April 14, 2012

On Christianity's staying power

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has written a book called Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.  The book description on Amazon.com says in part,
 [Douthat] argues that America’s problem isn’t too much religion, as a growing chorus of atheists have argued; nor is it an intolerant secularism, as many on the Christian right believe. Rather, it’s bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional faith and the rise of a variety of pseudo-Christianities that stroke our egos, indulge our follies, and encourage our worst impulses.
I have not yet had the opportunity to read the book -- I'm currently 7th out of 10 library holds -- but I saw that NPR did an interview with Douthat.  Among these published highlights, it is the final topic that I found jaw-dropping.  I don't know the question (although it's easy enough to imagine), but the heading is "On Christianity's staying power."  As in, "Do you think this Christian thing is going to last?"  Douthat's answer:
I'm not without hope. I mean, Christianity is a 2,000-year-old religion. And if you look back across these various crises in Christianity's past, there's again and again been an assumption: Well, the Roman Empire is falling and Christianity will fall with it. Islam is rising, and it's going to just erase Christianity from the map. Charles Darwin has just disproved Christianity, and nobody's ever going to hear from it again. And Christianity has been very resilient.
I don't know whether to break something or cry.  Douthat is a very well-known, well-respected conservative voice.  He's a Roman Catholic.  He's got a lot of value to contribute to The Conversation, because he's got a strong, open mind.  (See this complimentary article from the liberal Mother Jones on the conservative Douthat).

I wish he hadn't said something so careless about "Christianity's staying power."

It all depends on what we mean by "Christianity," I guess.  Douthat refers to it as a "2,000 year old religion," and if that's how you think of it, I suppose it makes sense to describe it in terms similar to those you'd use to describe other human empires and institutions.

Only, as far as I am concerned, Christianity is neither a religion nor another sort of human institution.

Even in a secular forum, the New York Times or NPR, I hope for better from a confessing Christian, especially one with the opportunity to speak to an enormous audience.  "I'm not without hope," strikes me as pretty anemic response for a believer.  Take a look at Paul in Romans 8:
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (vv 38-39)
Or how about Matthew 16:18, usually a favorite among Catholics:
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 
Paul and the evangelist of Matthew's gospel offer much more than lukewarm hope.  The difference is that they are talking not about a religion, but about a reality. It is how the world is.  We believe that, in the resurrection, the new creation has been set in motion.  God's kingdom is breaking into the old creation and redeeming and renewing it through the work of the Spirit in the Body of Christ. 

Christianity is not in competition with Rome or Islam or Darwin.  They are part of a world order created by a good and loving God, and everything that is good and true about them will last into eternity; what is neither good nor true will ultimately pass away (see 1 Corinthians 3:12-15).  Christianity is not an alternative to some other empire or religion or philosophy.  It the way that God is fulfilling the eternal plan for a creation made good and broken by sin -- sin which was defeated once and for all on the cross.

Christians, remember 1 Peter 3:15:  "Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you."  And that hope need not be half-hearted, because "hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us." (Romans 5:5)

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