. It is true that this is a discourse that is widely used. Indeed, it is a language that we use and the use of that language causes problems (this, too, might be the subject for another blog), but few people really believe that, even if they use those words. For instance, if murder is good for you ... its OK? Seriously, no one believes that and they don't need scripture to tell them that murder is wrong.

The mistake that Christians make is assuming that the way people approach consumer goods is the way they approach their more serious life choices. Thus, there is really is not anything seriously wrong with according a scope for personal judgement in the music people listen to, the foods they eat, the colour they paint their walls, the types of shoes they wear. If you like brown shoes ... fill your boots ;) But, the fact that we use that logic for relatively insignificant decisions in our lives (will I watch Dr. Who or Orphan Black?) does not mean that people deploy the same logic for more serious decisions -- the values they teach their children, their perspective on the environment, their views of international affairs or justice or equality in society or labour relations. Consumerism may be an important part of Canadian culture, but it is not the only part and so we cannot and should not mistake one part for the whole.

The problem for Christians, again, is that their critique of culture falls on deaf ears because they are telling people things that they already know: hedonism is wrong. On serious matters there are and should be limits to behaviour or actions. And, in the process, Christians are also misjudging modern culture and post-Christian Canada.

The result is a situation where people talk past each other. Christians make points that are already widely accepted and misjudge the degree to which society can function without state, church and civil society marching together; critics get Christianity wrong and work with a series of stereotypes. In the process, they end up denying what I suspect are the very things they want to preserve: diversity and freedom of conscience.

Christians, on the other hand, end up with nostalgia ... lamenting the demise of a day and age whose demise they should not at all lament. They seen historical development as decline when the truth is that it is neither progress nor reversion. Society is not more or less moral than it was in the past. It functions with no more and no less dysfunction.

Post-Christianity in Canada, to sum this up, is then a situation of misapprehension, contradiction, and multiplicity.  It is a situation in which both Christians and their critics are trying to accomplish oddly similar aims but their confusion about each other leads them away from the direction in which they could actually move together and into conflicts that, frankly, do not need to happen.
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