I just read an interesting post by Philip Clayton talking about ‘Big Tent’ Christianity. His question is whether there’s still room enough in the American tent for the two sides of Christian faith we find in the States…the liberal and the conservative…to sit with one another. I must admit, I am not personally as concerned with this issue of unity as Clayton and many others, however much I’m open to letting them argue me into its importance. But, I am very concerned with the arguments used (sometimes openly; sometimes secretly) to deny the prospects of a “big tent,” namely, arguments that often center around the absolutization of certain politico-ethical stances. Those who argue against a big tent in this manner tend to confuse God with their own attempt to live a Christian life in front of God. In other words, they make an idol of their own life and its works by demanding they’ve figured the whole thing out. I, and hopefully others, beg to differ.
In this regard, I’d like to begin with a reflection on a not terribly popular theologian these days: Luther. In his On Christian Freedom, Luther makes what I think are two excellent point on the nature of a Christian ethic. On the one hand, he demeans those preachers who simply preach on the moral niceties of Jesus that we ought to follow. According to Luther, no external works free us from the bondages of sin; no external works can put us back into a right relationship with God. God’s work alone saves us, meaning any attempts to save ourselves through our work is already a sign of our sinfulness.
On the other hand, Luther is adamant that the elect (and, yes, he unfortunately has a notion of double-predestination) ought to enact the salvation they’ve already received by imitating God in Christ. He rightly interprets this point as being one of service to our neighbor, saying that, ‘just as our neighbor is in want, and has need of our abundance, so we too in the sight of God were in want, and had need of His mercy. And as our heavenly Father has helped us in Christ, so ought we to freely help our neighbor by our body and works, and each should become to the other a sort of Christ, so that we may be mutually Christs, and that the same Christ may be in all of us….’
In general, I don’t think Luther needs to be taken at face value (even if I would hope he could be approached with intellectual and spiritual sympathy). But I do think that he illustrates an important point that I’m willing to uphold and apply to the numerous positions we find…liberal and conservative…in American Christianity.
First, I need to make a point that is a bit difficult for me personally to make since I fall pretty squarely (though not entirely) on one of these sides. Both liberal and conservative Christians can refer to something like Biblical precedent for their main concerns. To characterize these concerns entirely and unfairly, the conservatives have concern for something like personal and moral purity (especially in sexual terms), and the liberals tend (the side onto which I tend to fall) to concern themselves with systemic issues and social justice. That said, I don’t want to start an argument about which is the more important part; I simply want to acknowledge the Biblical precedent of both.
On top of this point, I could also say (as the new atheists are prone to parody) that there’s some precedent for genocide and other violent acts in scripture, meaning that, despite Christian desires to derive an ethic wholly and explicitly from the Bible, it may not be possible to do so. At least it is impossible to deny our use and dependence on extra-Biblical sources through which we comb-through the scriptures, accepting some portions and rejecting others. In this regard, conservatives, it might be said, are concerned with the Platonic tradition (especially his Phaedo) as applied to portions of Paul, namely, as living a life of personal moral purity; liberals, on the other hand, have taken certain sociological critiques and applied them to the Gospels, especially the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew.
Thirdly, what this above point means is that, Biblically speaking, we cannot take a lot of particulars on how to live and act. Really, the two most concrete commands are those preached by Jesus in the beginning of his sermon, namely, to love the Lord God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. As with Luther, I will take these commands to mean most generally that love of God impels one to serve one’s neighbor, and in serving one’s neighbor one acts out one’s love for God that has been given by God.
Fourthly, then, this point might mean that the absolute command given to Christians by God is quite simply to serve. But, at such a general level, any number of Biblical and extra-Biblical precedents can be, are, and must be, read into this command. I’ve outlined two characterizations above.
Finally, if we take Luther’s view with any seriousness, neither of the above ethical precedents can be engaged in in such a way that one is able to earn one’s salvation. Salvation is God’s job, which I take God to be enacting in Christ through the Holy Spirit, daily. God is bringing this cosmos, which is in a state of violence, entropy, and decay, to that vision pronounced in Isaiah 9; God is bringing the world and we in it through death into resurrection. Our works, then, are a response to, and a sign of the salvation that we (and I will go so far as to say all persons) have received, not that we earn.
What does this point mean? It means that we cannot turn the Biblical narrative and the God to whom it is connected into a propaganda; we cannot absolutize either of the above two ethical interpretations, even if we must do our best to interpret, follow, and argue for that command that seems Biblically unequivocal: to serve. Our particular interpretations of this command, then, do not bring us salvation; they are responses to the salvation we have already received. But this also means that, while there may be plenty of debate over which interpretation is the better, (which one is the better signifier and contributor to the salvation of the cosmos), neither our, nor our opponents’, nor this world’s salvation is up for grabs in this debate.
That said, to argue against the possibility of big-tent Christianity often implies one arguing for the absoluteness of one’s own position to such a degree that one must believe that one’s own position becomes the position to which all are called and upon which salvation rests. Drop that belief and the doors of the big tent are wide open.