Parasitic Cosmeticians – A reflection on building bridges

“To all conservative Christians, liberals, however well meaning, appear as parasitic cosmeticians; cosmeticians, because they constantly aim to remove from Christianity that which outsiders, like some inside, find intellectually unsightly and unacceptable; parasitic, because they attach themselves to the historic faith and feed off it even as they whittle it down, diminishing, distorting, and displacing major features of it to fit in with what their skeptical conversation partners tout as factual truth.” — from J. I. Packer’s review of The Lion and the Lamb: Evangelicals and Catholics in America by William M. Shea (Christianity Today, March/April 2005)

I admire chapels and love sitting or kneeling quietly under the stained glass. As I do, my pleasure draws both from the immediate experience and from sense that others have sat here, like this, before. I suspect that those who indulge my presence in “their” spaces, do so primarily through their generosity and evangelical hopes, not thanks to the ferocity with which I hold to their creeds. And I certainly hope that people find much in historical and contemporary Christianity “intellectually unsightly and unacceptable.” So I am squarely in the target of this criticism.

Packer appeals for respect. Something along the line of, if you are going to sip the nectar from the flowers that grew in Christendom’s yard, won’t you respect the institution’s labored and prior understanding? Historians will be quick to challenge this kind of orthodoxy as being itself a recent innovation. I suspect that James Packer is especially attuned to the parasitic aspects of inhabiting the past because that is his own experience. An experience that he hopes can be purchased in exchange for clinging to old forms and down-playing what ought to be a necessary and prophetic self-criticism. However, the attempt to hold on to unwavering rituals and traditions, in the face of everything else wavering (see Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond), requires some fancy dancing and not a little denial.

You might think, since one of the core theological innovations of Christianity is that God leaned toward the world enough to be manifest in it through the son, that the Christian tradition would avidly embrace this world. Most liberal Christians see the conservatives wanting the opposite: not an enthusiasm for this world but an homage to a more innocent time recalled through rituals that are more historical re-enactment than lived and relevant practice. (For a creative alternative to historical reenactment see the recent two volumes on Don Cupitt’s thought and life by Nigel Leaves: Odyssey on the Sea of Faith and Surfing on the Sea of Faith.)

In a calmer and less shrill environment, this observation — that current claims of orthodoxy are a contemporary reaction to modernism — would put an end to prattling about who is the real leach, those who try to reinvigorate/distort or those who embalm/honor the tradition. But it hasn’t.

The invocation of parasitic cosmeticians lashes together two positions that used to be at odds. The quote that starts this reflection came from a review of a book that examines and celebrates the recent cooperation between conservative evangelicals and Catholics. This story is remarkable from the perspective of conflict resolution. The group, Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), builds bridges across what ought to be a big divide. In breaking with Rome the protestant reformers, after all, offered a scathing critique of the Roman church. In bridging the divide, ECT is following all the suggestions that a good mediator would recommend — keep your eye on the commonalities; start with the small problems first; try not to caricature the other side. They also identify a common enemy, the parasitic cosmeticians, liberals, to help drive them together.

Emphasizing a common threat might help evangelicals and Catholics begin cooperating and in so doing to develop a deep and real appreciation for each other. Progressives, however, who want to bridge the rifts within an increasingly polarized Christianity and even bridge across non-Christian religious traditions, face a more difficult challenge. Standing with conservative Christians merely in opposition to something or someone risks distorting “the other” into a caricature. We risk losing the ability to see our shared humanity and common problems with those we vilify. We may fail to see, much less explore, the positive reasons to stand together. Our own diversity can become muted. As we carve up the world into groups who hold positions we miss the opportunity to look for shared interests with those with whom we disagree. Finally, once we pick sides, we might give those on our side a pass, when sometimes we shouldn’t. (For a much deeper discussion, see Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation).

I am challenged to build bridges and to appreciate historic faiths. I want to find commonality without being tempted to define a common enemy. Join me?

Jeremy Ahouse has been described as a “Biologist, Buddhist, Anglican sympathizer, anti-realist about God and genes.” He lives in Chelmsford, MA.

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