When I was a sophomore in college, I took an introductory course on the koine dialect of ancient Greek with a brilliant but ruthless professor. She knew her Greek grammar better—horribile dictu—than some of my own students know English, and she didn’t hesitate to chuck bits of chalk in your direction if you made obvious translation errors in class. The course focused on Paul’s letter to the Galatians, as good an example of koine Greek as any, and most of the class went by without incident. Then, at the semester’s end, the final project asked us to answer the following question in a ten-minute presentation: If Paul had been born in the twenty-first century, would he have disapproved of homosexual activity in the church? The Paul of the first century incontrovertibly did, but the prompt was trying to get at the apostle’s foundational theological reasoning.
As controversial questions of this nature tend to do, this project evoked strong opinions during the presentations, not least from the professor herself: She passionately asserted that Paul’s apparent disproval was a product of his culture. To her, Paul had no intrinsic theological problem with homosexuality per se. At this conservative liberal arts college, however, most of the students sharply disagreed with her conclusion, some of them reflexively asserting the traditional interpretation of Paul without being able to articulate their reasoning. By the end, the whole conversation felt like an exercise in futility.
Forced to Pick a Side
The sheer dogmatism evoked from both sides reflects larger problems facing Western culture. Label it what you like: conservatism vs. liberalism, Right vs. Left, Tradition vs. Progress: two titanic, radically charged cultural poles force us to pick a side in politics and in society at large. Holding any sort of thoughtful middle ground has gradually become more difficult and unpopular. In evangelical and Roman Catholic circles, there are increasingly shrill quarrels over whether to abandon older, rigid orthodoxies, all in the name of inclusivity, grace, charity, mercy, etc. Despite its orthodox doctrinal positions and its signatories’ good intentions, the recent “Nashville Statement” by evangelical leaders on sexuality and sexual identity amounted to an instinctual reaction to refortify the gates against the theological barbarians outside evangelicalism and to draw a line in the sand for those within it. Based on the ongoing Catholic angst over Amoris Laetitia, for instance, the same storm system is swirling over Rome.
Christians have been faced with two options. First, they can whittle and fashion their faith into a reduced, platonized model, stripped of all its once important historical and doctrinal particulars. Christianity then evolves into a clean, flexible, essentialized abstraction, usually oriented around one or a few redundant principles, like love, tolerance, and acceptance: the theological equivalent of Seinfeld’s Festivus pole. The other option is likely the one better known by most readers, and that is to fall back upon “Orthodoxy.” Like the church fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries who watched much of their social, political, and religious world swirl the historical toilet bowl, contemporary Christians can absolutize the particulars and courageously defend them, since this is what the Church and the Bible have always taught. Contrasted with the naked Festivus pole of Progressive Christianity, this Orthodoxy is like a grand Baroque cathedral, where the whole order is imbued with beauty, clarity, hierarchy, and teleology. Rather than throwing out all those messy particulars, the incidentals now fit into an intricate web of meaning sanctioned by authoritative traditions. Question the importance of the artistic details in this Cathedral at your own risk, for every gilded cherub’s wing, statuette, and candle is as sacred to many congregants as the altar or lectern. We must revere each constituent part of the cathedral.
The Cathedral vs. the Festivus Pole
Most of us recognize the inherent failings of the first option offered by Progressivism. As J. Gresham Machen (and Paul) pointed out, if there was no physical, historical Resurrection, this whole Christianity business is rather, well, pointless. If Jesus remains in the tomb, I may as well take up fantasy football with that extra time on Sundays. Most of us don’t have much use for “Christian” ideology that can just be summed up as “be nice.” I can get that brand for a much better price at Wal-Mart. Even beyond the Resurrection, Christianity makes more than a few absolute claims about what I do with my body, my mind, my money, and my neighbor. We are stuck with the particulars.
That leaves us with the second option. Many of us were implicitly or explicitly taught—again, usually with good intentions—some version of this Christianity. For all of the Cathedral’s magnificence and detail, at its heart the system is safe and simple, and therein lies the real attraction. Because we worship in this grand Cathedral, we have clearly demarcated lines on a whole host of matters that affect our lives on a daily basis and lend order to our world. Beyond a few tweaks here and there—touching up the paintings, retuning the organ, and perhaps (painfully and with hesitation) adding a small room or two—we need not question the Cathedral’s overall structure. The pillars and archways are ancient and secure—aren’t they?
Read Part II: Renovating the Cathedral of Christian Orthodoxy.