In the midst of this Advent Season when radio stations and mall Muzak are willing to cut loose with songs that celebrate Jesus as the one who “rules the world with truth and grace,” an Op-Ed in Sunday’s New York Times by Eric Weiner asserts that religion is finally “at core a personal affair” that seems to resist much by way of public proclamations. To be fair, Weiner’s overall article is pretty interesting as he details the views of the group now being called “the Nones.” “The Nones” are the ones who answer the question “To what religion do you belong” by saying, “None.” But Weiner claims this is not tantamount to atheism, at least not for a great many Nones. They mostly just don’t care for the way True Believers of most religions–apparently evangelical Christians in particular–behave in the public square when they broadcast their faith and beliefs. Weiner says that many religious leaders are long on condemnation and short on grace, long on finger-wagging and short on proffering warm embraces.
I wish I could say he’s singularly wrong there but, alas, there is too much evidence on his side. Yes, I would contend that the majority of believers are warm and gracious and sincere and they even cringe at some of the worst public diatribes offered in the name of Jesus.
But at some point Weiner’s article takes a curious turn. Although he concludes wishing for a religious Steve Jobs who could give us a new religious Operating System in which people could talk about their faith openly and without embarrassment, he nevertheless seems to locate most of religious faith in the precincts of the individual’s heart alone. The problem with mixing politics with religion, he claims, is that politics is inevitably public whereas religion is finally private and personal.
However, certainly in this season in which Christians celebrate the birth of the cosmic King of kings and Lord of lords, it won’t do to conclude that the solution to bad public displays of religion is to privatize it, keep it behind closed doors and drawn window shades. What we need is a recognition that, as the Apostle John put it in his soaring opening prologue, Jesus was born “full of grace and truth.” But as Neal Plantinga once pointed out, whereas Jesus embodied “grace and truth” in perfect balance, the rest of us seem to have a hard time getting both virtues up and running at the same time. In America these days–and as Weiner rightly notes–truth seems forever to be edging out grace. Oh, many religious leaders are willing to let loose with the truth alright, but it comes off as so ungracious, unloving, and unaccepting that no one can bear to hear that truth. (And yes, there are problems associated with being all grace and no truth, too, but this is a bit less common, at least in the public square).
What we need today is not more private faith and personalized religion but public statements on faith that are redolent of grace. As I often note to my preaching students, Jesus was the very incarnate Son of God on earth. He was sinless. He embodied the Truth. He knew the sad and tawdry truth about every person he met. And yet he was a sinner magnet–the very people who flee from Christians today came to Jesus in droves. The very people who cannot stand to hear some Christian leaders talk today when microphones get stuck in their faces hung on Jesus’ every word.
Jesus was full of grace and truth but it was never finally a personal or private affair. And therein lies a lesson worth pondering in this season of Advent.