In my last post, I asked what remedy Christians might offer for the social and psychological brokenness that has given rise to the Trump phenomenon.
I observed that within the liberal tradition there has been a history of transformative social interventions, contrasting with the more traditional emphasis on individual conversion. And I suggested that, if ‘civilisation’ is failing, we might need to revisit that dichotomy.
Why does the Church evangelise? It is a live current issue, given the Renewal and Reform programme in the Church of England, which is so focused on church growth especially amongst the young. That is not just about institutional self-preservation (though such a motive is, to put it mildly, not wholly absent). There are, certainly, Christians who believe that we are obliged to evangelise in order to save souls from Hell. That would not be the view of liberals, or even perhaps, these days, all of those in the traditional catholic and evangelical camps.
Do we, then, evangelise because we believe that Christian faith is inherently life-enhancing, and that we must share it with our neighbours for that reason? Indeed, in the perspective of eternity, that may be so; but there have been many who have at times wished that they had not been called into discipleship, because it is not always a bed of roses and it is dishonest to sell it as if it is.
What an honest Christianity can offer, surely, is or should be a community within which the damages at the deepest levels of our being can find healing. That is most obvious in the case of the ‘open and notorious evil livers’ whose conversion and subsequent transformation is so often cited in evangelical literature. But it is surely increasingly clear that deep damage is not restricted to such people. Journalists are already asking whether Trump and his followers are ‘psychiatric cases’. Indeed, psychiatry can play its part in personal journeys of healing, as it did for the great priest and theologian Harry Williams who was more perceptive and honest than most about the contents of his id. But love is the greatest healer of all.
In the words of Bishop John Robinson, author of the controversial Honest To God, the biggest existential question for humanity is ‘not whether Love ought to be at the heart of the universe, but whether it actually is’. Engagement with the Christian story and the Christian community, for all the ambiguities of both, is at least one way of answering that question. Healing love is less likely to be ambiguously based when it is based on interaction with others rather than simply an individual quest (though the most isolated mystics and eremites also have their place within the story and the community). But how does it work, in the situation in which we find ourselves?
One thing is clear. It does not, ultimately, work by rules. Every community needs rules, structures, and they can help to contain excesses and may be helpful to many people in many situations. But St Paul’s extraordinary perception of the ultimate inadequacy of the Jewish Law should remind us that rules do not ultimately heal. We can lay down social expectations, ecclesiastical regulations, and even public statutes to require women and men to treat each other aright, to demand fair treatment for those who are alien to our culture, and so on. In very many countries – including the USA – and very many faith communities this has been done over recent decades, with liberal Christians often a more or less significant part of the process. And we thought we had changed the climate of opinion. Maybe we have, more than we imagine, because it seems that many Trump voters would not only despise his misogyny but disagree with him on matters such as climate change. But clearly not enough. And ‘more of the same’ may simply increase the alienation.
Love is a complex thing. For some Christians of a charismatic persuasion, it may be experienced through forms of ecstasy in worship and prayer. Liberals are generally rather aware of the ambiguity of that process, which carries all the risk of self-deception and self-glorification that (again as St Paul saw) are inherent in the ‘born-again’ experience. More often, it may come in quieter ways, through one-on-one relationships with those who are a little further along the journey of healing – though none of us is perfectly healed, let alone a perfect healer, and there is scope for self-deception in such a context also. In either case, there is also all too much scope for a formulaic solution, the most obvious perhaps being those cases where churches urge that homosexuality be ‘healed’ (in other words suppressed rather than redeemed).
The churches and their members need to learn more from those who have thought deeply about the processes of Love, in relation not only to sexuality but also for example to power, anger, and fear of the Other. Some of their wisdom, especially on sexuality, may have unconventional results in terms of Christian tradition; but we need to ‘get over’ that. I may be an instrument of another’s healing in one or more of these areas, but it is quite likely that the healed person will not look remotely the way I would want them to look (in other words, rather like myself, or like some abstract ideal held out in Christian tradition). Equally, others may contribute to my healing, but the result may well disappoint them!