Distinctiveness of Christianity
Christianity makes a big thing of being counter-cultural, but when the rubber hits the road, how much does it actually differ from the culture it claims to run counter to? I grew up understanding the sum total of Christian Morality to be a sort of middle-class respectability and politeness, and I’ve seen little since then to suggest that it’s much deeper than that. There’s variation depending on your location and flavour of church, and those different flavours will often disagree with each other, but the result always seems to be a sort of institutionalised, co-opted secular morality, reflecting the dominant culture of church members rather than an objective standard.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the church often seems to lag a long way behind general cultural trends in the morality stakes. A couple of current examples are homosexuality and the role of women. The wider population largely got over these some time ago, and is now waiting impatiently for the church to catch up. That isn’t necessarily an indication that the church is doing anything wrong – it could be argued that it’s holding to moral principles in the face of a hostile culture – but given that the church is in fact moving towards the centre ground of popular opinion, albeit with glacial slowness, it looks far more like the church really is following at its own pace, rather than leading.
Maybe that’s not entirely fair. I’ve said before that the weakness of the church is that it’s run by people, and maybe it’s lost its way a bit over time, so what about the foundation of the church? There’s plenty in the New Testament about being different and standing apart from the world, so it was radical and different back then, wasn’t it? No, not really. The epistles suggest that local churches would have a strong flavour of whatever local customs there were (in the port of Corinth, for example, St Paul’s main concerns appear to have related to sexually promiscuous polyglots), so the church doesn’t appear to have been al that distinctive in its early days in the 1st Century.
You could argue that this is a reflection of a movement that was still young and somewhat raw and disorganised, but it never seems to have changed very much. The Letter to Diognetus – the earliest known example of Christian apologetics, dating around the late 2nd Century – appears to confirm Christianity’s conformity to cultural norms, even when trying to show how different and remarkable Christians are:
Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life… With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.
So even by the most positive interpretation of what’s often regarded as the church’s golden age, it appears that Christianity doesn’t offer an alternative to mainstream culture so much as a slight variation. That’s not so terrible, but when it’s cast as distinctively counter-cultural and a source of objective morality (neither claim being particularly rare), it does cast doubt on the honesty and self-awareness of the person making the claim.
Looking at the way the church has worked in the past, the way it’s shifted with culture and changed its position on various issues, I can see it as a plausible result of a lot of people trying to make the world a better place, one step at a time, through careful application of the Golden Rule. What I can’t see is any way it could be the outcome of a huge community in possession of a clear, unambiguous, objective moral code.