We all would like a more modern Christianity, would we not? So many problems arise because Christianity appears simply outdated. The Bible is so patriarchal, so anti-scientific, so violent – so pre-Enlightenment. Even Jesus, the gentle Lamb, was very harsh at times. Why did he claim that salvation could come only through him? Why was the old Law (supposedly instituted by an all-loving God) so stringent? Why did Paul never condemn slavery?
Thus, we ask: Why is Christianity not more modern? How is the Christian to explain the disparities between his creed and modern sensibilities? More than questions, these are accusations and arguments; the implication is that the difference indicates an irreparable flaw in Christianity, a failure to meet (modern) specifications.
Arguments of this variety, in my experience, abound. The hot-button religious controversies of our time (such as evolution, the role of women, and gay marriage) all concern divisions, not merely among modern men, but between “progress” and “tradition” – between a (perceived) biblical norm and a modern one.
The Christian faith is thus evaluated according to a criterion of modernity. For many people I know, Christianity must either submit itself to modernity or be ignored entirely; the Church must be of the world to be in the world. The rich young ruler asked Jesus what must be done to inherit eternal life; modern man asks Jesus how it could possibly be fair for him not to inherit eternal life. David praised God for being made in His image; modern man demands that God recreate Himself in man’s image. God, once our Judge, is now on trial (to borrow C.S. Lewis’ analogy).
I do not mean to suggest that we should not question or probe Christianity, or that the modern Christian should blithely ignore the world around him and slavishly adhere to static doctrine. I only mean to suggest that we cannot dispose of Christianity simply by demonstrating that it is not modern; rather, we must demonstrate that it is not right. Put differently, if we are to argue against Christianity from modernity (from, say, distinctively modern ethical intuitions), we must have first presented an argument for modernity. That may seem obvious, but the distinction between our modern impressions and the truth is seldom made.
Why did Paul not explicitly condemn slavery? Was Paul fair to women? These are fair questions (ones I have often asked myself) that require honest answers. But we cannot reject Paul solely because modern Westerners largely condemn slavery; we must also argue that Paul himself should have condemned slavery.
To advance such an argument, of course, is to advocate for an objective morality that can be prescribed universally across cultural and religious lines. More to the point, to advance such an argument against the Christian religion is, in effect, to assert modernity itself as one’s religion. Of course, this would be nothing new; men throughout the ages have claimed to have obtained true moral knowledge. Yet every generation that has claimed such final revelation has been followed by a generation that laughed at its predecessors’ blindness. Why, then, do we continually attempt to mold Christ to twenty-first century man, as though twentieth century man had not attempted the same thing (and as though we expected twenty-second century man to follow us in lockstep)?
The irony here is (to me) inescapable; the very same modern zeitgeist that has nursed cultural relativism to maturity now sets itself up as absolute moral arbiter of the Christian tradition. The selfsame modernity that has taught us the importance of context demands that Christianity satisfy the whims of the modern Western world regardless of the ancient near Eastern perspectives from which it emerged.
No; a modernity that prides itself on its sensitivity to historical background must remember that the Bible was written by ancient men for ancient men, expressing ancient ideas in ancient languages. A modernity that prides itself on its universalizing tendencies must remember that the gospel message is intended not just for the twenty-first century professor, but for the twelfth-century peasant. A modernity that prides itself on its respect and toleration must be as respectful, tolerant, and open to the biblical ethos as it would be to a new Eastern philosophy.
A modernity that has questioned everything must begin to question itself.