WASHINGTON — Call it Christianity Lite. It’s the assertion — no, the insistence — that you can be a Christian in good standing though you reject all or significant parts of the brand of Christianity to which you formally adhere. Even Jesus Christ — and who he was — is negotiable, not to mention traditional teachings on sex, abortion and divorce. Who’s to tell you what to think and do as a Christian — or to judge you wanting? It’s a heresy nowadays to accuse someone of heresy.
Consider these phenomena:
• John F. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, is campaigning as a Catholic candidate. His website declares that he “was raised in the Catholic faith and continues to be an active member of the Catholic Church.” Kerry is also campaigning as the candidate of NARAL Pro-Choice America, the abortion-industry advocacy group, whose endorsement he won with an absolutist stance on abortion rights, which is anathema to the Catholic Church. Several U.S. Catholic bishops recently have stated that Catholics in public life who support abortion rights are not in good standing with the church and should not receive the Eucharist, the church’s most sacred sacrament, at Mass. Kerry’s response — besides scrambling to find individual Catholic churches liberal enough to allow him into their communion lines — has been to declare that the church has no business “instructing politicians” on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.
• Dan Brown’s novel “The Da Vinci Code” claims that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, fathered a child by her and installed her as the head of his new religion centered on goddess worship (“the sacred feminine,” in Brown’s words). None of this is in the Gospels, but that’s because, says Brown, the all-male hierarchy of bishops conspired during the 4th century to squelch rival gospels and other Christian texts that granted power to women. The bishops also forced their flocks to adhere to the Nicene Creed, which declares there is but a single, male deity whose son, also divine, was Jesus (in Brown’s view, the real Jesus was just a wise human teacher of feminist leanings). In short, Brown contends, what we know as traditional Christianity is simply the result of a long-ago political struggle.
• Religion historian Elaine Pagels’ latest book, “Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas,” another bestseller, also contends that creeds — professions of faith that go hand in hand with Christian orthodoxy in many churches — were a belated and oppressive development, crushing a vibrant, competing spirituality embodied in the Gnostics, a group of early Christian seekers deemed heretical. Pagels urges a do-it-yourself reorganization of the New Testament that would jettison the faith-promoting canonical Gospel of John (“He who believes in Me …”) in favor of the Gospel of Thomas, a loosey-goosey Gnostic collection of sayings attributed to Jesus that stress finding the kingdom of God inside yourself. “I cannot love … the tendency to identify Christianity with a single set of authorized beliefs,” Pagels writes.
That’s having your Christian cake and eating it too. The phenomenon — a pervasive anti-authoritarianism, a readiness to accommodate religious teaching to prevailing secular mores and an insistence that individuals have a right to carve out their own relationship with the Christian tradition — exists not only among mainline denominations but even, if to a lesser extent, among evangelicals, whose high divorce rate contradicts Jesus’ teachings in the Scriptures about the lifelong nature of marriage. “There tend to be much more liberal attitudes toward divorce [in the evangelical churches] than when I was a kid growing up,” says John Wilson, editor of Books & Culture, the literary arm of the evangelical magazine Christianity Today. “Evangelicals’ expectations about marriage have been contaminated by the expectations of the larger culture,” Wilson says. “You give it up and look for someone else who’s going to be the perfect person whom God wanted you to marry.”
Christianity Lite has not quite reached the stage of the mass-market Zohar studies at the Kabbalah Centre, frequented by Madonna and other celebrities, whose website avoids all mention of the words “Jewish” and “Judaism” and declares, “Kabbalah is about ‘light’ … not religion!” But the distrust of tradition among many Christians disturbs some observers.
“Like Judaism, Christianity is a religion of response, and it makes a difference who you’re responding to,” says Luke Timothy Johnson, a New Testament professor at Emory University and author of “The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters.” Johnson contends that formal statements of Christian faith, especially faith in Jesus’ divinity, began as early as Paul of Tarsus’ letters two decades after Jesus’ death. “You had Jews calling Jesus Lord, the same way that they addressed God,” Johnson says, “so it became a matter of defining what this meant so that you could live it. But nowadays it’s amazing how many people believe that the creeds were foisted on Christianity. There’s this belief that structure and spontaneity are opposites, and that traditional Christianity is incompatible with mysticism and with communal and egalitarian experience. That’s never been true. It’s a sociological fantasy of the 1960s.”
The cultural and attitudinal shifts of the 1960s are one important source for many Christians’ individualistic attitudes. Furthermore, the post-World War II economic roll, still continuing, opened up social and geographic mobility to many Americans for the first time, but it also unmoored them from traditional sources of religious authority in family, church and community.
“There was a dramatic increase in college education,” says W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia. “Suddenly, many more Americans had the same basic educational training as their pastors and priests, and they felt entitled to make the same decisions about belief …. The second thing that happened is that their professors and the members of the cultural elite became anti-authoritarian themselves.”
The sea change hit Catholics, of all Christians, especially hard, Wilcox notes. Somewhat culturally and geographically isolated in urban ethnic parishes until the 1950s and distrusted by their Protestant neighbors, Catholics were moving more into the mainstream, and the election of John F. Kennedy as president in 1960, coupled with rising postwar suburban prosperity, accelerated the migration. Catholicism was becoming even more comfortable with American culture just when it was beginning to change in ways that were incompatible with traditional Catholic moral teaching on divorce, extramarital sex and abortion.
“There’s always an antithesis between Christ and culture,” says Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic priest and editor of First Things magazine, “but when JFK was president, 99% of Catholics assumed there was a neat, nonproblematic fit.” The old close-knit parishes were disappearing, the children were increasingly in public schools, the ecclesiastical and liturgical changes of the Second Vatican Council were leading many Catholics to question the authority of priests and bishops — and most Catholics, politicians included, simply followed where the secular culture led.
When in January 2003 the bishop of Sacramento ordered former Gov. Gray Davis, a Catholic whose administration boasted of making California “the most pro-choice state in America,” to change his views or stop receiving communion, a Davis spokesman accused the bishop of “telling the faithful how to practice their faith.”
So, the consumer mentality rules in the world of Christianity Lite: The notion that no one has the right to tell anyone how to practice his or her faith, or indeed what that faith should consist of. Individual choice, not the tradition handed down by parents or grandparents, increasingly governs belief, practice and denominational affiliation.
There is an upside to that, however, as Wilcox points out. “Many are moving out of their traditions, but when they land in a particular tradition, they take it much more seriously. They’re better-educated, and they’re more self-conscious about passing it on. Our society is becoming overall more secular, but there is in increase in the minority of Americans who take their faith seriously.”
That is the paradox of Christianity Lite. It can breed its own dissatisfactions, including a hunger to lose oneself religiously in something outside of and larger than oneself. That is why, by all reports, the Christian churches and communities that insist on going against the “spirituality” zeitgeist and making genuine demands on their members are thriving.
Charlotte Allen, the author of “The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus,” co-edits the inkWell weblog for the Independent Women’s Forum.