Saturday, July 7, 2012

Customized Christianity: Ethics à la Carte

The following is one of a multi-part response to an article by Jim Burklo entitled "How To Live As a Christian Without Having to Believe the Unbelievable." For an introduction to these thoughts, see Burklo's Bible.

I have made a number of arguments against Jim Burklo’s vision of a believable Christianity over the past week. I criticized his willingness to assume an oppositional relationship between faith and practice, his inability to distinguish between marginal and central biblical stories and truths, his dangerous Christology, and his selective hermeneutic. All of these, however, are part of a broader flawed attempt to collapse religion into ethics. It is only by elevating ethics to the status of comprehensive and exclusive truth that he can effectively disregard the doctrine, dogma, and fantastic stories that he believes hinder people from finding genuine Christianity. Unfortunately for Burklo, Scripture gives us every indication that ethics are rooted in theology, conditioned by soteriology, and aimed toward eschatology (just to name a few of those evil, confusing categories that label trivial matters).

Burklo, as mentioned repeatedly, believes that the central message of the Gospel is the Sermon on the Mount. Far be it from me to ever stand in the way of someone trying to refocus Christians on the Sermon on the Mount, but the majority of Protestant Christianity is going to have a bone to pick with Burklo. And rightly so, as there seems to be a general consensus that, if a single passage encapsulates the gospel, the real text of central importance is John 3:16. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Look at that. We have a theological statement about the nature of God flowing into a soteriological statement about the mechanism of salvation flowing into an eschatological statement about the eternal destiny of humanity. Do you notice what’s missing? Any mention of ethics. This has been the animating sentiment of so much of Protestantism, precisely because of its antinomian character, from Luther’s sole fide to the now widespread evangelical idea (specifically derided by Burklo) of a personal relationship with Jesus.

Certainly, I am part of a generation that wants to correct the stress on faith without ethical strictures, but there is much to commend Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus (one of those passages where Jesus is speaking but Burklo apparently isn’t listening, as there is nothing about social justice) as a good synopsis of the purpose of the Incarnation. The biblical text is not the narrative of the struggle for a moral principle to take root among moral actors but of a perfect God trying to reconcile to Himself a willfully imperfect creation. This reconciliation, the New Testament makes very clear, takes place not with Jesus preaching on the mountain top but with him dying on the cross, being buried in the tomb, and conquering death in the resurrection. Christianity is not an ethical system which we can be convinced to believe but a comprehensive experience of a personal God that radically shapes more than just our ethics.

Otherwise, the poor are left to hope in the moral regeneration of the world for their deliverance. The sick are left to hope in the dedicated work of altruistic physicians for their healing. The oppressed are left to hope for a people powerful enough to enact their liberation but righteous enough not to use that power to oppress. It’s a false hope, an empty hope, very much like faith in an unresurrected Christ is an empty faith. Faith in Christ and hope for an inbreaking kingdom are realities which transcend how we treat one another. They have to do with the totality of existence, and all of reality falls inside the scope of Christian faith.

Genesis, historical or not, teaches us about the nature of the physical world and God’s relationship to it. The Psalms reveal the human character, both as it is and how it can be when it allows itself to be transformed, more than just morally, by the redeeming power of God. Job guides us through the problem of evil and, centuries before the greatest philosophers the world has known would reach the same conclusion, declares that it is irresolvable (but nevertheless God). The prophets instruct us on the interrelatedness of piety and social justice, a lesson Burklo could stand to revisit. Micah introduces us to a vision of the culmination of reality which will define not only Judeo-Christian eschatology but the whole of Western civilization’s utopian vision: peace, fertility, leisure, uncoerced global unity, and the eternal pursuit of knowledge.

Most, if not all, of these themes are taken up explicitly or alluded to by Jesus in his ministry and, if we are going to accept the validity of the biblical account, they must be engaged by Christians as well. We cannot simply call them trivialities, hindrances in the way of creating a heaven on earth (something which Burklo doesn’t seem to believe that Scripture explicitly states is beyond the scope of human possibility). God’s transformative work is not limited to human behavior. Being in Christ is a total transformation, and that includes those pesky truths that Burklo encourages us to ignore. We may never understand them perfectly and we may dispute about them until the second coming, but pursing those truths is part of the great pursuit of perfection, of conformity to the image of Christ.

And, of course, an unwillingness to engage these doctrines and stories, the marginalization of everything that isn’t explicitly command in the social ethics of Jesus, has profound and tragic implications for ethics. Burklo relishes the fact that “Jesus said nothing about [homosexuality and abortion] whatsoever in the New Testament. There’s no hint in the Bible that these topics mattered to him at all.” While the factual accuracy of much of this may be disputed, the real issue is with Burklo’s logic. By the same reasoning, Jesus never mentioned eugenics and therefore there is no reason to assume that the actions of Nazi Germany bothered him. He certainly didn’t talk about atomic weaponry and therefore the atrocities in Nagasaki and Hiroshima probably wouldn’t have mattered to him. After all, harkening back to the points about the divine sparks, Truman probably reasoned that the bomb was how many Americans thought they could express love for the Pearl Harbor widows.

In truth, Jesus presented a radically different view of reality, and more than presenting it, he inaugurated it. The mission of Christ was not primarily one of persuasion. It was one of redemption, and it is impossible to crack the pages of Scripture and think otherwise. The greatest change achieved when he ascended into heaven was not that he had presented a wonderful new ethos for people to construct their own heaven but that he had made of himself the conduit through which humanity might find themselves reconciled to God—which, it turned out, is “heaven.” Trying to take Christianity and customize it, sanitize it, by saying, “I like the ethics but not the other teachings” (i.e. doctrine, dogma, and stories) is a little like saying, “I’m a Muslim but only because I feel compelled to make a trip to Mecca once in my life.” Religions are not like buffets: “none of that ‘I’d rather gouge out my eye than go to hell’ nonsense but I’ll have a double helping of the meek shall inherit the earth.” They stand or fall on the strength of their interrelated features. Frankly, without a benevolent, personal deity who became incarnate as an expression of love to recreate the world and me with it if only I choose to allow myself to be transformed, the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t make sense. If I’m imagining my most pleasurable world, my “heaven on earth,” I’m ashamed to admit that liberating the oppressed is a lower priority than legalizing marijuana and prostitution. Certainly turning the other cheek doesn’t sound heavenly at all.

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