A commenter going enigmatically by “notme” once responded to my rundown of a controversy over Scripture classes in schools:
What has religion got to offer but War, Intolerance/hatred (of other religions and minority groups), and poverty? religion should not only be banned from classrooms but from the whole planet
I faithfully reproduce the comment as is, grammatical warts and all, keyed in, I imagine, in the first flush of a righteous indignation.
They’re common accusations, straight out of the New Atheist playbook. Religious belief is irrational, snarling, psychologically and socially stunting. In the enduring formulation of Christopher Hitchens in God Is Not Great (2007): “Religion poisons everything.”
But underneath the cynicism, the absolutism, sometimes the smugness, I wonder if what I’m really hearing is pain. The pain of someone who sought grace in a church community and instead found judgment and guilt. The pain, perhaps, of someone who invested their trust in a Christian group or friend only to meet with hypocrisy or cruelty. If I listened with more imagination and humility, what I might hear is the lashing out of the wounded.
Both have a terrible legitimacy. Christians have, after all, tortured heretics, burned witches, hoarded wealth, propped up slavery, rubber-stamped colonialism, expelled or massacred entire Jewish communities, silenced women, persecuted gay people, and moved known child molesters from parish to parish. These are not accusations; they are history.
And not only history. You don’t have to look far—probably not much farther than the murky corners of our own hearts—to see the same old ugliness cropping up today: the self-righteousness, the love of respectability and comfort, the inertia and cowardice, the militant certitude, the blindness to inconvenient truths, the fear of difference, the fear of losing power, the fear of change or challenge.
On the Other Hand…
And yet if the gospel is true, it is nothing less than the master story of life on this planet—the reconnection of fallen, broken creatures to their Creator and his purposes for them. If it is true, won’t it work? Even allowing for the tenacity of sin and the bumpy work of sanctification, won’t it change things for the better, not just for the reconnected, but with ripples traveling far beyond them?
There’s plenty of evidence that this is exactly what’s happened in our world over the last two thousand years. That as followers of Jesus loved their neighbors as themselves, turned the other cheek, cared for the least of these, forgave as God forgave them, and let their light shine before others, the world changed dramatically.
It’s a tangled tale, but one corroborated by various high-profile atheists like popular ancient history writer Tom Holland. “In my morals and ethics,” he recently wrote, “I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian.” Philosopher Jürgen Habermas insists that the egalitarianism underpinning all our freedoms and democratic ideals is the direct and exclusive legacy of the Judeo-Christian ethic: “Everything else is just idle postmodern talk.”
David Bentley Hart fleshes out the content of this debt in his book Atheist Delusions:
Even the most ardent secularists among us generally cling to notions of human rights, economic and social justice, providence for the indigent, legal equality, or basic human dignity … It is simply the case that we distant children of the pagans would not be able to believe in any of these things – they would never have occurred to us – had our ancestors not once believed that God is love, that charity is the foundation of all virtues, that all of us are equal before the eyes of God, that to fail to feed the hungry or care for the suffering is to sin against Christ, and that Christ laid down his life for the least of his brethren.
If both are true-if Christians gave the West things we all rather like, such as inalienable human value, democracy, charity, and humility, and also gave us the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials and South African apartheid – what then? How do we make sense of the disjunction?
There are quite a few coping strategies out there. Frankly, I’ve found them mostly inadequate. So, for the intrepid fellow traveler along the tangled byways of Christian history, here are a few friendly “Dead End” signs to mark roads not worth taking—and some suggestions for alternative routes.
1. “They weren’t really Christian.”
This one certainly looks inviting. In most Western societies for most of the last millennium, it’s been at least advantageous to identify with orthodox Christianity. Where Christian identity is default, plenty of things will happen under the banner of faith that bear little resemblance to the person and teaching of Jesus Christ.
But we can’t get ourselves off the hook this easily. Partly this is because disentangling the motivations of a medieval crusader or heresy inquisitor from the Bible is not straightforward. It’s entirely possible to make arguments from Scripture – in some cases, uncomfortably coherent arguments – in support of “holy” war, the auto-da-fé, racial hierarchies, anti-Semitism, environmental despoliation, and more.
Would practically all Christians today agree that those are gross abuses of the text? Yes. Are we so confident that our own interpretative frameworks are unimpeachable—our exegetical maneuvers so free from the slant of self-interest—that we feel able to dismiss the faith of such misreaders as pure sham? Hmm.
Our engagement with history is so often superficial and incredibly supercilious. We fail to acknowledge how indebted we are to these blinkered, striving men and women who came before for the very weapons we level against them. And we forget our own blinkers, the contempt and disbelief that future generations will no doubt reserve for us and our blind spots. As T. S. Eliot wrote in another context: “Some one said: ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are that which we know.”
The uncomfortable truth is no one comes out of history with clean hands. The law of unintended consequences is too potent, the feet of even our most cherished heroes too caked with clay. This is not to abdicate the responsibility either to act justly or to repent of the sins of the past. But it is to advocate for a measure of historical humility, an appreciation for how difficult it is to draw straight lines in a cracked and crooked world as cracked and crooked people.
Miroslav Volf offers a more subtle version of “they weren’t real Christians” in his description of “thin” and “thick” religion. A “thin” religious commitment may well be genuine but is not given primacy in an adherent’s life. It therefore easily becomes “thinned out,” instrumentalized, serving as a justification for actions which spring from far different sources.
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Source: Christianity Today