The Counterintuitive Appeal of Christian Morality in a 21st-Century World
Jun 27, 2016 | Trevin Wax; KINGDOM PEOPLE
“Unless Christianity updates its doctrine and adapts to a changing world, it’s destined for irrelevancy!”
A century ago, many church leaders made this sort of claim about God’s supernatural intervention in human affairs. The Bible’s miracle stories were simply unbelievable for modern people in a world steeped in the discoveries of science.
As a result, some churches jettisoned Christian teaching about miracles, while others downplayed the importance of these events in favor of more palatable interpretations. (One of my favorites: the feeding of the five thousand is the “miracle” of people sharing their food, not Jesus providing bread from heaven.)
Strangely, the churches that chose to deny or downplay the miraculous are now more irrelevant than the “fundamentalists” they opposed. And the fastest-growing wing of Christianity in the last century–the Pentecostals and charismatics–has insisted on supernatural signs and wonders as a mark of Christian experience in the present.
Naturalistic philosophy hasn’t won over the world. In fact, some would say that the secular worldview has created a hunger for mystery and spirituality. Whatever the case, a century later, biblical miracles can no longer be labeled as the most controversial aspects of our faith.
From Miracles to Morality
Today’s voices that say “Christianity must adapt or die” focus not on the miracles of Jesus but on the morality of the Christian faith. Christian morals must shift with the changing times because our historic sexual ethic is a barrier to our outreach today.
In response, faithful Christians have adopted a posture of resistance toward the schismatics who would sever us from the global church and from all of the saints who have gone before us. Resistance or not, it is clear that the key point of conflict for our generation will be our response and rejection of the false dogmas of the Sexual Revolution.
Strangely, many orthodox Christians agree with the schismatics on at least one point. They think Christian views of sexuality and marriage–our morals–are a huge barrier to people in our society today. As a result, they wonder: even if we remain faithful to Christian teaching, should we at least downplay our distinctive moral vision for the world?
I say no.
While it’s true that Christian morality may be a barrier to some people, for others, our moral vision will be a beacon of light. Paradoxically, the very doctrines we expect will make us pariahs in 21st-century North America may also be some of our most attractive teachings.
The Power of Christianity’s Moral Clarity
In The Fractured Republic, Yuval Levin encourages Christians not to merely say “no” to the Sexual Revolution but to cultivate communities that showcase the beauty of their moral vision:
Social conservatives must . . . make a positive case, not just a negative one. Rather than decrying the collapse of moral order, we must draw people’s eyes and hearts to the alternative: to the vast and beautiful ‘yes’ for the sake of which an occasional narrow but insistent ‘no’ is required. (164)
How do we do this? It will take more than making a case for the truthfulness of Christian teaching. It will take the Church showing the beauty and goodness of Christian truth. He writes:
We can do this with arguments up to a point, but ultimately, the case for an alternative that might alleviate the loneliness and brokenness evident in our culture requires attractive examples of that alternative in practice, in the form of living communities that provide people with better opportunities to thrive. Especially when we are in no position to enforce or enact our ideals as national norms, social conservatives need to emphasize and prioritize such modeling of alternatives–illustrating the possibility of a more appealing form of modern life by living it. (164)
I wrote about the attractiveness of alternative communities when I recommended Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera’s The Awakening of Miss Prim, an international bestseller that captivates the reader with its vision of a community infused with Christian moral sensibilities. The village in Fenollera’s book is precisely what Levin claims must be true of churches:
“A shelter and a model, a refuge and an act of edifying rebellion.” (176)
An Attractive Moral Minority
Christians may no longer be a “moral majority” in North America, but we can still be moral even if not a majority, and the moral aspect of our alternative community has a power of its own. Levin writes:
It is cultural traditionalists who are now in the role of outcasts, rebels, and dissenters. That is a role to which most conservatives are unaccustomed, yet also in which our traditions have frequently thrived in the past. . . . They would be wise to make themselves an attractive minority in a nation of minorities. (169)
I recently had a conversation with an unchurched man who shared with me some of his concerns about the world in which he and his wife must raise their pre-teen daughter. He wants his daughter to learn virtue, self-restraint, moral boundaries, etc, but he notices a moral decline in the culture and worries about the future. This man does not have a well-formed Christian understanding of morality, which would reserve sex for marriage, or oppose same-sex relations, etc. But he feels disoriented as he tries to navigate the moral morass of the 21st century. Far from seeing Christianity as untenable, this man would likely find our moral foundation to be one of our most attractive features.
Levin is right. Alternative moral communities can have strong appeal:
Practitioners of orthodoxy thus launch models of alternatives that, if they are successful, can appeal to outsiders seeking the path to flourishing that they might provide. They stand as living answers to the unrequited longings, and at times the destructive disorder, that emerge in the quarters of our society most deeply shaped by expressive individualism and its corollaries. (174)
Unrequited longings. Destructive disorder. As the Sexual Revolution wreaks havoc in the lives of people around us, we have the opportunity to proclaim the Scripture’s moral clarity–not as a barrier to the faith, but as the beacon of light in a morally chaotic world.