Does the Gospel need to be “tamed?” Does Christianity need to bend the knee to post-modernity and worship at the altar of tolerance and progressivism as the only alternative to religious terrorism? That is what Dr. Gary Gutting, professor of philosophy at The University of Notre Dame seems to say in an essay posted in yesterday’s New York Times (August 1, 2016.
Gutting argues that if we really believe in revealed truth, then we cannot peacefully abide the presence of “untruth,” unless we submit our faith in revealed religious truth to higher worldly truths, like the necessity of peaceful coexistence among believers and with non-believers. These higher truths (tolerance and peaceful coexistence) come from the world, Gutting says, and not from God, nor any revealed religion. The world learned them from its tragic and costly experience of revealed religion. Violent extremism, like that which led to the recent death of a French priest at the hands of Islamic State devotees, is inherent, if not inevitable, Gutting says, to belief in any revelation that supersedes human logic and the basic rules of a polite, diverse and tolerant society. Tolerance, and peaceful coexistence on the part of religious believers cannot help but imply the domestication and subordination of their religious beliefs to worldly progress and ideals emanating from a diverse, cosmopolitan, secular and peaceful society. Gutting implies, in effect, that there cannot be true and total devotion to and faith in God and divine revelation, and peaceful coexistence within the same souls and societies. All religions must bend the knee to modern and post-modern notions of truth, tolerance and diversity if they are to even exist on the same planet together. Christianity, he says, is ahead of Islam on this respect.
As a Christian I cannot speak for Islam and Muslims. But I will reply for and from the church of Jesus Christ.
I applaud and share Gutting’s desire for and commitment to peaceful coexistence between believers and non-believers, as well as among believers of different faiths. As a Christian who wants and seeks to live a life sold out to divine, revealed truth, I would rather die for unbelievers, those who believe differently, and even for enemies of my beliefs, than kill them. But that is because of these divine, revealed truths, and not in spite of them. That’s a major hole in Gutting’s argument: he doesn’t consider that coexistence, non-violence and pacifism might be key and central features of divinely revealed truths, and of a believer’s total, whole-hearted commitment to them. That was the case in the first few centuries of the Christian movement, from Jesus and the apostles, who taught us to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who persecute you”, to “turn the other cheek” and “go the second mile,” and who proved his own commitment to that ethic (it’s more than just an ethic) at the cross.
Granted, much of church history is about the church’s violation of its own peacemaking gospel and its nonviolent ethic. But that happened as we Christians let ourselves be tamed and domesticated to the demands of an imperial cosmopolitan society (the late Roman Empire) in ways similar to those called for by Gutting in his essay. Previous to that, it was the cosmopolitan imperial society that was exercising violence against Christian believers, in part, for not joining them in state-sponsored violence.
Gutting sets up a false dichotomy between inherently violent religiosity and an inherently peaceful secularism. First of all, I would question just how secular secularism is. Any definition of religion would apply to any ideologies, including secular ones like conservatism, progressivism or capitalism, even to atheistic ones like Soviet or Maoist Communism. They simply substitute “fearless leaders” for gods and messiahs, ideology for doctrine, politics and warfare for mission, and “history” for eschatology.
I would also question how inherently peaceful and tolerant modern secular societies are. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in his expose on Stalin’s excesses, The Gulag Archipelago, credited Stalin with the deaths of 60 million Soviet citizens through starvation, displacement, torture, imprisonment, exile and execution. Postmodern, capitalist and democratic Western societies seem peaceful, tolerant and prosperous enough to the majority of their own citizens. But political liberals, like Noam Chomsky, and political conservatives would both agree on the power of the market to market on behalf of the powerful, thus “manufacturing consent,” in all things political, economic and moral. To those who live in poorer countries, whose resources are tapped by Western corporations for export, who live in debt to Western, secular institutions like the International Monetary Fund, while Western military drones circle overhead, we might not look as peaceful and tolerant as we appear to ourselves. Future historians might look back to our time as a time of Western, secular, capitalist crusades.
I question Gutting’s apparent assumption, that there is a growing and inevitable progress toward ever greater degrees of freedom, equality, peace and tolerance happening in secular society, which must be taught to a gradually chastened and enlightened church. That is a secular kind of faith at least as blind and unreasoned as the allegedly blind and unreasoned faiths that secularism would replace. And it’s too early to call freedom, liberty, equality and prosperity the winners in world or national history. If anything, peaceful coexistence and freedom of conscience appear in many places to be on the defensive, and in retreat. From the civil wars in South Sudan and Syria to the refugee crisis flooding Europe to the increasing authoritarianism in Russia, North Korea, China, Egypt and Eritrea, none of this intolerance and violence can be laid at the feet of the church. As often as not, the church is the target of such repression.
Finally, I would question whether the church got the idea of freedom, tolerance and coexistence from the world, or the world from the church. Not the crusading church of late Middle Ages, nor of the Inquisition and the conquest of the Americas, of course. Gutting sees such crusades, inquisitions and conquests as inherent to faith in a revealed religion, but most Christians see them as in-house betrayals of their faith. As democracy and freedom of religion started to take root in the Western world in the late 18th Century, they did so just as much because of basic Christian faith, as in spite of it. The alleged “divine right of kings” got grafted onto the medieval church centuries earlier, but having no connection to the innermost sap of the creeds and the canon, it was withering up and falling off by the 1700’s. That was partly because of the “back to the Bible” movement called The Reformation. The Christians (among others) who signed the American Declaration of Independence and the Constitution did so because they believed in doctrines like the sinfulness of fallen human nature (especially when granted monarchical power), and in the equality of all humans at the foot of the cross.
They were also sobered by the very recent memory of the church and the state persecuting the church, in the persons of the Anabaptists. These were committed Christians, not free-thinking secularists, who suffered most severely for freedom of and from religion. They insisted most strongly on universal religious freedom precisely because of how important their religion was to them, not in spite of it. For to them any faith and obedience which are coerced or conformist are finally no faith or obedience at all. They expected their faith to entail warfare and suffering, but it would be suffering received because of their faith, not suffering doled out on its behalf. Their warfare was carried out within their own souls, against their own fears and temptations to abuse power, much like that of Jesus on the way to the cross.
This way of fighting evil and unbelief within oneself was never entirely lost to the church, not even during the Crusades, the Conquests and the Inquisition. It lived on in some monastic societies, it reappeared with St. Francis and the first Franciscans, again with the Anabaptists, the Quakers, some Baptist and Pietist movements, and is now a collection of movements within mainstream, evangelical, Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox communions. In Quaker thought it goes by the name of “the war of the lamb.” All the inversions and reversals of secular, conventional and imperial ways of thinking about war and power are summed up in that phrase. It comes from John’s Revelation, which also turned the language of First Century Roman emperor worship, imperialism and militarism on its head: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” (Rev. 5: 12) For with your blood [not the blood of others] you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation (Rev. 5:20).”