The Dilemma of Modern Christianity
By Tony Mitchell
For as long as I can recall, I have considered myself a liberal. It may be that I came to this decision because my father and mother were very much conservative in thought and I was seeking the ultimate act of childhood rebellion.
But there were other factors involved as well. As I have noted many times before, I am a second-generation military brat and I moved around this country more times than I care to recall during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Those were times of change in this country and I could see the change, even if I was not old enough to realize what I was actually observing. But as I looked around at what was happening, I began to see conservatism as a desperate clinging to the past and the ways of old, of holding on to the status quo, and a violent resistance to new and what some would describe as radical ideas.
In 1963 we lived in Montgomery, Alabama. That spring, Colin Chapman and Jim Clark brought their Lotus-Ford car to the Indianapolis 500. Up until that year, the cars that raced in this event were front-engine monsters with Offenhauser engines; they were big and bulky race cars with, of course, no resemblance to the automobiles that we drive today (or even then). What I remember about the “Indy 500” that year was how every so-called expert predicted that the, relatively speaking, tiny Lotus race car (designed by Chapman and driven by Clark) would be humiliated by the traditional racers of Indianapolis. But, what few people realized was that Jim Clark was a fantastic driver (I think I had seen him on some of ABC television “Wide World of Sports” events) and that his driving skills were on par, or even greater than, most of the drivers that raced in this race.
Were it not for some problems in the pits that year and a misunderstanding of the rules of the race, Clark would have won the race (he finished 2nd in a very close race; he ultimately would win the race in 1965). But I was fascinated by the change in design and how the tradition-bound US auto racing establishment wrote off the cars before even seeing what they could do. As two websites [1) point out, racing in America was technologically stagnant and woefully behind the times. And while American racing began to change following the 1965 Lotus victory and the cars that race at Indianapolis are linear descendants of those first Lotus-Fords, I don’t think that we can say the same thing about the American automotive industry.
Earlier that same year, George Wallace was inaugurated as governor and defiantly announced that segregation would be a part of Alabama life. Even though I am white, the rules of segregation affected me (perhaps not as much as it did black students!) and I began to question the (formal and informal) rules of society. We moved from Alabama to Colorado that summer, yet when I moved back to the south in 1966, the rules had not much changed. I have written before about the nature of segregation and its effect on all the children of the south, so I will not spend much time on that point here.
As the Civil Rights drama unfolded around me in Memphis and the shadow of the Vietnam War passed over my life, I continued to see conservatives speak with the same rhetoric (compelling adherence to the status quo) while liberals sought change and equality. While the town where I went to college was conservative, the campus ministers were very much in the forefront of bringing change to the area. It was our campus ministers who gave me hope for positive change in life and these hopes invited further questions about what liberals and conservatives were and should be.
While I am beginning to question what many liberals are doing in today’s world, I still see conservatives longing for the old days, no matter if they were good or bad. I have heard more than one person claim that if you presented someone with a copy of the Declaration of Independence without references to 1776 or King George and asked them to sign it, they probably wouldn’t do so. What would happen if we presented Acts 4: 32 – 35 to people without any Biblical reference to the people and ask them what they thought it meant?
“The whole congregation of believers was united as one—one heart, one mind! They didn't even claim ownership of their own possessions. No one said, "That's mine; you can't have it." They shared everything. The apostles gave powerful witness to the resurrection of the Master Jesus, and grace was on all of them. And so it turned out that not a person among them was needy. Those who owned fields or houses sold them and brought the price of the sale to the apostles and made an offering of it. The apostles then distributed it according to each person's need.”
Without a doubt, I think it would strike the reader, especially if they are a conservative, as “socialism” and not a very good idea.
I think one of the problems with the modern church, and Christianity in this country, is that we have forgotten what the early church did and endured. We confuse the corporate church of today with the real church and the message that it once presented, a message that threatened the very structure of society, not because it was dangerous but because it was radical and went against the status quo.
For many people, the image of the church is one of “old” people who still sing the same hymns from fifty years ago and are aghast at the idea of “modern” music or prayers in a worship service. The church itself is characterized as a monolithic (if not utterly homogenous) group that punishes innocent reformers (such as Galileo). We see this over-commitment to the formal pronouncements of faith in resource-consuming legal battles to force teaching of “intelligent design” as a viable theory of science.
For me, the battles that conservatives fight (be they political or religious) are battles of control, of saying that “I know what’s best for you when it comes to thinking and I am going to tell you what to say and think.” Conservatives make it sound as if the world will come to an end if liberal thoughts are allowed to pervade this world or if innovative ideas are allowed to develop. This is clearly not a sustainable worldview in an age that values the insights of new science and the comforts of modern technology.
That being said, I find it very disturbing that many of those who dismiss Christianity (and other religions) as mere superstition also proclaim that those who believe in God are fools. While I can accept their choice to not believe in God, I must ask what it is that they do believe in. For you simply cannot have a life in which everything is empirical and there is no belief. There may be those who have removed emotion from their lives and try to live and make decisions according to pure logic (as though they might transcend the problem of fitting theory to imperfect/unfolding experience...) but it is a life devoid of laughter and crying, of joy and wonder.
I find it troubling that Christianity has come to be associated with political conservativism. No doubt, it is possible one can be both, but when there are people in need and your words speak against helping, for any reason—when you put the blame for a person’s poverty on the person instead of the system—it is hard for me to see you as a Christian.
When Jesus started his mission, he announced that he had come to bring health to the sick and relief to the oppressed. Jesus was a radical from the very beginning of his ministry and I don’t see how you can be a conservative and accept that idea. To bring health to a nation where there was no healthcare, to offer homes to the homeless, and to bring relief are very much liberal ideas in a world where it is everyone for themselves and what I have is mine and no one else’s.
I will be honest and say that when I hear someone tell me that the Gospel message is to make disciples of all mankind I cringe. I do so because they often say it in terms of finality. As is the case in so many instances of longstanding abuse of power and authority, Christians have come to accept one translation of Jesus’s message as the “true” translation. But one translation of the words that Jesus spoke (and I am borrowing from Clarence Jordan, another Southern Rebel in the liberal sense) is that we are not to insist on a particular, narrow interpretation of scripture but to show the world what it is that Jesus did and can do.
The Gospel passage John 20: 19 – 31 speaks of those who believe in Christ, not because they had seen the Risen Christ but because of what others had done and said. John repeats essentially the same message; it is what others see and hear from Jesus’s followers that will lead them to Christ. Unfortunately, when you have a group whose words and actions run counter to the message of the Gospel, it is very difficult to bring them to Christ.
When I was in college I was involved in the Civil Rights movement on campus and the anti-war demonstrations (much to the chagrin and consternation of my parents). I did so because I believed that the causes were right and just. It was through my reading of the Scriptures and my own life that lead me to that view. Somewhere along the line, I came to think that it was those good civil works that were going to save me from sin and death. It was pointed out to me by a liberal United Methodist pastor that I could not get into heaven by proclaiming to be a Christian yet not believing in Christ. It is by the grace of God and our belief in Christ that we are saved, not by the good that we do. But in proclaiming that Christ is our savior, we must work to bring about what he first proclaimed. Good works are not the admission ticket but the natural and expected thing of one who professes Christ as their personal savior.
When the Baptizer began to prepare the way, he called for repentance; when Jesus began his ministry in the Galilee, he called for repentance. Repentance is not just saying one is sorry for what one has done in the past; repentance is the act of changing one’s life and beginning anew.
The people will see you proclaiming to be a Christian but if your life is still focused on the “rat race” and your concern is for yourself and not others, if you hold onto the status quo and deny others the same opportunities that you have, then it will be very difficult for them to see in you what is seen in Christ.
Everyone, be they liberal or conservative today, seems stuck in their own old mindset and, and just as the Indy cars of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s were quickly outclassed and outperformed by the new cars of the 1960’s, our retrograde left/right political commitments are likely to go the way of dinosaurs. Unless better alternatives are offered, this society, this civilization will not continue the progress forward that it has made up until this point in time.
In my opinion, good alternatives will only come through Christ and a new life. I may be a voice in the wilderness but I hope this is a call for others to speak out against injustice and inequality, against the lack of healthcare and educational opportunities in this country, against war. I encourage all of us to do what Jesus told Thomas that day in the upper room so many years ago—to show the people that Christ has risen so that they too will believe. Show the people by working for the same things that Christ worked for and be proud that you are a Christian and a liberal.
 http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A827598 and http://www.ddavid.com/formula1/chap_bio.htm
Dr. Tony Mitchell earned a doctorate in Science Education from the University of Iowa in 1990. Coupled with his interests in chemical and science education, he is also interested in bio-inorganic compounds. He served as a lay speaker and lay minister in the United Methodist Church for some twenty years.
Along with his chemistry journey that began some 51 years ago is his journey with Christ which began one year earlier. And in the context of those two journeys, he has found an interest that was first expressed by Newton, Boyle, and Priestley. He continues to look at the how science and faith intersect and interact. His thoughts on both areas can be found on his blog, “Thoughts From The Heart On The Left.”