Got your attention? Now let me explain.
The headlines surrounding a recently-released study scream: “Increasing number of Americans consider Christianity ‘to be extremist'” followed by the quote: “The perception that the Christian faith is extreme,” says Barna Group, “is now firmly entrenched among the nation’s non-Christians.” [Read the full article here.] I am in the process of examining the study, so I will have more to say about it once I’ve finished. However, there is one thing that I believe must be said at the outset: there is no “Christianity”.
Here’s what I mean. Tragically, there is no singular, undivided, undifferentiated body of disciples known as Christianity. There are almost as many forms of “Christianity” as there are Christians, so to speak of “Christianity” as a single corporate entity is simply inadequate. Consider only a few examples.
We have long had distinctions between expressions of Christianity, East and West. Such variety existed long before the formal break in 1054 AD. On the positive side, Christianity has consistently acknowledged and accepted the simple fact that unity in faith does not necessarily equate to uniformity in practice. The “one faith” can be expressed in a wide variety of ways! Even today, the Catholic Church exists as a communion of some 27 ritual churches, of which the Latin (or Roman) Church is but one. So, within Catholic Christianity can be found these diverse communities of faith all in communion with each other, even though they have different sacramental theologies and even different canon law. So far, so good then: it is possible that “Christianity” lived in such a diverse way can be seen as a united faith.
On the negative side, however, since 1054, some of these Eastern churches (not all of them) broke with Rome and became what is referred to now as the Orthodox Churches. While theology formed a part of the rationale between the split (consider the filioque debate, for example), the larger issues revolved around the authority of the See of Rome. Only over the last 100 years or so have we seen some real progress in restoring full communion. Then, of course, in the 16th Century we find Latin Christianity fracturing even more through the theological and ecclesial reforms demanded by Martin Luther, John Calvin and others. Within the framework of evolving philosophical, theological, political and social trends, these disagreements quickly moved out of the university setting and into the streets, creating the chasms between Christians we still experience today, despite Christ’s prayer at the Last Supper, “that they all may be one, Father, as you and I are one.”
So, today, what IS “Christianity”? Before one can make a claim about Christianity (such as the claim in the article that “Christianity is extremist”) it seems to me you must clearly define some terms, beginning with the question, “Which Christianity are you talking about?” While all Christians can agree (possibly) on the nature and role of Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah of God, and that all Christians see themselves as followers of this Christ, after that things get murky quickly.
Consider a basic world view. How do Christians view the world? Some groups of Christians have a very positive view of God’s creation, frequently citing the words of Genesis in which God proclaims creation to be “good.” Creation is, therefore, in this view, good by nature — with evil entering into the picture only later through the deliberate, free will choices of human beings. Other groups of Christians have an opposite view of the world, seeing creation as inherently flawed. Martin Luther, for example, frequently wrote things such as, “our righteousness is dung in the sight of God. Now if God chooses to adorn dung, he can do so.”
Consider how inclusivist (“catholic”) or exclusivist various Christian groups can be. One of my own saddest experiences in this regard occurred some years ago when I was still on active duty in the Navy. A good friend was part of the Protestant chapel community on our base. He was participating in the annual Holy Thursday reenactment of the Last Supper, put on by the Protestant chaplains. I went over to help get the apostles into their beards and costumes and stuck around to watch it. Shortly before leaving to go to the Catholic chapel for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, I watched the beginning of the communion service following the reenactment. The senior Protestant chaplain stood and give directions to the assembly on how to come forward for communion. Ministers of particular denominations would be on other side, and adherents of those denominations were to go to “their own” minister; a “general communion” was being offered down the main central aisle of the chapel, and those who were not in the other two churches could receive in the “general” line. Naturally, of course, it struck me that I was about to head over to our own Mass, during which only Catholics could receive Communion. It left me quite saddened to see — at the moment when you would think Christians could be MOST united — we were the most divided.
So, today, we have Orthodox Christians, Catholic Christians, Evangelical Christians, Pentecostal Christians, Non-Denominational Christians, along with other forms of Baptists, Lutherans, Reformed, and on and on and on. Because of many reasons, such as the “world view” distinctions mentioned above, some of these Christians look for everything to be black and white, clearly distinguished. Sin, for example, is sin. Something is either sinful or it is not. There is no gradation in sinfulness: telling a lie (regardless of situation or intent) is as grave as murder. In this view, you are either with me totally and completely or you are against me totally and completely. Other Christians seem to say that anything goes if it’s what you want. You determine everything yourself about what you will choose to believe and so on. Then there are Christians in the middle, who marry philosophy and theology, reason and faith. Given this diversity then, we come to the question raised by the article: Are Christians extremists?
That raises the need to define the other term of the argument: How do we define “extremist”? In the list of statements included in the study, I found myself agreeing that some of them certainly reflected “extremism” as I understand it, while others do not. However, ALL them made me think and to reflect, and that is always a good thing.
For example, statements such as “using religion to justify violence against others” and “refusing standard medical care for their children” or “refusing to serve someone because the other person’s lifestyle conflicts with their beliefs” certainly bespeak extremism in a negative sense. Others, however, such as “demonstrating outside an organization they consider immoral” [would this include the civil rights marches of the 1960’s as well, I wonder?] or “attempting to convert others to their faith” [depending of course on the methods used!] do not. Read the full study and see what YOU think.
So, is “Christianity” extremist? What a terribly loaded question! Depending on what a person thinks is “extremist”, coupled with the tragic differences among Christians ourselves, the only reasonable answer, it seems to me, lies in the middle:
“Some are, some aren’t.”
LENTEN REFLECTION: As a Lenten reflection, we can all ponder what forms extremism, especially religious extremism, can take. Perhaps it is, like Benjamin Franklin used to say about treason, more easily discerned in others than in ourselves! I offer this post not to start an argument over this particular study, or to offer some kind of societal critique. I offer it simply as a point of departure for a Lenten reflection on how we live out in concrete terms the implications of our faith.