Loving The Lukewarm: How To Teach Nominal Christians

I. Pharisee or Tax Collector? In the days after the Pulse shooting, the Orlando Sentinel published “The sermon on Pulse you didn’t hear in church,” by Eddie Kaufholz. After describing his surety that the gay community in Orlando would recover, Kaufholz turned his attention to those who might not recover: “What’s making me nervous is the church— collective Christianity.” Kaufholz went on to aptly describe the teachings of Jesus: “[The Sermon on the Mount”] is about loving enemies, not killing people, valuing life, not seeking revenge, looking out for the people who are in need. In short, loving all people.”

The problem for Kaufholz is not Christianity, but Christians. Further:

Yet when these truths [preached in the Sermon on the Mount] were stirring in my heart Sunday morning, I wondered— will the church heed the words of Jesus in the same way? I don’t know… Pastors are going to be conflicted because of their views on homosexuality, assault rifles, ISIS, politics… Yet I fear the church will forget that it’s not really about any of these things. It’s about loving God’s people.

In brief, Kaufholz’s take on the Pulse shootings was, “I know how to respond to horror and tragedy— with love. I really don’t know if most Christians will do the same.”

This opinion— the entire article, really— is emblematic of the way many of my students approach the Church population. Kaufholz identifies the great villain of our time, the villain which most students are ready to blame for all the problems in their own church, in their denomination, in the country, in the world: the problem is all the nominal Christians. Many Christian in this country, after they have roundly condemned secularism, will tell you the most immediate threat facing the Church today is mediocre Christianity, “Christians who don’t really mean it,” lukewarm Christianity. As a nominal Christian myself, I would agree that nominalism is a problem, but I don’t think it’s a problem for the Church. It’s a big problem for me, though, and that’s the level I think it best to deal with nominalism.

II. Who’s fake? Nominalism is a boogeyman which plagues good Christians and bad. Nominalism is noxious to Christians who do drugs and Christians who abstain, Christians who curse and mild Christians, as well. My students are apt to use the expression “real Christian” in two very different ways.

The “real Christian” is the Christian who abstains from drugs, girls, cursing, but rather prays and reads their Bible and does not lie and cheat and wear skimpy blouses; he is distinct from all those nominal Christians who suffer from such vices.

The “real Christian” is the Christian who does drugs, curses, and so forth, and doesn’t pretend he is a pious, good Christian— the “real Christian” is more real than Christian; he is unlike those pious hypocrites who think they’re going to heaven just because they don’t say the f-word every now and again. They’re fake.

Both the chaste and the lush dismiss the other as lacking sincerity. The other is either incapable of admitting what they are, or incapable of obeying God’s commands. The problem is either with the Christian who sees R-rated movies, or the Christian who thinks seeing R-rated movies is a moral crime. There is no kind of Christian in terms of temperament, then, who is not deeply suspicious of the authenticity of other people’s faith.

However, returning to “The sermon on Pulse you didn’t hear in church,” I must confess that as an Orthodox Christian, I hear this sermon all the time, and given that I work in an ecumenical community, I hear tale of Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans and Anglicans preaching such sermons all the time, as well.

Our understanding of “nominal Christianity” is sadly understudied. You see, Christians have found themselves anxious over the lack of difference between the City of God and the City of Man before.

In the fourth century, in the period between Constantine and the sack of Rome, the Empire rapidly Christianized. In The End of Ancient Christianity, R.A. Markus estimates around ten percent of the Empire was baptized before the Edict of Milan, and better than eighty percent was baptized by the time Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of Rome just three generations later. Before Constantine, to be Christian was dangerous. After Constantine, to be Christian was common. After the Edict of Milan, the Christian need not fear for his life, and so he moved about the Empire freely, conducted his business without concern. However, Christians grew anxious as the fourth century progressed. The Church came to see her own citizens dressing like pagans, shopping like pagans, laboring like pagans, and many Christians suffered an identity crisis: Is it a problem that a Christian and a pagan in line at Kroger are virtually indistinguishable from each other?

From the time Christianity became legal, Christians have been worried that they are too much like the world. Of course, the fourth century Church responded to this identity crisis by slowly incorporating asceticism into day-to-day life, and the Church of the city became increasingly influenced by the monastery as Christians sacramentally incorporated habits of self-denial to train their souls away from raw sensuality. Fourth century anxiety about nominalism gave birth to the Church calendar. Twenty-first century anxiety is yet to produce much more than a lot of finger pointing, though.

III. That guy is fake. My students are regularly vague about nominalism; at the same time most dismiss the need to “store up treasure in heaven,” they are quick to condemn Christians who live hedonistically. The same student who claims that not-cursing doesn’t save you might also claim that cursing is typical of nominalism. Are nominal Christians saved? The typical response is “I don’t know,” while assurance of one’s own salvation is commonly recognized. Theology-buff Christians are more apt to condemn garden variety Baptists and Methodist as nominal. Protestants are more apt to condemn Christmas-and-Easter Catholics as nominal, especially if the Protestant in question has heard a news story about violence in Latin American within the last twenty-four hours. We have all heard stories about the licentiousness which goes uncondemned at that kid’s church, and thus everybody at that kid’s church are nominal. That guy got his girlfriend pregnant, so he’s nominal at best. That guy’s church does healings (Pentecostal? Orthodox?) so he’s obviously nominal. What comes of this casting about for condemnation is the long, slow, patient, tested understanding that, “I am one of the only genuine Christian in the world,” or, “My holiness is the baseline for authentic Christianity.” Man is not the measure of all things, just this man.

One of the gifts of a classical education, though, ought to be a radical redefinition of what “nominal Christianity” actually is. No small blame for the tragic scapegoating of nominalism is the egotistical unwillingness to be mediocre. The modern language of devotion— a Harlequin Romance version of the already almost-too-sweet Confessions— prompts many students to speak about God in a manner so weighty, the soul cannot bear the burden. Jeff Tweedy once sang, “All my lies are always wishes,” and perhaps this same neurosis is on the line when the modern Christian says, “Jesus is everything to me,” because while we mean well (or we hope well), I have never met anyone for whom Jesus was everything.

IV. Actually, I’m fake. I would be content to say that, by the end of her austere 17 year struggle with the devil, St. Mary of Egypt might have claimed, “Jesus is everything to me.” Or St. Francis of Assisi, or St. Bartholomew (skinned alive). People who can justly claim “Jesus is everything to me” tend to lead very strange lives, perhaps for the very obvious reason that Jesus lead a very strange life. Let us admit that it takes a great degree of self-denial to get to the point the claim can be made honestly, and that those of whom the claim is true tend to be spoken of in venerable tones a thousand years after they die. I, on the other hand, have simply not chosen the kind of life which often leads to an honest laying hold of Jesus’ universal value. For instance, I can go a whole day without praying. Easily. I can’t go a whole day without eating. The number of days I have gone without praying outnumbers the days I have gone without eating by about 100 to 1. I say this not to shame those who don’t practice ritual fasting. Rather, I can simply forget to pray all day, but I have never forgotten to eat all day. I have gone weeks without picking up a Bible. I have not gone weeks without picking up a sandwich. If Jesus was everything to me, I imagine I would more frequently dine on that food which “you know nothing about” (John 4:32). Many of our students are crushed and confused by the weight of the claims irresponsible Christian rock stars and low-rent meme-preachers make about their own piety. Our students claim, “Jesus is everything to me,” because they believe that anything less is treason; yet, when they see others claim “Jesus is everything to me,” and the claim is obviously a farce, they cannot but condemn such hypocrisy as “the biggest problem with the Church.”

Such misunderstandings might be cleared up with St. Paul’s teachings about nominalism to the Corinthian church.

An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world–how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband.

A key problem to many misreadings of this teaching is an unfair universalizing of Paul’s separate claims. How many unhappily married women have read, “…a married man is concerned about… how he can please his wife,” and thought, “I should be so lucky”? How many chagrined fathers have thought on their 20-something flunky bachelor sons playing Halo and read, “An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs” with confusion and embarrassment?

St. Paul’s claims about the married man are simply not true of every married man. The passage is prescriptive, not descriptive. Reason and nature are far better served reading St. Paul’s description of married and unmarried life as an “at best scenario,” by which I simply mean, “[At best] an unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs,” and “[At best] a married man is concerned about…how he can please his wife…”

Your students are not “unmarried” men and women as St. Paul describes them. Rather, they are men and women trying to become “married men” and “married women.” The “unmarried man” is a ward of the Church, a monk or nun or widow or consecrated virgin. Your young male students should have some concern for “the affairs of this world,” because if they don’t, no woman will marry them. Women appreciate men who have at least a little care for “the affairs of this world,” like groceries and haircuts and health insurance. And so, in the words of St. Paul, the concerns of your young men and young women are “divided.” The sooner your students realize this, the sooner they can drop the painful “Jesus is everything to me” façade, and the sooner they can quit villainizing the nominal Christians— who are often simply the “divided” Christians. Would it help us to think of all our fellow city-dwellers and money-makers as “divided” Christians? At the same time we must inspire our students to struggle for better, we also need to get our students to recognize that 99.9% of the Christians alive today don’t have the kind of faith that is going to be remembered a hundred years on. Most of us will prove unexceptional within the long haul of time and long ago, Jerome’s position failed and Augustine’s position succeeded, and ever since then, the middle-of-the-road Christian has simply been the basso continuo of history.

Teachers need to adjust our students’ strangely bifurcated understanding of kinds of Christians. Too often, our students divide the Church into two camps— on the one hand, hopeless goons like their cousin Dave, the Baptist who smokes dope and has his subscription of Maxim magazine sent directly to his mother’s house, and on the other hand, anyone a dash more pious than Dave. If there was a helpful binary understanding of Christians to make, though, your students would do far better to think of Christians like St. Agnes, a 3rd century martyr who preferred her breasts be torn off with pincers than to deny Christ, and then everybody less pious than her. Wherever a man draws the line in the sand, he should see himself as standing on the side of nominalism. If this seems outlandish, consider the number of 19th and 20th century miracle workers who declared themselves “God’s unprofitable servants” while laying on their death beds.

V. Are we all jerks? Perhaps even more damaging than the cynical “nominal Christian” narrative funded by naïve “Jesus is everything to me” thinking, though, is the other side of Eddie Kaufholz’s Pulse reflection. Christians encourage Christians to condemn other Christians as nominal hypocrites, but secularists inflate a delusional myth that most Christians are judgmental creeps. There is, of course, something deliciously ironic about any individual Christian sadly sighing, “Yes, many Christians are judgmental phonies.” I have lost count of comments in class which begin, “I know Christians can be really judgmental, but…” This is a more significant problem than many teachers recognize; the belief that your people are basically a bunch of frauds weighs heavily on the teenage mind. American evangelicals have largely allowed secularists to turn a few nutcases and stray Youtube commentators into an emblem of Christ’s Body on Earth. As an Orthodox Christian, I have no special treasure laid up in the success of the Presbyterian Church, the Lutheran Church, the Methodist Church, and if it were true that Presbyterians were all basically mirror-seducers, puppy-kickers and tooth-sharpeners, my faith in Jesus Christ would hardly be shaken. That said, the idea that Presbyterians are judgmental jerks is absolutely ludicrous, and I insist my Presbyterian students know this. The idea that Lutherans, or Baptists, or Methodists are basically judgmental is similarly absurd, unfounded, specious propaganda. I have lived and worked in ecumenical communities for the last ten years, and while I am willing for it to be true that Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike are disagreeable nasties (let Christ be true and everyman a liar), it simply isn’t so. The danger to a student who grows up believing most Christians are judgmental prigs is that he credits himself as doing the Church a favor; he does not come to church to worship the condescension of Christ, but to adore his own humility. Breaking students of the mistaken notion that Christians are basically all jerks begins with flatly denying it and pointing to the voluminous evidence to the contrary. Have students make a list of Christians they have met in person— not online— who are bona fide cruel, overbearing, holier-than-thou apes. For what it’s worth, there’s only three on my list, and I’m one of them.

You cannot inculcate a desire for virtue in students who believe they’ve arrived. You can begin by outing yourself as a nominal, lukewarm Christian who is desperate to enter into the new creation.

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