Sunday, July 20, 2014

Damon Linker on Nienstedt Story: A "Potentially Church-Destroying Trend"

Damon Linker takes a look at the Nienstedt story — in particular, at the fact that "he's been accused of conducting numerous sexual affairs with men while also leading his archdiocese's fight against same-sex marriage and regularly denouncing homosexuality in the most uncompromising terms possible" — and concludes that this story points to a "potentially church-destroying trend" about which conservative Christians need to be very concerned.

Linker points out that communications technologies make it impossible now for churchmen to hide their peccadilloes and hypocrisies. And so clerical hypocrisy and corruption, which are, after all, nothing new, are easily exposed by these technologies in the 21st century, leaving churches that uphold what Linker calls "a moral outlook that diverges sharply (especially in sexual matters) from the latitudinarian and egalitarian ethic of liberalism" open to charges of hypocrisy, when stories like the Nienstedt story break open.

Such stories drive more and more people out of the churches, because: 

Then consider that liberalism's ethic of equality — including its embrace of same-sex marriage — seems in some ways to conform with, or at least plausibly follow from, the most subversive moral teachings of Jesus Christ. Why wouldn't a believer disillusioned by scandal just choose to be vaguely Christian — a "moralistic therapeutic deist," "spiritual but not religious" — while skipping the dogmatic and doctrinal trappings of institutional Christianity?

As I read Linker's conclusion, I wonder why he feels compelled to set the "dogmatic and doctrinal trappings of institutional Christianity" over against what he calls "vaguely Christian ideas" like equality? In what sense is the notion of equality — including the equality of gay human beings with straight ones (or of women with men) — an aberration of or departure from dogmatic and doctrinal Christianity?

Is dogmatic and doctrinal Christianity somehow inherently antithetical to the notion of equality, and, in particular, the equality of homosexual people with heterosexual ones (and of women with men)? If, as Linker notes, the notion of equality seems plausibly to flow from the teachings and example of Jesus himself (I'd go further and say it's firmly rooted in the teachings and example of Jesus), wouldn't it perhaps be appropriate to ask here whether what passes for dogmatic and doctrinal certainty among many conservative Christians is often a betrayal of the teaching and example of Jesus?

And whether what's being set up as "institutional" Christianity's dogmatic and doctrinal heritage, which is beyond all change, is, in fact, the creation of a particular group within the Christian churches, from a particular period of church history? The interesting question to ask here — and it has been asked for some time now by liberation theologians, by feminist theologians, by gay theologians, by black theologians — is when, how, and where white heterosexual men began to imagine that they and they alone represent the "dogmatic and doctrinal trappings of institutional Christianity" in such a pure and irreversible way that anyone questioning the claims of these men to own Christianity ends up being characterized as a "vaguely Christian" liberal?

Rather than as someone pointing to the teaching and example of Jesus as the very foundation of all dogmatic and doctrinal traditions, or as someone noting that the teaching and example of Jesus militates against the claims of any group within the body of Christ to own the Christian tradition, its dogma and doctrine, in a unilateral way . . . . 

Perhaps the claims of straight white men to own Christianity in a very exclusive way, claims that have proliferated in the latter half of the 20th century, are as much part of the reason many people are running away from the churches as is the hypocrisy of closeted gay clerics who attack their fellow human beings who are gay. Closeted gay clerics who attack their fellow human beings who are gay, and who have, for a long time now, been defended and cheered on by those defending the exclusive ownership of dogma and doctrine by white heterosexual males . . . . 

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