Christianity and Society — ‘For the Life of the World’

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Next month, Holy Cross Orthodox Press will publish For the Life of the World, a document that addresses the question of how Orthodox Christians are to live in an increasingly post-Christian society. The document is the product of several scholars (including David Bentley Hart) and received the blessing of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. John Chryssavgis provides a look at a few of the document’s most interesting passages in Commonweal (link). Chryssavgis writes:

For the Life of the World, which runs to about 33,000 words, provides helpful general guidelines for Orthodox Christians struggling to navigate contemporary challenges. It begins with the fundamental contours of an Orthodox Christian worldview and concludes on a prayerful note, with an expression of hope for personal and social transformation. Its approach to critical and controversial issues—including racism, poverty, human rights, bioethics, technology, and climate change—is both rigorous and pastoral.

So the authors of the document offer a guide to virtuous Christian living in contemporary society. Much hinges on the term I use above, post-Christian, to describe the culture we inhabit. Many people in the United States bristle at the notion that we live in a post-Christian culture, given the dominance of Evangelical Christianity in our politics and national rhetoric. While I agree that our culture is saturated with a loud, syrupy expression of Christian faith, I still use the term post-Christian because, I believe, it accurately describes the fact that Christianity is no longer the dominant experience in the United States, and certainly not in the West more generally. In other words, I use the term post-Christian instead of saying post-Christendom. Whether or not you feel that our society is too accommodating to Evangelicalism, you must admit: the Middle Ages are over. Our governments are (ostensibly) secular. The church no longer rules.

But there’s another sense in which I and others use the term post-Christian. Our society is one that, although deeply influenced by Christian ideas and values, nevertheless departs from those precepts and values whenever they clash with the dominant ideological paradigm, with the core precepts and values of the wider society. So whenever someone uses the term post-Christian, they’re telling you something important about themselves. They’re telling you what they perceive as the dominant ideological paradigm in our culture. When the conservative writers over at First Things bemoan our post-Christian culture, they’re usually complaining about the post-Sixties, post-sexual revolution, post-feminist currents in society. Consequently, you get a lot of articles about abortion, homosexuality, and gender identity. Cultural attitudes toward these issues (the criminalization of abortion is opposed by most Americans; gay marriage is a popular policy; views of gender are undergoing major revisions) is evidence, for the conservatives, that society has abandoned Christianity for…something else.

I too see evidence that Christian precepts and values are no longer a dominant paradigm in the West (was it ever? This is a question I will pursue in future posts; for now, suffice it to say that because the Church once literally governed European life, there was a time when Christian precepts and values were once dominant). For me, however, sexual libertinism hardly constitutes a paradigm. And besides, I’ve met few true sexual libertines in my life. Most people subscribe to sexual morality of one kind or another. Most people conduct themselves as if sex has an ethical dimension. They approach sex concerned with its effects on themselves and others. Sexual liberty does not govern their life. What does govern their life, however, is a paradigm in which freedom, choice, individualism, abundance, and prosperity are all viewed as unquestionably good. The values we hold dear are derived from liberalism, capitalism, and democratic government. And wherever Christianity conflicts with those values, it is promptly abandoned.

What promises to be a much-needed clarification of basic Christian teaching for a post-Christian society will likely be rejected by many intellectually-minded Christians as little more than left-wing propaganda.

The authors of For the Life of the World seem to take a similar view. You’ll notice that Chryssavgis’s list of “critical and controversial issues” does not include the major preoccupations of conservative Christianity (although bioethics is likely code for, among other things, abortion). Consider, instead, the following passage from the document:

It is impossible for the Church truly to follow Christ or to make him present to the world if it fails to place this absolute concern for the poor and disadvantaged at the very center of its moral, religious, and spiritual life. The pursuit of social justice and civil equity—provision for the poor and shelter for the homeless, protection for the weak, welcome for the displaced, and assistance for the disabled—is not merely an ethos the Church recommends for the sake of a comfortable conscience, but is a necessary means of salvation, the indispensable path to union with God in Christ; and to fail in these responsibilities is to invite condemnation before the judgment seat of God.

Or consider this passage, which deals directly with a political crisis of the moment:

The developed world everywhere knows the presence of refugees and asylum-seekers, many legally admitted but also many others without documentation. They confront the consciences of wealthier nations daily with their sheer vulnerability, indigence, and suffering. This is a global crisis, but also a personal appeal to our faith, to our deepest moral natures, to our most inabrogable responsibilities.

This is the faith we witness again and again throughout the Scriptures and throughout the traditions of the church. For every verse in Scripture that names and condemns homosexuality, there are hundreds that command us to care for the poor and the stranger. For each saying of the Holy Fathers that concerns fornication, there are scores that command us to eschew wealth. These passages, and the other passages that Chryssavgis quotes (dealing with wealth inequality and the veracity of scientific claims), suggest that the authors of For the Life of the World have truly taken a more traditional approach to faith in the modern world. They have struck at the heart of Christian teaching. Consequently, the document will be unpopular among social conservatives. It will likely be derided as a bleeding-hearted whine, an attempt by liberal theologians to politicize the faith. This is unfortunate. What promises to be a much-needed clarification of basic Christian teaching for a post-Christian society will likely be rejected by many intellectually-minded Christians as little more than left-wing propaganda.

Social conservatives too often mistake their own moral preoccupations with the root of our culture’s ills. There is indeed a disease that infects our society all the way down to the marrow, and Christian virtue is indeed the cure. But the illness is much older and more deeply embedded than conservatives realize. It predates the Sixties by several centuries; our dominant paradigms go back at least as far as the Enlightenment, to the very beginnings of liberalism, capitalism, and modern democracy.

So social conservatives are not entirely wrong in their paeans to the past. We do suffer from our modernity. We measure all things according to a perverted understanding of worth. We order our lives and construe our sense of personhood around prosperity and wealth. We experience the world primarily as consumers. We value ourselves and others within the nasty strictures of status, and we typically grant or deny status on the basis of a crude materialism. As I write this, the president of the United States is seriously contemplating risking the lives of tens of thousands—maybe more—for the higher economic good. We suffer from our modernity. In focusing on policy developments and sexual behavior of the past fifty years, conservative critics of modernity overlook the sheer pervasiveness of that suffering.

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