Tag: Post-Constantinian

Pluralism in a Post-Christian Culture: A Defense of Bowdoin

BowdoinI’ve been working on this post for two days and find it’s one of the hardest I’ve dealt with. Probably because the risk of being misunderstood is so high and because readers may feel that I’m being insensitive to their beliefs. But since I haven’t been able to let it go, there’s nothing left but to plow ahead.

 
Monday’s New York Times had this story titled “Colleges and Evangelicals Clash on Bias Policy“. While part of the story was a rehash of issues arising in the wake of a 2010 Supreme Court Decision allowing the Hastings College of Law to go forward with anti-discrimination language. But the trigger event for the story was a change at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. A private school of roughly 1800 students, Bowdoin’s Christian Fellowship will be disbanding because of the school’s expectations of student organizations.

In a collision between religious freedom and antidiscrimination policies, the student group, and its advisers, have refused to agree to the college’s demand that any student, regardless of his or her religious beliefs, should be able to run for election as a leader of any group, including the Christian association.

Similar conflicts are playing out on a handful of campuses around the country, driven by the universities’ desire to rid their campuses of bias, particularly against gay men and lesbians, but also, in the eyes of evangelicals, fueled by a discomfort in academia with conservative forms of Christianity. The universities have been emboldened to regulate religious groups by a Supreme Court ruling in 2010 that found it was constitutional for a public law school in California to deny recognition to a Christian student group that excluded gays.

The last paragraph certainly captures the sentiments of InterVarsity, which has promoted the story heavily on social media. They have been sending out a quote from a student at Cal State Chico: “We’re not willing to water down our beliefs in order to be accepted.”

While actions like Bowdoin’s raise serious challenges for groups like InterVarsity and a number of other excellent campus ministries, I think the argument “in the eyes of evangelicals” that this is an attack on Christianity is misguided. There is something more significant at play illustrated by the contrast by the two paragraphs quoted above.

I am not alone in writing that we have entered a Post-Christian (I prefer Post-Constantinian) phase of American Society. This has profound implications for how Christians operate within that context, as David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw pointed out in their book. What we’re seeing is a social context operated according to purely secular principles. It’s easy to dismiss this as “political correctness” but  there’s something far deeper going on.

If you go to the Bowdoin web page and search for the rules for student organizations, you find the following:

Clubs cannot discriminate membership or leadership based on race, religion, age, ethnic or national origin, gender, physical ability, sexual orientation, or income; exceptions for the gender requirement and physical ability requirement may be made if in direct alignment with the club’s express purpose and mission (emphasis mine).

I don’t know if this language about club charters has been recently changed or just newly enforced. But it is clear that it’s staking out a position that student organizations are for the benefit of all students. As such, no a priori exclusions in terms of leadership are allowed (that’s really the rub in this case). In other words, you can’t bar people from coming to club or applying for leadership roles based on the defined criteria. It doesn’t say that those people MUST be admitted into leadership but that discrimination is banned.

One of the responses I saw on Facebook asked about someone looking to be president of the math club who doesn’t do math. First, math ability isn’t one of the criteria listed. Second, that person is free to pursue leadership but won’t be selected.

InterVarsity also linked to this story about President Alec Hill’s participation in a forum on pluralism held by The Aspen Institute. Summarized in last years’ report, “Principled Pluralism: Report of the Inclusive America Project“, the project attempted to explore the changing nature of pluralism in American society. If you follow through the material, you’ll see that Hill’s presentation on the panel was something of a dissent from the rest of the presenters. The executive summary of the report, written by Madeleine Albright and David Gergen, concludes with this:

In the future, we risk deeper and potentially disastrous fragmentation if we do not remain true to our heritage as a diverse people united around certain core values—including respect for the rights and dignity of every human being.

That statement prioritizes diversity. The report does a good job of outlining a valuable role for religion (thanks to contributions from Eboo Patel, Richard Mouw, David Campbell, Jim Wallis, and a host of others) but it does so within the context of all participants without priveleging any.

Post-Constantinian society marks the end of a presumed privilege for positions of faith. It doesn’t mean that faith isn’t important. But it does mean that faith participates alongside other value systems, including secular small-d democratic principles like dignity, equality, and freedom for all.

This will likely mean that religious ministries at secular institutions may no longer operate as student organizations. It is why, in spite of George Will’s sentiments about collegiate responses to rape, we are paying more attention to the victimization of women. It’s why one-man-one-woman amendments are being struck down by state courts across the country.

In a post-constantian society, issues aren’t being contested on the basis of “belief” but on the basis of fair play and human dignity. There is a vital role for religious groups to play in the society but they will need to learn how to engage the questions being asked instead of the ones that they are comfortable answering.

 

Changing Our Conversation

I’ve been wrestling with the ideas in this post for over a week. I knew what I wanted to say but was struggling over whether it was worth saying, if it had already been said much better by others, or if anybody cared if it was said. Yet the ideas wouldn’t stop spinning in my head so it seems the only way to organize my thinking is to say what’s in there.

For some time, I’ve been pondering the relationship between the evangelical church and the surrounding culture. I’ve read the material about the growth of religious nones and written about that. I’ve focused on millennials and the different questions they’ve been asking. I’ve looked at the options facing Christian higher education in light of these and other changes.

Looking around the blogosphere, I find lots of sources talking about a post-Christian society. I, along with others, have preferred the term post-Constantinian to denote the disentangling of the church from the power structures of the society. Others have suggested the term post-Christendom as a way of explaining the same shifts.

The partial government shutdown and the threat of a debt ceiling breach have prompted other posts about how the church (especially among the young) is turned off by the past blending of political and religious ideology. From the last two days alone I can point to pieces by Morgan Guyton, Ben Howard, and Jonathan Merritt.

Clearly, things are changing. Past assumptions are being called into question. Some people try to draw rigid boundaries to protect against the onslaught of change. Others are welcoming the changing context and calling the rest to find the courage to deal with the change around us.

Last night I realized that one of our real problems was trying to label the church in relationship to culture at all. Post-christian denotes a time when the society was Christian. Post-Constantinian suggests a changed relationship with the powers that be. What I’ve coming to recognize is that the church is never supposed to be defined in relationship to anything other than the Godhead. We are simply to BE the church and thereby a living witness to God’s Grace breaking into the world.

Change may be a problem for a church connecting to or reacting against existing power structures because change represents a realignment of the structures themselves. But the church isn’t about Power. It’s about witness. Once we start worrying about winning arguments, proving the superiority of our own positions, gaining access to important people, or becoming power brokers ourselves, we’ve forgotten who we are and why we exist.

Post-modernity provides an opportunity to tell our story with confidence, authenticity, and complexity. It allows us to admit that the world is messy without giving up our belief that God is doing his creative work in ways we can’t even see. Our words and stances may not persuade others, but perhaps that’s the Holy Spirit’s job. Ours is to be faithful.

As I said, these aren’t new ideas. I recently came across a wonderful book by Rodney Clapp, “A Peculiar People: The Church in a Post-Christian Society”. Rodney wrote the book 17 years ago, before we were worrying about post-Christian labels. His point is that we weren’t supposed to be connected to society at all. He writes:

For radicals, postmodern pluralism is a social condition in which the Constantinianism that has always been a theological dead end now becomes a political and sociological dead end. There is a place for Christians in the postmodern world, not as typically decent human beings but as unapologetic followers of the Way. (32)

Other sources lately have led me to similar conclusions. Geoff Holsclaw’s work on the scandal of evangelical memory touches similar points as have several posts by David Fitch (they co-wrote Prodigal Christianity). I’m looking forward to being with them in two weeks for a Missional Commons gathering in Chicago.  I’ve enjoyed some e-mail conversations with Dr. Amos Yong, a fellow participant in the respectful conversations project.

The Church wasn’t bothered by change when Peter had that vision in Joppa. It wasn’t upset when Paul engaged the Greeks on Mars Hill. It wasn’t bothered by change at many points in modern history, even when the church got caught up in the wrong stuff. Somehow, it finds a way to simply be the church.

In class tonight, I spent some time unpacking the difference between contract and covenant. The former depends on power and is always worried that one party will take advantage of the other (which is why we have “binding” agreements and lots of lawyers). Covenant is based on relationship and rests in simple faithfulness.

As Abraham often learned, picking the wrong path didn’t break the covenant. It’s a lesson the Church would do well to embrace. It may be precisely what society needs in the midst of such major social change.