Friday, September 13, 2013

The Failure of American Christian Culture

This week, due to my wife's birth-giving of our third child, I've been around the campus of the University of Pittsburgh. It is a place, in common evangelical terminology, ripe for the harvest of the Gospel: gays, lesbians, drag queens, homeless, "loose" people populate the streets. This, combined with a first reading of Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue, has led me to reflect on why Christianity is becoming less and less of a viable option in American culture generally, and with the young, urban, educated set particularly.

To do so, though, will require engaging MacIntyre's understanding of what "emotivism" is. "Emotivism is the doctrine that all evaluative judgments [that is, judgments as to whether something is "right or wrong", "good or bad", "true or false", etc.] and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character" (12, emphasis original). In other words, all value decisions are based on what we take, in our various and self-contained "sub-worlds," to be good, true, and beautiful. There are no rational or universal outside standards on which to adjudicate such evaluative claims. MacIntyre goes on to argue, and I think he is substantially right, that our culture is, by-and-large, emotivist. Mutually exclusive moral claims, such as for or against action in Syria by the US military/government, cannot ever really talk to each other because the claims themselves are not based on any shared rational grounds, nor can they be since there are no shared rational grounds on which to be based.

To return to my initial reflections, I see two dominant Christian cultures in the United States today, both of which are unable to speak in the public square (say, at Pitt) because they cannot overcome the emotivist quandry. The first culture is the culture of moralizing Christianity: the claim is that these folks are "living in sin" and need to change their lifestyles to avoid [judgment, Hell, social breakdown, etc.] However, in the face of emotivism, these claims are nonsensical: how can this group say what is "good" or what human teleology is, since that is reserved for the autonomous individual? The call to a different way of living, whether done in or out of love, ends up being a personal assault on the hearer -- the call to a lifestyle change is a call to living in the confusion of the void, as their identity is, more often than not, tied to the various social and sexual roles that they inhabit. To say that their reasons for doing something or living a certain way is an assault on the autonomy of the individual, which in an emotivist context, becomes an assault on sense of self. This method is, alas, doomed to fail in any long-range way (this is not to say that individuals are not converted through such presentation, but this old revivalist style has had its day -- many historians question whether or not within its day it was actually effective, but that's another matter entirely).

The second culture is that of telic Christian identity. This culture hinges upon language such as "your true identity is in Christ" or "become what God made you to be" or some such. This culture is the one that I am most comfortable with, as I believe (emotivistically, I'm sure) that this is proper linguistic framework, building off, as it does, the Biblical and Patristic "image of God" tradition. However, this too is bound to fail, but for significantly different reasons. If we are to call others to a different moral framework, one which is founded and maintained outside of the human self (outside of individual emotivist restraints), we need living exemplars to refer to. However, as the amount of moral scandal in evangelical Christianity proves, this is no easy task. We are, by-and-large, without consistent standard bearers. Not only with those who fail, but often with those who have some sort of moderate success. Either they become "A-holes for Jesus" (as I've heard them described before) or they are attacked under the rubric of antinomianism: Christianity isn't about how you live, it is about Jesus' grace, blah blah blah. (The historical fact that a strident "Law/Gospel" distinction always ends up in a rejection of Christian virtue or a legalistic Pietism seems to be lost on modern exponents of it). Some might say that we have the exemplary lives of the saints of yore to point to. While this is a good option, it fails to answer the question of our contemporary moment: is this sort of thing possible still? Or has the world changed too much (whether we consider it to have matured or devolved) for that to even be possible? To cut to the point, the phraseology of telic evangelism falls short since no contemporary examples of the category can be produced, whether because of moral failure or actual impossibility. For an emotivist to make the jump from self-sustained identity to Christic identity would require not just rational dialogue, but actually examples of the jump that can be imitated with some measure of success (this is not, however, to be read as an easy task: ascesis is not easy -- we do no one any favors by broadcasting Christianity as 'easy').

What to do, then? Are we stuck, at this historical moment, with an impotent Church?

Option one, moralism, is unsustainable. If we latch onto this particular brand of Christian life and witness, we will continue to fail. As I've heard a couple of preachers put it, "God didn't come to make bad men good; He came to make dead men live." Same goes, I imagine, for women. It is futile to call those who have identity formation tied closely into lifestyle choices to a facile, will-driven change of existence.

Option two, telic identity, is still workable; but not in the current instantiation. One of the present ways that we've sought to overcome our inability to produce exemplars is by focusing on shared "brokenness." We are all broken, so we cannot judge those outside, nor those on the inside. While, of course, there is some truth in this (we all inherit something from Adam other than a baseline human nature), it is a celebration not of what Christ came to do or has, on the Cross and through the Resurrection, done, but rather it is a celebration of a failure to have become what His actions have made it possible for us to become. That is, this point of "brokenness" is where the two cultural forms of Christianity seem to meet and fuse: we are supposed to become like Christ, Christ is moral (defined as "He perfectly keeps the Law"), therefore our ultimate end is to be moral; however, we fail to be moral, but since Christ is "our righteousness" this doesn't actually matter, therefore we celebrate our continued lack of morality or failure to be moral as a sign of God's continuing grace towards us. We might (should!) question a few of the premises in this argument (I do not know of anyone who puts it this way, but it seems to be a common enough, yet implicit, argument), most especially that of the "active/passive obedience" paradigm that informs both Reformed and evangelical Christianity (that remains for another day, however). The celebration of "brokenness" is rather a tacit celebration of the ineffectiveness of the Cross and Resurrection in the face of sin, death, and corruption. Any time the Christian Gospel speaks of defeat, whether in the eschaton or in history, it has ceased to be the Christian Gospel.

A different way of understanding our telic identity in Christ, then, is necessary. I do not think, though, that this needs to a new or novel understanding. In our theological heritage, we have plenty of unmined resources to draw from. Particularly, the inheritance from monasticism would be powerfully useful. However, for it to speak to our current cultural malaise, it would have to be un-cloistered: to separate from the world, while still a powerful witness (I think of St. Antony of the Desert as the prime example) would miss the cultural effectiveness I am aiming for. Rather, the concept of ascesis, which has historically been guarded and maintained in monastic communities, would allow many to become the effective exemplars of Christian identity (that is, of post-Resurrection Christic participation).

But isn't ascesis the same as moral striving? Yes and no. They do share some of the same forms, but for different reasons and ends. Morality hinges, normally, on the anger/judgment/wrath of God. Do this or be damned! Ascesis, though, hinges on the actual becoming because of the love of God: we fast not because we are avoid God's wrath, but because this is the means by which we disconnect from the corruption of the world and connect to God's grace which is remaking our nature. It isn't being moral for morality's sake; it is become like Christ for the sake of the world. More needs to be said on this, of course, but I should go back to attendance on my young family.

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