It’s awful, this thing called Christianity, many are saying today, and my disagreement with that judgment has at least something to do with the kinds of sermons I hear on Sunday mornings in a 139-year-old church in a small Colorado town.
Just recently, for instance, the rector talked to the congregation about living the Christian life not only by summoning up extraordinary moral courage to do large and difficult things on those rare occasions when circumstances might demand that of us, but through constant efforts to be kind.
His contention was that if we consistently treat those we encounter with good deeds even of the smallest variety, we may thereby uplift their lives in all sorts of unexpected ways while growing in God’s love ourselves.
Preachments of this nature are hardly atypical in America’s churches, I would guess — the overall tenor of the faith is to love your neighbor — and yet the anti-religion diatribes keep coming at us, as if the opposite were somehow the case, as if average Christians were happily plotting ugliness toward others, as if their beliefs were malicious. The diatribes are getting an audience, a recent survey indicates.
A press report tells us that The Barna Group out of California found that a majority of 867 sampled people from 16 to 29 years old said Christianity is “judgmental, hypocritical and anti-gay,” and would themselves flee from the Christian designation because of the images it connotes.
Is the inevitable hypocrisy argument true? This much is: Most of us will sometimes act contrary to our principles, whether Christian or not. The first thing Christians recognize is that we all have our lapses, but what they also get is that there’s rescue through repentance that aims to avoid future lapses.
Judgmental? Well, making judgments about bad behavior is not just OK; it is that without which civilization crumbles.
Anti-gay? Some of those calling themselves Christians no doubt have hateful attitudes about gays, and that’s execrable. But it’s not hate at work when some conservative Christians argue that we should not recklessly tinker with one of the most fundamental of all institutions, marriage, that in all ages and all cultures has been between a man and a woman. And don’t forget, either, that many gays themselves embrace Christianity.
“Jesus’ message is the strongest thing that gay people have going for us, I think, in terms of asserting our right to be ourselves,” Bruce Bawer said to Bill Moyers on a Moyers TV show that I saw, later finding the quote on the Internet.
Bawer, author of a book called “While Europe Slept,” fled America to Europe to escape anti-gay bigotry, only to run into something worse.
“I wasn’t fond of the hypocritical conservative-Christian line about hating the sin but loving the sinner, but it was preferable to the forthright fundamentalist Muslim view that homosexuals merited death,” he is quoted as saying. His book is about a fanatical, fundamentalist Muslim faith he believes threatens European nations.
Christians can and have been fatally fanatical themselves, but the large-scale examples usually cited go back hundreds of years and, as others have noted, don’t begin to compare with the atrocities of such atheistic fanatics as Stalin or Mao Tse Tung. It’s fanaticism that’s the enemy.
The critics of Christianity — the gifted journalist Christopher Hitchens is one — almost invariably give us hopelessly crude and therefore basically mistaken caricatures of Christian beliefs. They also often incorrectly assert that the faith has been a barrier to science overall, despite convincing scholarly investigation suggesting the opposite, and frequently manage to skip over the great infrastructure of moral understanding, art and thought that comes from the faith and underlies much of what’s most valuable in our society.
The idea of some popular writers that the universe is wholly material is itself the superstition that religion is often said to be; look at one small piece of the universe, a book, and then make the claim that it is simply ink and paper with nothing immaterial proffered on its pages. That would be an absurdity, in my view, but a greater absurdity would be to say that, as imperfectly practiced as it certainly is, Christianity is essentially an instrument of either cruelty or dangerous beliefs that block human progress. One reason I know that to be untrue is a Sunday sermon encouraging kindness.
(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)