I read Leviticus last year while studying Judaism and I noticed exactly the same thing Ron Beasley is on to in this post. The problem with fundamentalism is it can’t really operate in the real world; no Christian follows all the laws and commandments set forth in the Torah. Few Jews – even Orthodox – can manage that, and some Orthodox Jews go to extraordinary lengths to follow all 613 mitzvot. Find me a Christian who even comes close. Some Orthodox Jews keep two kitchens just to make sure they’re staying kosher.
This is because in Christianity Jesus said, essentially, that there were two commandments that superseded all the rest: to love God, and to love our neighbor. To love in other words, wholly and freely. Jesus was responding in large part to the folly of the priesthood of His day, which had lost sight of love in favor of all those damn laws and commandments. There is something strikingly similar about those days and our own. We condemn gays because of a commandment in Leviticus, but we certainly no longer stone people to death for skipping out on the Sabbath – a far more weighty commandment at least from the ancient perspective. We’ve largely abandoned the Sabbath in the modern world, but still cling quite fiercely to any and every sexual taboo.
The truth is that we could never, as people actually living in the world, as a part of the world, follow each and every ludicrous, ancient commandment, many of which may have made sense – perhaps even on a purely sanitary level – for the ancients, but which miss the point of Jesus’ two great commandments altogether.
It seems to me that Rod’s opposition to gay marriage and social acceptance follows less from an argument or an assertion about the world, nature, or God than it does from a disposition or temperament — from a disposition or temperament inclined toward fear. (In retrospect, I can see how significant and telling it is that one of the first questions I posed to Rod in my original post was “What are you afraid of?”, and that Andrew fastened onto that passage in his initial response and returned to it in the title of his longer post in response to Rod. Fear has been at the center of this debate from the beginning.)
Conservatism and faith are both inextricably tied to doubt; the former utilizes doubt as a sort of gauge by which to check and evaluate progress, the latter as a sort of balancing force. True faith must be contrasted with real doubt. But what faith and conservatism do not need, and what inevitably leads to their corruption, is fear. And Linker is right to note that what this debate – at least for Dreher – boils down to, is fear. This is not to say that all arguments against gay marriage are based in fear, as Conor notes, but certainly many are, and they all miss a larger point.
I have written a little bit on the death of Christianity and have been trying to uncover some of the causes and effects of the recent trends toward America losing its religion. I’m grateful that on board at the League we have both Chris and William to add serious background and insight to these discussions; I’m no theologian, after all, and I’m afraid that both these Gentlemen have a great deal more to offer than I do on these matters.
I wrote, the other day, that revanchist moralists are part of the problem – in other words, that the Religious Right, or Christianists, are at least one source of hemorrhaging for the larger Christian community. I’ve also written that the lack of sensible reform in the Catholic Church has caused much of its own troubles, and have stated that I’d like to see a Vatican III. (Quite frankly, I wouldn’t mind the Latin Mass returning if we could also end the prohibition against marriage for Parish Priests; see the Byzantine Catholic model for guidance here.) And finally, I’ve laid some blame at the feet of “pop Christianity” and its attempts to plasticize and glitterfy and essentially take Christianity mainstream.
William raised this point in my secularization post:
It still seems to me that you’re stuck with the problem that the denominations that are doing what you’d like them to be doing (i.e. the mainlines) are the ones that are hemorrhaging members.
Now this is an interesting point though it misses what I was trying to say, and hopefully I can clarify. The “mainline” Churches he’s referring to are the same I was critiquing in my pop-Christianity piece. Fake Plastic Churches. And indeed, these are losing members in large numbers. I think that if things don’t change the Catholic Church and the Evangelicals will also start to lose members awfully quickly as well. You see, this is a two-headed beast we’re dealing with: on the one hand the divisive Religious Right and the entrenched conservative Catholics, and on the other the boring, uninspiring mainline.
I think a case needs to be made for some sort of progressive traditionalism, similar in theory to Russell Arbon Fox’s musings on “left conservatism.” Writes Fox:
When I first picked up the phrase “left conservatism” I was mostly just making a theoretical argument, one with only incidental relevance for actual politics; it was a frame to lump together a huge range of superficially dissimilar, but I would argue deeply connected, “socially traditionalist” and “traditionally socialist” political motivations, to use a couple of overly general labels for it. Christian social democrats, Red Tories, egalitarian populists, various “Third Way” and communitarian types–really, just about anyone who, whether they articulate it this way or not, rejects some of the more individualistic and/or secular presumptions behind many modern liberal arguments, and thus are interested community empowerment, unionization, participatory democracy, parental involvement in education, civil service, anti-consumerism, progressive taxation, media responsibility, fair trade, civic religion and respect, localized and decentralized bureaucracies, limitations on corporate power, and so forth…all could be captured by this umbrella.
Now, I think a similar religious case could be made for a progressive traditionalism which embraced not only the deeper traditions of the Christian faith, while at the same time emphasizing those two greatest commandments set forth by Christ – love God, and love your neighbor – above the other 611 commandments that we mostly have forgotten or ignore to begin with. At the same time, Christianity could give up on its quest for mainstream, popular culture acceptance – or in other words, give up the soft power approach in the culture war; give up the culture war altogether, and simply live by example. Or, to put this another way, to give up the fear and, instead, embrace the doubt. I think this is why pop Christianity fails – it worships and praises and puts a smiley face on Christianity but it denies its own doubt; and similarly the fundamentalists who believe in an unerring, or literalistic interpretation of the Bible, have fallen prey to their own certainty. But certainty leaves us incapable of changing, incapable of fully embracing faith because on the other side of certainty lies fear. Doubt gives us the ability to juggle our faith without being overwhelmed by fear; certainty, on the other hand, leaves us unpracticed in anything save denial and reaction.
In any case, I’m not sure I’ve quite voiced what I’m on to here. More as my thoughts coalesce.