A new survey from the Pew Forum shows that many cultural Catholics want the Church to change its position on marriage and sexuality.
I’ve also seen polls indicating a growing number of self-identifying evangelicals support same-sex marriage. ”See? There is no one evangelical position on marriage anymore!” someone said.
That was right after I saw a poll where more than half of professing evangelicals claimed the Holy Spirit is a force and not a person. Does that mean there isn’t one position on the Spirit? Or that the personhood of the Spirit is up in the air now due to evangelical confusion?
Polling Your Faith
Polls are a powerful force in Western culture because they alert us to the court of public opinion — a judgment we take ever so seriously in a democratic society. Yet, Robert Wuthnow has documented the rise and fall of pollsters’ credibility (using polling to do so!), and he wonders if polling questions are the right way to understand religion in the first place.
I echo that concern. How can you poll test King Jesus?
It is an illegitimate use of polling when you use popular opinion to direct the Church’s future choices or to determine which beliefs to change and which ones to retain. If the crowds in Jerusalem had taken a poll the week before Passover, Jesus would have marched on Jerusalem, not been driven to the Place of the Skull. The public would have won their “Messiah,” but the world would have lost their Savior.
The Muddled Believer
So what do we make of these polls? And what do they tell us about the Church? Are the cultural Catholics authentically Catholic? Are revisionist evangelicals truly evangelical?
On the one hand, we must affirm that someone can be a Christian and be wrong doctrinally. Christians can be terribly muddled and still be Christians, just as muddy water doesn’t exclude the presence of water. Inconsistency with the faith does not mean there is no faith. But God forbid we develop a taste for the mud, especially when the water is evaporating due to the cultural heat.
On the other hand, we must also affirm that there is such a thing as right and wrong doctrine. Those who persist in believing innovative doctrines, or worse, begin to teach them, are not “reforming” the Church, but promoting schism. On this side, we must say, “You are not authentically evangelical.”
Gate-Keeping and Jesus
Now, I recognize that to say someone does not “truly” belong to the group they identify with immediately draws a number of protests. And those protests pack a punch. We live in an age of expressive individualism, where the sovereign self must have the right to “self-identify” and “self-define.” In an age where we find power and purpose in shaping the perceptions others have of us, we get offended when someone questions the legitimacy of our self-presentation.
At some point, however, the rights of individuals to self-define run up against the rights of groups to self-define in ways that may exclude. There are all sorts of skirmishes among people who police their group’s borders, make statements about the legitimacy of someone’s credentials, or maintain lines that determine “who’s in” and “who’s out.” It happens on the right and on the left. A commentator strays from the party line and suddenly “she’s not really a liberal!” or a candidate gets called out for being a RINO (Republican in name only).
I am most interested in how these determinations affect one’s view of the church. On the one hand, we ought to be ever aware of the ways in which gatekeeping can degenerate into a rigid application of legalistic demands. The Jesus of the New Testament broke down certain walls in order to open His kingdom to all who would repent and believe in Him. If you stand for those gates, you stand against Him.
On the other hand, if you stand against gate-keeping altogether, as if Christian identity is a free-for-all where we can agree to disagree on any number of foundational doctrines, you’ll also find yourself standing against Jesus. In the red letters and in virtually every New Testament letter, the apostles warn about false teaching and its destructiveness, how to tell truth from lies, and who’s in and who’s out. And much of that false teaching has to do with behavior, not just beliefs.
To argue for infinite diversity in belief is to argue for an infinite nothing in practice. “The triangle just needs to be expanded and rounded – enough with those sharp edges!” some say. Sounds great, but in the end, you have a circle, no matter how many times you call it a triangle.
Religion That Conforms
The question of our day concerns who identifies what. Is there a distinctively Christian sexual ethic? Or is that up in the air, unsettled now because of the “enlightened” age we live in?
Cultural Catholics think the Church needs to change. So do some who claim the evangelical label. But now, more than ever, we need to hear the Church through the ages, tethered to Scripture, rather than the Culture of our current moment, blown about by the wind.
The problem with “cultural Catholicism” just like “cultural Christianity” of the Bible Belt is that once a religion becomes so easily molded according to one’s preferences, it no longer can make many demands on you. A faith you can alter to fit your mood is not a faith that stands the test of time.
G. K. Chesterton thought it foolish to want your religion to conform to your own understanding. What’s the point of having a religion if it can’t actually conform you? He wrote:
“We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right. What we want is a religion that is right where we are wrong.”
In other words, we ought to want our religion to constrain us at precisely those points we are most likely to be led astray by cultural pressures.
Ah, but in order for this to be the case, we would have to admit that maybe the historic faith passed down to us by our fathers is wiser than we are. And, “chronological snobs” that we are, this would mean polling those who have gone before us, not just the people with whom we share this current sliver of time: “The democracy of the dead” — in Chesterton’s marvelous phrase.
So, instead of saying, as one columnist recently did, that we now know better than Jesus on issues of marriage and family, we might have to say, “Jesus is Lord, now, and next century, when the issues have changed and the cultural pressures are different.” For, in an age of self-definition, it takes a bit of courage to say, “There’s something out there wiser than me.”