Christianity’s Crisis And Sullivan’s Solution

Newsweek ran a provocative article by Andrew Sullivan today, “Christianity in Crisis”. Because Sullivan addresses so many important issues in one place, it provides a helpful occasion to lay out what I see to be the problems with his overall vision of the Christian faith and its relation to politics, as well as my own preferred alternative.

Sullivan’s Argument:

Sullivan believes, like many do, that we have entered a time of religious crisis in our society. Roman Catholicism has (he says) discredited itself in its many child abuse scandals, and evangelicals have turned into a fearful bunch, trying to hide from the real world in ghettoes of imaginary construction and behind real threats of violence to the other. Further, both have become concerned with things that Jesus either did not mention (homosexuality and abortion), and have ignored things he was concerned with (the problem of divorce, celibacy in light of what he believed to be the immediate end of the world). Sullivan believes there is a rise in atheism and “spirituality”, and that this expresses an awareness in our society that our current situation characterized by emptiness, distraction, and warring is not good enough, and that we want some kind of fundamental spiritual change.  

In response to this crisis, Sullivan gives an outline of what he thinks is perhaps the only spiritual answer good enough to solve our social problems. His preferred spirituality is something of a coalescence of the religious visions of Thomas Jefferson and St. Francis of Assisi. Assis, he says, was possessed of a spiritual intensity so incredible that it drew many to be his followers, but most fundamentally, Francis simply wanted to live out a life of humility, service, and sanctity, expressed in practices like homelessness, poverty (to the point of having to beg others for food), simplicity (including spending his time doing manual labour and enjoying nature and prayer). Sullivan writes:

To reduce one’s life to essentials, to ask merely for daily bread, forgiveness of others, and denial of self is, in many ways, a form of madness. It is also a form of liberation. It lets go of complexity and focuses on simplicity. Francis did not found an order designed to think or control. He insisted on the simplicity of manual labor, prayer, and the sacraments. That was enough for him.

Thomas Jefferson had a very different approach, though one that in some ways brought him to similar conclusions to Assisi. Jefferson famously edited his bible with a pair of scissors, excising all the elements of scripture he believed to be of human invention (especially the miraculous and the offensive), and not consistent with the fundamental teachings of Jesus which he saw as leaping out of the stories that Jesus himself told.  Indeed, Jefferson thought Jesus’ message was his greatest miracle, seen in how he lived even in death:

The point was how he conducted himself through it all—calm, loving, accepting, radically surrendering even the basic control of his own body and telling us that this was what it means to truly transcend our world and be with God. Jesus, like Francis, was a homeless person, as were his closest followers. He possessed nothing—and thereby everything.

Sullivan summarizes the takeaway points of these two spiritual visions for us:

What Jefferson saw in Jesus of Nazareth was utterly compatible with reason and with the future; what Saint Francis trusted in was the simple, terrifying love of God for Creation itself. That never ends.

Most fundamentally, for Sullivan, Christianity is meek, and does not seek power, money, or fame. It is certainly not afraid of the truth, wherever it might lead.

Response:

To begin, I want to agree with something Sullivan has touched on: Assisi is rightly attractive to many, in one particular way. He has indeed given up all things for the “one thing necessary”, a personal all consuming love for God.  But at the same time, I think we need to be honest: the sense that many modern people would have looking at the life of Assisi, that Sullivan politely and briefly touches on, is accurate. That is, Assisi was indeed a bit strange. Yet, it is not simply his strangeness that should cause us to take pause. It is that his strangeness follows a certain pattern, and it is one that actually moves away from the general program of Jesus, not along its lines.

Jesus’ program, his mission, was the kingdom of God, and the kingdom of God was meant to be on earth as it is in heaven. Grace is meant to perfect nature. One fundamental implication of Jesus’ message is the call to work in the world, and not to drop out of it. The personal knowledge of God that Jesus taught, and that Assisi found a reward in, was not meant to lead us out permanently into the desert, or to beg from others for food for the rest of our lives, but to drive us into the city, to lead us to do productive work  in the name of Christ for others and ourselves, and to seek the common good of the community. God’s grace is meant to give us strength to work, and a singular motive to ground all our effort (the glory of God), not an excuse to avoid work and effort.

In relation to Jefferson I can also find something to agree with: his commitment to truth and reason is something that should be imitated by all Christians. And Sullivan is right that many evangelicals have retreated from this commitment in fear and into the safety of intellectual ghettoes. But at the same time, Sullivan ignores the existence of many faithful evangelicals who have remained so even while engaging with the critical scholarship he obviously accepts as wholly without problem. That great evangelical scholar Robert Dick Wilson famously said of himself, “I have not shirked the difficult questions”, and many of his tribe have continued in his path, and do so today. Perhaps Sullivan is unaware of these scholars, or perhaps he is aware of them and simply ignores them. If the latter is true, though, Sullivan has given into the very thing he castigates evangelicals for: ignoring the arguments of people who disagree with them, and writing them off as not worthy of response.

Further, if reason is to be our guide, I think I can join many in saying that Jefferson’s understanding of what was “reasonable” was anything but. Even within Sullivan’s description of Jesus’ message according to Jefferson there is a risible blunder: “love the ineffable Being behind all things, and know that this Being is actually your truest Father, in whose image you were made.” How, exactly, can someone reasonably call a being about which one cannot speak, “Father”? And what sense could be made of a claim that we are made in the image of a giant cosmic question mark? Jefferson’s claim to have rationally discovered the true Jesus of history is just as comical. He claims that Jesus’ true teachings leap out of his stories naturally, and claimed they could obviously serve as a criterion to root out later developments of a non-Jesus origin. But how, exactly, does Jefferson, fit this story (Matt 22:1-14) into his view of Jesus?:

And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come.

Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.’   But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business,  while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them.

The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.

Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’ And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests.

“But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless.

Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

For many are called, but few are chosen.”

And even beyond his unreasonable historical method, Jefferson lacks the critical sense to acknowledge that the Jesus he provides is not really sufficient to satisfy the deepest human desires. How is it helpful to know that Jesus calmly went to his torturous death in the knowledge that a God once made the universe, and has a general attitude of benevolence to humanity, if there is no resurrection of the dead, no ultimate justice for this world? Frankly, if Jefferson’s view of miracles and eschatology is true, Jesus’ attitude towards his death is fundamentally irrational, and so will not be comforting to people who retain their human capacity to perceive the truth. On the contrary, what we really need is not an example of what would be insanity, but rather an answer to our deepest problems of guilt and death. And to these questions, no answer is comparable to that of the traditional Christian religion.

Sullivan makes further comments about our situation and his solution, and I have a few thoughts about these:

1. Jesus. Sullivan is convinced that Jesus’ message is radically different from that of Christian conservatives today. This is a canned objection, and it ignores the, by now, equally canned reply: this expects Jesus to emphasize things everyone thought were perfectly obvious (the wrongness of homosexuality and abortion), and about which Jesus would have agreed, judging by the teachings he does give (on murder and sexuality). On the other hand, it appeals to a particular perspective on Jesus’ eschatology, with no awareness of the critical challenges to this perspective, and so appears rather dated from the perspective of people more up to date with scholarship. Further, it ignores that the earliest followers of Jesus, our sources for all the “red letters” of Jesus that we have, interpreted Jesus radically differently than Sullivan does, and rather in line with the traditional understandings of him (since, after all, they are the ones we got the tradition from).

2. Reason and faith. Sullivan seems frankly confused about the relation between faith and reason, religion and politics. On the one hand, he will deny he wants to privatize faith or place it in a subordinate sphere. He wants faith to motivate social change like it did with Ghandi. On the other hand, he will castigate evangelicals for desiring faith to influence every aspect of life. On the one hand he will describe the message of Jesus as if it implied pacifism, and suggest it is possibly the only solution to wars in the middle east. On the other hand, he will say that sometimes politics (obviously including coercion) are necessary. Does this mean it is sometimes necessary for Christians to stop living out the faith of Jesus? It seems unlikely Sullivan would say this, but then he offers no explanation as to how these can fit together. I can agree with the usefulness of his suggestion that Christians be able to make a case in political matters for their positions without appealing to premises their compatriots would not accept; indeed, this is part of the usefulness of the natural law tradition that I have been posting on now and then at this blog. But I can’t agree with his understanding of the options for the meaning of the “secular”, either a realm where faith is abstracted from the work of reasonable politics, or atheism. The former alternative implies faith itself is unreasonable, something Christianity should not grant. More positively, Sullivan needs to be shown that, historically, the secular was understood as the realm outside the sacred activities of visible church assemblies, not as a place where God and his activity in history are irrelevant. On the contrary, Protestant jurists historically argued for a toleration of religious differences precisely on the basis of particular theological and Christian claims about the significance of the gospel and natural law.

I would be curious to hear what others think about Sullivan’s vision, and my response. As I was writing this, I noticed that Trevin Wax at the Gospel Coalition also wrote a response to Sullivan, which also might be worth discussing.