Posts tagged with: H. Richard Niebuhr

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, October 31, 2013

Babel-2000In a recent review of Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart, Paul Louis Metzger wonders, “What leads people to associate with those who are similar, while distancing themselves from diverse others? What causes us to categorize other groups in distorted ways?”

I remember reading H. Richard Niebuhr’s The Social Sources of Denominationalism early in my seminary career, and Niebuhr’s analysis made a very strong impression on my admittedly impressionable sensibilities. It was clear to me then, and still is now, that much of what constitutes disunity in the Christian church is imported from the broader culture and has nothing to do with a people in which there is “neither Greek nor Jew.” These concerns for principled ecumenical unity are in large part what animated my later book Ecumenical Babel.

And yet in denouncing the tribalism that is an endemic temptation for all forms of fallen human community, we must be careful not to embrace a simplistic, milquetoast version of Christianity that papers over our real differences, and our uniqueness as individual persons created in the image of God, each one of us with our own perspectives, callings, hopes, fears, and trials.

We need to embrace an understanding of diversity without falling into disunity, a diversity within unity that mirrors in our own creaturely way the call to unity expressed in Jesus’ high priestly prayer.
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Jon Erwin, director of the pro-life October Baby movie, was recently interviewed by National Public Radio and, in the background article that accompanied the audio, the network reported his view that Christians didn’t feel very welcome in Hollywood’s movie community. This provoked a lot of comment by NPR listeners about what, really, a Christian is. The title of the NPR article, “‘October Baby’ Tells A Story Hollywood Wouldn’t” probably had something to do with that.

Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos followed up the interview with an article titled, “Christian Is Not Synonymous With Conservative,” which was widely discussed by religious bloggers and news sites. As Schumacher-Matos wrote:

What we have, then, is a question that goes beyond NPR to what should be a national debate over how to use the word “Christian.” A truly useful debate would extend even further, to what it means to be Christian, given that nearly 80 percent of Americans claim to be one.

Yesterday evening, Schumacher-Matos published a roundup of responses to his question in a post titled, “Christians: Who Are The 78 Percent?” Overall, a pretty even-handed job of deepening the discussion, which he hopes to continue. Schumacher-Matos invited Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute, to participate. Because of space limitations, Rev. Sirico’s response was slightly edited, so I’m published it here in full:

Christianity is and always has been a religion that “receives” its faith rather than one that “invents” it. Hence, a basic definition of “Who are the Christians?” begins with an adherence, doctrinally, to the ancient Creeds of the Church, beginning with the Apostles Creed (believed to have been of apostolic origin, the Apostles having in turn received their mandate from Christ Himself) and continuing on to the faith articulated at the Councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, Chalcedon, Orange, Hippo and Quicunque Vult (aka, The Athanasian Creed), all of which were formative for the belief of Christians. The traditions that would agree with this ecumenical Trinitarian confession (most Catholics, Evangelicals, Eastern Orthodox, et al.) have historically recognized that whatever other doctrinal differences may separate them, this is the meaning they share when they use the term “Christian.”

However, many Americans—and almost all journalists—are less interested in theological distinctions than they are in determining how the moniker can be shared by groups who differ on matters of political dogma. Asking “Who are the Christians?” is less an existential query than a question about partisan branding: What political group gets to claim the word for themselves—and exclude others from its rightful use? The irony is that many mainstream groups wish to recover the franchise at a time when several historically Christian organizations (such as the YMCA) are attempting to distance themselves from the Christian brand. Mr. Edwards claims that “politically and socially conservative Christians have in fact co-opted the title.” But perhaps they never really abandoned it while the politically and socially liberal Christians discarded it, embracing instead, the sort of Christianity that Niebuhr so memorably described as, “A God without wrath [who] brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross” (H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (New York: Harper and Row, 1959), 193.).