Closing the Faith

(The Origin of Principles, 25 Mar 2013)

Gregory Gillette ·

Akko is a town in Northern Israel that besides being the holiest city in the Baha’i religion is relatively unimportant in the modern world. In 1291 however, Acre, as it was called, became the last bastion of Christianity in the Holy Land, before it fell to the Sultan’s forces after siege and bloody invasion. It was here that Christianity gathered its forces for the strongest stand that could be mustered against the changing world around it.

In modern times, pressed by the changing nature of local institutions, Christianity is garrisoning. The ethic of a religion that at times prided itself on diversity is rescinding into itself. It is slowly turning monochromatic. The Church is less an element of a balanced life and increasingly the mistaken definition of one. Where Sundays used to provide access to a particular network and time to reflect on morality, that network is becoming the primary point of reference in the lives of many Christians, while others are given a binary choice of living as a Christian, among Christians, with a prescribed Christian world-view, or drifting away.

This is the rise of evangelistic Christianity. The programme is an unpalatable one to those not subscribing to it. The option of measured involvement is increasingly difficult and requires feats of ideological acrobatics. An ever greater part of the congregation’s life, the institutions associated with churches seek more and more to extend the moralistic incubation period of Christians. In theory, this will prevent contamination by interaction with other dialogues and forms of compromise by bestowing the (emotional) “armour” to resist empathising with other ethics. School is an important battlefield for the minds of the flock.

In typical colleges, more Christians are undone than made, although those that are made tend to be tempered strong. Increasingly though, there is the option to get a higher education, and preserve the sheltered world view that was instilled, perhaps coercively, violently, or voluntarily, throughout childhood. To that end, one can browse a list of the best schools for homeschooled children in the US. It cannot be stated better than in the article itself:

“Perhaps you think that your homeschooling education will inoculate you against the negative influences you’ll encounter at a conventional secular or even religious institution of higher learning. But think again. Polling data show that college destroys many a young person’s faith, replacing it with a secular vision of reality.”

It is alarming that the fastest growing segment of Christianity is its extreme wing. Railing against more traditional, less evangelistic Christians (“shopping-cart Christianity” of doctrinal picking and choosing), believers are often either pushed away from the discomfort of emotional services and political sermons, or turn those sharing the experience into their principal support network eschewing what most would consider a balanced life.

In 2003, the American Family Association, issued a warning against the Presbyterian Church of the United States. The problem was that the Presbyterians’ generally assembly had democratically called “for the elimination of laws governing the private sexual behavior between consenting adults (and the passage) of laws forbidding discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, and public accommodations.” On another issue, that of religious tolerance, they were again called out, this time along with Catholics, Methodists, and even some Baptists for demonstrating disapproval of religious profiling.

Each individual strain of Christianity has its own mechanisms for changing doctrine, or position where there is none centralised. Disagreements resulting from these schisms account for many of the sub-denominations that exist. As an ethical system, this is why Christianity in theory welcomes a plurality, dissent, and debate in the extreme.

Newer “non-denominational” Churches imply an enlightened openness above and beyond the factions that were produced along the way. Conversely and somewhat contradictorily, a consolidated political ethic among these post-denominational Churches seems accompanied instead by a radically unitary and evangelistic modus operandi.

In short, doctrinal debate and mutual tolerance is reduced to dogma. There are examples of theological flexibility, and there are examples of it’s unwelcomeness. Take perhaps the story and arguments of Matthew Vines on why theologically Christianity can be compatible with homosexuality. It is unethical to impose an ethic on another is the implied operational standard of the former Christian status quo of diversity. The current answer among the newly coalescing front is that individuals should be responsible to do just that. The post-denominational nature allows an agreement on nominal political issues that can bypass the deeper theological debates of more traditional branches, and facilitate this process.

Vines is refuted by a group then whose slogan is “The Bible is ours to proclaim, not edit” accompanied by a caricature of white males and one marginal female (literally on the margin) looking on approvingly. The argument can be summarised as: deviation is the result of a lack of fortitude to maintain a path-dependent normality. The response also dismisses several Churches already mentioned as “liberals”, implying a single interpretation of scripture, socially consequential, and at odds with the central philosophy of Protestantism that no man or group holds a superior interpretation of that scripture. The docility of uncertainty and accompanying humility that characterised some forms of Christianity, is the first element rejected in the new brand. It is therefore not a feature of the institutions it sponsors to inculcate evangelicals with a deconstructed ethic of expressive terrestrial governance, rather than introverted reflection and simple consistency of example.

As this process is realised and moralistic positions homogenise among Christians, institutions can grow to provide to the newly consolidated service consumer base. The process is comparable to the roots of mass-production and the associated vertical integration of industry in an earlier America where society was less stratified.

One blossoming sector of this Christian social economy is in post-secondary education. With growth rates in enrollment far outstripping mainstream colleges, they are taking a bigger section of the collegiate freshman pie every year.

In Canada, these schools first became controversial because of the idea of public subsidies. While some still receive public transfers, if not directly then via tax breaks, it is more to do with the ethical considerations of their place as academies that is worrying. The context of the shifts in Christianity to shun plurality of interpretation is vital to understand however. Even more so, the same coalescence along political lines, as an increasingly rigid ethic is translated into practise. Instead of providing expansion of thought and insight, they help keep narrow blinders of a static worldview on individuals, and therefore run contrary to the purpose of academic enrichment.

Tautological selection is the first step. Before entering, there must be a consensus on several issues. Most obviously being a Christian is a requirement of entry, but additionally, most major political issues are settled at the door. This epistemic closure extends to varying degrees.

At the Christianity-lite end of the spectrum are schools like St. Francis Xavier University. Comparable in some ways to Notre Dame, a nominally Catholic university renowned mostly for its sporting (ironically, football, of a different kind). St. FX flaunts dreadlocked undergrads of the sort you would expect to see at a university in their handbook. It has a normal dorm life with some gendered and some mixed, while nobody is obligated to live in residence. There is also a campus bar, no rules on student sexuality and on the checklist of things not to bring to school is “A narrow mind - residence is about learning inside and outside of the classroom”.

Also in the Canadian Maritimes, Kingswood College lies closer to the other extreme. Spurning non-traditional hairstyles, Kingswood students live in separated residences with strict limitations on gender mixing. Students not living with parents are obligated to live on campus where alcohol, tobacco and movies rated for consumption by those over the age of 13 are forbidden outright. According to the student handbook, prohibited sexual activity is a more serious offence than misuse of a motor vehicle.

Other schools enforce other forms of radical conformity. Providence University College’s handbook makes explicit that “Out of a respect for God-given life, students should not support or participate in abortions or abortion-related activities.”

Rocky Mountain, Pacific Life, Redeemer, and Columbia colleges all require conformity in students’ relationship choices, general ethic, and outlaw participation in occult activities. The emergent university quidditch craze apparently will be skipping these campuses.

Vanguard College students for their part must agree that “That the Second Coming of the Lord is imminent and will be personal, visible, and pre-millennial. This is the believer’s blessed hope and is a vital incentive to holy living and faithful service.” Essentially, impending judgement is good because people follow the rules, which include a ban on jewlery that could be interpreted as transsexual on men. Students are therefore reminded that they may have to waive personal rights for the good of the “Body of Christ”.

The problem is that debate is settled before it has begun; something antithetical to the development of a critical mind, and to the idea of academic due process. While it is true students of many universities enter and leave college without altering their views, those at Christian universities are not even afforded the opportunity to do so. There is no growth, simply retrenchment.

The attitude exists elsewhere in modern Christianity, that Christians increasingly must segregate themselves from society, as society becomes less influenced by Christianity. After speaking with individuals who had left evangelical environments in the Greater Vancouver area, several trends emerged. Unlike my own experiences with Church (of the more traditional variety), they were not encouraged to seek outside networks, save for the purposes of witnessing, or leading them as Christians. Old friends were considered reminders and temptations of a more sinful time, and time with them was to be managed accordingly. Increasingly they were brought into a monochromatic ethic that was dictated rather than dialogued. Then again, what is the Bible if not an ethical dictation?

There are worrying elements to these developments beyond a segment of society increasingly looking inwards. Being a Christian increasingly means prescribed opinions, decision-making strategies, and lifestyles.

One particularly worrying theme has to do with gender roles. Since the nuclear family is taken as the epitome of human organisation (and the only acceptable context for sexual relations), the role of the woman in this formation is infallibly pre-established. Women then are encouraged to marry early and start families, fulfilling the role “God” intended for them. This is not a valued statement in and of itself but rather a descriptive one, assuming “living faith” (evolution in application and interpretation of scripture) is not applied at more than a glacial pace. If this archaic role of women in an irrelevant familial archetype is taken as exclusively acceptable, it necessarily represses the explicitely subordinate gender.

Nonetheless, some women repeated that they felt empowered by the role God had bestowed upon them in what can only be understood as a display of divine Stockholm syndrome. Such a purpose in servitude means masquerading coerced self-deprecation as liberation. All rationalisation or questioning of social composition is left at the door for those prescribed as efficient in bygone eras. This is not true of all Churches, but it is apparent in the evangelical brand that, on the presumption of the Bible as literal and temporally uniform, prescribes social context rather than responds to it.

What is surprising is the popularity of such rigidity. Alternet, in talking with women of Mars Hill, was able to hypothesise on why such Churches are appealing. In addition to proposing an easier path to life, it helps make that path a reality. With counselling services, child care, community dinners, it becomes apparent that many of one’s base needs and additional comforts can be found in devotion to the organisation, or indeed to God. In America, and increasingly in Canada, where social services provided by the state are scarce and underfunded, they can be easily procured simply by submission to this proxy organisation. If all moral questions and uncertainties of life are settled under one roof, then mortality can just run its course until either the gates of heaven or the second coming validates their presumptions. Why pick a more difficult life when you don’t need to?

The old paradigm, one where Church is largely a Sunday event, a proxy network to one’s professional and social life, is being eroded as those networks are less and less tinted by subtle religious undertones in modern North America. In a world where prayer in schools is unacceptable, entirely new schools must be built to ensure ideological incubation.

How far will it go? It is important to remember that radical Islam is not the norm in that faith. It is a loud minority given voice by media, and able to exist in areas of weak state and infrastructure. That is unlikely to be the case in North America with Christians. Becky Fischer in the film Jesus Camp however is, like many, under the impression that the Islamic mainstream is something it is not. She famously pronounced:

“It’s no wonder, with that kind of intense training and discipling, that those young people are ready to kill themselves for the cause of Islam. I wanna see young people who are as committed to the cause of Jesus Christ as the young people are to the cause of Islam. I wanna see them as radically laying down their lives for the Gospel as they are over in Pakistan and Israel and Palestine and all those different places, you know, because we have… excuse me, but we have the truth!”

Admiration for the devotion of another faith is different from envying their fanaticism and this comment walks the line. It is likely that Christians will continue to segregate voluntarily. They will reduce the size of their step into the secular world and moderate Christianity will likely continue to shrink.

As North American society accommodates increasing diversity with secularisation, the activities that traditionally were served with more varied networks are consolidated by the faithful. The linear paths of the lives of Christians become increasingly serviced within more narrow Christian networks. From childhood day care and homeschooling, through university, business networks, financial services, and recreational activities the whole way along, the Church provides for the needs of the flock increasingly more than government and communities.

There is nothing problematic with this at face value. The challenge however is that it runs the threat of consolidating the principles of Christian communities in opposition to the changing wider society around them. With a heterogenising North American culture, where institutions were once tacitly Christian, they are being forced to either secularise and become accessible, or Christianise and serve that segment specifically. The debates over the nature of the Boy Scouts are one example of this as Christians fight to prevent exposure to secularism.

In 1291 the Christians lost Acre and the entirety of the Holy Land fell under Islamic governance. Without implying history’s composition of them, a cycle emerged as a golden age began and a confident but moderate Islam encouraged the expansion of science, technology, and the arts. After dominating the region the Ottoman civilisation in crisis began to split into religious hardliners and modernists. They would become Wahhabist Saudi Arabia and secular Turkey.

The same sort of division is apparent in North America where 400+ years of unquestioned (contextually moderate) Christian domination are under threat. The same splits are occurring. It is easy to say there are no clear geographical guiding lines for the splits now, but there were none in the the nineteenth century Middle East either; individuals followed post-hoc national borders. Whether geography will be a factor in the current Christian turmoil is difficult to say, but it is worth noting that state laws on moral issues differ vastly between some Northern and Southern US states.

Canada for its part is supposedly undergoing a “cultural shift” to the West, which to many is simply code for a rising conservative ethic from that region. This however is mostly due to the rising economic importance of Alberta rather than the presentation of a viable cultural alternative to the secular, tolerant, liberal character the world thought it knew Canada for. Vancouver, a small but intense battleground mirrors the national schism with a nominally white, conservative East hosting some of the most hardline evangelicals, while the multicultural West and downtown remain immovably liberal and a society apart.

Whether geographic trends continue to consolidate will be one of the more interesting points of development moving forward. Even if not territorially however, Christianity does continue to hole up ideologically, just as it did in Acre when once before under threat. The Christian empire in the Holy Land was the last time before North America that Christians had established rule outside of Europe. Eventually it fell. In modern Canada and the US, secular legislation and multiculturalism have replaced the Ottoman scimitars and Devşirme that challenged Christian supremacy elsewhere. If the religion continues to draw inwards, defining itself by a unifying pentecostal ethic, it will become an increasingly unsavoury philosophical diversion, and will likely render it vulnerable to a more cultural variety of siege. There may be very real, and indeed possibly violent consequences to these developments however.

This means things are likely to get worse before they get better. If a culture war is to be prevented, religious ethics will need to be segregated from political ones. Terrestrial governance must focus on the problems we face down here and no prescriptive book can fulfil that task. Tolerance must be extended to all faiths but not to the point those faiths are permitted to exhibit greater intolerance towards others. Finally education and shared experience must be a priority; Canada and the US must work to prevent the continued epistemic closure of Christianity. Not only can it lead to social enclaving or extremism, but indeed to the eventual incompatibility of North American society and its dominant religion.