Why Be A Christian When You Can Just Be Nice?

by Matthew Sitman


That seems to be the gist of Rod Dreher’s latest response to me in our ongoing exchange about Christianity’s place in the modern world. If you go on and on above love, as I tend to do, what makes such goodwill and charity different from mere “secular idealism”? Rod even breaks out an oft-quoted line from H. Richard Niebuhr, implying that how I discuss Christianity comes perilously close to the following: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” What he means is that there’s nothing particularly Christian about just being nice to each other or having a “social conscience,” so if that’s all you’re claiming for your faith, then there’s really no need to hang onto all the metaphysical claptrap and depressing talk of sin. Christianity becomes indistinguishable from vague notions of making the world a better place, which is to say it ceases to really be Christianity. If that’s what Rod thinks I’m arguing for, or even where my arguments lead, then I definitely need to clarify what I mean.

The more I’ve considered Rod’s arguments, the more I think he’s trying to pin down what makes Christianity distinctive. Consider this passage from his recent post:

If the younger generations look to the churches — liberal and conservative both — and see nothing much different from what they see elsewhere, they will rightly wonder, “Why bother?” Wouldn’t you? If being a Christian means nothing more than being a respectable conformist — conforming to a suburban conservative culture, to a liberal urban culture, or anything else — then why be a Christian at all? To comfort ourselves psychologically? Is that all there is?

I appreciate that Rod, unlike many conservative Christians, is an equal-opportunity critic of our culture. He’s against same-sex marriage, but he’ll also call out the excesses of capitalism and our idolatry of wealth. On many occasions I nod along when reading him, actually. Yet I still find myself approaching Christianity – thinking about its distinctiveness – differently than Rod.

I’ve written this before, but it’s worth reiterating: Christianity is not fundamentally about morality. It is not, finally, just a system of ethics. If Jesus were merely another guru telling us how to live better and more moral lives, with perhaps this or that original flourish, I’m not sure how compelling I’d find his message. Instead, I understand Christianity as a faith for those who can’t help but sin, one that assumes our inability to be moral. And this isn’t because we all fail to uphold certain ideals on occasion, but because we are sinners, meaning that even our supposed good works are tinged with self-interest or self-regard. Nothing pure issues forth from human hands, nothing escapes from the fallibility and brokenness in which we are inevitably implicated. Jesus didn’t just talk about our deeds, but our motives. He told us to pray in closets and not let our left hand know what our right hand is doing, such is our capacity for arrogance and self-congratulations. He didn’t just talk about adultery, but lust, and asked those of us who have never murdered someone if we’ve ever been filled with anger. I wish more churches would preach about sin this way – not as some kind of list of what not to do, but rather as the impossibility of being truly good.

What I find distinctive about Christianity is that, in the face of all this, it offers the promise of forgiveness. It holds out mercy and grace as a response, in Francis Spufford’s blunt phrase, to “the human propensity to fuck things up.” And this forgiveness comes not as a reward for getting our acts together, but despite the fact we never quite do. Christianity says you are loved unconditionally, loved before you deserve it – which you never really will, anyway. To be a Christian means most of all to perceive, however falteringly, that God forgives and loves you in the midst of your brokenness, and to then live in light of that love. As St. John put it, “We love, because He first loved us.” The order really does matter.

When Rod asks what a person might see in churches that makes them different from the surrounding culture, I hope it is what I’ve just described: people profoundly humbled by their sins who, because of the love shown to them, offer compassion and mercy to all who suffer and struggle. This does not mean churches simply should say, “I’m okay, you’re okay.” It means churches should be places where you can be honest that you are not okay, places we stumble into when we are at our worst – and yet still find we are embraced. If that’s not all there is to the Christian life, it certainly is where it starts.

This still leaves open questions about how Christians should view certain dilemmas posed by modern life, how historic Christian teachings should be brought to bear on new situations. So Rod still might find the above too vague – but, in a way, that gets to the heart of our disagreement. My claim from the start has been that Christianity assumes our moral efforts never are sufficient, meaning I can’t bring myself to say what makes Christianity different simply by pointing to the morals it might teach. Which makes me want to ask Rod why he thinks certain moral positions are what should set Christianity apart from the mainstream culture, what outsiders should see as making Christians different. If you are against same-sex marriage and critical of large swaths of modern life – well, so are many Muslims. Presumably Rod would find a fair amount of agreement between himself and many Orthodox Jews on a number of these issues. I’d even wager that some cranky, bow-tie wearing agnostic feels just as alienated from modern capitalism as Rod does. If you don’t need to be a Christian, or even religious, to make the same moral critiques of our culture as Rod, then I can’t help but wonder if I’m not the only one needing to explain why he bothers with Christianity.

(Image: Christ cleansing a leper by Jean-Marie Melchior Doze, 1864, via Wikimedia Commons)