Ross Douthat’s new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, reminds us that there is an alternative to the partisan culture of contemporary Christianity: Christian Orthodoxy. The idea that Christianity is not intrinsically liberal or conservative, but instead is founded on timeless truths that will appear to be conservative or liberal depending on the particular fashions of a given cultural age, is not a new one. It was just about a century ago that G.K. Chesterton (whose masterwork Orthodoxy was published in 1908) pointed out that, “The Church is not merely armed against the heresies of the past or even the present, but equally against those of the future, that may be the exact opposite of those of the present.”
In an exceedingly refreshing turn, Douthat marshals the forces of Christian Orthodoxy in order to criticize conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck’s “City on a Hill” American nationalism as well as Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert’s “God Within” theology, to dismantle both the dubious Biblical interpretations of revisionist scholars like Elaine Pagels and the outlandish “Prosperity Gospel” of televangelists like Joel Osteen. According to Douthat, they are all heretics.
But Douthat doesn’t stop with his diagnosis; Bad Religion also repeatedly exhorts Christians to try to influence culture for the better. But the guiding principle throughout is a wariness about making Christianity subservient to the platform of a particular political party or secular ideology. And one suspects that as long as the Church is being criticized by small-government conservatives for championing the rights of the poor to obtain health care while simultaneously drawing the ire of knee-jerk liberals for championing the rights of the unborn, Douthat would say it must be doing something right.
One of the great myths that Douthat refutes is the idea that, in order to be a Christian, one must be locked in the anti-intellectual bomb shelter of fundamentalist conservatism or jettison virtually all traditional Christian doctrine and embrace a Jesus who is palatable to progressive liberalism. This dichotomy is perpetuated by influential Christians across the spectrum, from Creation Museum founder Ken Ham to best-selling Blue Like Jazz author Donald Miller. And so I was disappointed to find that David Sessions’ criticism of Bad Religion here at Patrol seemed to be coming from the doctrine-jettisoning-liberal end of the socio-political spectrum (though I imagine it would be equally frustrating to read a critique of Orthodoxy from the bomb-shelter-fundamentalist end).
Sessions first goes after Douthat’s assertion that Christian Orthodoxy should maintain its independence from the changing whims of culture and use the broad foundation of traditional Christian doctrine as a force for change, even against the prevailing cultural norms. According to Sessions, this is impossible, “It is simply in the nature of religion…to adapt to the demands and values of the surrounding culture, and to either collude so much that it becomes a baptizing force of cultural trend or an isolated resistance.”
But Sessions’ claim flies in the face of the evidence presented in Bad Religion, and he fails to provide any evidence of his own to counter Douthat’s meticulous research. For instance, Douthat points to the Civil Rights movement as one of the great galvanizing successes of Orthodox Christianity. It can hardly be said that Christianity did nothing more than “baptize” an already existing “cultural trend” of desegregation. Rather, as Douthat points out, Christianity was central to the Civil Rights movement (it was born in churches led by pastors) from the very beginning, as it moved from a counter-cultural “isolated resistance” to mainstream cultural acceptance, discrediting the heresy of “white-supremacist Christianity” along the way and re-affirming the Orthodox view that all people have equal human dignity in Christ.
According to Douthat, the Civil Rights movement is an example of Orthodox Christianity at its best, rising above partisanship and proclaiming the truth; whereas the various heresies he describes are examples of Christianity at its worst. But Sessions appears to make no allowance for such distinctions, “Christianity,” he says, “has always been hand-in-hand with America’s delusions of grandeur, and with its worst impulses as well as its best.” And in light of Douthat’s seemingly constructive efforts to use Christian doctrine to affirm certain uses of Christianity and reject others, Sessions’ desire to re-muddle the lines between Orthodoxy and heresy is confusing.
However, Sessions reasons for wanting to keep the lines muddled between Orthodoxy and heresy become clear when he reprises familiar liberal criticisms of Christian Orthodoxy’s truth claims: they are “judgmental,” “absolutist,” “rigid,” etc. But while Sessions purports to use these terms to criticize the inflexibility of Christian doctrine, he doesn’t really end up criticizing inflexibility per se. Instead, he agrees with Douthat that certain ideas floating around within Christendom should be stridently affirmed while others should be categorically dismissed. Their only difference is who should decide what is affirmed and what is dismissed. And according to Sessions, Douthat’s primary mistake is maintaining his fidelity to Orthodox Christianity “even if the policies his religion prefers have to exclude people in ways that just aren’t acceptable to modern liberal society.”
In other words, Sessions seems to be fine with Christian doctrine so long as it doesn’t contradict what he sees to be the higher authority of modern liberalism, which has a whole different set of doctrines it regards as absolute, including many which are at odds with Orthodox Christian doctrine: the right to an abortion, the right to same-sex marriage, and all the other hot-button issues that garner headlines. And so the question isn’t one of “absolutism,” the only dispute between Douthat and Sessions seems to be which set of absolute doctrines supersedes the other: Orthodox Christianity or modern liberalism.
While it’s easy to make the case in secular America that Christian doctrine should be made subservient to modern liberalism, it is harder to make that case within the Church. This is especially true in denominations where Orthodox doctrine has been passed down through the centuries and carries the weight of both revealed truth and apostolic tradition. And it is in light of the weight of Orthodoxy’s historic lineage that Sessions’ claim that Douthat ascribes to a “religious ideology that is unable to see past its own particular politico-cultural moment” rings most hollow.
Seeing past its own particular politico-cultural moment is precisely what Orthodoxy does. As Chesterton once said of his own Orthodox Catholicism, “It is the only thing that frees a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age. It is the only thing that talks as if it were the truth; as if it were a real messenger refusing to tamper with a real message.” And to that end, Bad Religion is nothing if not a compelling case for a Christian doctrine that transcends time and place — particularly our time and place.
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