A demagogue rises to power in my country and begins to quash freedom of the press, and all I can think about is how my science textbooks told me global warming was a myth.
An odd patch of memory on which to fixate. I have other, more pleasant (or at least more interesting) memories of my science education: the warm, enthused faces of my science teachers (moms and dads from my homeschool group), the unnerving dissection of a frog, the thrill of doing research and experiments for a biology project on smell and emotional memory.
Global warming. Our textbooks–I can't remember if they were put out by Bob Jones University Press or A Beka–took great pains to remind us of a fact we already knew: global warming was a myth. Like evolution, there was no real science to back it up, it was nothing but a meaningless speculation. The fact that there was consensus among most scientists about the reality of global warming meant nothing: most scientists did not know God.
There is nothing–I surmise in retrospect–inherently contradictory about these two statements:
God is real.
Global warming is real.
Nor is there any innate philosophical tension between these:
God created the world.
The world was created through the process of evolution.
The first is a statement of origins, the second is one of process. They are not mutually exclusive.
And yet global warming and evolution were both seen as threats to Christian faith by the evangelical community of my youth. If embraced, they would poke holes in a very intricate, locked system of how we read the Bible. Because we equated true faith with adherence to that system, if the system fell, faith would, too.
So we bunkered down and waited for the apocalypse. For some, apocalypse was quite literally imminent, and they literally bunkered down. For others, the bunkering mentality manifested itself as a refusal to engage with any ideas or people outside our circle unless it was for the express purpose of "witnessing" to them to convert them and bring them into the fold. And that kind of interaction isn't real engagement, isn’t a posture of turning, seeing, and knowing–it's a posture of control.
Accepting global warming was dangerous–a concession to the atheist scientists who crafted their godless theories of evolution to prove that God was dead.
I write about these memories knowing that people and movements are complex, and North American evangelicalism is no different in that respect. But it's the very complexity, and the ease with which we all became subsumed into the monolith of ideas that makes me angry. We can perpetuate lies simply by inhabiting systems and never challenging them.
Anger at institutions–religious, political, collegiate or otherwise–is a tangled mess to unravel because you know there are individuals within this broader body who both represent the body and at the same time rail against it. Their very presence within the body is like new wine in old wine skins. They threaten to make the whole thing burst, collapse.
I know many thoughtful evangelicals, both leaders and lay folks, who speak out and prophesy against untruth and injustice. People who denounce the demagogue and urge those who worship him to turn their eyes from this idol.
And I know that even some of the less thoughtful folks are more than this terrifying spectacle.
But the problem of the monolith remains: the great mass that was instrumental in Trump's ascent.
I am livid. White-hot rage. Blood-spitting anger.
I don’t know why people are surprised by evangelical support of Trump’s ascent. "We threw a bunch of gold in the fire, and out came this graven image!"
No, Trump didn’t come out of nowhere. Trump was waiting to happen. It was only a matter of time before a god of glittering gold arose, a god we shaped to look like us, to embody our values, to show our true hand.
A friend asks me why I am still a Christian. This question leads to so many more. What is a Christian? And whatever that is, am I still that? If it means inhabiting a corporate religious body, can I justify being a Christian?
What is a Christian?
The catechetical answer to what is a Christian might go something like this: anyone baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is part of the covenant community of the church. (The Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches might view the other major branches of Christendom as “brothers in error,” but still kin in the faith.) Most Christian traditions have a public affirmation following baptism when a person comes to a certain age, something that expresses that person’s willing commitment to continue participating in the covenant community into which they were initiated through baptism.
In liturgical traditions, this is called “confirmation,” a sealing of the covenant that was created in holy baptism. In anti-liturgical traditions like the ones I grew up in, the public affirmation is often the baptism itself (“believers’ baptism”), sometimes accompanied by a verbal testimony of how the believer came to faith.
These practices recognize and try to remedy an inherent tension in any body, be it social, religious or political (or a mix–it’s always a mix, isn’t it?): the individual’s participation in (and conflict with) the larger structure. We live and move in relation to social bodies, but also exist as individuals, distinct persons, and cannot be reduced to the bodies we inhabit. Individuals participate in systems, but are not always true to them (I’ll talk a little more about what being “true” means below). Confirmation and other public affirmations of the faith attempt to express the individual’s willingness to try to be true to the communal body which they have entered, whether that entry was by choice (believer’s baptism) or by the choice of your family (infant baptism).
This tension between the individual and the larger frame of the corporate body was present even in the evangelical tradition in which I was raised. We railed against the externals of the Catholics (who we believed were trying to work their way to God), but at the same time had our own sets of external motions that were needed to verify and legitimize “true faith.” We all knew individuals, Christians who “talked the talk” without “walking the walk,” and viewed this as a divergence from true faith as defined by the values of the corporate body. One side of our rhetoric denied the necessity of individual action, while another side of our rhetoric created its own web of moral hoops through which to jump to achieve true faith. You didn’t need to dress a certain way, refrain from using curse words or watching certain movies to please God–God would accept you. But if you wanted the church body to accept you, you most certainly did.
God was weirdly wed to his body and estranged from it all at once. We could create our own body and rules for it without explicitly pinning its creation on God, but still wield the rules as divine authority since it was through us–in our communal body–that God was to be found in the world. God would still love you if you were outside the body, but if you wanted to encounter God, you had to get past us, jump through all our hoops. If you wanted to experience God, you needed to go to the True Body, and to get there, you had to be true to that body.
This was the conundrum of God’s body. I couldn’t meet with God apart from his body. But I’ve always been at a loss as to where exactly God’s body is to be found.