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Jefferson's Razor and the 'Crisis of Christianity'
News, Culture, Society
Written by Veronica Speedwell   
Monday, 02 April 2012 17:38

At The Daily Beast:

... [Thomas] Jefferson’s vision of a simpler, purer, apolitical Christianity couldn’t be further from the 21st-century American reality. We inhabit a polity now saturated with religion. On one side, the Republican base is made up of evangelical Protestants who believe that religion must consume and influence every aspect of public life. On the other side, the last Democratic primary had candidates profess their faith in public forums, and more recently President Obama appeared at the National Prayer Breakfast, invoking Jesus to defend his plan for universal health care. The crisis of Christianity is perhaps best captured in the new meaning of the word “secular.” It once meant belief in separating the spheres of faith and politics; it now means, for many, simply atheism. The ability to be faithful in a religious space and reasonable in a political one has atrophied before our eyes.

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whitemice  - Not a "current crisis"   |2012-04-03 06:14:04
> [Thomas] Jefferson’s vision of a simpler, purer,
> apolitical Christianity couldn’t be further from
> the 21st-century American reality.

I'm not convinced this is so terrible. Jefferson's vision of religion was silly (but then I think the same of Gahndi's vision of religion). It was never going to take root, wasn't the prevailing view of his time (which saw bitter religious strife) - and Jefferson knew that.

> We inhabit a polity now saturated with religion.
> On one side, the Republican base is made up of evangelical
> Protestants who believe that religion must consume
> and influence every aspect of public life.

And previously the same was true of the Democratic party (especially in the south). Or of the abolitionist movement. Or of the teatotallers (sp?) movement.

> The crisis of Christianity is perhaps best captured
> in the new meaning of the word “secular.” It once meant
> belief in separating the spheres of faith and politics;
> it now means, for many, simply atheism.

I don't know. I'm a 'dreadfully' orthodox original-sin kind of guy; And "secular" != "atheism" to me.

Who you hear from doesn't necessarily represent 'the population'. Just as the Arab Spring was not a "social media powered revolution"... but social media was how the outside world was able to witness the civilian coup. Things become conflated so easily.

> The ability to be faithful in a religious space and
> reasonable in a political one has atrophied before
> our eyes.

Nah. These screaming classes aren't "faithful in a religious space"; at least not by any definition of devout that I recognize. Their politics and religion are thin, and thin beliefs are always the loudest.

And grab a newspaper from Jefferson's era - and read all the religious vitriol and posturing.

> I have no concrete idea how Christianity will
> wrestle free of its current crisis

It won't. Because this isn't a "current" crisis. It isn't really even a "crisis". It is just "situation normal"; those who seek power using the rhetoric of a local religion to whip up those who use that same rhetoric to grant themselves an identity. It has nothing to do with Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or Zoroastorism. It has everything to do with disconnectedness, grief, and fear. If/when atheism becomes the vogue school - they'll be whipping atheist into a frenzy (except I can't imagine how tedious that rhetoric will be; compared to Dawkins the Babylonian Talmud reads like a rollicking road story).

> .. Christianity comes not from the head or the gut, but
> from the soul. It is as meek as it is quietly liberating.

Yes. So long as we keep to the definition of "meek" as "bridled strength" and not the popular meaning of "wall flower".

>It does not seize the moment; it lets it be.

I dunno. Sometimes the truest Christianity seizes the situation and punches it in the face.... twice.

> It doesn’t seek worldly recognition, or success,
> and it flees from power and wealth. It is the religion of
> unachievement. And it is not afraid. In the anxious,
> crammed lives of our modern twittering souls, in the
> materialist obsessions we cling to for security in recession

This is more specific, and I agree.

> And one day soon, when politics and doctrine
> and pride recede, it will rise again.

Sadly, no. It will always play second fiddle to the sweating turbulent mob.
laika  - re: Not a "current crisis"   |2012-04-03 23:26:25
whitemice wrote:
Because this isn't a "current" crisis. It isn't really even a "crisis". It is just "situation normal"; those who seek power using the rhetoric of a local religion to whip up those who use that same rhetoric to grant themselves an identity.


The author of the article has granted himself the identity of homosexuality, which, I suppose, makes it fair to wonder how that identity might color his sense of a Christianity in need of some tweaking.

whitemice wrote:
I'm a 'dreadfully' orthodox original-sin kind of guy...


Jefferson and Mr. Sullivan seem to be arguing for a sort of pre-othodoxy, don't they?
emperorbma  - delusions   |2012-04-04 05:28:30
laika wrote:
Jefferson and Mr. Sullivan seem to be arguing for a sort of pre-othodoxy, don't they?


Except, analyzing this historically, even pre-orthodoxy was never willing to chuck the supposedly "mythological" parts of Scripture into the rubbish bin as Jefferson did.  The earliest exemplar of a similar sentiment, Marcion of Sinope, was heralded as one of the most dangerous heretics of the early Church (in their own words, "first-born of satan") pretty much universally because this behavior is inherently scornful to the faith that Jesus Himself confesses and upholds. (i.e. Jesus says, "I am not come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill..." [Matthew 5:17] and "the Scriptures... bear witness of Me" [John 5:39])  It seems that, if your assessment is correct, it seems to be a delusion about what pre-orthodox sentiment "should be" rather than the actuality.

There is, however, a valid and salient point I don't think any sincere Christian can really distance themselves from too much, which is the part about concern for others as a part of the message that is just as important as doctrinal integrity. Where Marcion and Jefferson went wrong is to throw out the baby with the bathwater. You don't fix Christianity by throwing out Scripture, you fix it by instilling the message that we have always sought to convey in Christ's name and which is sometimes lost in the embroilments and everyday squabbles of life. That is, the message of love and redemption from sin that is for all mankind through Christ.

That said, we must always remember the Christian church, especially the Apostolic Christian faith, is a "hospital for sinners" not a "place where perfect saints gather." "If we say we are without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us but if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us and cleanse us of our unrighteousness." (1 John 1:8-9) If we are falling short anywhere, that is the principal reason we are following Christ. What must be combatted, therefore, is the creeping delusion that we are any less sinful than anyone else; a delusion which consistently works to infect both believer and unbeliever alike. For the believer, this manifests in a hubris about doctrinal integrity that leads to a false vision of himself as a "perfect saint." For the unbeliever, this leads to the notion that all Christians are "hypocrites" merely because they sin and, consequently, that he or she is better than these "Christians." Neither of these errors is a justification for committing sins, of course, but the notion that the fruits of the Spirit will ever be perfectly manifested by us in this life or that they entail "perfect sinlessness" for us according to our natural selves is not borne out by Scripture.

This, of course, includes the "by their fruits you shall know them" (Matthew 7:18-20) which is so very sorely abused toward this end. Verily, by their fruits you shall know them and it is known that by our human nature we have "all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." (Romans 3:23) It is, therefore, in Him alone that we seek redemption for His fruits alone are perfect and without blemish. The Scriptures that bear witness to Christ also confirm that we are sinful before Him, and that He has not come to destroy but to save from the destruction that is already upon us.
Quote:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God...

John 3:16-21


tl;dr. The notion of "perfect saint" is man's delusion. The only actual perfection is that of God, and manifested in Christ.
laika  - re: delusions   |2012-04-05 00:00:35
emperorbma wrote:
Except, analyzing this historically, even pre-orthodoxy was never willing to chuck the supposedly "mythological" parts of Scripture into the rubbish bin as Jefferson did.  The earliest exemplar of a similar sentiment, Marcion of Sinope...


Good point. There is nothing new under the sun. Marcion had the advantage of a pre-canonical Christianity over Jefferson and Sullivan, though, correct? The fixed canon of Scripture does tend to get in the way of the quest for an unencumbered primitive Christianity.
emperorbma   |2012-04-05 01:34:21
laika wrote:
There is nothing new under the sun. Marcion had the advantage of a pre-canonical Christianity over Jefferson and Sullivan, though, correct?


Naturally. Even though the historical benefits of Marcion may not be available to them, however, modern revisionists do try to raise the false claim of "apostasy" against orthodox Christian sects.

However, I feel it extremely important to note that I do not perceive Sullivan as attempting to "throw out the baby" in the same way that Jefferson and Marcion seem to have. He doesn't eject supernatural claims or draw an erroneous line of separation between the Jewish Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures. I merely perceive he wants to focus on actions, perhaps to a dangerous degree, whereas most orthodox Christians recognize that actions always fall short and that faith in Christ must always be present to cover this unavoidable defecit. For Sullivan, I am seeing a prioritization of "social gospel" over "doctrinal Gospel" and "spiritual Gospel." I agree that this distracts from, and undermines, the gestalt intent of the Gospel. However, as I stated, I am also very hesitant to completely lump this in with Jefferson's and Marcion's penknife revisionism and overt hostility to core tenets of the faith.

In any case, I shall leave the Holy Spirit to be the final arbiter of any conclusions.

laika wrote:
The fixed canon of Scripture does tend to get in the way of the quest for an unencumbered primitive Christianity.


It probably didn't help the presumptions any, but the canon is usually bypassed by those who take a revisionist position by claiming that either the Apostles or subsequent generations somehow got it all "wrong."

However, as a technical note, I also should emphasize I didn't equate "fixed" with "closed," if that was also implied. Technically, the canon has never been "officially closed" for Lutherans like it has been for Roman Catholics.  (i.e. Council of Trent) Not that we're likely to recognize anything we don't already use or question anything which wasn't historically disputed. Furthermore, we generally settle on the 66 book canon that most Protestants use.  Nonetheless, as far as Lutherans are concerned, an unresolved theoretical debate still technically exists for various antilegomena (some of which are in general use, such as Revelation and James) and the Deuterocanonical works. (which most Lutherans do not use) In this arena, the Holy Spirit shall inevitably be the only final arbiter. [again, that's a technical note which is only relevant for me being stupidly thorough...]
whitemice  - Am I a Sullivanist?   |2012-04-05 06:20:12
> quote: emperorobama
> I merely perceive he wants to focus on actions,
> perhaps to a dangerous degree, whereas most
> orthodox Christians recognize that actions
> always fall short and that faith in Christ
> must always be present to cover this
> unavoidable defecit. For Sullivan, I am seeing
> a prioritization of "social gospel"
> over "doctrinal Gospel" and
> "spiritual Gospel." I agree that this
> distracts from, and undermines, the gestalt
> intent of the Gospel.

I'm not all that familiar with Sullivan so I can't speak to exactly about him. But I wonder if I mind have sympathies with him.

After a decade plus in evangelicalism and then more years casting about in "mainstream protistantism" I'm a solid actions guys. Let's talk more about actions. Much more. I believe in the primacy of sound doctrine and both historical and biblical literacy. But I live now in this sack of puss and and bones. If any conversation doesn't at the end say something about what I should *do* then that conversation is about nothing at all. And I don't accept that this attitude in any way undermines the concept of grace. It just deals the reality of what I, as a member of human kind, are. A focus on actions and discipline brings forth grace into the world.

I'll admit to often thinking to myself that talk of "spirituality" and "doctrinal purity" are covers behind which lurks simple apathy. As a pastor once said to me in private "everyone wants a life changing experience, so long as it doesn't change their life".
emperorbma  - explication   |2012-04-05 09:49:27
My primary objective above was to attempt to limit the types of criticism being wielded against Sullivan's perspective. I don't really think it's fair to completely lump him in with Jefferson or Marcion.

Perhaps I'm wording myself clumsily about what I'm concerned with here. I'm not saying that social gospel has no place. Rather, I was meaning to imply that the Gospel involves concerns of "all of the above" rather than simply good deeds.

It helps to consider the Lutheran theological perspective I am working from. In technical terms, we believe in "divine monergism" and "single predestination." In terms of the former, we emphasize that any good works are actually the effect of God's work in our hearts and lives and never, ever something that we "add" to the promise of salvation; something that distinguishes us, most prominently, from Roman Catholic perspectives. In terms of the latter, God's intent is to save everyone and this is only limited by the fact that people can choose to reject His gifts of grace; a point by which we distinguish ourselves from Calvinistic perspectives which teach that condemnation results from God "not choosing to save." We, as humans, can bring nothing but our own sins to the table and are naturally doomed because of our fallen state. It is only Christ's merit and God's grace that can be relied upon for salvation. As such, any good to be found in us would be worked in us through the Holy Spirit through Christ's teaching.

Strictly speaking, Lutherans are a Church built on "means of grace" by which God Himself creates and sustains a living faith and by which He calls us to live as His people.  Important among these, of course, are the preaching of the Word (i.e. "sola Scriptura") and the administration of the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper.  Faith (sola fide) receives grace (sola fide) and, by it, God transforms us to seek what He desires even though we, by no means, are stripped of the fallen nature we are born with [even as Christians; e.g. 1 John 1:8-10] and, as such, all Christians are effectively "both sinner and saint." (simul justus et peccator) The Old Adam must continually be put under the waters of Baptism and we must continue to rely on the Holy Spirit to create in our hearts the new will by which we are called to seek what is God's intent. Consequently, when we sin, it comes as no surprise given the nature of man and we, through repentance, rely on God's grace to cleanse and forgive.

Hopefully, you can see why, in light of this, I would be wary about a teaching that strictly emphasizes "social gospel" without putting the necessary significance on the other aspects of the Gospel, since the other aspects of the Gospel are also crucial to what Lutherans perceive as the "day to day" working of the Gospel. However, I don't mean to impugn your perspective either. Unlike many other Christian sects, we Lutherans have no delusion implying that other Christians aren't just as Christian as we are. Rather, we merely view the Gospel's promise through the lens of what we believe Scripture teaches about these matters.
PineHall  - What about God?   |2012-04-04 23:02:20
I agree what is said in the comments above. I feel that the author making Jesus in his own image while complaining about others doing that. I feel he ends with an interesting paragraph that is interesting in its Christian countercultural message and yet I feel it is devoid of God.  Nothing about God's love and work among us. I want to like the paragraph but I think it falls short. Here is that paragraph.
Quote:
This Christianity comes not from the head or the gut, but from the soul. It is as meek as it is quietly liberating. It does not seize the moment; it lets it be. It doesn’t seek worldly recognition, or success, and it flees from power and wealth. It is the religion of unachievement. And it is not afraid. In the anxious, crammed lives of our modern twittering souls, in the materialist obsessions we cling to for security in recession, in a world where sectarian extremism threatens to unleash mass destruction, this sheer Christianity, seeking truth without the expectation of resolution, simply living each day doing what we can to fulfill God’s will, is more vital than ever. It may, in fact, be the only spiritual transformation that can in the end transcend the nagging emptiness of our late-capitalist lives, or the cult of distracting contemporaneity, or the threat of apocalyptic war where Jesus once walked. You see attempts to find this everywhere—from experimental spirituality to resurgent fundamentalism. Something inside is telling us we need radical spiritual change.
whitemice  - re: re: Not a current crisis   |2012-04-05 06:06:37
>quote:laika
> The author of the article has granted himself
> the identity of homosexuality, which, I
> suppose, makes it fair to wonder how that
> identity might color his sense of a
> Christianity in need of some tweaking.

A Christianity that should be open and inclusive... of everyone except those who don't approve of me.

>>quote:whitemice
>> I'm a 'dreadfully' orthodox original-sin kind
>> of guy...
>quote:laika
> Jefferson and Mr. Sullivan seem to be arguing
> for a sort of pre-othodoxy, don't they?

It is amusing, and sad, to me that these revisions always end up as a revision to the same thing. A radical new 'heretic' would at least be interesting. These all seem to me to be Gnosticism-lite; it is even Gnosticism without the mysticism. Just over and over and over again it reinvents itself, but a constant reinvention of the same old wheel.

quote: "This Christianity comes not from the head or the gut, but from the soul."

Nice, safe, and nebulous. Of course, not "safe" at all in the end because it will turn bitterly on anyone (unreformed, unspiritual, unenlightened) who speaks for a more concrete interpretation.
emperorbma   |2012-04-20 17:12:58
Addendum: A response has been issued to Sullivan.

FWIW, I think the best summary here is that the Christian Church is not that of a "faith of perfect people" but that of "sinners who follow Christ to a better way."
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