May 29, 2016
As a southerner, I was slow to believe that the world has turned and we are now living in a “post-Christian” era; but I am now persuaded. Even in the south now, this seems to be the case and it is true in spades at points north and west across America. From reading the New Yorker and the New York Times, one would conclude that Christianity is kaput.
Empirically, however, it is not. In point of fact, just look at us. It is Sunday morning in Memorial Day weekend, and here we are! For the curious social scientist, the persistence of religion becomes a fact requiring explanation. Why us, why here, why now? There are several theories.
One is recommended in a book by Nicholas Wade, former science reporter for the Times, titled The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why it Endures. Mr. Wade explains faith as an evolved instinct that helped homo sapiens cope with the challenges of life in the “environment of evolutionary adaptation,” several hundred thousand years ago.[i]
In some circles this is the reigning explanation. Here is a problem with it: Christian faith is not instinctive. Our faith has three dimensions: trust, understanding and commitment. This complexity makes it spiritual rather than instinctive. What we mean by faith wasn’t even possible until humans had evolved to a point that we were able to evaluate our instincts and, to some extent, transcend them.
Like some Episcopalians I know, Wade takes a dim view of religious dogma. Religion, he says, is “founded on immutable dogma, whereas science changes to accommodate new knowledge.” [ii] “Boo!” for dogma. “Hooray!” for science.
I spent ten years of my life finding out that the truth about science and religion is not that simple. Dogmas are long lasting but they are not immutable. They have changed, through the centuries, to fit evolving philosophies, cultures and scientific outlooks.
In Augustine, dogma fits to Plato; in Aquinas, it adapts to Aristotle, his physics included; In Karl Barth, it adjusts to the philosophies of Kant and Hegel, and takes account of the modern scientific revolutions. Dogmas are like people: we change, but we endure. The reason dogmas endure is because, like science, they tell the truth. Like science, they are candles in the dark. As a species we need light from both to thrive. So: Hooray for dogma and hooray for science!
“Original sin,” for example, is an old dogma of the church. What is that to us? It is the truth that there is something not altogether right about humanity. It was Kant who declared that “from the crooked timbers of humanity, nothing straight has yet been built.” The average Joe is both a little wonderful, and a little warped and cracked—present company included.
In “Under Milkwood,” the Dylan Thomas play, the Rev. Eli Jenkins gently tells the truth about the people of his little town: “We are not wholly bad or good, who live our lives under Milkwood.” That sounds like us. Of all the Christian teachings, this is one we all find easy to believe. All the saints have blemishes, from the apostle Paul to Martin Luther King.
We all have “issues,” don’t we? The answer is yes. We learn to live with our own frailties and flaws, and with the frailties and flaws of the driver in the next lane, the neighbor across the street, our colleagues in the office, and the person sitting two rows up in church.
Oh you Christians! Yesterday was the 33rd anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. Through those decades I have watched good Christian folk step first into one pothole and then another—booze, drugs, sex and money—and that’s barely the beginning. You can rest assured that whatever problems you may have in these respects, you have not done anything some bishop, priest or deacon hasn’t done before—and probably one you know about and think the world of.
One day years ago, on a routine pastoral call, I walked in on a son staring at his father, holding a pistol in his hand, threatening to shoot.
I could go on, but what’s the point? The point is that sin is ubiquitous—in everyone—according to the dogma.
The dogma doesn’t let us off the hook. It tells us that sin is to be expected, not accepted. We are not supposed to be bad, we are supposed to be good. Right? Right.
So what is “good”?
“Do justice,” said the prophet, “love kindness, walk humbly with your God.” Good is fair, and kind, and faithful. That is the way we are supposed to be.
There is a maxim in philosophy: “ought implies can.” If we ought to be good, it is because we can be. We have it in us, crooked timbers notwithstanding.
We are Christians. Our commitment to justice, our moments of kindness, our patterns of faithfulness, are our way of saying “yes” to Christ. The opposite is also true. Our corruptions of fairness, failures with respect to kindness, and lapses in faithfulness, are our way of saying “no.”
These failures, lapses and corruptions are gathered up in humanity’s decisive “no” to God in our rejection of his son, culminating in his crucifixion.
Another ancient dogma is the Incarnation. It tells us that in the justice, kindness, and faithfulness of Jesus, on the plane of human history we have seen the eternal justice, kindness and faithfulness of God. This is the God that we believe in, trust and follow. Incarnation: “The true light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world.”[iii]
And the world said no. “He was . . .crushed for our iniquities.”
Original Sin, the dogma, assigns all humanity a share in the death of Jesus. It instructs us not to place the blame on Pilate, Judas, the Pharisees and priests. It is good dogma that will not allow Christians to blame the Jews for Jesus’ crucifixion. Instead, it teaches us to understand all those ancient actors’ flaws and failures as bound up somehow with our own. The modern bishop in the drunk tank, and Peter leaving Jesus to his fate, are interchangeable. When we sing “Were you there when they crucified my Lord,” the answer “yes” can be assumed. “Original sin” puts us all in Jerusalem that day.
And there we meet . . . “Atonement.” In my thirty-three years of priesthood I have been told by many good Episcopalians that they find the doctrine of atonement hard to swallow. As for me, I love it and know that I need it.
Barth explains atonement as God’s refusal of rejection: Christ is God’s “yes” to us; the cross is our “no” to God; the atonement is God not taking no for an answer. When we say “no,” God still says “yes.” Post-Christianity is saying “no.” God still says “yes.”
I think back now to Mrs. Caroline Holmes and Central High School in the spring of 1973. You have heard this story. Mrs. Holmes taught algebra and, in her class, I struggled. Why did I struggle? Because algebra is hard; and it was 6th period, after lunch, and after lunch I was seldom at my best; and there were other things to think about—such as: Why couldn’t I get Julie to ditch Steve Stockton and go with me to prom?
I wanted to go to Amherst College. To be accepted by Amherst I would need at least a “B” from Mrs. Homes. It came judgment day, when the class sat down to take a test on which my final grade heavily depended. I had studied for this test, but it was not enough. When I looked at the problems, I saw that I would fail. I did what I could, then went up to hand my test to Miss Holmes, and take my medicine. I could draw a little moral satisfaction from the fact that at least I had passed on an opportunity to cheat. (In fact, I had given up cheating on math tests earlier that year.)
Miss Holmes looked down at my test, then up at me, surprised and disappointed. “Chris, this isn’t good,” she said. I replied: “I know. I just didn’t get it.”
That was me, rejecting algebra.
Then Mrs. Caroline Holmes rejected my rejection. She said: “I won’t accept this. You are coming back in this afternoon and I am going to teach until you understand.” When I said no, she still said yes. I came back and learned. That is atonement.
When the day comes in your life when you have to face the fact that you have failed—and in one way or another that day finally comes for everyone—by the witness of the Holy Scripture, and by the authority of Christ’s Holy Catholic Church, I tell you that God refuses your refusal.
For the Son of Man came into the world not to condemn the world, but that we might turn from our wickedness, and live.