Thursday, May 17, 2012
How Will Evangelical Christians Respond to Same Sex Marriage?
Two major issues threaten to fracture American Evangelicalism: growing awareness of what the Genome project implies and America’s gradual acceptance of same-sex marriage.
We will move quickly past the first issue. It isn't less important. It’s just that although scientists mapped human DNA more than a decade ago, the implications have not yet become clear to most people. However, the fact that a single biological language defines all forms of life will ultimately prove more challenging to our traditional ways of thinking than all the fossils and skeletons uncovered since the death of Darwin. Although we tend not to get as emotional about DNA as about same-sex marriage, the Genome project presents a much more fundamental challenge to our faith.
In the last couple of centuries, Evangelicals learned to compartmentalize thought. Science, economics and art became unrelated to faith. For the most part, the secular parts of our lives did not affect, and was not affected by, our decreasing knowledge of our own faith. More than a century after the discoveries of Einstein and Quantum Mechanics, few Christians ask about how living in a post-Newtonian world affects their faith.
And yet, the fact that we are in a post-Newtonian world is the most important motivation behind modern art, liberal theology, the New Age movement, the rise of Eastern religion in the West, and iPads. Evangelical ignorance of these things will not protect us from their affects. We cannot ethically use iPads and CT scans while pretending that the science that produced them is irrelevant. But Evanglical attention to this science is long overdue.
Nearly twenty years before the First World War, an unknown Austrian father was beating a little boy named Adolf. Meanwhile, in Vienna, better-known people were brewing up revolutions. Those revolutions would soon move boundaries much older than the national borders of Europe that Hitler would rearrange. The physics and psychology that were launched in Vienna during those first twenty years of the twentieth century would reshape the entire mental framework of Western Civilization.
Western artists, scientists, political leaders and religious thinkers began wrestling with the implications of a universe in which everything must be defined only by its relationship to everything else. The doctrines they embraced, and which Adolf Hitler and his friends would attempt to suppress, were simple.
Nothing is fixed.
Nothing is stable.
Nothing is solid.
Nothing is permanent.
If Freud was correct, even the human self was a fabricated illusion.
Outside Europe, these ideas did not greatly alarm the working class. Although they indirectly provoked Two World Wars, it would be the nineteen sixties before most Americans began to realize that Western Civilization as we had know it had unraveled.
Meanwhile, American Evangelicals thrived. In fact, Evangelicalism became a bastion for Protestant refugees fleeing from the madness of change. As historic denominations gradually reinvented themselves into something akin to Unitarianism, Evangelicals kept building churches and spreading the faith.
Protestant conservatives proved unable to stem the tide of cultural change. It swept over their seminaries, universities and churches. It left few survivors. One had to either convert to theological liberalism or flee.
Evangelicals welcomed the refugees and prospered. They did not think much about the incoming tide. They didn’t see it approaching their own institutions.
Since the likes of Carl Henry and C. S. Lewis, most prominent evangelicals (if we can place Lewis under that category) had had little to say about the implications of science, technology and globalization. Instead, they tinkered with politics, trying to impose by force what they were unable to influence through argument. They learned how to appeal to more and more people by saying less and less about less and less. They built empires of books, music and electronic media that reinforced the piety but did not deepen the understanding of American believers.
As a result, Evangelicals have produced two generations of believers who experience their faith as something emotionally satisfying but largely disconnected from practical life. They maintain some remnant of traditional morals in regions of the country where they are in the majority. Even then, they often base their reasons for moral and ethical behavior on cultural habit more than upon a coherent system of Christian thought.
Many, perhaps most American Evangelicals will rage for a while about same-sex marriage. Then they will discover a way to embrace it. In probably less than a decade, the debate will be over.
First, American Evangelicals embrace a radically individualistic interpretation of scripture. “Every promise in the book is mine,” means, at least to most, that the scripture is addressed to individuals rather than to a community that discerns together through the centuries what the Bible means for everyday life. See if this sounds familiar: The Bible was not the product of a community; it came down from heaven on a velvet pillow. It magically assembled itself into a single volume. It would have always been available if the institutional church had not cruelly kept it from us. There are no intervening centuries between the Bible’s writers and me. My era of history, denomination, and language doesn’t affect my understanding of the text. I just read what the Bible says. It means exactly what I think it means.
Evangelical piety follows suit. Membership in the Lord’s church is not a significant part of our spiritual walk. Church is simply an aid to our individualistic, personal relationship with God. It is not an intrinsic and essential part of God’s order. We go to church to get our needs met. We do not go to learn how to bring our being into harmony with God and with his people in the past, the present or around the world.
Secondly, we do not understand the covenantal or sacramental nature of Holy Matrimony. Indeed, we have nearly abandoned sacramental life altogether. Worship is about what we enjoy. It is not about “tasting of the powers of the world to come.” Marriage has become about self-fulfillment more than about God’s gift to redeem us from narcissism as we develop covenantal families.
Thirdly, we gave the state the right to define marriage a long time ago. Many Evangelical ministers include in the wedding ceremony (if what they do is still a ceremony) these words, “And being authorized by the state to do so, I pronounce you man and wife.” Such words reveal that we base our authority to make covenant between a man, a woman, and God on the permission granted to us by the secular state rather than upon the authority granted to us through ordination by the Lord’s Church. Indeed, with the exception of English Protestantism, the early reformers were united in their opinion that marriage was a matter of the state rather than a sacramental action of the church.
If the state has, or ever had, the right to define marriage, why can’t it define marriage as it wishes? We have no reason to believe that young Evangelicals will disagree with what the state decides today since we have already granted it a power it never should have had in the first place. What would possibly be our children’s basis for disagreeing with the state about this?
Fourthly, disagreement with society over gay marriage will cost us too much. If our stand on this matter, or any other matter that affects our church’s finances and attendance, most of us will find a way to adjust our teaching to accommodate the people’s changing opinions. This is particularly true for mega churches because they simply cannot afford to do otherwise.
If you are still with me, you may imagine that I am a fire-breathing, prejudiced, proponent of old time religion. My mind is closed. I am a prophet of doom, proclaiming disaster and devastation.
No! I am saying that Evangelicalism lacks persuasive reasons for resisting cultural change. It often opposes changes that have nothing to do with the gospel but does not engage with issues that do.
I am saying that the issues of our times require thought rather than the regurgitated clichés from earlier times when believers still had brains.The issues require prayer. They require meaningful connections with other believers in the past, the present and around the world. They require humility. Most of all, they require courage.
I am saying that mere cultural conservatism does not offer an adequate Christian response to the issues we face. Neither does fundamentalism. Made-for-television, Christianity-as-circus, offers even less. We must recover our intellectual heritage in order to think clearly about the discoveries and changes of our times. The answers of the past may prove inadequate for the questions of the present but knowing them will be essential for arriving at contemporary answers.
Shouting louder will not help. Moving to rural Greenland will not help. Capitulation to secularism, whether all at once or by degrees, will not help. Taking over the state will not help.
What will help is picking up the cross, becoming disciples, and offering our society real answers for the faith that lies within us. Many, probably most, will not accept those answers. Very likely, biblically faithful Christians will become a minority. They will, in all probability, be forced to walk the narrow road that leads to life if they want to keep company with the saints.
The question is, will those who do this become a life-giving, joyful minority? Or will they become a disgruntled, poorly informed people, mostly angry about having lost their power?
In the end, a self-righteous people who cling to their old ways simply because they are cantankerous will offer no more holiness to our Godless nation than their hedonistic neighbors. And, if one is going to hell anyway, he ought to do it in the company of people who are having a good time.
The soup kitchen, prayer meeting and bible study will do a lot more for our cause than yelling at people or 'getting out the vote to drive the heathen out of office'. Saintly lives offering informed conversation; listening as well as speaking; loving people enough to tell them what we believe to be true, will save many, perhaps even ourselves.