Tuesday, April 03, 2012
Conspiracy, politics, and piety
Yesterday, we were treated to some thoughtful scholarship that was also wonderful food for the soul. Our guest was Prof. Beatrice de Graaf, from the Netherlands, where she teaches (at Leiden)--listen closely!--Conflict and Security History. Didn't know such a discipline existed, but then there's a ton I don't know.
Among other things, Prof. de Graaf asked thoughtful questions about our era by probing some rather tantalizing paradox--why, for instance, is there such fear today when, in fact, the data proves convincingly that world population itself, especially in the west, has never been safer? Ms. de Graaf had great fun--as did we--in deconstructing the architecture of "conspiracy," in a kind of conspiracy theory of conspiracy theories. She explained, in a fashion that was at once scholarly and rollicking, the nature of conspiracy thinking, a practice very much alive today in our fractured culture. What she's thinking about it is why we believe what we do, and she is, very much, a believer herself.
Newsweek's cover article this week, "Christianity in Crisis," is written by Andrew Sullivan, a believer, whose claim it is that in our world especially Christianity finds itself losing influence, even though we are forever saber-rattling, constantly thirsting for power, not over our selves, but others. Christianity may well have more power these days, but, finally, he'd argue, much, much less. It's Sullivan's contention that the radical gospel teachings have all to do with reigning in our sinful selves and holding on to the God of heaven and earth as our only comfort. The gospel itself has nothing at all to do with trying to make others believe as we do. The great battles of the Christian life are those waged in our own hearts, not in others'.
Sullivan argues that Christians today spend far too much time and energy on the heresy of politics, of persuasion, and of power. Sometimes, the church seems more pugilist than prayerful. "What does it matter how strictly you proclaim your belief in various doctrines if you do not live as these doctrines demand?" he writes. "If we return to what Jesus actually asked us to do and to be--rather than the unknowable intricacies of what we believe he was--he actually emerges more powerfully and more purely."
To some--shoot, to me--it's often almost distasteful to consider yourself a Christian. I mean, not for a moment do I doubt there is a God, not for a moment do I doubt his son came to earth to die and live again for my sin--that makes me a believer. But the strident voices of "Christianity" these days--the ones who make all the noise and get all the headlines--are often those who create horrifying apocalyptic visions and conspiracy theories and play power politics, clothing themselves in prayer and piety. Honestly, I don't want to be inside that door. And neither do others, as Sullivan shows.
He offers St. Francis as a hero, someone whose ministry took him away from power, rather than toward it, a man who insisted his followers not ride a horse, but walk. An aesthete and a mystic, Francis may be a little scary for me in his radical departure from the world; but I admire what Andrew Sullivan is doing in this thoughtful diagnosis of the church's ills because I believe, as he says, that "there is wisdom in the acceptance of mystery," grace in believing that which we don't know.
Sometimes I don't feel like singing hymns in worship. Sometimes I wince at a level of triumphalism that feels far, far too gooey. Sometimes, like my own grandfather and his ancient pious friends, I think we take salvation far, far too cheaply. Sometimes I don't want to be a Christian, even though, irrefutably, I am.
At those times especially, it's good to know you're not alone.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 6:32 AM