08 October 2010

BioLogos and Christian unity. Part I: The cost of artificial unity

Christian unity is not something to take lightly. Famous biblical proof texts urge us to pursue it. Basic theological commitments establish it as a primary goal of believers. Basic human nature would seem to drive us to seek solidarity with those who share fundamental beliefs. So when a Christian – especially a Christian in the midst of a dispute or disagreement with another Christian – makes an appeal for unity, only a fool would rise to disagree. Considered in isolation, talk of unity is powerfully persuasive to Christian believers. "Considered in isolation." That's where I will focus as I try to explain (again) why talk of unity can be inappropriate and even dangerous when it is offered outside of context. In short, I take the following to be evident: unity is not an end in itself, and is not achieved by wishful thinking or gushy happy talk. I'll look at those two points in two posts on BioLogos and Christian unity.

So, I'm occasionally frustrated by the stance of my friends at BioLogos when it comes to Christian unity. Consider a recent and widely-discussed piece by Darrel Falk, on the question of why BioLogos is co-sponsoring a conference (called The Vibrant Dance) with two organizations known to regularly misrepresent science: Reasons To Believe (RTB) and the Discovery Institute (DI). Falk notes that this choice has been criticized by believers and skeptics alike. In my opinion, his defense of that choice misses the most important criticisms. His defense amounts to a claim that Christian unity matters more than just about anything else. Specifically, he asserts that "what we have in common far outweighs the differences we may experience." And "we" is BioLogos, RTB, The DI, and an interesting group of other organizations, one of which is my employer (Calvin College). I will have words for Calvin in the near future. Here are some comments on his reasoning and his claims in that post.

1. The question is not whether Christians should point to the things they agree on. It's not about whether affirmations of shared belief are beneficial or appropriate when Christians find themselves in disagreement. For me and, I suspect, most of the critics that Falk was referring to, the question is whether BioLogos should cosponsor a conference on faith and science with organizations that seek to mislead people about science. Maybe you can be "in unity" with Christians who make stuff up, but you oughtn't share billing with them when it comes to public discussions of faith and science, at least not without openly acknowledging the fact that some of your partners are known to engage in intellectual misconduct.

2. I may have missed a major announcement but last I checked, the Discovery Institute is not an explicitly Christian organization, and its goals are not (officially) centered on the gospel or on Christian unity. The DI, in fact, counts non-Christians and even an atheist among its “fellows.” Since Falk has made the distinction between atheists and Christians into a centerpiece of his argument, it seems odd to apply it to the DI and to talk as though it makes sense to make “Christian unity” a major focus of a relationship with such an outfit.

3. Falk claims that unity is a goal of the conference, and that participants have somehow agreed to behave themselves. Even if we assume that RTB and the DI know what it means to “maintain a spirit of unity in all we say” while speaking at a meeting of Christians, they are elsewhere busily engaged in work that accomplishes the opposite. The next post will be specific about this, but the point here is that it is not enough – not nearly enough – to say that these folks have promised to be nice. There is no nice way to lie, no nice way to pretend that evolutionary explanations are evil nonsense, without compromising one's integrity and wrecking any real sense of “unity” with those who can see through the charade. A promise to “maintain a spirit of unity” in this context is a commitment to engage in collective deception.

4. Unity – whether it's Christian unity or patriotic unity or tribal unity or any other kind of “unity” – is not something that is inherently good or evil. When it's nice, happy unity, it's something nice and happy. But it's frequently manifested as groupthink and mindless conformity. In other words, some forms of unity – yes, even Christian unity – veer in the direction of outright evil. To be united is not to be better or to be healthier. I judge the Westboro Baptist Church to be evil, whether or not its leaders or parishioners are “Christians,” and I would be offended by the suggestion that I should be in “unity” with them. Whether or not they are Christians, their actions should be repudiated and even opposed. “Unity” sounds good when the Christians in question are decent and respectable. It sounds like evil when the Christians in question are scurrilously wicked.

5. Finally, and in summary, the emphasis on unity in Falk's piece, especially given that it begins with some blunt language of separation from atheists (the us-versus-them language magnifies the impulse to seek unity with no questions asked), leads to the impression that Christian unity is more important than correction and accountability. Flowery talk about such unity in the presence of morally unacceptable behavior on the part of public Christian apologists is not merely unfortunate. It's offensive.

This, then, is what I will call the cost of artificial unity, of persistently vocalizing points of agreement without also noting that some people don't tell the truth: the gospel, that which was claimed to be the unifying anchor, is diminished. It's hard to argue for the transforming and radical nature of the good news if others see it as a banner of legitimacy for nonsense and a license to deliberately distort the truth. And, in fact, I would go further. It is precisely the openly Christian nature of Reasons To Believe that should cause Christians to hold it to a higher standard of truth-telling. It is precisely the juxtaposition of Christian faith with anti-science rhetoric that should cause Christians to reject and isolate the Discovery Institute.

These outfits aren't just abusing science. They're doing it under the banner of the faith. As long as Reasons To Believe and the Discovery Institute engage in openly dishonest attacks on science and deliberate distortions of scientific knowledge, discussions about "unity" between them and BioLogos should focus entirely on their failure to meet (or seek to meet) standards of integrity. If and when that topic is tackled, dialogue about points of theological or philosophical disagreement can proceed in a context of Christian unity. Until then, Christian moral credibility is damaged by a misguided attempt to be unified in the presence of misconduct. There are, after all, proof texts about that stuff too.

Steve Matheson, Calvin College

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