Christianity is a Straightjacket — belief in absolute truth is an enemy of freedom—it endangers our civic freedom because it divides rather than unites—it stifles creativity and growth— “Christianity looks like an enemy of social cohesion, cultural adaptability, and even authentic personhood.”(p. 37) So run the complaints of many in our educated skeptical age. Tim Keller, in Ch. 3 of The Reason for God suggests that “this objection is based on mistakes about the nature of truth, community, Christianity, and of liberty itself.”
Keller makes many good points in this chapter – truth (some idea of truth) is unavoidable; community cannot be completely inclusive —and no community is; Christianity is not culturally rigid—already most Christians live in Asia, Africa, or Latin America; and freedom isn’t simple.
Christianity is Exclusive. Every community holds its members to standards of belief and behavior —for example, our freedom, our liberal democracy, depends on a shared and required set of beliefs and practices. The most important of these is the sanctity of personal choice and autonomy. This is a belief that is not shared in much of the world.
In a sense the Christian community is and must be exclusive. A community should not be judged because it has standards for its members, rather a community should be judged on tests such as:
Which community has beliefs that lead its members to treat persons in other communities with love and respect – to serve them and meet their needs? Which community’s beliefs lead it to demonize and attack those who violate their boundaries rather than treating them with kindness, humility, and winsomeness? We should criticize Christians when they are condemning and ungracious to unbelievers. But we should not criticize churches when they maintain standards for membership in accord with their beliefs. Every community must do the same. (p. 40)
Wow — this is a telling indictment of much of our church isn’t it?
Christianity is inclusive in that everyone is welcome. But of course there are expectations and standards. The real question as Christians is not whether we should have standards, but rather how loose or rigid those standards need to be and how closely they align with the model we find in scripture.
Christianity is A Culturally Rigid. A common complaint – not only is Christianity culturally rigid, but it is also cultural imperialism imposing western culture on the rest of the world. But this isn’t really true. Rather, founded on a set of core beliefs, Christianity is and always has been adaptive of diverse cultures. Cultural diversity is built into the Christian faith from the Acts of the Apostles, the epistles of Paul and on to today. We worship one God, one risen Lord, but retain our cultural differences – every tongue, tribe, people, and nation. Greeks need not become Jews, Africans need not become Americans, Republicans need not become Democrats or vice versa. The explosive growth of Christianity around the world reflects core Christian beliefs in very different cultural expressions.
Christianity is a Moral Straitjacket. Christianity tramples human freedom underfoot. For many today true freedom means the freedom to determine one’s own moral standards. Christian views of sexual purity, for example, are simply oppressive. Keller points out that no one really believes that everyone must determine right and wrong independently. Some things we are sure are simply wrong. Child sexual abuse and predation top the list in our culture today and for good reason. Even the most liberal and tolerant of institutions are coming to the consensus belief that this is absolutely wrong. Almost everyone will agree that slavery is and was wrong.
True Freedom. Keller takes this idea of freedom to ask what really sets us free – despite the fact that it constrains.
What is the environment that liberates us if we confine ourselves to it, like water liberates the fish? Love. Love is the most liberating freedom-loss of all.
One of the principles of love – either love for a friend or romantic love – is that you have to lose independence to attain greater intimacy. If you want the “freedoms” of love – the fulfillment, security, sense of worth it brings – you must limit your freedom in many ways. (p. 47-48)
And a little later.
Freedom, then, is not the absence of limitations and constraints but it is finding the right ones, those that fit our nature and liberate us.
For a love relationship to be healthy there must be a mutual loss of independence. It can’t be just one way. Both sides must say to the other “I will adjust to you, I will change for you. I’ll serve you even though it means a sacrifice for me.” If only one party does all the sacrificing and giving, and the other does all the ordering and taking, the relationship will be exploitative and will oppress and distort the lives of both people. (p. 49)
Here is where I think Keller hits it out of the park on one of the most important truths of Christian faith and life. God is not a capricious demanding autocrat.
In the most radical way, God has adjusted to us – in his incarnation and atonement. In Jesus Christ he became a limited human being, vulnerable to suffering and death. … In the most profound way, God has said to us in Christ, “I will adjust to you. I will change for you. I’ll serve you though it means sacrifice for me.” (p. 49)
The incarnation is the most profound example of God coming first to us, but it is not the first example. The entire scope of the Old Testament, more or less, is the story of God coming in relationship to his creation and his creatures. To live by God’s commands will constrain – but it will also free a person far more than it constrains. But it only provides freedom under the life focused on love for God, for others, and for the world.
Is Christianity a moral straitjacket?
To what extent (if any) is it exclusive?
What limits are reasonable and expected?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.
If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.