“The human spirit is incurably religious, and, secular philosophy notwithstanding, it keeps doing religious things.” Roland Rolheiser, The Holy Longing
It’s not entirely clear to me what conservative-leaning Christians are trying to accomplish these days. In our politically and religiously complex era, we need more from everybody than reflexive, reactionary theology that’s stubbornly wedded to a highly romanticized, stained-glass version of the pure Christian past.
This impulse to romanticize is so strong, it seems, that orthodoxy apologists can sometimes forget the more emancipatory episodes in Christian history; perhaps they willfully ignore them. Exhibit A: the debacle regarding the crisis of authority in Protestantism and the untamed Christian woman blogger who spews cyber pseudo-knowledge from her floral-themed home office. While evangelicals gnashed their teeth over the absence of any definitive, recognizable ecclesial structure that could keep these ladies in check, that same year they happily celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, one of the most seismic, profoundly anti-authoritarian religious revolutions in Western Christian history. Neo-traditionalism’s visceral fear of its resident deviants (usually women, queer folks, and/or theological dissidents more generally) has also forced it to embrace some bizarre theological incoherencies. Exhibit B: complementarians are reopening the Nicene debate about the eternal subordination of the Son (only his role, not his essence!) 1,500 years after the matter was settled to buttress their misogynistic interpretations of certain biblical texts.
Something is not quite right. What do we make of these strange and desperate contradictions that actually undermine the tradition these folks are trying to preserve? Why are today’s conservatives so prone to enforce religious dogmas that eventually collapse on themselves?
There’s no easy answer, and plenty of very smart people have already addressed the pitfalls and ironies of neo-traditional currents in contemporary theological debate. But I’ve often wondered if the popular conservative emphasis on faith and the spiritual purity of orthodoxy is at least a partial response to theological liberalism’s tendency to downplay the intrinsic value of a spirituality-centered way of living in and viewing the world.
The progressive Christian’s skepticism in a pure, apolitical spiritual worldview is rightly aware of place, social identity, context and power, but it’s likely that it also derives from (or is at least supported by) the broader secular, rationalist culture. The standard progressive line that the conservative neurosis to defend a purist conception of orthodoxy and the mythic One True Tradition is nothing more than a foil for an underlying commitment to prejudice is undoubtedly true, especially for those with a lot of institutional power to lose. But I’m also finding the progressive political critique a bit naive these days. What do we make of members of the Christian community at large who defend discriminatory versions of “orthodox” Christianity, often at a great cost to themselves?
It’s true that conservatism panders to our inner fears and alarmist instincts; many of its leaders are eager to remind us that our salvation or connection to God is invalid unless it bends to traditionalist theological ideals. But should we overlook the fact that for many, doing so constitutes an act of obedience and, even more crucially, devotion to God? In Western Christianity, spirituality is often enacted, evidenced, and confirmed through performances of ideology and “correct” belief—a challenge to the latter is an affront to the former.
It’s here that my chorus of protesters will say that there’s no such thing as pure spirituality, faith for faith’s sake, faith divorced from earthly politics, and so on. It’s beyond question that this position properly anchors our faith commitments within a political context that too often perpetuates social prejudice, protecting rather than challenging the status quo and the naturalness of our culture’s supremacist systems.
I think, though, that it would be unwise to refuse to consider the ways in which prejudice becomes entangled with other instincts, in particular the Christian tendency to construct knowledge from more “spiritual” and/or confessional presuppositions. The sense I get from so many in the conservative Christian community is that there’s a lot more at stake in our theological squabbles than mere politics (just like there’s also more at stake than mere orthodoxy, despite the conservative insistence to the contrary).
Perhaps, then, Christian progressivism has its own mythic commitments, namely the idea that all theology is reducible to questions of power and politics. I’m certainly not saying these questions are not omnipresent, are not always relevant to theology, or that they should be avoided, sequestered, or sidestepped. Nor I am interested in legitimizing conservatives who equate their political agenda with fidelity to the gospel. I am interested, however, in understanding the mechanisms of belief and theo-political allegiances. In addition to the power question, I suggest we consider how theological politics intersect with our internal sense of religious fidelity (even if we’re good functionalists and believe that intrinsic religiosity doesn’t truly exist), or our conception of what it means to live adequate Christian lives.
My suspicion is that the language of religious orthodoxy preys heavily on our longing to be approved by an all-powerful God. The connection between faith and obedience is central to Christian teaching, but in the conservative universe, obedience is vigorously demanded. But, more to the point, I do not think many of us in progressive circles have given sufficient credence to the idea that people of faith are oftentimes possessed by a “holy longing,” to use a phrase from Ronald Rolheiser.
We have thoroughly problematized the existence of a pure, apolitical faith, and while “mere spirituality” has its failings and is perhaps no different conceptually than “mere orthodoxy,” I’m a bit concerned that in disputing these things, we simultaneously reproduce a secularist logic that does not allow religion and spirituality to exist as valid forms of human experience and knowing. This is likely not the situation for the majority of professing Christians, especially those in our local church communities.
I’m also concerned that we do not accept the autonomy of personal faith and spirituality because of pesky tendencies within “historic” Christianity itself. Ironically, we may be carrying on the West’s centuries-long rationalist agenda, an agenda that converted the format of early Christian belief from story and testimony to scholasticism and propositional theology. The intellectualist bent of white androcentric theology has always made it difficult for its Christian subjects to conceive of—let alone reimagine—faith apart from the rational logos. The idea that an intuitive or affective “faith faculty” can exist autonomously from the authoritative power of theological reasoning or church-sanctioned revelation is already problematic within a Western Christian framework. Even in communities where intellectualism is shunned, there’s always an affirmation of the written creed and the statement of faith.
This is a much bigger discussion than the constraints of this blog post will allow. That said, I think we should consider how our theological commitments are bound up not only with our politics, but also with our desire to actualize our faith and please the God we worship. The specific ways we do so is, of course, reflective of our politics; there is no transcending that. But if we considered Christian politics in relation to spiritual enactment, we would be better positioned to disrupt conservatism’s monopoly on piety, simple devotion, and their exclusive affinity with traditionalism.