Secularists of the American Northeast might scoff at such a statement, but it takes courage to be a Christian in the modern West. That’s the subject of this year’s Portsmouth Institute conference, June 10-12, at the Portsmouth Abbey.
One indicator of the times: For the first time in the history of the American Library Association’s list of books that people challenge as inappropriate for a library, The Holy Bible made the top 10 this year. In period of relativism, adhering to any objective truths will eventually make one the target of people who find those truths restrictive.
Of course, Christians have two lights, seemingly contrasting, by which to view this problem. After all, the messiah on whom we model ourselves said both that “my yoke is easy, and my burden light,” and that “if they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”
Part of the power of Christianity is the framework that it provides for understanding such truths, which seem irreconcilable on their practical surfaces. The concept of the Trinity is a central example, as is the concept of free will within the reality of an omniscient, omnipotent God, and likewise the less sectarian dichotomy of spirit and body.
Another example, directly relevant to contemporary controversies, is the mandate to love, respect, and value everybody while promoting standards for behavior that are healthier on a personal and societal scale as well as more spiritually fulfilling — to “love the sinner, but hate the sin.” That old formulation may have served its purpose when the idea of sin held a broader consensus, making it easier to lose sight of the sinner and the love that is due to him or her.
In our day, by contrast, we’re more apt to lose sight of the sin. We’re so determined to prove our respect for others that we allow them to insist that we acknowledge their self-definition and treat their behavior as if it is protected behind a shield of “identity.” An online video that made the social media rounds, recently, captured the sense of this new age. In it, a variety of college students were unable or unwilling to tell a short white man that he was not a tall Chinese woman.
Unlike politically correct relativism, Christianity is just not compatible with some beliefs and activities, unless one strips the religion of all of its moorings in scripture and tradition — leaving it as spiritual dressing for a reality of our own creation. Believers, therefore, must ask themselves whether it truly is respectful and compassionate to let others persist in destructive errors. The challenge becomes more profound inasmuch as those destructive errors extend beyond the people making them, leading others astray.
The mirror image challenge is finding ways to draw people toward a better path. Here again, Christianity’s two lights seem to contrast. At last year’s Portsmouth Institute conference, much of the conversation had to do with the fact that Pope Francis is so popular around the world, including in the secular culture. How is that possible, if we’re entering a new era of persecution?
The speakers at next month’s conference may have varying opinions on that question, but one part of the answer might be that the pope’s role has changed. Previous religious leaders had to stand as piers against the incoming cultural tide so believers could have some anchor. Perhaps with the tide at its peak and about to go back out, Pope Francis is turning a welcoming face, like a beacon, to those being dragged out to sea. That would leave it to believers to hold firm to principle as they reach for the hands of the drifting.
It isn’t just the Bible that’s being challenged, but also the belief system for which it is the scriptural basis. In recent years, we’ve likely had a mere taste of the hostility that believers will face going forward, and we’d do well to take as many deep breaths as we can, while we can.
(Note that the deadline for registration for the conference is May 20.)