Everybody thinks they understand Christianity, but no one really does, myself included. I ran into three examples this week. This piece on the Time blog proof-texts its way through a bunch of liberal canards about Christianity. If the guy managed to read the whole Bible and some church history, the piece would be worth the electrons its takes to transmit it, but as it sits it is a viewpoint in search of evidence instead of a viewpoint built on a foundation. People think Christians are all about social issues and not about poverty – WRONG! We think we can divorce our faith from its institutions. Christianity is far more than personal salvation, moral guidance, or even a set of beliefs.
At National Review they have been kicking around the question of whether a President can change the culture. Quin Hillyer argues that if he or she dos not American is at risk:
It isn’t enough merely to be culturally in tune with a narrow majority of today’s voters. If the principles of ordered liberty are going to thrive beyond another presidential term or two, the narrow majority must grow. The cultural trend lines must be reversed. The margin of error must be increased.
And to do that, against the determined efforts of the academic and media elites, will indeed require the single biggest stage (and pulpit) in public life today. That stage and pulpit is the Oval Office. Changing the culture may be a tall order, while also dealing with a world of nukes and terrorists and complicated economics, but to be successful a conservative president must indeed find a way — maybe through gentle persuasion and example rather than direct and fervent preaching — to use the presidency to change the culture.
Note that Hillyer must revert to “church language” to make his point – the word “pulpit.” He is likely referring to Teddy Roosevelt’s “bully pulpit” but even that draws on the authority of religious utterance.
What Hillyer is really doing here is granting that the church has lost its cultural influence and all that is left is the government. I think that is dangerous territory. Religion and government should act as a check and balance on each other. In many ways the Reformation can be viewed as a resetting of those checks and balances, but to develop that idea is a thesis, not a blog post. The real point is that the church exercises its influence through culture. If our nation is indeed unbalanced between the two, the answer is not to invest cultural power in government, but for our religious institutions to recover their cultural influence. (This, by the way, is the reason so many irreligious, liberal causes take on the fervency of a religious crusade, but again, a thesis.)
Which brings me back to understanding Christianity, and so much of the failure to do so. In “The Happiest Life,” Hugh briefly mentions having a profound religious experience of some sort. He is short on details as to what this precisely means, but I think it is real based on my own experience and on such I will comment.
Religion, by definition, is supernatural. That is to say, any concept of God as creator that we might hold will make God outside of that which He created. If He created nature, then He must be supernatural. Another way to look at this is that at least some part of God is outside of our perception and understanding because we are a part of nature.
Coming to grips with a Christian faith means discovering this supernature in some sense. Historically, the varieties of this experience are breathtaking. From the miracles of Pentecost described in “The Acts of the Apostles” to the quiet desperate faith of C.S. Lewis in “A Grief Observed;” from the Parting of the Red Sea in Genesis to the quiet strength Frodo needed to drop the ring into the fires of Mount Doom this supernatural aspect of God makes itself apparent, obliquely, in our natural world. My own story is something quite different from even these examples.
The first thing one learns from such an experience is one’s secondary place in the scheme of things, and the simple fact that being natural we can never really understand the supernatural and therefore we can never understand everything. To begin to understand faith, we need to have our own “profound religious experience.” Until then, Christianity is just ideas afloat in a vast sea of ideas, most of them wrong-headed. To truly re-balance our nation, the church must also rediscover this supernatural aspect of faith – and the infinite varieties of the supernatural expression. That is the power to change culture.