Today, I heard an interview of Chelsen Vicari, Evangelical Director of the Institute of Religion and Democracy, a conservative religious think-tank. She is author of the soon to be released Distortion: How the Christian Left is Twisting the Gospel and Destroying the Faith.
Her comments were not surprising, and the interview was standard fare for a show on Moody Radio. I sometimes mistake it for NPR between two rock stations on my drive home with the “seek” button. What happened surprised me. Ms. Vicari accused the Christian Left and the Emergent church of not understanding the Bible for what it says. She simplified knowing God’s word, but left untouched what must be true for such a simple reading of religious scripture to be true (that is, if you fall for that sort of thing). In that moment, she is committed implicitly to the following: (1) Reality is as the Bible says and persists in being that way, (2) The way in which such truth is known is revelation, (3) Revelation is without error, though knowable ,and particular values that those values perdure for all time. (4) Revelations come from God beyond history and are not contingent. (5): (1), (2), (3) and (4) generate the perceived simplicity of God’s word and with that simplicity, the Bible’s authority is equally established. In essence, such claims are accepted, but they are just a form of naive Platonism.
(By the way, I actually think Platonism’s influence on Christianity from Augustine’s reading of Plotinus is a positive development unlike today in which many, if not all, mainline Protestant seminaries avoid teaching philosophy courses. That’s another post for another time, and naive Platonism is not to be confused with its more sophisticated cousin Platonism.)
The challenge of religion is that it leaves many of these concepts implicit. Christianity, like every religion must endorse a metaphysical picture of the world and an epistemological view of how its tenets become known (almost always the epistemology could be recast as a form of intuitionism, even Buddhism). These concepts hang in the background of religion; they lie on the periphery of what is believed, and they never get addressed philosophically. In recent years, however, a host of theologians have been inspired by postmodern thought to rethink Christianity. Therefore, the only real merit to challenging the Emergent Church must be on the philosophical grounds that underlie their disagreement with what is done in the name of Christianity on the part of Conservatives. This higher philosophical level dimension is doubtfully present in her book (even some of the works of Brian McLaren often smooth over the philosophical difficulties), but I could be wrong about Vicari’s book. It’s not published until September 2nd.
What Vicari fails to see, or articulate in the interview is that like Luther dissatisfied with the Catholic Church, so too are people rethinking the position of what contemporary Christianity has become. At least in the interview, she conveniently ignores the historic origin and challenges that different forms of cultural life have converged to merge with Christianity. The rise of capitalism in the late 17th century and Christianity have mutually reinforced each other such that only a clearly articulated geneaology exemplified in either Foucauldian or Nietzschean style can article how these threads continue in their own American way. There is a unique thread about how Christianity become embedded with capitalism.
Apart from that historical ignorance in the interview, the Christian Left takes Christ very seriously. Christ’s focus on the poor with such verses as Luke 18: 25 reveal a grassroots inclusive social ethic that seeks to liberate the immanent suffering of people, not reinforce more suffering with a lack of redistribution. Christ saw opulent wealth as an obstacle to be overcome. Wealth sets up boundaries between people in the here and now. Unlike conservative Christianity’s understanding of a kingdom as a future state yet to be achieved (depending upon the eschatology underlying the particular denomination in question), Christ’s Kingdom is immanent for the Christian left. It’s in the here and now at this very moment, and the kingdom of God is brought about by our coordinated efforts to love unreservedly or not at all. In the Gospels, Jesus preaches to the gentiles, to those considered unclean, and Jesus is radically inclusive of all forms of otherness at his time. If this insight of radical inclusiveness of otherness appropriately translates into contemporary American life, then Christians should love unreservedly those with whom society may despise. Such love means a radical acceptance and openness towards our LGBT brothers and sisters, the poor, children from other countries seeking our help at the border. It does not matter. In this way, Christ is a model for the here and now, or so this story goes. Christ’s love, agapic love, is transformative; it overcomes all forms of oppressive structures. That’s ideal of Christ’s love applies to all forms of social, political, and economic way of life. That’s a hard pill to swallow for Conservative Christians.