From The Peaceable Kingdom
Many of the same processes that have shaped our modern understanding of morality have had an equally strong and corrosive effect on our religious convictions and institutions. If religion is no longer considered a matter of truth, it cannot and should not command our attention as something worthy in and of itself. Rather religion’s significance is reduced, at best, to the functional. Thus religious belief may be a source of strength in a personal crisis and/or an aid in interpersonal relations. Accordingly, the church has become but one among many voluntary associations of like-minded people from similar economic strata.
The functional character of contemporary religious convictions is perhaps nowhere better revealed than in the upsurge of religious conservatism. While appearing to be a resurgence of “traditional” religious conviction, some of these movements in fact give evidence of the loss of religious substance in our culture and in ourselves. Christianity is defended not so much because it is true, but because it reinforces the “American way of life.” Such movements are thus unable to contemplate that there might be irresolvable tensions between being Christian and being “a good American.”
At a more sophisticated level, many still seek to use our religious heritage in support of the development and sustenance of democratic government and society. Thus it is said that democracy requires a civil religion – that is, a sense of transcendence that can act as a critical principle against the pretensions of state power as well as a resource to support the development of more nearly just institutions. Such a “civil religion,” however, cannot be made up of any particularistic religious beliefs, since that would offend the necessity of religious tolerance. As a result all our more particularistic beliefs must be socially defined as “private” and thus admitting of no social role. This situation creates a special irony, since the culture and political order that the “civil religion” is asked to underwrite requires a disavowal of the public role of religious conviction – thus supporting the assumption that our religious opinions are just that, opinions.
There is no more powerful indication of religion’s superfluity in our culture than Christianity’s acceptance of itself as one “religion” among others. It reveals an assumption of the priority of so-called “faith” over particular convictions of the Christian faith, e.g., the nature of God, the significance of Jesus, the eschatological fate of the world. As a result, Christianity, both in practice and in its sophisticated theological expression, is reduced to an interpretation of humanity’s need for meaning or some other provocative anthropological claim. I do not mean to deny that every theology involves anthropological claims, yet theology today has become particularly adept at beginning and ending there. More than before we substantiate Feuerbach’s claim that religion is but the projection of mankind’s hopes written large.
Those concerned with the ethical significance of Christian convictions are particularly prone to this kind of anthropologizing of Christian theology. Acting on a suspicion that what is left of Christianity is its ethical component, they abstract the ethical from the religious in an effort to make Christianity relevant. Though such a strategy often appears theologically and ethically radical, it usually results in a restatement of the prevailing humanism in the name of religion.
Behind this form of modern religious apologetics lies the assumption that religion can have no hold on us unless it functions to underwrite our desires and ensure our ultimate happiness. There is, of course, a proper sense in which this is true, since the conviction that the kingdom wrought in Christ is meant to fulfill our deepest and strongest desires is at the heart of Christianity. Insofar as we are God’s creatures his redemption is certainly the fulfillment of the natural. But unfortunately we quickly trivialize this insight by seeking fulfillment without recognizing that in order to know and worship God rightly we must have our desires transformed. They must be transformed – we must be trained to desire rightly – because, bent by sin, we have little sense of what it is that we should rightly want.
A no less serious result of this kind of reductionistic theology is the loss of a clear claim to the truth of Christian convictions. For there is no stronger indication of the modern religious situation than that we no longer know how or what it would mean to claim religious convictions as true. The only choice is between “fideism” – that is, that religious convictions must be held as faith since they are not capable of evidential challenge – or capitulation. We cannot take the time to discover all the reasons for this; however, one central reason is surely the fact that we accord to science the primary status for determining the nature of truth. Subjected to science’s verification criteria, religion appears to be merely opinion. While science cannot establish the truth of certain hypotheses, it at least has tests for falsity. But we are by no means sure how we can scientifically test the conviction that God has called a people into the world to testify to the power of the kingdom.
Some make a virtue of this difference by suggesting that religion is different than science and technology and thus does not affect our understanding of the scientific aspect of our world. But according to this account, science still needs religion to show it which human values to serve. The trouble with this strategy is that it makes the truth value of religion merely functional.
Another challenge to questions of religious truth come from within religion itself. We have become increasingly aware of the historically contingent starting point of the Christian faith. Neither do we know the full historical “truth” about Jesus, nor does there seem any way historically to get to that truth. Thus Gotthold Lessing’s question continues to haunt us as we wonder how it is possible to stake our life on a historically contingent starting point. We feel we should risk our lives and the lives of others only on that which is absolutely certain. Historical “truth” simply seems too fragile to build our life upon.
And so the circle continues. The less sure we are of the truth of our religious convictions, the more we consider them immune from public scrutiny. But in the process we lose what seems essential to their being true, namely that we be willing to commend them to others. For the necessity of witness is not accidental to Christian convictions; it is at the heart of the Christian life. Those convictions cannot be learned except as they are attested to and exemplified by others. The essential Christian witness is neither to personal experience, nor to what Christianity means to “me,” but to the truth that this world is the creation of a good God who is known through the people of Israel and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Without such a witness we only abandon the world to the violence derived from the lies that devour our lives. There is, therefore, an inherent relation between truthfulness and peacefulness because peace comes only as we are transformed by a truth that gives us the confidence to rely on nothing else than its witness. A “truth” that must use violence to secure its existence cannot be truth. Rather the truth that moves the sun and the stars is that which is so sure in its power that it refuses to compel compliance or agreement by force. Rather it relies on the slow, hard, and seemingly unrewarding work of witness, a witness which it trusts to prevail even in a fragmented and violent world.