I teach a literary theory course for college English majors–things like Marxism, feminism, postcolonial criticism–and at some point each semester, one of my students is bound to say something like, “Why does theory hate religion so much!” It’s true that a lot of the theories we discuss point in one way or another to religion in general and Christianity in particular as something that has been used to marginalize or exploit certain groups. And so my students, many of whom are religious, often get defensive about the “attacks” on Christianity and some dismiss the critiques on religion outright as part of a “liberal bias” in academics.
Though as an academic I accept the premises of these theories’ criticism, to a certain extent I share my students’ desire to defend my faith against accusations of Christianity’s misdeeds. In fact, I believe strongly that Community of Christ’s mission, beliefs, and principles stand up very well against the criticisms offered by the theories I teach.
Where Marxism calls religion “the opiate of the masses” that tries to placate the poor and keep them in their place, I can point to our Mission Initiative to “abolish poverty and end suffering,” echoing Christ’s own endeavors to restore dignity to the poor and lift them out of the conditions of injustice.
Where feminism and queer theory implicate religion with the perpetuation of repressive patriarchy and homophobia, I turn to our focus on developing right relationships with and between all people, and our insistence on the worth of all persons and the belief that all are called to share in God’s loving and restoring work. And I see us enacting these principles in the hard work and tough decisions of recent national conferences as we try to better understand what it means to live out these ideals.
Where postcolonial criticism looks painfully on a history of Christianity imposed (often violently) around the world and used to denigrate indigenous cultures and beliefs, I see a world church dedicated to extending a loving invitation to Christ and striving to make the mission and ministry of the gospel speak through the diverse languages and cultures of the church.
Where environmental criticism sees human domination and exploitation of nature written into the Judeo-Christian heritage of Genesis, I remember our own heritage of stewardship, seeing all creation as sacred and deserving of our loving care as co-creators with God.
But as I tell my students, these theories aren’t criticizing what Christianity believes so much as what Christianity does; and like it or not, religion has an all-too-familiar history of not living up to its own principles. I might smugly comfort myself that my church believes and says all the right things, but that’s not really the point. The challenge here isn’t to my belief, it’s to the actions I undertake (or fail to undertake) as a result of that belief. So in those times and in those discussions where it’s easy to see Christianity “under attack,” I’ve learned to ask myself, not “How does my faith stack up to the criticism?” but “How do my actions stack up to my faith?”