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On peculiarity

7 June 2011

I have been reflecting on the notion of Christian peculiarity quite a bit recently. I find myself constantly wrestling with how to be a faithful Christian in a world whose pluralism I prize. It is also one of the favorite subjects of the curate at the parish I attend in Boston, Fr. Wood. Last Sunday (the Sixth Sunday of Easter: Rogation Sunday), he preached a sermon entitled “Soft Difference”, which has stuck with me. (As an aside, any sermon that manages to last with someone further than the door is a rare thing, indeed.)

The message of the part of the sermon that most stuck with me is a summary of Dr. Miroslav Volf’s 1994 article from Ex Auditu, “Gospel, Culture, Church”. Volf claims that in today’s increasingly religiously diverse and post-Christendom (and I would add, post-Thomist) world, Christianity is faced with a crisis about how to exist within the world. There are two options that are traditionally and popularly heralded. The first of these, which I will call “separatism”, is that the Church should keep a place outside of popular culture where it may stay unsullied. The second position, which I will call “assimilation”, maintains that the Church should be melded into society so that it may attain prestige, social acceptability, and glory for itself.

Both of these solutions, however, are pitfalls. As Fr. Wood points out nicely in regards to separatism, “If we are identified by rejecting others’ beliefs, by retreating from and keeping ourselves untainted by the world, we either become grow to hate the world or we try to force it to conform to us.” This is the positioning that conservative evangelicalism has taken through time, hatred for the fundamentalists (e.g. Westboro Baptist Church) and coercion for the neo-evangelicals (e.g. the Moral Majority). The broader social implication here is resentment on the side of popular culture, which in turn breeds even more hatred or coercion, and so forth.

Assimilation is certainly the easier option, but necessarily includes a great deal of compromise. Christians who assimilate into culture seamlessly lose any ability to criticize culture and thereby become complicit in a variety of social sins. Even worse, Christianity becomes blasé, tempered by and indistinguishable from the culture in which it exists. This is the situation that mainline Protestantism is in, where the difference between an mainline church and a social club (like Rotary, Kiwanis, or what-have-you) is negligible.

Predictably from two Anglicans, it’s the middle way that we are intended to go. This is the “soft difference” position, or as the popular paraphrase of  St. John 17 has it, “in the world, but not of the world.” Fr. Wood quotes Volf on this point:

Truth will be spoken, value judgments will be made.  The question is only how – upfront or surreptitiously, with harshness or with gentleness, from a position of power or from a position of “weakness”…[T]he soft difference is the missionary side of following in the footsteps of the crucified Messiah.  It is not an optional extra, but part and parcel of Christian identity itself.  To be a Christian means to live ones own identity in the face of others in such a way that one joins inseparably the belief in the truth of one’s own convictions with a respect for the convictions of others.

This is not just an ecclesiastic question; it is intimately a daily-life question. Just this week, a non-Christian acquaintance of mine was commenting on how it might do me some good to abandon a piece of my moral code for a little while and go “have some fun”, that being so tenacious about my adherence to this ethic is probably making life more difficult for me. I tried to explain that it appears the greater good to abandon this ethic in a culture that prizes fun and ease, but that maybe fun and ease is not the greatest good. He looked at me rather incredulously, rolled his eyes, and moved on with the conversation.

Christians are different, and our ways are peculiar, if we live according to the Gospel. We should not be surprised when people roll their eyes at us. There will be social pressure to assimilate, but we should not be afraid to assert who we are at the risk of being different. This does not mean that we should take this to an extreme and try to make sure that we do not have to deal with a world where we are, in fact, different, either by coercing or through hatred. The value, counterintuitively, is in the difference, in the eye-rolling. We are called to be in the world, but not of it.

(Photo credit)

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