Monday, January 17, 2011

Christianity vs. Christian Morality

In his recent round of research, Christian Smith observes that a sort of Christian morality is the “dominant outlook on religion” for emerging adults. On page 286 of Souls in Transition he states, “Most emerging adults think that most religions have the same core principles, which they generally believe are good. But the particularities of any given religion are peripheral trappings that can be more or less ignored. The best thing about religion is that helps people to be good, to make good choices, to behave well.” I think that we might be seeing the result of what T. S. Elliot calls a “dangerous inversion.” “To justify Christianity because it provides a foundation of morality, instead of showing the necessity of Christian morality from the truth of Christianity, is a very dangerous inversion.”

This quote was a bit of an “aha” moment for me. The observations of Smith and his colleagues about emerging adult attitudes towards religion ring true. What weighs more heavily on my heart and mind is that these attitudes are present in my corner of the religious world. I can identify previous church-attending or youth-group-attending students now in college and beyond who think that Christianity is mostly about behaving and thinking well. Sure, it comes in a package that includes Jesus and forgiveness of sins, the Bible, and service to others. That is what we teach. But what if what we are really about in the church is behavior?

How many times did I enforce this by asking a question in small group or one on one that was aimed at behavior? “What are you going to do differently because of this teaching?” “What in your life can you see that does not line up with message of this passage?” These are good questions to ask and good challenges to make- especially because adolescents often have a disconnect between ideas, actions and consequences. But I wonder: are they the questions? These questions get at behaviors, outcomes, and, sometimes, at best, thought patterns. But is this what Jesus teaches?
Behavior and dispositions are frequently addressed in the Bible, but they are usually the outcome, not the axis. For example, both Colossians and Ephesians have lists and lists of “do’s and don’ts.” Put to death sexual immorality, evil desires, greed. Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, forgiveness. But the reason for these shifts is clear: Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved clothe yourselves with…. And again in Ephesians Paul admonishes behaviors on the foundation of the gospel. The Ephesians were taken from their old way of life, rescued by Christ, consecrated and loved, therefore actions and thoughts change. Surely there is a call for a stringent Christian morality, and surely it is based on the love of Christ for us.

I ought to be so moved by His love and care for me that my response to him is to honor him with my actions and thoughts. Elliot’s observation rings true. It is backwards to start with actions because they are Christian and forwards start with Christ and respond with actions. I will ask different questions. “Why is doing or not doing something significant to God?” “Why would that matter?” “What does it say about His intentions and heart towards you?” What does it say about your intentions and heart towards Him?” “Where do you feel the love of God, and how are you compelled to act because of that love?” Perhaps this is one way to distinguish Christianity from the religion of Christian morality.

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