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Christian exceptionalism cannot save Christianity
The answer to a relevant Christianity is decolonization and deconstruction.
The Gospel Coalition, a Christian fundamentalist website, recently launched its Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics which “helps Christians show unbelievers the truth, goodness, and beauty of the gospel as the only hope that fulfills our deepest longings.” As I watched the promo video and considered the mission, I immediately saw the return to Christian cultural hegemony that leads to Christian exceptionalism. Keller says that churches are dwindling because our culture lacks the morals and ideas that undergird evangelism. Keller says that there was a time when Christianity and faith was regarded as positive, and people simply participated in church life because that was normative. Further, he argues that there was a philosophical ungirding – moral law, moral absolutes, forgiveness, sin, life after death, and a personal god. Keller says that the culture instilled dots and that evangelism was just connecting the dots.
But after postmodernism these dots are missing, and Keller argues that as a result, evangelism is now challenging and the evangelical church is dying. The Keller Center is trying to put these dots back into place; it seeks to change culture so that it is more adaptable to Christianity. Christianity, in a previous generation, benefited from its cultural hegemony, but without it, it is hard to convince people to follow Jesus. So, as its mission statement plainly states, the point of the center is to name the gospel as the only thing that could possibly satisfy us. Invariably, it creates a culture war as a result, and as a result, any values that have replaced the ones above, should be resisted. For my part, I still think most people believe in a moral law, moral absolutes, and the values of forgiveness, but I think that the idea that the Evangelical church expresses these not just better than other faiths or traditions, but that it is the only tradition to do so at all, has been tested and rejected. Evangelicals are known for their culture wars and attempt at collecting political power, not how they transform lives and society.
While I believe the project itself is fundamentally flawed, because it lacks the humility to see how Christianity must grow and adapt to meet the new needs of our society, I believe the bigger problem is the notion that unless we are converted to Christianity, we are not just doomed to hell, but our desires will be unsatisfied. Christianity is then the only answer to the culture’s problems, which puts a tremendous weight on our faith, and also allows it to collapse rather easily. If people find hope and fulfillment elsewhere – Christianity becomes useless. And so, and I don’t mean this glibly, Evangelicals have to instill a sense of despair and dissatisfaction in people before evangelizing to them. Since they don’t come readly made with that hopelessness, Christianity becomes the opposite of the hope it promises.
Because it places itself as superior to other faiths, this form of Christianity becomes bigoted toward other faiths, and I think most evidently we see it with Judaism. Christian exceptionalism isn’t a biblical idea. In fact, in the New Testament, both Jews and Gentiles live in harmony without compromising their beliefs. The Jewish people in the New Testament still very much follow Judaism and do not change their values. The covenant they hold is the one God gave Abraham – through Jesus, Gentiles are grafted on to that promise.
But through anti-Semitic violence and war, Christendom overtook early Christianity. Christianity became an imperial faith and reigned in Europe. Many Anabaptists believe that this shift to imperial faith greatly damaged the witness of Jesus of Nazareth, but state Christianity continued in Europe. Even when the Renaissance, the Reformation, and eventually the Enlightenment challenged Christianity, cultural hegemony was still in place. This is why Keller says up until recently the dots were there for the church to string together with the Gospel message. What Keller is referring to isn’t soil that’s fertile for Christianity, but rather soil that is becoming less infiltrated with Christian supremacy and hegemony.
Because Christian supremacy and exceptionalism thrive on the political power they hold over others, they are not a sustainable movement for the faith itself. Once there are other objects that can offer us the same power, Christianity itself is discarded. Keller’s project is to Make Christianity Great Again, but what needs to happen is Christianity needs to let go of its harmful past, hold on to the good, and forge itself into a new era to meet the needs of today’s society. Rather than helping unbelievers learn that the Gospel is their only hope for purpose and satisfaction, we must ask ourselves how our faith can serve those around us. Christianity doesn’t need to be the only hope for people to be relevant today. We need to seek out what the needs of our communities are and try to serve them.
We need to continually reform the church to meet the demands of today. We need to continue to include and welcome, holding on to the good and letting go of the not-so-good. Deconstructing our faith can help us hold onto it. But it’s not enough to deconstruct, we must also decolonize our faith from its imperial history. We need to see that we’ve allied with patriarchy, whiteness, capitalism, and other forces of death to keep our movement going. Letting go of that, repenting of the harm we caused, creates a Christian witness worth standing up for. We don’t need the culture to change, we need to learn to express our faith in a new way today. Not in a way that is hostile to the world around us, but rather inclusive of it. If we humble ourselves to consider why our faith seems irrelevant, we can stop fighting a culture war, and learn from our past mistakes, as we forge a new path for our faith, one that is meek and mild, not exceptionalistic and supremacist.