A good friend has spent most of his life outside the Church, though he was raised within its shadow. Through his adulthood, Christian practice has seldom inspired, and Christian doctrine, as he has known it, has too often been a source of frustration or embarrassment, if not disdain.
Through a serendipitous relationship with two Baptist pastors he’s had a chance to take another look in recent years. Our church has provided an opportunity for an introspective double-take, leading him to conclude, “Maybe the whole enterprise isn’t completely irredeemable, after all?”
But he recently forwarded a “disappointing” interview between New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof and an evangelical pastor named Timothy Keller. Kristof says he admires the life and message of Jesus but has struggled with some Christian doctrines, so he reached out to one of “the most prominent Evangelical thinkers” for a perspective. It’s Christmas, so Kristof was wondering how essential the virgin birth is to the Christian conviction.
After reading the article I’m disappointed, too.
For starters, I am disappointed with the media’s tendency to solicit voices on the right (if not the far right) of the “broad stream of Christianity,” and the irresponsible and lazy journalistic habit of treating them as if their voice adequately represents Christianity. Someone needs to remind Mr. Kristof that Christianity is the largest religion in the world — and the most diverse.
Within the Christian tradition, we handle snakes and burn incense in worship. Christians speak proscribed liturgies in Latin and dance and shout in ecstatic tongues. Some Christians ordain transgender pastors and marry same-sex couples. Still other Christians believe God has predestined one superior race and intends the submission of females to the male head of the family.
I know it’s dizzying, sometimes frightening, but across the globe there are beliefs that are conflicting, even antithetical to each other — and all are held by professing Christians.
So maybe what’s essential to “being Christian” isn’t what we believe?
Readers of the Times also need to be reminded that this diversity is hardly new, and perhaps the Rev. Keller needs to understand that theological disagreement is not proof the religion is caving to the pressures of secularism or the cynicism of “liberal elites.” The history of Christianity, from its earliest days, is the story of many Christianities. Was Jesus divine or not? Did he really do all those miracles or not? Was he born of a virgin or not?
Christians have always wrestled with these questions, and there has never been a consensus of opinion. That lack of conformity, however, hardly hindered the progress of the movement that started as a heretical cult in the shadows of ancient Judaism.
Maybe there was something more powerful in that new religion than ideas to claim mental assent?
The development of “orthodoxy” is itself a fascinating study. There is a well-told narrative that has been inherited by most in the muddled middle of Christianity. Its assumptions are accepted, largely without critique. This notion, that one of the world’s most powerful emperors invested in unifying the divergent voices of Christianity with no personal or political agenda, that he acted only as a tool in God’s hand to provide the world with right (“orthodox”) answers to their burning theological questions about Jesus, that Constantine’s only goal was to finally reveal a dogma of certainty — this notion deserves to be critiqued honestly, whether affirmed or rejected.
Constantine was as susceptible to human and political temptations as all politicians are, and there’s no good reason to believe some abstract question about the certainty of Christian doctrine was settled in his bygone, “golden” era. The struggle to understand God is universal, perennial. That Jesus’ virgin birth was defined as “orthodox” in a pre-scientific age and amid international drama and political intrigue — this truth should at the very least be acknowledged by Christians living in a pluralistic culture that understands the biology of conception, a culture engaged with a scientific community that has mapped the genetic code.
It seems the Rev. Keller bypassed any opportunity to talk about the development of doctrine and the personal experience that always precedes dogmatic formulation. He avoids discussion about the development of theology that came alongside a nascent church, about any interpretation of scripture except a woodenly literal one, that is used to bolster pre-conceived precepts.
Most disappointing, it seems the pastor missed a wonderful Christmas opportunity.
Christianity was not born as a new philosophical society, a people adhering to some doctrinal treatise or set of moralistic principles. The disciples of Jesus have mostly been people like Nicholas Kristof, who, whatever they thought about the incidence of his birth (if it mattered to them at all), found something in Jesus of Nazareth worth trying to emulate — which is what it means to be Christian.
While the pastor was kindly lecturing the skeptic on the necessity of believing an idea that, at the very least, should be engaged with the insights of 21st-century science and culture and historical-critical sensitivity, maybe he should have just introduced him to Jesus.
It’s Christmas — just tell the story!
He was a son, born of peasant parents, who felt a call from God to empower the powerless, and whose radical message of social revolution based on “turning the other cheek,” “doing unto others,” “loving our enemies” shook one of the world’s greatest empires to its foundation. He was an itinerant rabbi, a powerful storyteller, a charismatic human being whose mysterious Way just seemed too powerful to be “only human.”
Maybe most importantly, when people asked about that Way he never said, “The doctrines are essential.” He just invited them to come along, doubts and all.