My entry on my quick visit to the South hit a few buttons. The responses ranged from the appreciative, “Y’all come back now, you hear?” to a somewhat scorching indictment of the South (by a Southerner)as a racist land of artificial smiles, intolerant Christianity, and beer-swilling good ol’ boys.
For the record, I will come back now, you hear? And for now, I’ll leave aside the artificial smiles and beer swilling good ol’ boys, because it is the intolerant Christianity I want to address.
This is a deeply rooted issue, and it is not confined to the South. I don’t even want to address it with the freight of the label of intolerance attached to it. I want to take the broader view, and that is one with which I have struggled since college, when one of my absolutely best friends, and one of the best men I have ever known, fell under the sway of Campus Crusade for Christ.
Suddenly, an ethical system, grounded in the miraculous and humanly improbable event of God designating a human to share his essence and being, became a monumental, instantaneous conversion experience. This particular distinction and tension was nothing new — it can be found in the Epistles, and, in some ways, finds its embodiment in the two people of Jesus and Paul. Jesus, after all, was not a Christian, but an illumined Jew, while Paul was a Jew who became an illumined Christian.
Those who find their Christianity in some form of Imitatio Christi, or the imitation of Christ, have always been at odds with those who find their Christianity in a Pauline conversion experience. You either try to live like Jesus in order to become more like him and to do his spiritual bidding, or you accept Jesus as a principle of immediate spiritual inhabitation, take him into your heart, and are changed.
This plays out in the Catholic-Protestant split over salvation by works versus salvation by grace, it has its echoes in the Gnostic controversies, and even shows up once removed and well-mixed with other belief modalities in the New Age ideas of developing Christ-consciousness.
But where I’m interested is the basic contemporary cultural-spiritual distinction between those who embrace Jesus and his teachings (with or without the claim of divinity) and those who see the acceptance of Jesus as an absolute change agent in their lives.
It is a very difficult and dangerous line. Jesus accepted whores and lepers, but he also said, “I am the way, the truth, and the light.” Does this mean that whores and lepers (metaphorically speaking, here) are embraced by Jesus’ all-encompassing love, or that they must “take up their cross and follow” him before they will be embraced? And, while we’re asking questions about interpretation, there is always the favorite issue of the rich man being like the camel trying to get through the eye of the needle. If we are to accept the literal interpretation, I’d say that a Humvee is about the size of a camel.
However, taken further, we in the empire of America are all the rich, so suddenly we are cast back into the currently unpopular world of the social gospel and libertation theology. It is a running stream that, once let loose from the dams of one’s comfortably built spiritual barricades and seawalls, goes almost where it will.
The real issue, as it plays out in the world rather than in our internal theological arenas, is whether we embrace the beliefs of others as an act of Christian openness and love or whether we seek to change those beliefs as a way of guiding them to a true understanding of God’s appointed way on earth. The former leads us to moral relativism where tolerance demands that we accept some things that are clearly not good, while the latter leads us to absolutism that moves rapidly toward spiritual blindness and imperialism.
Sadly, there are no easy answers. But the point is that Christianity, like all religions that posit a God somewhat in our own image, is fraught with complications and contradictions that our minds cannot easily address.
For myself, I’ll go hang out with William James, who said, in effect, that “when we try to understand God, we are like dogs and cats in our master’s library.” And I’ll listen to those two men I quoted in Small Graces: The Quiet Gifts of Everyday Life:
Confucius: “Bring peace to the old, trust in your friends, and cherish the young.”
The Old Testament prophet, Micah: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
You give me a bottle of good red wine and a couple of hours with those two fellows in William James’ library, and I’ll tell you what Jesus wants. Until then, I’ll just keep writing.
Y’all come back now, you hear?