“The greatest enemy of Christianity is not atheism, but sentimentality.”
STANLEY HAUERWAS’ BOLD ASSERTION (quoted above) seems to raise more questions than it answers. How could sentimentality possibly be more damaging to Christianity than atheism? And what does he mean by sentimentality? What I think Hauerwas is getting at is the sense in which many Christians think they can embrace Christ and somehow avoid his cross (what Bonheoffer called “cheap grace”). Flannery O’Connor discusses the problems associated with this type of faith in her essay, “The Church and the Fiction Writer.” She says,
“We lost our innocence in the Fall and our return to it is through the Redemption which was brought about by Christ’s death and by our slow participation in [His death]. Sentimentality is a skipping of this process in its concrete reality and an early arrival at a mock state of innocence, which strongly suggests its opposite.”
I think this skipping of the process, which O’Connor so eloquently describes, inevitability leads to a people who use God’s name in vain. If we embrace Christ while refusing to die to old habits and old ways of life we end up invoking God’s name in order to underwrite our own selfish and sinful desires. We end up using the Bible, not as a lens through which we can correct our vision of the world/our lives, but as a receptacle of proof texts to validate what we already believe. Instead of taking up our cross and following Christ, we want Jesus to give us our ticket to heaven and leave us alone. Unfortunately, this understanding of Christ is nothing like the Jesus of Nazareth who the gospels depict.
“You will be dead, so long as you refuse to die.” -George MacDonald
If there is one constant throughout the gospels, it is that Jesus never left anyone he came in contact with unchanged. Instead, he called men and women to follow him. To follow Christ is to be united with him, through baptism, in both his death and resurrection. By participating in his death, we no longer need to “be passive victims of the mortality into which we have been thrown, for now we can actively ‘use death’ as the beginning of a new mode of life…” Yet we can only enter into this new existence by actively taking up our cross, putting our selfish and solipsistic tendencies to death, in order to live beyond ourselves for God and neighbor. Sadly, our world is so enmeshed in sin that we often avoid this whole process and end up using God’s name in vain.
Using God’s name in vain is, of course, not only a sin committed by individuals. From the beginning, the church was called to be an alternative polis, a different type of city, whose cornerstone was not power or violence, but the crucified body of a Jewish peasant. However, Christian civilizations have repeatedly been lured, by power and greed, to commit atrocities in God’s name. The wedding of political power and the Christian faith, in the Constantinian settlement, marked a tragic turn in the history of the church. Christianity’s greatest historical conquest, the conversion of the Roman Empire, became its most dreadful defeat. The faith that began “proclaiming the overthrow of the powers of ‘this age’” soon became a weapon in the hands of those very powers. From the conversion of Constantine to the Crusades, from the Spanish Inquisition to Christians’ defense of slavery in America, there has been a long and bloody history documenting the church’s collusion with the powers of this world. The great irony in all of this is that at the very center of the Christian faith stands the trial and execution of Jesus, the Son of God, who was murdered “by the combined authority and moral prudence of the political, religious, and legal powers of human society.” The greatest atrocity in history, deicide, “the killing of God” was sanctioned by the very best human institutions of Jesus’ time – the political and religious authorities of the Roman Empire. And yet subsequent Christian rulers, repeatedly took the place of Caiaphas and Pilate, shedding the blood of their enemies in the name of this crucified God.
If there is a single thread running through the New Atheist’s literature (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, etc.), it seems to be a righteous indignation at this type of self-serving religion. The kind of faith, which merely uses God’s name to further the religious adherents personal, political, or economic objectives. In light of this, I believe Hauerwas is absolutely right to name sentimentality as the great enemy of Christianity. The type of faith, which does not participate in the death of Christ inevitably leads to a church that is simply a “spiritualized” version of the city of Cain.
The city built on fear, power, and violence.