Paradoxes are so cool these days, they’re hot. We’re reading more these days just as we’re reading less. The underground rock band Gotye is mainstream. Less clothing apparently gives women more power. I demand to know what else is upside down.
Oh, and there’s one more thing: the Christian faith--made up of countless public followers of Jesus Christ working as one body for thousands of years--has also been made the most private.
In the past ten years, the growing consensus is that “faith is a highly personal matter.” In particular, we are told to keep radical Christian beliefs tucked away. Sexual closets have been flung open, and serious followers of Jesus have been asked to get inside instead. University campuses may accept private faith as authentic, but public faith is flogged in the intellectual town square. Faith is good to have around for some things, like yoga or kindness to strangers, but rather worthless when it comes to intellectual vigor.
Of course, some prefer Christianity both ways: highly personal when it comes to self-indulgence and freedom of doctrine, but communal when it comes to social justice. (Americans do cheer for public faith when it takes poor people off the government’s hands, but we’d rather not hear about the real transformation that motivates such love.)
We hear the criticisms all the time. An anonymous commenter on a popular Christian blog writes that “based on my observations so far, religion doesn’t seem that far apart from slavery. Servitude, blind faith . . . these are all blatant characteristics of slavery.” This, according to him, has disqualified Christianity. He’s right. Who would want such an arrangement? Another blogger accurately states, “Americans have always been individualistic, and many would like to have their own, personal sense of spirituality rather than adhering to that of an institution, no matter what the institution.” Keep faith private--just between you and your freely chosen world view--and the sacrifices begin to disappear.
But the truth remains: faithfulness to Jesus Christ has never been an intensely private matter. Orthodox devotion to anything requires self-denial and sacrifice, which really only exists in context of an “otherness.” If I were the only person on the planet, then perhaps this idea of private faith would work, but I am hopelessly intertwined with the rest of humanity and a Creator. Christian faith is communal, requiring accountability, and its orthodoxy bluntly puts ourselves last--last behind others and last behind God. That simply rubs against the American way.
In light of these observations, here are five reasons Americans prefer that faith were a highly personal and private matter.
1. We won’t get blamed for an entire institution’s mess-ups.
Team sports are great for camaraderie but lousy when you have to live and die by your teammate’s errors. A private faith allows us to detach ourselves from the other people who unfortunately wear your jersey, like Galileo’s inquisitors, or those folks in Salem in 1692, or Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist.
2. It works around the idea of human depravity.
We don’t like being associated with the Fall, which includes everyone, everywhere, in all times, in all human history. Dispense with the Garden, and it’s way easier to pick your own fruit. Liberal Christianity (the idea that Jesus’s main idea was racial reconciliation, social justice, environmentalism, or “Good Samaritan” deeds) seems awfully palatable. Yet it is an awkward fit because the self-sufficient people who really like Jesus’s countercultural teachings--but without all the pesky sin and personal depravity--don’t really need it. They are not desperate, not fallen creatures. How much easier to not count ourselves among sinners.
3. A personal faith adapts to your changing preferences.
When your faith isn’t tethered to some absolute reference points, it’s so much easier to move through life’s seasons. The definition of god and faith can be reinvented against different experiential templates, some requiring extra grace, others requiring extra discipline when it’s invigorating, still others allowing for seasons where pleasure is king. You get to see what opportunities arise first, and then choose the faith that works in the moment.
4. Being a diva sounds like more fun than being in the chorus.
Divas have become my acronym for Detached Intellectuals Valuing Self-reliance. Like the thinkers during the Enlightenment, their individual human awesomeness is their own savior. As a result, when it comes Jesus’s divinity or the requirements of self-denial, the diva will always hit the door. Divas create their own meaning, make their own problems and then try to fix them. Shakespeare’s Macbeth was a diva, but he came to realize that all that existentialism ended up “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Most people, though, still want to try life on their own terms.
5. You don’t have to judge anybody else’s faith.
This is no doubt our favorite reason. The way Americans interpret “don’t judge” has morphed into the much more scary. broad implication of “don’t discern, appraise, evaluate, or believe.” For most Americans, judging someone else’s faith means not respecting his freedom of choice--or worse, oppressing him. It also means orthodoxy is very, very bad. Of course, if I don’t judge you, then you don’t have to judge me. But it also means trusting in a moral neutrality that doesn’t exist. Asking someone to not judge is in fact judging, but even though you’ll end up committing the very sin you hoped to avoid, it’s still such a chic default position. Everyone will think you’re entirely generous with your fellow man.
Do I wish my faith were only private? At times, absolutely. It’s easiest when it’s me and Jesus alone on a hiking trail. But then I find my car again and I have to wind my way back to my community where the trouble starts. Real people make life really difficult, and I have to live in a way that publicly reflects my faith. To do otherwise would make me a fraud, and there are enough of those to go around. So instead I keep working out my private faith so that humility, obedience, and love will be a public testimony worthy of Jesus Christ and his gospel.