Christians are supposed to be unpopular.
They are supposed to be out of touch with contemporary society (whether that means first century Palestine, early medieval Europe, nineteenth-century Africa or twenty-first century China). Their beliefs are supposed to seem weird and ridiculous to outsiders. Non-believers finding Christianity offensive or alienating is a feature, not a bug. If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first, Jesus says to the disciples; Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracise you, and insult you, and scorn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man. St Paul teaches that The cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
There is something in authentic Christianity to upset and challenge everyone. For conservative-minded people there is the radical scepticism about wealth and property and bourgeois respectability, the emphasis on mercy and forgiveness rather than ritual and social correctness, and the insistence that those on the fringes of society are just as precious to God as pillars of the community. For the more liberal-leaning folk there are those irksome and demanding restrictions on sexual expression and personal freedom, the stark warnings about sin and judgment and right doctrine, and the affirmation of hierarchy and divine authority.
TS Eliot puts it this way in Choruses From The Rock VI:
Why should men love the Church? Why should they love her laws?
She tells them of Life and Death, and of all that they would forget.
She is tender where they would be hard, and hard where they would like to be soft.
She tells them of Evil and Sin, and other unpleasant facts.
It always surprises me, therefore, how much Christians fret and wring their hands about how the rest of society sees them. Obviously in any walk of life where you are trying to persuade people of something, it is worth thinking about how you are perceived and how effectively you are communicating a message. But the aforementioned fretting is very often focused not on how Christians communicate, but on what they communicate, that is to say there seems to be a fairly widespread lack of confidence in the actual content of the faith, rather than uncertainty about how best to present that content. Compare, for example, these two statements:
(1. "It is hard to understand the traditional Christian teaching on sex and marriage. We should think about whether there are better ways to explain it”.
(2. "People seem to find Christian teaching on sex and marriage very hard to accept. Maybe we should just change it, or at least de-emphasise or downplay the hard bits, so as not to upset people”.
They are very, very different statements. I do wish people would be more clear about which of them they are making when they raise concerns about perception of Christianity.
Almost by definition, it tends to be those on the revisionist/liberal end of Christianity who most lack confidence in the content of Christianity, and particularly the moral content. It seems to me that a great problem faced by liberal Christianity is to retain distinctively Christian ethical commitments in the public sphere. For example, I have read quite a lot of arguments by Christians who are pro-choice on abortion, and there doesn’t seem to be very much to distinguish them from the generic pro-choice secular arguments. They tend to uncritically adopt the jargon and assumptions of non-religious pro-choicers, with a few vaguely Christian concepts thrown into the mix to add a sort of religious garnish.
Liberal Christianity is a somewhat vague term; but for now I take it to mean those forms of Christianity which lay heavy emphasis on individual reason and experience as means of discovering truth, maintaining a general posture of scepticism or even antagonism towards historical orthodoxy and practice, especially regarding sexual morality. Liberals tend to be heavily influenced by academic and intellectual trends in the world outside the church, such as equality feminism, sexual liberation, form criticism, or critical theory. They are very often critical of conventional “God-talk” and can be uneasy about the straightforward assertion of miraculous and/or supernatural happenings (and yes, of course #NotAllLiberals etc.).
My problem with much of liberal Christianity today is that it is a tamed Christianity, neutered and silent on the issues where Christian convictions are most beleaguered and despised: the sanctity of life, the importance of marriage, the rights of Christian conscience. Yes, it speaks with a strong prophetic voice on issues like peace and social justice. But as a priest acquaintance of mine once said, who is against peace and justice? Are people really risking anything personally, socially, culturally, or politically by standing up for what I will reluctantly call the “leftish” Christian stuff?
In 2016, Christians are not being driven out of business because they support a Palestinian state, or because they oppose bombing Syria or cuts to welfare. People don’t, by and large, lose friends or jobs or social status for having those beliefs. People are amused and irritated and bored by socialist clerics – but the real vitriol, contempt and ridicule is reserved for those who stand up for Christian orthodoxy on sexual morality, in particular abortion and gay marriage.
To refuse to attack the idols and entrenched anti-Christian practices of a society is a kind of cowardice, and the Church has often fallen into this trap. To name just a few examples: over the centuries Christian churches have failed to challenge slavery, racial bigotry, religious sectarianism, tyranny, violence, rigid class systems, gross inequality and systemic discrimination against women.
To quote Martin Luther:
“Also it does not help that one of you would say: ‘I will gladly confess Christ and His Word on every detail, except that I may keep silent about one or two things which my tyrants may not tolerate, such as the form of the Sacraments and the like.’ For whoever denies Christ in one detail or word has denied the same Christ in that one detail who was denied in all the details, since there is only one Christ in all His words, taken together or individually.”
Jesus gave very clear warnings about losing “saltiness”, that is the clarity and savour and distinctiveness of Christian teachings. It is sometimes said in support of changing longstanding Christian teachings on personal morality that “the Holy Spirit is doing a new thing”. I will say only this: it seems curious to me that the Holy Spirit’s new thing regarding sexual morality and the sanctity of life should so closely resemble the dominant moral views of the current year, and that it should have been detected only in Western countries just at the time when adherence to the “old thing” is starting to bear significant personal, professional and social costs for Christians.