Saturday, August 03, 2013

Who Speaks for Christianity?

It is common today to read or hear someone claim to be representing “the Christian view” on any, frequently controversial, topic.  A recent example is the statement that Richard Land, newly appointed president of Southern Evangelical Seminary, made in an interview published July 25th in The Charlotte Observer: “I’m an apologist in the culture for the Christian world view.”  Notice that he speaks of the Christian world view, not a Christian world view.  The clear implication is that there exists only a single Christian world view, and that Land, a Southern Baptist who lost his previous position last year when he was exposed as a plagiarist, represents it completely and accurately.
There are estimated to be 41,000 Christian denominations worldwide.  The 2006 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches lists 217 denominations in our two countries.  Pew Forum studies completed since 2006 indicate that, in addition to denominations, there are in excess of 35,000 independent or non-denominational churches, representing more than 12 million adherents.  Given such a multiplicity of Christian groups, with their wide variety of creeds, doctrines, and belief systems, the idea that there is but a single Christian world view becomes an easy one to challenge.
The question then becomes, Who speaks for Christianity?  I would argue that the only logical answer is that no one person or group can make such a claim.  Despite that logic, however, many try to do so.  How well do those claims hold up to scrutiny?

The largest single Christian group in the U.S. is the Roman Catholic Church, numbering roughly 68 million members.  Roman Catholic doctrine rejects the label “denomination,” because they hold that they are the only true church.  Pope Benedict XVI reaffirmed this stand most recently in 2007 when he publicly stated that Protestant churches “cannot be called churches in the proper sense” and that they “have no sacramental priesthood.”  Given the strict hierarchical structure of the Roman Catholic Church, one might assume that the Pope speaks authoritatively, if not for all of Christianity, then at least for all of the church he heads. 
Yet even within Catholicism there is lively debate and disagreement.  The world view put forth by Popes John Paul II and Benedict was very different from that expressed by noted Liberation Theologians such as Leonardo Boff, Gustavo Gutiérrez, and Jon Sobrino.  During the 2012 political campaigns and since, there has been a sharp divide between the position of the U.S. bishops that the most important issues are those of abortion, birth control, and marriage equality (all of which the bishops vehemently oppose) and the emphasis on issues of social and economic justice for the poorest among us by such Catholic groups as NETWORK, sponsor of last year’s “Nuns on the Bus” tour.
In general, conservative Christian groups appear more inclined to make the claim for teaching “the Christian world view” than do more liberal Christians.  Curious to see what would come to the head of the list, I did a Google search on the term and found the following:
1.     First is a blog titled, not surprisingly, “The Christian Worldview,” which is the on-line presence of David Wheaton and his radio show of the same name.  Skimming the home page reveals that Wheaton also appears on James Dobson’s radio show Family Talk.
2.     Skipping a link to a book subtitled “a” rather than “the” Christian World View, I next find The Christian World View of Education, a document published by the Coalition on Revival. identifies COR as a Dominionist organization which advances strategies for the takeover of our social infrastructure by conservative Christian extremists.
3.     Next is a page about Christian apologetics on Frontline Ministries’ website which contrasts “The unbeliever’s world view [which] ‘locks out’ the truth of the Gospel” with “The Christian World View,” which is specifically fundamentalist/literalist in doctrine.
These three examples certainly bear out the assertion that having “the Christian world view” is more likely to be a conservative than a liberal Christian claim.
I think the very nature of liberal thought goes far toward explaining this.  At its heart liberal Christianity is more willing to accept diversity and uncertainty of understanding.   While it is not unusual to hear conservatives assert that “you can’t be a Christian if you don’t (or do) believe thus-and-such,” the liberal inclination is to accept as Christian anyone who claims to be one.  A liberal Christian may challenge a particular belief, conclusion, or action as being contrary to the teachings of Jesus, but in general will not question the sincerity of faith of the believer.  The exception to that, of course, is the case of one who gives evidence of using religion for manipulative or fraudulent purposes.
Many believers find comfort and security in the conservative approach.  They appreciate having a well-defined set of doctrines that provide clear instructions on how to think and live.  The liberal project of wrestling with the sacred texts, of evaluating context and nuance, of accepting the possibility that new scholarship or insight may at any time upend previously held understandings, seems to them the antithesis of belief.  To the liberal Christian, on the other hand, the conservative structure appears confining and inflexible.  Recognition of complexity and ambiguity provides a multitude of ways in which one can grow in faith.
I began by arguing that no one person or group can speak for Christianity.  In another sense, however, every believer can speak for their experience of what it means to live a Christian life.  When we can learn to accept each other’s experience as just as valid as our own, and to refrain from imposing our way of believing on those with a different experience, then we will have moved closer to realizing Jesus’ prayer that all may be branches in one vine.

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