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Christianity in Crisis: responses to Andrew Sullivan

Christianity in Crisis: responses to Andrew Sullivan

Andrew Sullivan’s essay “Christianity in Crisis”, has sparked a number of thoughtful responses, and a reply to one of the responses from Sullivan himself.

Diana Butler Bass, a friend of this blog, raised some issues at The Huffington Post that she believes Sullivan missed.

Contemporary people care less about what to believe than how they might believe; less about rules for behavior than in what they should do with their lives; and less about church membership than in whose company they find themselves. The questions have become:

1) How do I believe? (How do I understand faith that seems to conflict with science and pluralism?)

2) What should I do? (How do my actions make a difference in the world?)

3) Whose am I? (How do my relationships shape my self-understanding?)

The foci of religion have not changed–believing, behaving, and belonging still matter. But the ways in which people engage each area have undergone a revolution.

As Sullivan rightly points out, political partisanship has exacerbated the crisis of Christianity. But the crisis is much deeper than politics. Much of institutional Christianity is mired in the concerns of the past, still asking what, how, and who when a new set of issues of how, what, and whose are challenging conventional conceptions of faith. The old faith formulations were externally based, questions that could be answered by appealing to a book, authority, creed, or code. The new spiritual longings are internally derived, questions of engagement, authenticity, meaning, and relationship. The old questions required submission and obedience; the new questions require the transformation of our souls.

David Sessions offers another critique at The American Scene:

Andrew describes Jesus’ ideas as “truly radical,” for example, “love your enemy and forgive those who harm you; give up all material wealth.” His project is to convince us that these “radical” ideas are also “apolitical,” that when salvaged from the tangle of theological and political movements that have distorted them, they are something pure, spiritual and otherworldly. Like a good liberal individualist, he reads all of these virtues as a kind of private interior experience, something I’m not sure Jesus ever intended them to mean. Jesus’ ideas are not anti-worldly in the sense that they help guard one’s inner peace against the chaos of the Internet, but in the sense that they challenge the way most human societies work. This is certainly why Jesus was executed, and why the spread of Christianity was met with bloody resistance: he claimed to have a kingdom, threatened to “destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days,” and preached a kind of forgiveness and self-sacrifice that upended and undermined established Jewish law. It is almost impossible to imagine Jesus “without politics,” as Andrew would have him, or that practicing his “pure” ideas would be anything less than an affront to an established political order—as they are invariably perceived wherever they manifest themselves.

Sullivan responded to Sessions on his blog:

I don’t buy this. The Romans executed Jesus reluctantly in the Gospel account, and the Gospels tell us they did not regard him as a political threat. Moreover, his injunction to give to Caesar what is his, and to God what is God’s under imperial rule couldn’t be less political. It shocked his contemporaries that he was indifferent to the distinction between colonist and colonized. He even made a point of hanging out with the empire’s most reviled apparatchiks, the tax-collectors; and declared the faith of a Roman centurion as remarkable. He was executed at the behest of the Jewish authorities who rightly regarded Jesus as a threat to their faith. What Jesus did at the last Seder meal was blasphemous enough. Pope Benedict is right that the political actor before Pilate was not Jesus but Barabbas – and it was Barabbas who was freed. ….

And my view is that our political crisis is due to the re-emergence of metaphysical claims in the political space. The direction I’m pointing in is away from that space toward, yes, an interior faith but also a practice of Christianity in the social/civil sphere: helping the poor, tending to the sick, visiting prisoners, abandoning materialist motives.

Is there tension here? You bet there is. But my liberalism has no metaphysical foundations, just conservative ones.


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Josh Magda

Jesus is the standard of orthodoxy for me, Bill. Much of what the Church has done through the years has been unorthodox and unhelpful. He prayed three times in Gethsamene not to be martyred, lamented “my God my God” when it happened and spent his dying breaths forgiving his executioners and co victim, not proclaiming victory. The earliest gospel, Mark, lets the tragedy be- until the resurrection is tacked on at the end, for better or worse.

I do not separate the Crucifixion from the Resurrection, but I do not see the actual Crucifixion as being in any way salvific- it was Jesus’ own sacrifice and the Resurrection that was. If this is not in keeping with the Church’s long tradition of sadomasochistic orgy over Jesus’ blood, oh well.

As Jesus said, “why do you look for the living among the dead?” That was then and this is now. We could celebrate the martyrs in many ways, including linking them to victims of violence everywhere and God’s faithfulness to them in spite of it.

But we need no longer help perpetuate the myth of redemptive violence as the heart of authentic Christian faith, because it is antithetical to it.

Bill Dilworth

Well, this is certainly a different attitude than the one you took affirming St Francis’ Sister Death in another comment further up the page, Josh, as well as “Precious in the sight of the Lord,” etc. At any rate, the Church has celebrated the witness of the martyrs since our earliest days, and I don’t think we’ll stop celebrating it any time soon. It’s not a question of “we’ve always done it this way,” either, but rather one of this being an intrinsic part of what it means to be Christian: the Church simply does not teach that the martyrs were anything but the victors and heroes of their stories. Seeing them – or Jesus – as the hapless victims of tragedy may be radical and new, but it’s not Christian.

It doesn’t make any sense to try to separate the Resurrection from the Crucifixion, as if you could simply hit FF and skip over the painful parts of the film, either. It’s all part of one redemptive action (see Eucharistic Prayers I, II, A, B, C, and D).

Josh Magda

Even if martyrdom is inevitable, it is nothing to be celebrated, but something to be mourned and prevented- this is certainly the Jewish approach- and Jesus attempted as much in Gethsamene. The Crucifixion was a pointless tragedy- and without Jesus’ offering of the whole of himself to God and the Resurrection, it would have remained unredeemed. The church as a whole needs to throw off the myth of redemptive violence (see Walter Wink) and embrace incarnation and resurrection as the central mysteries of our faith, rather than death, sin, and crucifixion.

Bill Dilworth

Actually, Josh, the quote you throw in about the Torah does not support your argument.

Although Jews may violate 610 of the 613 mitzvot in order to preserve human life, including their own, that doesn’t apply to murder, idolatry, and sexual immorality. In addition, if an enemy attempts to get a Jew to violate any of the 365 negative commandments publicly, specifically in order to cause a desecration of God’s Name, then that has to be resisted to the point of death, as well. Furthermore, in times of persecution against Judaism, attempts to get a Jew to violate any of the commandments – negative or positive, in public or in private – is to be resisted to the point of death.

Josh Magda

“Any Jesus not worth dying for is not the Jesus of the Church.”

It is easier to die for Jesus than it is to live for him.

Jewish tradition says you shall live by the Torah, not die by the Torah- we should follow their lead in proclaiming the love ethic and seeking to hallow life, all of life, (again Hildegard- God is life per se).

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