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A Perennial Theme: Christianity Must Change or Die

April 28th, 2010 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

"Adapt or perish" is the word at the Huffington Post today.

It's a line of thought that Christians are well acquainted with, as some variation of it fuels both the liberal revisionism that the author espouses and the fundamentalist "literalist" version of the faith that he denies.   But first, the obligatory quote:

How does this fit with the literalist, conservative Christian view? You can see that it is intrinsically opposed; a more liberal interpretation of Christian doctrine could make space for science that promises the great, the life-improving, and the new. A literal interpretation of the Bible offers regressionism and leaves little room for progress. This is exactly where McLaren finds the inherent problem with modern Christianity, and the exact thing that must change: the Bible is a ballast.

While Wilhelm is at least forthcoming in his revisionism.  Many such proponents are not.

But it's still a tired theme.  At bottom, it seems motivated by a desire for respectability and acceptance.  While nearly all of Wilhelm's proposals are commensurate with orthodox Christianity, the final paragraph leaves a lingering sense that the real problem with conservative Christian readings of Scripture is not that they're false, but that they're unpopular.

If that's right, Wilhelm and those like him could be construed as the other side of the movement they eschew:  those conservative literalists who want to "mold the world to their faith."  Not to sound too much like Yoder, but at bottom of both movements is a prior acquiescence  to the world around us.  The choice between conforming and converting is a choice that depends upon viewing our primary identity not in terms of our communion with Christ in his church, but rather in terms  of our relationship to culture.

All this I've said before.

Wilhelm points to statistics that Christianity in America is waning.  But as a means of justifying a policy change within Christianity, he'd be better off pointing toward those branches that have already tried what he is suggesting.  We don't have to have this argument in a vacuum.  It's not like we're all standing in the same place, looking toward the open future, attempting to foresee the consequences of our decisions.   We have seen the future of endless accommodation, and it is bleak.

The better slogan is, in fact, "adapt and perish."  I suspect it is more true to history and our own day.

But both slogans miss the basic, fundamental reality of Christianity, which is "altar and die."  Participation in the life of Christ is a reality that orthodoxy safeguards, not a reality that it bestows.  They must be kept together, but they must be kept in that order.  To give up one or the other leads inevitably to spiritual impotence and a faith that becomes so immanent that it is of no benefit to the world around us.

I give the last word to the passage from Chesterton from which this blog derived its name:

This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic. The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism. She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one's own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom--that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.