It is to our grave detriment and severe disadvantage that the question of form should be so insouciantly dismissed, so sanguinely ignored in such sublimely suburban Christianity as ours has–to any who has cared to observe–become. For surely such questions of form are as important, say, in regard to sin, as questions of content. And, in this moment, what could this possibly mean but that the present’s church’s present prejudices prevent it from recognition of its own reality? For those who would identify themselves as conservative are, we might be surprised to find, a good deal more liberal than they might suspect. If such talk is abstract and unclear, let us consider but a single example, sin, and let us, in this brief analysis, consider the question of form in the very substance of what calls itself conservative Christianity, hopefully shedding, by the grace of God, what light we can upon such a salient an issue as this. To this end, let us quote him who, in the estimation of many, is the greatest theologian of the twentieth century, Paul Tillich:
[The demonic] is one of the forgotten concepts of the New Testament, which, in spite of its tremendous importance for Jesus and the apostles, has become obsolete in modern theology … The idea of the demonic is the mythical expression of a reality that was in the center of Luther’s experience as it was in Paul’s, namely, the structural, and therefore inescapable, power of evil. The Enlightenment [or, liberalism] foreshadowed by Erasmus’ fight with Luther and by theological humanism, saw only the individual acts of evil, dependent on the free decisions of the conscious personality.
In Tillich’s implied critique of liberal notions of the demonic, or sin, which is to say, sin which is determinate only at the level of individual will and agency, do we not find the all-too-salient critique of our own idolatrous, modern notions of sin such as we find in our own idolatrous, modern forms of Christianity? And one does not, in such a critique, limit its judgment to liberalism, or to be more precise, what either we identify as liberal Christianity or what calls itself liberal Christianity. Rather, such a condemnation applies wholesale, if not in greater proportion, to that which passes as and identifies itself as conservative Christianity, the most palpable expression of which is Evangelicalism. For what counts as demonic, or evil, or sinful in Evangelical Protestantism? It is the personal, the individual. Thus he who is accepted into the fold of God’s grace is enjoined not to swear, not to drink, not to smoke, not to fornicate, not to masturbate, not to lie to one’s parents, etc., etc. Nowhere in this is there articulated any structural, or even communal, notion of what sin consists in. And indeed, such personalistic and individualistic notions of sin are so taken for granted, so part of the grain and texture of modern Christianity, that even its profoundest expostulators very explicitly express it. Even the admittedly brilliant C.S. Lewis, for example, whom many Evangelicals speak of with such veneration as to make him seem the best thing since sliced bread, is not immune to this individualism, having said that if he could believe in the reality of a personal god, then he could believe in the reality of a personal devil. And even Pope Francis has said, “the devil is not a myth, but a real person.”
Yet as Tillich is correct in pointing out, this notion is lopsidedly personal, predicated as it is on classical liberal notions of the individual. It is hardly an isolated symptom either. The whole of soteriology which doubtless forms the backbone of Evangelical Protestantism is likewise predicated on individualistic notions of salvation, which, so construed, becomes a matter of personal faith (which, incidentally, Tillich also rightly challenges) and personal salvation, not wholly unlike own our very capitalist notions of personal freedom such as one finds in the hardly disguised theologies of modernity’s only true and faithful metaphysicians, those economists like Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek and Adam Smith (or at least the fictitious version of him which economists misappropriate): here, salvation, like commodity exchange, is conceived of as a kind of financial transaction. God, the big corporate financier and unwieldy moralist, pays off our ethical debt through divine transaction.
And here we may return to the rather abstruse comments I have made at the beginning regarding the neglected question of form. In form, we might say, conservatism, typified by Evangelical Protestantism, retains all the outward appearance of conservatism–its reactionism, its rather tendentious (and tenuous) moral realism, its ostensible emphasis on tradition, etc., etc., but in content, as we have pointed out, it retains mired, despite itself, in sublimely liberal notions of individuality, personalizing as it does notions of sin, evil, and the demonic. Yet to be fair to conservative Christianity, it should be observed that, just as this critique of liberalism does not only apply to liberalism, so likewise this critique of conservatism does not just apply to conservatism. It’s just that liberal Christianity, though in this regard is admittedly a good deal less liberal-individualistic than conservative Christianity, is rather more honest in admission of its liberalism; we need not cull.
Were conservatism or conservative Christianity really as traditional as it purports to be, then surely it would have a richer conception of sin, one much closer to the conception of it which the scriptures seem to have, and perhaps one not unlike Tillich’s own, which sees in the structural, and not simply individualistic, character of sin the possibility for its ablution. “If evil has demonic or structural character limiting individual freedom,” he writes, “its conquest can come only by the opposite, the divine structure, that is, by what we have called a structure or ‘Gestalt’ of grace.” And we might further ask whether not such a structure of grace is anything other than the Kingdom of God which is the core of Jesus’s teachings. One can even go so far as the other great twentieth century theologian Karl Barth did in questioning whether not capitalism, the mode of social organization which to a large extent determines our material and spiritual livelihood, is itself demonic. Of course, then the question all but answers itself. As Barth writes,
The main task of Christianity in the West is … to assert the command of God in face of [capitalism], and to keep to the ‘left’ in opposition to its champions, i.e., to confess that it is fundamentally on the side of the victims of this disorder and to espouse their cause.
It is all too easy for us, Christians in this dispensation, privileged and largely unconcerned with the material conditions of survival, to inhale deeply of individualistic notions of sin, remaining tragically blind to its structural forms, and in consequence thereof, remaining tragically incapable of demanding to the extent required of us, the sovereignty of God’s dominion in this world. It is easy to forget that the greatest theologians of own time have been, if not socialists, as with Tillich, Gutierrez, Moltmann, Rauschenbusch and Barth, then at least certainly not complacent with or uncritical of capitalism, as with Reinhold Niebuhr. Yet if ours is a problem of amnesia, then its solution, at least in its initial steps, is rather straightforward: should we seek to overcome it, we must search deeply and thoughtfully into those Christian traditions–some of which just named but which also include Christian socialists like Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Leo Tolstoy, Helen Keller, Harry Ward, Tony Benn, and Cornel West–which dare to ask what God can mean for us, not just as individuals, but also what God, in his limitless sovereignty, can mean for us as societies which retain deeply demonic social structures.
1. Paul Tillich, Introduction to The Protestant Era, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1948, p.xx, my italics
2. Pope Francis qtd. in David Mills, First Things, 13 May 2013, Online: http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2013/05/13/remember-the-devil-say-francis-and-lewis/
3. Paul Tillich, Introduction to The Protestant Era, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1948, p.xxi
4. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol. III