Thank you for your recent letter. It pleases me to reply to you, not because I consider myself to be a special expert on any of the topics about which you have written me, but because I realize that any opportunity to lay out answers to the kinds of questions you ask is an opportunity to sharpen my own thoughts. So please take it to understand that I am eager to answer you not on the merits of my intelligence, but on the merits of your questions.
It seems to me, rereading your thoughts, that while you touch on a number of subjects—the decline of Christendom, the rise of atheism, shifts in culture through both marriage and gay marriage, the presence of (shall we say) unorthodox or false Christians in the visible Church, and so forth—the real centre of your concern seems to me to be twofold: first, you are eager to know what is the ‘right’ way (orthodoxy), and second, knowing that ‘right’ way you desire some practical answers to the questions that trouble our times. Have I read you rightly? If so, then I want to begin with a word that may or may not be comforting: I do not think you are alone in your concerns. That might comfort you because you can know that you share these concerns with others. But it might also trouble you because it implies that the questions you are asking are widespread, if not pervasive.
The real trouble we face when talking about the “right” way or the orthodox way (small o orthodox, by the way) is we have come to believe, and have been told again and again, that there is no such thing as a “right” way. “Who are you to judge?” is the question thrown at any serious Christian in search of the truth. In fact, the entire structure of education and public discourse for the last fifty or so years has been tuned for exactly this purpose, promoting a fictitious and disingenuous equality of ideas. It is fictitious because, clearly, not all ideas are equal. The idea of slavery is an idea, but we consider it to be an idea inferior to the idea of freedom. If all ideas are equal then on what grounds can we possibly say that slavery is inferior to freedom? We cannot, and we do not. But while we permit these kinds of moral conclusions in areas that are culturally favorable, we are clipped and hindered from exercising our moral reasoning when it comes to other areas. Here the concept is disingenuous, because if the same moral reasoning that causes me to conclude that freedom is superior to slavery—as we might also claim brotherly love superior to racism, or peace superior to war—if that same reasoning applied to questions of belief concludes that one system of belief is superior to another, then my reasoning is condemned wholesale, and I am accused of judging. Never mind that the accuser has just judged me in the process!
All that to say that when we talk about the “right” way of Christianity, we are speaking words that are controversial on many different levels. They are controversial because they offend against culture, controversial because they claim, in and of themselves, a kind of absolute standard that judges all others, and controversial because they have the potential to offend other Christians against whom we appear to be standing when we claim to be approaching what is “right.” This is a tricky business, made more so by the fact that it is such an easy business to attack Christianity by highlighting the vast number of denominational divisions among us. “If you are so divided,” the attack goes, “how can I have any assurance that you know the truth? You want me to become a Christian, but what kind?” It is difficult to deny the merits of the accusation, is it not? But I believe there is a good answer—one that we perhaps need to hear more than our accusers. If Christianity is like a vine, then it is very important to understand that while Christ is the vine itself, each denomination, each individual Christian, in fact, is a branch stemming from that vine. There are hundreds and thousands and millions of branches, each connected to Christ. Not all of those branches are bearing fruit, and not all of those branches are healthy. Some branches look dead but still have a core of life within them. Others look quite alive but are rotten inside and will soon be cut off and tossed aside. This is the place where it is difficult to judge. However, the one thing we do in fact have, the one thing to which each and every Christian has access, is a vision of the vine itself. We can always look at Christ, and by looking at Christ we get a clear idea of what Christianity is supposed to look like. To put it bluntly, Christianity has always been more about Christ than about individual Christians.
To put this another way, what I’m talking about here is what I want to call Centrist Christianity. By “centrist” I mean a Christianity that is focused on the Centre, not “centrist” in the political sense of coming to the middle between two opposites. I think you know that in the Christian God there is no compromise with evil, no accommodation to wickedness. God purifies the wicked, but relationship with Him in no way means “finding a middle ground for our sin.” No, the Christian faith is a matter of falling to our knees before the cross of Christ—the absolute middle of all things—and there receiving our own crosses to follow in Christ’s footsteps. This is similar to what one of my former professors used to call being “seeker sensitive”—not to tailor Christianity to those seeking Christ, but to tailor our Christianity to Christ, who is the Seeker. You can see there is a critical difference between the two.
Given all this, I want you to know that I believe it is possible to be more or less on the right side with God. But don’t misunderstand me—I’m not claiming to be personally “right,” as if I am the source of all rightness and the standard by which rightness is judged! You or I will never get to claim that our way is God’s way (or, as a friend of mine says, “My way is Yahweh!”)—we can only mutually approximate our understanding of Christ and his way, and then labor stridently to bring our lives in accordance with that way. In fact, this brings us curiously right back to Christ’s command not to judge from Matthew’s gospel—go re-read that passage and you’ll see that he goes on to give advice on how to judge! The chief criteria of judgment, there? “By the measure you use it will be measured to you.” In other words, we do not come as judges against each other, but we come mutually to the judgment seat of Christ and are judged together. In Christian judgment, Christ has all the power, the final word.
I think that’s all for now. Do you think I have understood your initial concerns rightly? And are we on the right track together? We want to be on the same page before we continue, because if we lack a common foundation none of the other considerations will add up. There’s no point discussing atheism, or false teachers, or racism, if we do not have a common set of principles from which to approach the questions. Also, please tell me a little more about yourself in your next letter. You say you are a regular worshipper, but can you tell me more about your church experience? Answering abstract questions is one matter, speaking to another soul in a journey with Christ is something different—and quite a bit more serious, too.