“Is” vs. “Should”

Tom Gilson observes the shift that has taken place among those who reject the exclusive claims of the Christian faith:

The world has a big problem with Christian exclusivism—the belief that there is one God uniquely revealed in Jesus Christ, who is the one way, truth, and life for all people at all times. Theologians and apologists have defended exclusivism’s truth since time out of mind, but never so much as in these pluralistic and relativistic times. Recently I’ve come to wonder, though, whether we’re addressing the wrong question; for I am hearing less and less that exclusivism is false, and much more often that it is immoral. The difference is crucial.

I would never dispute the importance of the truth side of the question. I am convinced that Christ is indeed the one way to God. I am equally sure that the truth of this exclusive claim can be defended, and that when someone questions its truth, that’s exactly what we ought to focus on.

It’s just that this is not always the question; in fact in my (limited) experience, it’s no longer frontmost on many people’s minds. It used to be they said, “You believe that Jesus is the one way, but that’s not true.” Now more often they say, “You believe that Jesus is the one way, and there’s something wrong about you—evil, even—for thinking that.”

Or to put it another way: nowadays when people ask themselves, “Should I believe in Christianity?” it’s no longer primarily, “should I believe it on account of evidence or reasons that may support it?” (an epistemic should). Instead it is an ethical “should,” as in, “wouldn’t it be morally irresponsible for me to accept this belief?”

via The Morality of Christian Exclusivism (Part One) » Evangel | A First Things Blog.

Mr. Gilson promises to make a case for the morality of Christian exclusivism, which I hope to follow.

In the meantime, how would you answer those–including virtually all of the “new atheists”–who oppose Christianity on these moral grounds?  Doesn’t–or shouldn’t– “is” trump “should”?   Or is the alleged immorality of Christianity beside the point anyway, given  the theology of the Cross?

A non-believer on Christian art

Aaron Rosen, in the atheist magazine New Humanist, acknowledges that much of Western art reflects Christianity.  The iconography, themes, and vocabulary of images derives not just from religion in general, but, very specifically, from the Christian faith.  Somehow, he says, the figure of Christ is just overwhelmingly powerful.

This is even true in modern art.  Even apparent attempts to subvert religion, such as the notorious “Piss Christ”–a photograph of a crucifix in a jar of urine–end up re-enforcing the power of the Christian message.

What better way to meditate on the torments and degradation of Christ than to see his form submerged in urine? Meanwhile, the beauty of the image, suffused in a hazy, golden light, invites us to consider a salvific message – the “good news” of Christ’s victory over death.

So this unbeliever urges his fellows to open themselves up to this uncanny quality of Christian art:

The supposed enmity between modern art and religion dissolves. The question of how to get the “godfearing” to appreciate modern art may still be a relevant one, but it isn’t necessarily the most interesting. In light of the religious roots and preoccupations of so much modern art, maybe we should start asking what the “god-less” can learn from modern art. Indeed, perhaps the gallery is uniquely poised to foster a productive encounter with religion for even the most avowed atheist. In the inoculating ambiance of the gallery, a modern Christ perched on a plinth, or framed along the wall, can commune with the same skeptic who would quickly scuttle by a church.

After looking at a crucifixion painting by the Jewish Marc Chagall–his response to the Holocaust–Rosen suggests that Christian art is intrinsically mind-blowing, which he tries to turn into an aesthetic quality.

This is not simply to say that all religious expressions are artistic. But what religious symbols can do, more powerfully than any other, is reveal a horizon of meaning towards which art aspires: the ability to make ontological claims about “the way things really are”. To come back to some philosophical language from Gadamer, religious symbols perfect the “intricate interplay of showing and concealing”. And among other things, it seems to be this tantalising capacity that has kept modern artists, even those with no doctrinal connection to Christianity, returning to fundamental religious images like the crucifixion.

For the non-believer, perhaps focusing on this “poetical teaching” can offer a way of engaging with religious art in a manner beyond merely cultural or aesthetic appreciation; one which begins to dance, albeit gingerly, along the perimeters of the theological. What we experience in religious art, ultimately, doesn’t have to lead us into heaven. In Botticini’s “Assumption”, the disciples gather around Mary’s tomb, only to discover an assortment of lilies has taken the place where her body should rest. Uncomprehending, they look around in bewilderment. If looking at religious art can leave us similarly stunned, perhaps for some that’s more than miracle enough.

via Aaron Rosen – Divine Image | New Humanist.

This supports what I have often said, that the way to reach today’s postmodern unbelievers is to emphasize the wild, ineffable, mind-blowing mysteries of Christianity (e.g., the Incarnation, the Atonement, the Sacraments).

HT:  Joe Carter

What a great painting! All of that spectacular spiritual reality going on above, and the people down below, while faced with an earthly manifestation, don’t see it, just looking around in incomprehension. That says it all about worldly unbelief.

The new version of “Spirituality of the Cross”

The new revised, enhanced, and slightly expanded edition of my book The Spirituality of the Cross: The Way of the First Evangelicals has just been released by Concordia Publishing House.

Spirituality of the Cross

That book has brought lots of people into the Lutheran orbit. More than that, it has brought quite a few people to Christianity, people who had never understood the magnitude of the Gospel before. I am still getting messages from people who have found this little piece of writing of mine helpful and life-changing. Hearing such things is strangely humbling and uncanny to me, the thought that God is making use of this thing.

This new edition is not that different from the old one, but I have added material in the chapters on vocation and the theology of the Cross, drawing on more things I have learned about them since the first edition came out in 1999. I also cleared up some passages in the first edition that some people had questions about.

This book is also somewhat smaller in dimensions, and therefore thicker, than the first edition. It still keeps on the cover that great Rouault crucifixion, which is simultaneously highly contemporary and highly traditional, which strikes just the right note that I am trying to achieve. The design of the new book also uses that image on the inside, facing each new chapter, a visual reminder of how the Cross ties all of the different topics together.

There are a few changes I made because I had assumed that what my own congregation did was common to all Lutheran churches. For example, I had thought that all Lutheran pastors wore collars, refused to perform weddings during Lent, and did not give eulogies in funerals. Well, those were the practices I learned from the pastor who brought me into Lutheranism–I used to belong to a theological liberal church, if you can believe that–and I later heard from indignant tie-wearing pastors who corrected me! I made some changes accordingly.

It’s still the confessional variety of Lutheranism that I am drawing on, though. But it’s not just the theology, conceived as an abstract system of doctrine, but the spirituality–the lived, vital, personal dimension of Christianity that Lutheranism opens up. That is what I am trying to recapture.

I aimed the book partially at those people today who say they are “spiritual” but not “religious.” That is a huge cop-out, of course. But some of these folks are looking for something that they aren’t getting from much of the Christianity they encounter. Contemporary versions of Christianity have often drifted away from the depth, the complexities, and the mysteries of the Christian faith. They have reduced them to simplistic dogmas, jolts of experience, or feel-good platitudes. But the fact is, Christianity has its spirituality–not the vague cloudy idealistic mysticism that is usually associated with that word, but rather mysteries grounded in the Incarnation of God, His death on a bloody piece of wood, His physical resurrection, bread, wine, water, and our own ordinary callings of everyday life. That spirituality can still be found in the Lutheran tradition, though Lutherans today have often forgotten it just like everyone else. When people who are experimenting with Eastern spiritualities encounter genuine Christian spirituality, they often see the difference and find the spirituality that is centered on Christ and His Cross compelling. Anyway, I am especially gratified to hear from people who have converted to Christianity from Ba’hai or the New Age movement after reading this book. Often their parents or a friend has bought it for them. I am also gratified, of course, to hear from people who have recovered their own spiritual heritage.

I wrote the book as a kind of experiment in apologetics and evangelism to the postmodernist mindset. The book is personal. I avoid polemics. I don’t criticize anyone but myself, in the different mistakes that I have made. Such an approach keeps people from getting defensive, since when they do, you can never get through to them. When I turn the Law, though, against myself, I do so in a way that readers can relate to, so that they do turn it against themselves, and they become as hungry for the Gospel as I am. I don’t emphasize rational argumentation, as such, though I hope I am rational. Rather, I emphasize the mysteries of the Christian faith. I don’t explain them away; rather, I make them seem even more mysterious. I also avoid the cliches, the conventional piety, the dumbing-down, and the tackiness–as well as the moralism and politics–that turn so many people away from even considering Christianity.

I’m not saying that this is the only way to write about such things, but it seems to work with at least some readers. I hope this new edition reaches the people who need to read it.

You can buy it here: Spirituality of the Cross