In much of North America and Western Europe, we live in an intellectual climate that is somewhat anti-church and anti-clerical. In intellectual circles it is fashionable today to bash both Roman Catholicism and Evangelical Protestantism. In fact, this is done in the name of being open-minded, enlightened, and politically correct. It’s the one bias that’s intellectually sanctioned. Say something derogatory about any other group in society, and you will be brought to account; say something disparaging about the church, especially if you can work in the word “fundamentalism”, and you will be rewarded with invitations to speak on university campuses.
How serious is this? What’s to be our response? While it’s irritating, at the end of the day, it’s not that much of a cause for concern. Mosquito bites, basically. As a church, we are not fundamentally threatened by this and we shouldn’t overreact. Why?
First of all, because a certain amount of this criticism is good and does us good. We have our faults and our culture is generous in pointing them out. Bravo. Fiat. The present criticism of the church is healthily humbling us and pushing us towards a more courageous internal purification. Besides we have enjoyed for far too long a situation of privilege, never a good thing for the church. It’s far easier to live as a Christian in a time of disprivilege than in a time of privilege, even if it isn’t as pleasant. But there’s still something more at stake.
We must be careful not to overreact to the present anti-ecclesial climate because this will lead to an unhealthy defensiveness and put us too much in a position of adversary against the culture. That’s not where the gospel wants us to be, not a all. Our task instead is to absorb this criticism, painful though it is, gently point to its unfairness, and resist every temptation to be defensive. Why? Why not aggressively defend ourselves?
Because we are strong enough not to, pure and simple. We can withstand this without having to become hard and defensive. Current criticism of the church notwithstanding, the church is not about to go under or awry any time soon. We are roughly a billion Christians in the world, stand within a two-thousand-year-old tradition, have among ourselves a universally accepted scripture, have two thousand years of doctrinal entrenchment and refinement, have massive centuries-old institutions, are embedded in the very roots of Western culture and technology, constitute perhaps the biggest multi-national group in the world, and are growing in numbers world-wide. We are hardly shaking in the wind, reeling vulnerably, a ship about to go under. We are strong, stable, blessed by God, an elder in the culture, and because of this we owe the culture both a graciousness and an understanding.
Beyond that, and more important than any of these historical strengths, is the fact that we have Christ’s promise to be with us and the reality of the resurrection to sustain us. Given all this, I think it’s fair to say that we can absorb a fair amount of criticism without fear of losing our identity. Moreover we must not let this criticism make us lose sight of why we exist in the first place.
The church exists not for its own sake or to ensure its own survival, but for the sake of the world. We can too easily forget this and, in all sincerity, lose sight of what the gospel asks of us. Compare, for example, these two responses: At a press conference in Belgium in 1985, someone asked Cardinal Basil Hume what he considered the foremost task facing the church today. He said simply: “To save the planet.” Recently, I saw a television interview with the Cardinal of a major archdiocese. Asked roughly the same question, “What do you see as your first task in taking over this diocese?” he answered: “To defend the faith.” A different answer, clearly.
Everything about Jesus suggests that Hume’s view is closer to the gospel than is the other. When Jesus says, “My flesh is food for the life of the world”, he isn’t saying that the real task of the church is to defend itself, to ensure its continuity, to keep the world from gnashing it up. The church exists for the sake of the world, not for its own sake. That’s why Jesus was born in a trough, a place where animals come to eat, and it’s why he gives himself on a table, to be eaten. Being gnashed up is part of what Jesus is about. Everything about him suggests vulnerability over defensiveness, risk over safety, trust in a divine promise over any human defense and insurance.
The very essence of the gospel is a call to risk beyond defensiveness, to absorb unjust criticism without fighting back – “Forgive them for they know not what they do!” We are meant to be food for the world; not the food of defensiveness, but the food of understanding, graciousness, and forgiveness.