The leading Republican Senate candidate in Ohio, Josh Mandel, has already laid down a key marker for the 2022 election, saying on Twitter, “Evangelical Christians, Jewish conservatives and devout Catholics are our army.”
I know so many people whom I would consider “good Christians” and they are of all denominational and political stripes. I also have met some really nasty guys in clerical collars. Christians have been disagreeing with each other for 2000 years, and the last 50 years have brought congregational and denominational splits over civil rights, women’s roles, and LGBTQ acceptance. However, in my expectation, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” The 2022 and 2024 elections will foist a political pressure-cooker on local congregations where doctrinal and political disagreements have just been simmering unacknowledged for some time.
I have long criticized media writers that tend to use the generic term “Christian” to refer just to people of a fundamentalist and evangelical stripe. This has fed the narrative, in my view, that “Christians” are by-and-large Trump voters. Members of “old mainstream” and the more progressive variants seem to never get interviewed, even by the New York Times.
The “people in the pew” are often unaware of the behind-the-altar theological wranglings that manifest themselves as political markers. This post is a primer for media writers and pew-sitters, with my advice for differentiating various “flavors” of Christians when they disagree about issues in the public square. Part One of this take requires absorbing a bit of religious history. Part Two, which is now published, will demonstrate why these very old disagreements turn increasingly political, often in irreconcilable ways.
A few historical “vectors”
Instead of boxed-in categories, I prefer the visual tool of vectors, which are “fuzzy arrows” suggesting both direction and magnitude, like the wind indicators on a weather map. Christianity is a dynamic system of forces. Importantly, I could quote chapter and verse to justify just about any point on this map below, and that is a big part of the take-away. “Both-side-ism” typically bugs me, but progressives as well as conservatives frequently first play the “My way is the Jesus way” card. It is not that easy.
Instead, my visual map uses two (out of several possible) axes. Most Christians, in my experience, wander around somewhere inside the orange fuzzy circle, all equally convinced of their faithfulness to the Bible.
The God vector – the vertical axis
Be honest here. When someone asks you to “picture God,” what visual image first comes to mind? The late philosopher Ronald Dworkin observed that this “first image” of God in western Christians’ minds is often what he astutely called the “Sistine God,” Michelangelo’s iconic painting on the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. God is portrayed here as a white male humanoid with an “alpha” beard, surrounded by “heavenly hosts,” as he gives the spark of life to Adam with his forefinger.
Many “good Christians” reject this heavily anthropomorphic imagery and language in their conception of God, but they do it to varying degrees. Some walk that arrow all the way back down to what Dworkin called “the numinous God,” which has no human-like form but can be powerfully experienced in pondering the wondrous expanse of the natural world.
This end of the vector may approach the view often ascribed to indigenous Americans as “seeing God” in all of nature’s rocks, plants, and animals. Isaac Newton saw the expression of God in his calculus of gravity, describing the motion of the “heavenly bodies,” while Albert Einstein (although neither a Christian nor an observant Jew) frequently used “God language” to both explain his ecstasy in playing Mozart on the violin and to describe his physics, which tied together energy, matter, and time itself into mathematical relationships.
Most Christians, I’ll assert here, cannot articulate their conception of God clearly at all, and spend very little time thinking about it. It is common for us to wander up and down through life somewhere along this axis. Others hang tightly to the top of our chart, boldly proclaiming the “maleness” of God and all “His” earthly representatives. This top end has been the foundation for over four millennia of Jewish and Christian social power, often treating women more as property than humans of innate and equal worth. The idea of a female minister in my own religious tradition was unheard of during the first half of my own lifetime, and it continues to split several large denominations yet today.
The Jesus vector – the horizontal axis
Ever since the (nominally) monotheistic Jewish Christians began converting cultural Greeks and Romans (who had no problem with a pantheon of gods) the Christian church has argued the “Who is/was Jesus?” question. Early faith claims insisted that Jesus was “not just a human.” But if he was “divine,” then “How divine?” How much room is there at the top “ruling the heavens”? The First Council of Nicaea in CE 325 tried to settle, after long argument, on the language of God and Jesus as being of “the same substance,” as opposed to the proposed alternative “similar substance,” trying to reconcile evolving Christian theology with the existing Greek “scientific” conception of matter. Bart Ehrman, among other writers, has well documented the historical track of “Jesus becoming Christ,” moving from human prophet to Divine Savior, through the last half of the first century CE.
I cannot remember nor source whoever it was that first taught me the distinction of Hard Trinity versus Soft Trinity. I place the former near the upper right of my vector map above. It is not uncommon to hear prayers in many fundamentalist churches directed to “Dear Jesus-God,” which is not an incorrect reading of the Nicene Creeds, as it tried to assert “One God.” However, numerous Christian writers have “softened” that Trinitarian language in various ways throughout the last 2000 years, grasping at creative metaphors to differentiate “God the Father” from “Jesus the Son,” and trying to capture the more human Jesus often portrayed in three of the four Gospels (and especially in Mark).
Ireland’s St. Patrick famously used the three-leafed Irish shamrock (the third leaf being the Holy Ghost, which has typically gotten short shrift in these theological discussions) to give room to discuss a more human Jesus, but it is still “one shamrock.” Feminist theologian Sallie McFague carried the metaphor even further in the 1980s, talking about a yet “softer” Trinity of “mother, lover and friend,” which was a ‘bridge too far” for even many progressive Christians. I suspect every Christian preacher has his or her favorite Trinitarian metaphor, some “harder” than others.
It is not uncommon for Christians to slide back and forth across this “Jesus vector.” Sometimes they “see” Jesus as the most human and compassionate of “suffering servants,” while at other times they may singing hymns and “praise choruses” portraying Jesus on a powerful heavenly throne. Reconciling the two ends of this theology often requires verbal gymnastics to maintain an assumed monotheism, and you can find a lot of that throughout Christian literature.
When theology matters
It turns out that our “God language” and “Jesus language” matter. The way you feel about helping that poor immigrant “at your door” on the Southern border versus your local Irish pub food server who neglected to use his return ticket on Aer Lingus has its roots precisely in these vectors. How you relate to the most recent Hubble Telescope discoveries of previously uncharted millions of galaxies, each containing millions of stars, or to the math of coronavirus infections and vaccines, can be correlated to where you are sitting inside the orange circle above.
I have added two vectors spanning diagonally in the opening diagram that, I assert, correlate well to the primary axes. Christians gravitating toward the lower-left area of the map tend to see both their religious and their political views of society as requiring the “inclusivity” of a more diverse community of believers and citizens (Galatians 3:28). In the upper-right corner, on the other hand, the purpose of religious faith and societal norms are seen precisely as the way to “separate the wheat from the chaff” (Matthew 3:12).
And thus, as we will see in Part Two of this post, sincerely held religious faith inevitably becomes political. Do you embrace societal diversity as the very essence of a “universal God,” or do you see the human role as “everybody getting on the same page” in its cultural and doctrinal norms? Or are you torn between the two camps depending on which story leads the Evening News?
Whether you walked with Martin Luther King and John Lewis to bring civil rights to Black Americans, or more recently you stood up at the local school board meeting decrying their Covid mask mandates and teaching about America’s racial history, you have unavoidably brought thousands of years of theology into the political arena.
And, modestly playing a bit of Amos or Ezekiel here, I prophesy that the politics will get uglier on both of these axes. The related issues, likely to be inflamed during the next couple of national elections, may be impacting your own religion-based relationships right now. They are mine.
Part Two of this post is now published. You can subscribe to this blog in order receive new posts by entering your email address in the box on the left of your screen (or scroll to the bottom on your phone). Alternatively, you can click on the Facebook or Twitter icons to be notified of new posts.