Monday, September 21, 2015

The self-righteousness of being wrong -or- On not conforming to "the world"

In certain Christian sub-groups, it goes like this. They like to say, "See, unlike those other Christians over there (who are really no Christians at all), we are not conforming our morals to the values of this world."

They believe that when they take a moral stand on a particular issue, if it is a "counter-cultural" position, they are in this way illustrating that, unlike other Christians, they are not conforming themselves to the standards of this world.

So, for example, if you believe "the world" has generally been supportive of the love in same-gender relationships, then yes, to take a Christian stand against same-gender marriage is in fact contradictory to the world.

If you think the Western world is really great at being neighborly with Muslim neighbors, then to warn against Islamic immigration is in fact non-conformist.

But are these accurate assumptions about the moral sensibilities of "this world"?

You see the point. In order to not be "worldly," your first job is to ascertain what is in fact worldly.

One advantage many who engage in this kind of discourse have over the rest of us: they're considerably more sure who is or is not "Christian," so they're able to readily define who does or does not have worldly values. Everybody else who isn't "them"--they are the worldly.

Liberal Christianity has often been stereotyped as more conforming to "this world" than other types of Christianity. There is good reason for this stereotype. Liberal Christianity is predicated to a considerable degree on the notion that the lived experience of Christian communities is a significant part of how theology and ethics should be developed.

In other words, for liberal Christianity, experience of life in this world is as important as Scripture itself in developing moral categories.

Conservative Christians, of which in the United States there are legion, take umbrage with this, desiring to lift Scripture above anything "worldly." The only problem with their umbrage--Scripture is itself part of "this world." Unlike the religious texts of other traditions (like Islam, for example, whose religious texts came dictated to Mohammed directly from above, and so are elevated above creation more than Christian texts, or the Book of Mormon, which likewise has a transcendent place in that religion's life), the Christian Scriptures have always been received and translated as "worldly" texts.

We know who authored some of the texts. They can be translated over and over into different languages, are even encouraged to be translated. They are texts with history, influenced by culture, shaped by the time and place of those who wrote them. For all its weaknesses, the historical-critical approach to reading Scripture is part of how we approach the texts, and there's no going back to some safer pre-critical form of reading Scripture. Anyone who attempts to do so is, well, pre-critical, with all the attendant problems that come along.

This means that in practice, liberal Christians on average read and experience Scripture as one part of their wider lived experience, and are less likely to elevate their reading of Scripture (or Scripture itself) above other experiences.

I myself, as a Lutheran theologian, would place Scripture somewhat higher than this, understanding it as our "canon" and so a distillation of experience in more concentrated form, still to be interpreted as a text for Christian community to live under and with rather than over or against.

I do this because I believe in distinguishing two things, and this is a very important distinction, a crucial one in fact: There is a difference between Scripture itself, and our reading of Scripture. Too many people assume that their specific reading of Scripture IS Scripture. Once you have forgotten you are an interpreter of Scripture, you are in very dangerous territory indeed.

Returning to the point, no liberal Christians are likely to elevate Scripture to the level many conservatives do, on a plane above the human, as if Scripture were an angel or some other transcendent reality.

Liberals tend to read Scripture as more messy, and in the mix. Which also happens to be how they understand God in Christ.

Returning to the "conforming to the world" motif, this means not only that Christians of the liberal (and I believe this means Lutheran) persuasion are less likely to see themselves as counter-cultural; it also means that their definition of counter-cultural differs from many other Christians. Which culture are they countering? To what degree are they lumping other Christian perspectives not their own into the worldly category?

So how else do liberals think about this differently? Well, first, it means things are less black and white for us. Returning to some of the earlier moral categories, liberal Christians might notice that the world itself has been less than stellar at accepting the love of same-gender couples. So then liberal Christians might ask, "Have the Scriptures themselves conformed to the world on this point?" Or a Lutheran might ask, one like myself who is more likely to turn the hermeneutics of suspicion on the interpreters rather than the Bible: "Has our interpretation of Scripture and our bias against same-gender love clouded our interpretation of Scripture?"

On the issue of Islamophobia, a liberal or Lutheran reading of Scripture might ask: "What in our reading of Scripture has led us to fear the religious other rather than learn from them and love them? Have we been selective in our reading, elevating texts that encourage separation from the world (especially texts in the New Testament) while not noticing the ways Christian faith and life has been embedded in and among other communities, all the way back to and including Israel's life with neighboring nations?"

But the main point, the most crucial point, is simple: When anyone says arrogantly and confidently that they are right because clearly they are being Christian rather than conforming themselves to "this world," right there, at that precise moment, they have undermined themselves, because the anger and self-righteousness and hypocrisy present in the claim is itself the thing in Scripture most frequently named as "worldly."

When Scripture says we should not be conformed to this world, it says instead we should be conformed to Christ. And life in Christ, if it is anything at all, is a wild freedom from moral self-righteousness and assertion, a genuine openness to the other that bristles primarily at rigid religious legalism.

It is relaxing in Jesus Christ's own life, who understood his life as completely resting in his Father.

The one who created, well, you know, the world.

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