A piece I originally intended to submit to the Presbyterian Record, but then decided not to. For what it’s worth…
Quid pro quo. You do something for me and I’ll do something for you. It’s an eminently reasonable formula, and I’d like to propose just such an exchange. I’ll get to the details in a moment, but let me give you the headline version first. Here it is: If you’ll stop pretending to be a Christian, I will, too. Quid pro quo.
Yes, this bargain is as dramatic as it sounds, and I may be out of my depth in proposing it – yet I think I’m operating from faithful logic.
As you are no doubt aware, perhaps even from regular perusal of the Presbyterian Record, theologians and social historians have been announcing, celebrating and bemoaning (sometimes all at the same time) the decline of Christendom for a few decades now. There is much evidence for this decline. As pollster Nik Nanos has recently informed us, only 22 percent of Canadians aged 15-29 say that religion is highly important to them. In addition, the percentage of those who claim ‘no religious affiliation’ continues to climb nationwide, with residents of my own province of Quebec being least likely to see faith as important to their lives. We hardly need reminding that it’s a bear market for Christianity.
But of course the tentacles of Christendom – of official, nominal Christianity – retain a grip on our lives and our faith. Christendom won’t die fast enough. In our culture it is still too easy to go to church, still too easy to call oneself a Christian, and still too easy think that we are living faithfully in the way of Jesus. It is still too easy because, as the cranky Kierkegaard observed generations ago now, we have lowered the bar considerably.
Contemporary Canada is worlds apart from the Lutheran Denmark against which Kierkegaard railed a century and a half ago. Nevertheless, his words continue to ring true. He describes Christendom as a context in which all the vitality and energy has been distilled out of Christianity – where it is possible to become a Christian without anyone noticing. It is a world, he says, where Christ’s teaching has been taken, turned and scaled down. Most important, it is a world where we refuse to become contemporary with the risen, abased one.
Now there are some who suggest that as Christendom slowly unravels we should take advantage of the vestiges of Christendom for gospel purposes – a delightfully subversive approach to our context. Fair enough. Among other things, we can use chaplaincy positions to proclaim Christ’s lordship, rather than offering the usual banal spiritualisms; ministers can use their remaining social status to highlight the justice of Christ’s kingdom, rather than offering generic prayers at public events.
This approach, however, isn’t sufficient on its own, for we lose much more in the bargain with Christendom than we gain from it. There may be moments for holy subversion here and there, but all the while our Christianity will be slowly hollowed out by a context that cannot abide faith-full lives in the service and way of Christ.
My alternative bargain represents a broader approach where we acknowledge that we are as far removed from Jesus (as implicated in Christendom) as any in history have been. If you’ll stop pretending to be a Christian, I will, too. At one level it is a simple question of integrity. At another level it is about opting out of a framework that has de-vitalized our faith and left us with a pathetic imitation.
As Wendell Berry might put it, this quid pro quo requires living a life that doesn’t compute. I can’t do more, here, than point impressionistically to such a life but here are the basics of what our agreement will require:
- If we go to church for any other reason than that we are enamoured with the abased/risen Jesus – we agree to stop going.
- If we haven’t read more of our bible than any other book(s) in the past year – we agree to give it away, or sell it if we can.
- If we have spent more on insurance (life, auto, home) in the past 5 years than we have given for Christ’s mission – we agree to stop giving anything for Christ’s mission.
- If we have welcomed Christian brothers and sisters (not counting close friends and family members) to our home for a visit fewer than 10 times in the past twelve months – we agree to stop calling ourselves Christians.
Please don’t take this offer of a quid pro quo as an arrogant suggestion that I am somehow further advanced on the difficult, beautiful way with Jesus – as if I’m less a creature of Christendom than you are. The truth is that I need you to enter into this exchange as much as you need me. What we really need are communities defined by just this kind of deal-making. It’s the way back to Life.
(I wrote this, and considered submitting it to the Presbyterian Record, some months ago, then reconsidered. But thought I’d let it see the light of day, here.)