“We have to begin with the dogma that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom”

So said Russell Kirk to a group of scholars discussing what it takes to arrive at scientific truth, borrowing from Proverbs 1:7. Naturally, he succeeding in shocking the gentlemen he was with.

Several churchgoers in the group protested: “Oh no,” they said, “not the fear of God. You mean the love of God, don’t you?” But Mr. Kirk meant what he said.

Some people who attend church regularly, who are “given to passing the collection plate and to looking upon the church as a means to social reform,” are revealing something deeply significant about the state of their spiritual lives when they express shock at the idea of fearing God: basically, they are not taking Christianity seriously. If they were a bit more fearful of God, writes Kirk, they would not be so fearful of men– not  “given to trembling before Caesar … Much at ease in Zion [but] timid in the presence of a traffic policeman–” as they were when he talked with them.

Perhaps it is because of the rarity of the God-fearing man in the West that religion has been on the decline. Perhaps. But that is not what Ryan Lee, writing in the Daily Tar Heel last Friday, thinks is the main problem.

The famous statue of Christ overlooking Rio de Janeiro, with characteristically open arms

Citing the responses left on a “kvetching board” of sorts set up by the on-campus Christian group Cornerstone earlier this month, Mr. Lee identified the two most frequent reasons people said that they are not Christians: intolerance and hypocrisy.

Indeed, the reason for record-low numbers of self-identifying “Christians” in a Gallup poll conducted last year is that “the Christian Church has unfortunately moved away from the core teachings of Christ, becoming intolerant and hypocritical.” Additionally, “the Christian faith has grown increasingly judgmental, political and, if radical steps aren’t taken, outdated.” Instead, “the Church needs a new kind of Christian– those deeply saddened over the disparity between Christ and Christian.”

I have several questions for Mr. Lee. First, what, exactly, do you mean by “intolerance?” Do you mean the exclusion of homosexuals, adulterers, drug addicts, etc.? If so, is not the current iteration of the Church, by this standard, more tolerant than any other in the history of Christianity? Unless I’m very much mistaken, I do believe it was churches in the last fifty years or so, rather than the first or second or third or fourth or fifth or … nineteenth century, that accepted first female and then openly gay clergy.

If the reason for the decline in self-identifying Christians is lack of tolerance, how on Earth did Christianity survive twenty centuries to make it to today? I’m pretty sure they didn’t have openly gay preachers under Otto III, although I could be wrong. Do we not live in an era of unprecedented tolerance? Indeed, what have we gotten in exchange for all of our new-found tolerance? To quote the poll Mr. Lee cites, we have got unprecedented decline.

If he means by tolerance that the Church should actually accept sinfulness as is (e.g. Jesus hung out with prostitutes because prostitution really isn’t bad), then he is advocating something other than Christianity. Yes, the Church should and does accept sinners (according to Christianity we are all sinners, after all), but for it to tolerate sin is asking it to do something that it has never and could never do. Christianity is irrevocably at war with sin, and it would not be Christianity if it were not.

The charge of intolerance, then, unless I am very much confused on the what Mr. Lee means, is insufficiently explanatory. Either the Church has followed his advice already and to a greater extent than at any previous point in history and it is in unprecedented decline or he is advocating transforming Christianity into something other than what it is.

The charge of hypocrisy, however, has considerably more merit. Jesus exhorted us not to sin, and He never did– but He is the only one who can say that. The rest of us who advocate against sin, since we are still sinners, are at least a little hypocritical.  But to cease being at least a little hypocritical would mean we would have to stop advocating against sin, and thus stop doing our Christian duty.

Mr. Lee calls for a “new kind of Christian– those deeply saddened over the disparity between Christ and Christian …” But why should Christians be sad? If they actually understand Christianity, why would they expect Christians to be perfect? Earthly perfection, if I am reading the Gospels correctly, is not what Christ promises– even Saint Peter, the rock of the Church, denied Jesus three times. The Gospel is called “Good News” because it promises new Life apart from our old sinful selves, and that is something to be tremendously happy about, not saddened by.

In sum, Mr. Lee’s argument against the modern Church, like all things that keep people from God, should be taken seriously. It should also be refuted by all instructed Christians and students of history. We need more God-fearing men, not ever-more tolerant ones.

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