It is not uncommon to come across the criticism that Christians, typically of the Evangelical variety, define themselves in terms of what they are against. Christians are against abortion and women’s right to choose, against science and rationality, against homosexuals and sex in general, against self-expression. In some case, the criticisms shoot fairly and accurately. Other times, however, the critics have taken aim at a disproportionate, overblown caricature, a target easy to obliterate.
Route 1: Bunker Down
In response, Evangelicals commonly follow one of three routes. Along the first route, Evangelicals bunker down. An inherent antithesis pulls the two camps apart, they believe, so holding as tightly as possible to those antithetical, counter-cultural values proves that they are not “of this world” and must therefore belong in the heavenly city. These can range anywhere from the long dresses and homeschooled type to the bomb an abortion clinic type, with a variety of shades in between.
Route 2: Syncretize
Some choose a second route. While those on the first route accept the criticism as a proof of honor and pious steadfastness, these follow the whole argument of the critics. These antagonistic positions should be a point of shame, especially since Christians are supposed to be open and loving. As a result, values become syncretically adapted, and the Christian framework of charity is commandeered by unbiblical principles. These “progressives” also span a spectrum: anywhere from “I think homosexuality might be ok” all the way to Heretic! An LGBTQ-Affirming, Divine-Violence Denying, Christian Universalist’s Replies to Some of Evangelical Christianity’s Most Pressing Concerns (the name of an actual book apparently).
Route 3: Dialogue
A large swatch of the Evangelical community follows a third route, one that hopes to dialogue with the critics. These listen and admit to those ways in which Christians have sculpted a primarily antagonistic identity. Such an identity is misguided, and we must confess those instances in which we have strayed uncharacteristically into antagonism. But the caricature misrepresents Christian values. We are not anti-abortion so much as we are pro-life and pro-protection of the innocent. We are not anti-science. Science, in fact, works if the cosmos are ordered, and we hold that a Grand Designer constructed just such a cosmos. We are not anti-sex but believe that sex is best expressed in a particular context in which it flourishes. While these Evangelicals also come in different sorts, I don’t have a funny description for them.
An Alternative Route
Although many follow the third route — and it is a solid path to tread — another route also exists that we may not want to dismiss, a tributary of this third route. Our dialogue can go on the offensive without firing back, like those who bunker down are want to do. Rather than “going on the offensive,” let’s say instead that we are pointing out a disillusioning truth: All of us in the modern West in some sense shape our group identity against some other set of values.
In describing the modern West, Charles Taylor argues, “Our understanding of ourselves as secular is defined by the (often terribly vague) historical sense that we have come to be that way through overcoming and rising out of earlier modes of belief” (A Secular Age, 268). That mindset began with the Renaissance, the “rebirth” of civilization after the so-called Dark Ages, according to Petrarch; expanded by the Enlightenment, which supposedly broke the bonds of traditional authority to let reason reign supreme; and has been cemented by the rise of the evolutionary worldview. In each stage, a sense of having overcome some dark, superstitious, unillumined, substandard state takes root in the public imagination. So, for example, “unbelief [in God] for great numbers of contemporary unbelievers, is understood as an achievement of rationality. It cannot have this without a continuing historical awareness” (269). And that awareness is necessarily antagonistic as it pits the present against the past.
Some will argue that such chronological snobbery does not incorporate all viewpoints today. A large number might say that they approve of all cultures at any time. Another group would counter that something like environmentalism or self-expression best characterizes their stance. They ought to be defined as being for these things, not against certain things. But underlying either option runs that ambiguous historical notion: We have surpassed those parochial mindsets. We have recognized the errors of industrial capitalism or colonialism or repressive moralism.
“Let’s be honest with ourselves,” you could retort. “We are all against something. Even if we think that we have actually figured out how to be the most open, inclusive people, we still will find it difficult not to pit ourselves against those in the present or past who have not achieved our level of enlightenment or inclusivity. It’s embedded in our cultural narrative.”
But the Christian who takes this route can go further than prescribing a healthy dose of cynicism, as truthful as it might be. Sure, like those along the third route we could commend the goodness of life and science and sex, the ways we are for particular topics. Inevitably, however, the Christian must admit that prohibitions do exist. We are, in fact, against certain practices. But stop and think what we are for — who we are for rather, and the why behind those prohibitions makes sense.
We are for the glory of a self-giving, other-regarding, self-sacrificial God. The kind of God who, for all of eternity, exists in a three-person community of being, each member of the Godhead lifting up and glorifying the others (John 16:7-15). The kind of God who, from no lack in himself, would form creatures out of nothing to share in his life. The kind of God who, when those creatures turned against him, would stoop down into creation to serve and die on their behalf in order that their fellowship with him might be restored (Mark 10:45; Philippians 2:6-11).
This God concerns himself with our temporal and eternal well-being by bending our hearts to love him. In response, we pledge our complete devotion to him, and, out of that deep-seated affection, love others. Indeed, all the commands and prohibitions are summed up in those two positive commands: love God, and love neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40). He provides the laws that he does not to be the main thing but to provide boundaries that turn us back to the main thing: God himself.
Christians do become antagonistic, sometimes wrongly but sometimes rightfully against that which goes against the perfection and beauty of God. Nonetheless, at the center, always drawing us back, we find what shapes our identity — not particular causes, fallible humans, or impermanent nature, but the most selfless Being of all, one who entered into our mess, died in our place, and rose from the grave, demonstrating that he is in fact the Way, Truth, and Life back to the Father (John 14:6). This Way is the best route of all.