[From an old parish newsletter column.]
Reading a list of sins to help with examination of conscience is a useful, though often humiliating, exercise: ‘Yes, I am guilty of that; yes, I do that; yes, that too. And that….’ One is grateful when he finally finds something he isn’t inclined to do (‘No; I can safely assert that I am not at all inclined to torture small animals.’) A couple of years ago I read a list prepared by an Eastern Orthodox priest which included in its catalogue, ‘Using the truth of the Orthodox Faith as a weapon against others.’ There’s one that brought me up short. It is one thing to love our Faith and to be bold in its statement – see I Peter 3:15. But we need to be on guard against the tendency to use our confidence aggressively and in such a way as to denigrate the conscientiously held opinions of others.
With this in mind, it is with some trepidation that I report my recent reflections about what I am now calling ‘postmodern Christianity’. These reflections were triggered by a large number of reports I was sent by e-mail about the meeting in early July of the national convention of another church body. These reports would have been beyond belief to anyone 40 years ago. Yet many of the resolutions were merely what one has come to expect of the church body in question: for instance, the acceptance of more or less any sexual relationship so long as it is ‘loving, faithful, and non-abusive’ (–oh, the questions begged by those three adjectives!). But even for those of us who have grown calloused to such things, it was a little surprising to read a description of a ‘shamanic journey to the underworld’ taken by the minister of one of the nation’s wealthiest congregations. The gentleman in question, under the tutelage of a self-identified shaman from the Southwest, described in a publication officially distributed at the convention the most ‘vivid spiritual experience’ of his life. He was taken to the underworld under the guidance of a raccoon spirit – the mother, he realized, of a baby raccoon he had rescued when he was nine years old. Evidently he did not think that consorting with animal spirits and journeying to the underworld were suspect, or even odd, things for a clergyman to do. Another Saint Stephen’s parishioner, who saw this same account, wrote, ‘Do NOT take me to this guy’s Leader.’
My attitude towards other Christians and, even, other religions has often been a fairly relaxed one. No one comes to God except through Jesus Christ, as Scripture tells us. Yet Scripture does not tell us how others, who have not had the opportunities for faith that we have, may in the generous mercy of God come to Him through Christ. The Spirit bloweth where he listeth. We are told where the Spirit promises to be, but not where the Spirit is not. I am glad to affirm the truth that is in others, even while believing that the apprehension of the truth found in Christianity in general, and in my own sort in particular, is a fuller and more reliable guide to heaven than are the alternatives. Positive statements about our own are safer than are negative statements about others.
Nonetheless, increasingly as one reads of the doings of these postmodern Christians, one feels that they are playing for the other team. It is not just that their grasp of the truth is less than it might be; much worse, they positively seem to reject the idea that there is truth at all, while simultaneously indulging in the grossest superstitions and contradictions. Traditionally people of faith might argue about the truth of this or that. Some might be reticent about multiplying dogmatic statements. As the great Richard Hooker put it,
Dangerous it were for the feeble brain of man to wade far into the doings of the Most High; whom although to know be life, and joy to make mention of his name; yet our soundest knowledge is to know that we know him not as indeed he is, neither can know him: and our safest eloquence concerning him is our silence, when we confess without confession that his glory is inexplicable, his greatness above our capacity and reach. (Laws of the Ecclesiastical Polity, I.ii.2)
This mystical modesty in one of history’s great exponents of theological reason encapsulates the half-truth that the postmodernist Christians turn into the sole truth. God is indeed more than our feeble brains can comprehend, so it behooves us to be modest in our theology. Yet God tells us much about himself and is quite plain in his demands upon our love and behavior. The postmodernists begin with the insight that we fall short of God. But they end by turning our shortcomings into virtues and the partiality of our knowledge into an assertion of total arbitrariness. With Pontius Pilate they ask, with a false sophistication, ‘What is truth?’, and so they consent to the murder of Truth Himself. I once heard an Eastern Orthodox theologian with blond hair and a Scandinavian name say, ‘My Lutheran upbringing did not cause the sins of my youth.’ These days, however, post-modern Christianity is more and more likely to do precisely that. Or as a mother said to me, ‘I came to Saint Stephen’s when my girls were invited to a church program on teens and sexuality and I realized that I had absolutely no idea of what they would be told.’
Nice people used to say, ‘Well, it’s not our religion, but at least he has found some religion.’ I’m afraid that that won’t do anymore. There is a whole lot of bad religion floating about these days. Better no religion at all than the sort of foolishness that turns polymorphous sexuality into God’s will and that speaks proudly of shamanic trips to the underworld. Better frank atheism than postmodern Christianity’s parody of faith.
And aren’t raccoons often rabid?