America, its citizens boast, has always been a religious nation. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat would agree, noting that even now interest in Christianity is far from dormant in America, not with people like Joel Osteen, Glen Beck, and Oprah Winfrey growing rich, preaching their respective gospels of prosperity, conspiracy, and therapy.
Christianity also still plays a prominent role in our supposedly secular nation. Douthat sees American polity as ripped asunder, on the one hand, by Christian conservatives, who view their politics through a scrim of apocalypticism, awaiting the implosion of a leftist dominated world and, on the other hand, by Christian liberals, whose activism has a messianic patina, as though they alone know what’s good for all. Indeed, by the time Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics concludes, there’s no significant contemporary Christian movement in America left uncensored. Under, cult of the body, he made me feel bad for going to the gym every day.
Douthat’s thesis is that the only form of imperiled Christianity in America today is orthodoxy itself, the broad Nicene concourse once occupied by Catholicism and its mainline Protestant counterparts. As he puts it, “A sign of this weakness is the extent to which the very terms orthodoxy and heresy have become controversial in today’s religious conversation — either dismissed as anachronisms, or shunned for their historical associations with bigotry and persecution”(9).
Douthat’s analysis of American religion is as prescient as it is provocative. If one jettisons the distinction between orthodoxy and heresy, one can make no sense of a scene recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, the selection of Matthias to succeed Judas as member of The Twelve. If one reduces Christianity to whatever seems to serve one’s personal growth or whatever appears to further humanity’s progress, one cannot possibly comprehend the injunction given by Peter to his fellow apostles. “[I]t is necessary that one of the men who accompanied us the whole time the Lord Jesus came and went among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day on which he was taken up from us, become with us a witness to his resurrection” (1:21-22).
The word “witness” says it all. A witness testifies to, affirms for others, what he or she has personally experienced. In that sense, a witness points away from self. There’s nothing wrong — indeed we have an obligation — to discern what is best, both for our selves and for humanity as a whole. Douthat, a convert to Catholicism isn’t a theologian; one should point out that medieval theology identified God with that which was most true, most good, whatever that may be. But he is certainly on target in arguing that an apostolic witness testifies to an experience that is larger than either the self or humanity.
Again, on the question of orthodoxy, Douthat points out that “in the modern age, there’s an assumption that theological debates are really just struggles for power, that the lines between heresy and orthodoxy are inherently arbitrary, and that religious belief is too fluid and complicated to fit any sort of binary interpretation” (9). He notes that religious scholars like Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels have made their newfound fortunes by suggesting that Christianity has never been anything but a struggle for power.
But, if that were true, it would not have been necessary for Christ to pray, the night before he died, “Consecrate them in the truth. Your word is truth” (Jn 17: 17). Christianity has spoken — and must continue to speak — of orthodoxy and heresy, because there is a choice to be made between a life-giving transmission of the Christ in our midst and a life-narrowing negation of the same. God’s gift of language gave humanity the ability to tell the truth or to lie. We’ve done both since the Fall, to others and to ourselves.
In history, truth and falsehood can never be distilled from power and politics, but neither is reducible to them. And yet, if we truly believe that something so much greater than ourselves emerged from Galilee, then we must seek the truth of what once happened there and in Jerusalem, and of what it means for us today. “Moreover, we have seen and testify that the Father sent his Son as savior of the world. Whoever acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God remains in him and he in God” (1 Jn 4: 14-15).
Have power and politics sometimes led Church leaders to err? Sadly, they have, and — worse yet — they always will, but the belief that all Christians are witnesses to something greater than ourselves has a way of righting our human failures and sinfulness. God didn’t promise us a sainted hierarchy, which is one reason why we’ve prayed for them at the core of our liturgy, in the Eucharistic canon, from the recorded dawn of Christianity. We’re all fallen. God did however promise that the Church would somehow find her way forward in truth, and do so through the very ministry of these apostolic witnesses.
When one reads that American bishops question the orthodoxy of some American religious women, how can anyone, knowing even a modicum of history, not worry about power and politics? But the one who questions the right, and the responsibility, of the bishops to do so has lost the very meaning of Christianity, because he or she no longer understands that the Church exists to witness to something so much more than herself. “Your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world. And I consecrate myself for them, so that they also may be consecrated in truth” (Jn 17: 17-19).
Of course the dread that ought to settle upon American bishops, and the rest of us Americans, is that we will one day be judged by our exercise of power and our witness to the truth. Dread isn’t a word we use much in American religion anymore. Maybe one more mark that we have lost our way.
Rev. Terrance W. Klein