Recent discussions on this blog have reminded me of a tic of many theologians: a tendency to jump straight to the level of competing, incompatible presuppositions, which presumably can never talk to each other. Often this is couched in the language of the other guy excluding the theologian who’s speaking: “If you can’t buy into my religious framework, then I don’t see how you’re going to be convinced.” On a less severe level, there’s a definite resistence to speak about Christian truths in anything but Christian jargon, as though a failure to use the traditional vocabulary is a step down a slippery slope. In many ways, it’s like the dynamic where Republicans claim government can’t work and then govern poorly in order to prove it — theologians claim that fundamental dialogue is impossible and then demonstrate it in their practice.
Thinking about this dynamic, I’ve returned to Bonhoeffer’s notion of “religionless Christianity.” Admittedly, the passages in the Letters and Papers from Prison are difficult to interpret and his definition of “religion” is idiosyncratic — to me, he seems to mean something like “the drama of the soul with its God,” centered on the fundamental weakness or sinfulness of humanity — but I think there is a kernel there that can be applied to these types of discussions.
A clue in this regard is his claim that he prefers to discuss theology with non-believers, because there he can be open and frank, whereas conversation with believers is stifling. So even if his definition of “religion” might be different if he were writing today, I’d say there would still be an overall push toward a Christianity without all the baggage.
For example, in this baggage-less Christianity, one would be able to view the life of Jesus as an event of the utmost importance, bearing directly on the meaning of human existence; to find the Hebrew and Christian scriptures (or at least part of them: we all have a “canon within the canon”) compelling and worthy of serious study and consideration; and to find certain Christian communities and practices attractive — and that could be enough. You wouldn’t have to sign up for the bullshit, whether that bullshit be a literal six-day creation, an infallible structure of apostolically-sanctioned authority, a conflation of abortion with murder, a mutated Aristotelian view of sexuality that renders all non-reproductive sex acts sinful, or even more basic stuff such as traditional theism or the existence of the soul.
The benefit of this approach is that you would be able to talk to actual human beings about your convictions. You would be able to give reasons why Jesus is a compelling figure or why the Scriptures have continued relevance, without playing the trump card of “God says so.” More broadly, you could talk directly about what you’re actually doing rather than first getting people to buy into some kind of narrative where they have to make sacrifices in this world in order to guarantee their place in the next.
Some might say this is “cafeteria Christianity” and that you have to take it all or leave it and that an attempt to “water things down” like this is just a capitulation to liberalism (which we oppose because… it’s not Christianity, I guess) — but I think that underlying all that rhetoric is a profound lack of faith in Christianity. If we don’t have hellfire to threaten people with, then no one will bother to show up for church. If we don’t present it as a key to the transcendent realm of God, people will leave the Bible on the shelf.
I don’t think that’s true, though, or at least I’m willing to take the gamble that people can find the Christian intellectual tradition, Christian communities, and Christian practices appealling without having a bone to pick with evolution, without caring about sex acts between consenting adults, without declaring fealty to the pope — indeed, without “believing in God.” Perhaps that’s a bad gamble to take, but if it turns out that Christianity can’t survive without the bullshit, then it’s all bullshit.