Foolishness to the Americans

by Hal Miller

It is relatively easy to talk about how Christianity is distinctive; any decent comparative religion book can teach you that. Set out on the smorgasbord of religions and philosophies, Christianity has some unique things about it-a particular bouquet, a certain mingling of spices. Placed next to any other dish on the religious menu, you can tell Christianity when you smell it; it's distinctive, one of a kind.

It's much more difficult to say how Christians are distinctive.

Maybe Christian life is distinctive, but you'd never know it by looking at us. The world has people who are more religious than us; it has more involved people; and it has more morally rigorous people. Our Christian media superstars rise and fall with the same speed as everyone else's. We don't seem to have any better solutions to the world's problems. And like most other people, we spend most of our time working, raising kids, and sleeping.

So what makes Christians different? We are not notably more prudent, more righteous, or more intelligent than others. We're a motley bunch, really: mostly poor and middle-class people, a few disaffected intellectuals, a token yuppie or two, an occasional good person-isn't that what Paul said we were like (1Cor. 1:26-31)? And oddly, he seems to think it's important that the Christians aren't particularly distinctive, at least that we aren't distinctively smart or wealthy or prestigious.

Maybe we aren't distinctive at all; but if that's true, why would a moral, involved, religious person want to become a Christian? Or why, for that matter, would anyone?

The stock answer is that being a Christian insures your salvation after death and is the only (or best, depending on your denomination) way to be related to God. This may indeed be true, but is that it? Put differently, if the stock answer is the only answer, then why not become a Christian on your deathbed, and live your earthly life another way. The emperor Constantine did it; why shouldn't we?

THE NEW TESTAMENT has a good deal in it which would give the impression that Christians should look distinctive. Narrow is the path and so on, and American religious moralists incessantly quote these texts. But when you get down to specifying what the path is, this narrow one, things get a little fuzzy. The letter to the Ephesians, for instance, contrasts two ways," a pagan one and a Christian one (Eph. 4:17-24). But the second way turns out to look like just what any god-fearing American soul would want for his daughter: don't steal, speak honorably, be forgiving and compassionate. Of course, he wouldn't want it for himself or his sons-not necessarily good business, you know-but that's another question.

Yet if we look deeper, there's something more here. We often read passages like this as some kind of recommendation of "lifestyle" in a detached, National-Geographic sense of the word. We think the life we "learned in Christ" is simply a different version of the same commodity that any New York or New Guinea tribal type learned from their forebearers. Suburbanites have a lifestyle, farmers have a lifestyle, and Christians have a lifestyle. But the Christian "lifestyle" is not just another dish on the great smorgasbord of lifestyles. It's not so simple as that. In the last part of Ephesians 4, among other places, we have an attempt to express what is distinctive about a Christian way of being.

Apparently, this way of being is not normal for the people who are called to live it. "Quit stealing," says the text in Ephesians, "and work with your hands so you have something to give" (4:28). Now that's quite a change. It doesn't counsel working to support yourself, the good American virtue of self-sufficiency; it counsels giving to others, which is an entirely different thing-and a very impractical thing. The text doesn't counsel fairness; it speaks of forgiveness. We Americans value fair-play and think people ought to get what they deserve. So how is it that forgiveness is to be the operative virtue among the Christians? Forgiveness means precisely not getting what you deserve.

There's plenty that's disturbing here. The distinctiveness of the Christians isn't very virtuous from the perspective of American values. As a matter of fact, it's downright foolishness. Unlike Paul's "Greeks" who considered Christianity foolish because it insisted God had become flesh, we think it's the Christians who are foolish because they're impractical. You couldn't seriously live like that (if you have two coats, give one away, and so forth). Christianity doesn't strike Americans as folly; Christian life does.

Part of the reason for this is that we read Christian life as a set of disconnected, impractical attitudes and acts-don't worry about tomorrow, in Christ there is neither male nor female, and the rest. Maybe they're impractical, but they are hardly disconnected; on the contrary, they flow from a consistent vision of truly human life. The text in Ephesians 4, for instance, only brings up its impractical virtues in the context of life in a body (vs. 1-16). Here, Christians are conceived foremost as a body of people (rather than isolated, albeit virtuous, individuals) and attention is focused on the "joints" between the various members (as in 4:16). The "way we learned Christ," when the text finally gets around to talking about it, is profoundly relational. It assumes that new life in Christ is not a "lifestyle" of certain converted individuals but the culture of a community.

The New Testament often sounds like a broken record on this theme. Jesus said that the way pagans would recognize the Christians was not through their goodness or their power or their erudition, but by their love for each other (John 17:20-23). Christians are to do their self-examination on the same terms (1Jn. 4:7-12). Unfortunately for us as Americans, loving one another is not reducible to an individual lifestyle; isolated, individual persons simply cannot do it.

THE PROBLEM WITH the distinctiveness that belongs to the Christians is that it's not the kind of thing modern Americans find particularly attractive. We Americans are addicted to self-help books, results-oriented seminars, and anything that claims to be of practical help in winning friends, influencing people, making money, or having a flatter tummy. We also want things we can do as individuals, whether anyone else does them or not. Anything within our grasp insofar as a group does it is foolish, for (we reason) how can God want something if I can't do it? Never mind that it's the linchpin of what is distinctive about Christianity-we can't accept it. We want results, and we want them in a package we can use individually.

Yet without debate, love for each other-imprudent, impractical, self-giving love-is at the root of the distinctiveness of Christian life. Our problem is not that being a Christian isn't distinctive. Our problem is that Christian life is not distinctive in a way our culture considers acceptable. It's fairly obvious how love is impractical and thus seems inappropriate to the American in us. Love by its nature doesn't calculate costs and benefits. Indeed, anyone who claimed to love while really calculating whether the benefits outweigh the costs would for that very reason not be loving. Such a person might be good or just or benevolent-all important virtues, to be sure-but they would not be loving.

Of course the rhetoric of love is high on the list of American values. From campaign speeches to sitcoms, love is talked about as if it is an unquestioned American virtue. Yet, when you peel off the words to find out what people mean, "love" on the TV shows is almost entirely romance and "love" in the speeches is almost entirely justice or benevolence. Now I certainly would not want to criticize justice or benevolence or even romance. I simply think that we should be clear that when Christians talk about "love" (which is patient, kind, and the rest) we are talking about something different from justice, benevolence, or romance. And we should be clear that, as important as those virtues are, they are not the things that make Christian life distinctive.

More obscure is how love is only within the grasp of groups. An individual can posses any number of virtues that look like love: kindness, benevolence, impartiality, forbearance. Indeed, perhaps these virtues themselves are shards of a shattered whole of love. But love itself comes into existence only in a "one-another" context. In even the smallest of these one-anothers-a friendship or marriage-love can genuinely happen, but without a one-another, there cannot be love.

Try to imagine a case where an isolated individual loves. Try it with Jesus' description in John 17, "that they may all be one." Imagine yourself, a Christian in the fragmented world of modern Christendom, being "one" with the endless variety of Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox and Charismatic and Pentecostal groups. How would you do it? Go to one a week for the rest of your life and hug people? What if they didn't respond? In order to imagine an isolated individual lover, we would have to assume they don't respond. What then of the lover? That isolated individual may be extraordinarily forbearing, dedicated, and committed...but not loving.

Love requires more than an isolated individual. The underlying reason for this is that love is never a quality of an individual; it is a quality of a relationship. Love is something that people create "in the joints" between them. The unity of love can only be glimpsed in groups of Christians who together lay aside the divisions of their various backgrounds to work and celebrate together. Genuine ecumenism happens at just this unimpressive, grassroots level where love is turned loose into the world by a group. Perhaps the dependence of love on a one-another context is the reason Jesus promised that he would be present "where two or three gather" (Matt. 18:20), not where there is an isolated individual. And yet, if such a group virtue characterizes Christians it is certainly distinctive.

THE AMERICAN IN us finds this distinctiveness absurd. The idea that there might be important goods, like love, which can only be created by groups seems impossible to us, a notion we cannot accept under any conditions. Yet love is only one of the distinctive aspects of Christian life that are foolishness to the Americans.

Our medieval forebearers spoke of the "theological virtues" of faith, hope, and love. If we compare these with three common American virtues-dedication, success, and self-reliance-the distinctiveness of Christian life becomes obvious. We learn the American virtues from our parents and their peers from our youth. They are reinforced by dozens of influences around us so that we are affirmed in them almost by osmosis each day. We learn American virtues from TV commercials and billboards and pledges before school. Theological virtues, however, are incarnated in those who have gone before us in faith.

It is an American virtue to be dedicated. Americans were smitten by Oliver North testifying before Congress, whether he was right or wrong, criminal or innocent, because he was dedicated to his beliefs. Even those who disagreed with his actions acknowledged that North had peculiar honor; he was virtuous because he was dedicated. Yet this American virtue of dedication is not what Christians mean by faith. In contrast to the cock-sure, headlong plunge of dedication, Christian faith is well aware of the ambiguity and tentativeness of walking with God. Faith lacks the swagger and certainty of dedication, as a quick look at the lives of the faithful-Joseph in Egypt, Abraham riding to Horeb, Jesus in Gethsemene, Paul in prison-testifies. Dedication may indeed be good. It is simply the Christian virtue of faith. And what makes the life we learn in Christ distinctive is not dedication but faith.

Consider success. We idolize and try to emulate successful people-who would want to be a failure? We carefully calculate and scheme to attain financial security, respect, and competence. We calculate spiritual success with the same equation, and judge our ministry by the same criterion-the bottom line. And I have no real objection to success; every good American should want it. But it's not a Christian virtue, and it's surely not hope that looks at what is unseen and counts on what is unrealized. I wonder how Jesus, rejected by his own people and killed as a criminal, stacks up on the success scale?

The great American virtue, of course, is self-reliance. We pride ourselves on not wanting a handout, just a chance to prove ourselves. We look askance at anyone (except a child) who depends on another and feel put upon when anyone (except perhaps a member of our nuclear family) depends on us. Once again, self-reliance has its good points; if you don't have some of it, you have serious problems. Self-reliance is certainly better than one of its corresponding vices, thoughtless dependency. But self-reliance is not love, and pursuing it keeps us from being loving.

Self-reliance gets in the way of being loving in a variety of ways. One of these is obvious: a self-reliant person is reduced to being benevolent instead of loving. Because love happens "in the joints" between people, it requires that each have something important to give the other. Self-reliant people can surely give (and that is benevolence); but what can they receive?

I find it darkly amusing that when Americans interpret Jesus' summary of the law "love your neighbor as yourself," we lay great emphasis on the implicit importance of loving yourself (self-reliance in another package). We interpret this text to mean that we should first learn to love ourselves-be self-reliant-so that we can then love our neighbor-be benevolent. We never seem to notice how strained this interpretation is. We never seem to notice that Jesus treats self-love as a presupposition rather than as a virtue to be pursued. Loving yourself (unlike self-reliance) need not be sought; we already do it and do it quite effectively. Jesus simply counsels us to use it as an analogy to learn to love our neighbor.

NO ONE DENIES the importance of these Christian virtues-faith, hope, and love. But we often reinterpret them so that they are consistent with American virtues. We are willing to have faith (so long as it causes healings or prosperity) and hope (so long as it doesn't get in the way of us enjoying what we have in hand). Love causes us the most problem, so we mostly settle for benevolence or kindness and call it by the word "love."

Of course we Christians share the quest for a great many other virtues with the rest of the world. Like most of the other people on this planet, we're trying not to mess our lives up too badly. Those who are married are trying to stay that way. We're trying to stay employed and solvent. Parents are trying to help their children survive to adulthood. We are trying to be prudent, courageous, and the rest. But we Christians are also trying to be faithful, hopeful, and loving. These make Christian life distinctive, even if it is in a way that is foolishness to the American in us.