It often seems that there are two different religions called "Christianity."
One of them is stern, hierarchical, dogmatic to the point of fanaticism. It possesses both Catholic and Evangelical forms, marked by differences of style as well as by mutual animosity, but sharing equally in contempt for women, in sexual and financial scandals, in a culture of coverups and an intense resistance to internal criticism, much less external review. This religion divides into cult-like subcommunities in which children are scarred for life, left with gaping wounds in their sense of self which render the church and its ministries unbearable to them. In the public square, its adherents have sought and often attained positions of considerable power, at least in the United States, from which they conspire to impose their theological judgments and apodictic moralities even on those who profess different faiths or none at all.
This is the Christianity reported daily in the media, both traditional and social. It is quite real. I encounter its refugees often, and have occasionally brushed up against its adherents and apparatus. But I must also say that it seems strange to me, genuinely foreign, and when I encounter it, I feel not a like a compatriot in the same heavenly commonwealth, but like an anthropologist attempting to puzzle out the cultural peculiarities of a people utterly different from himself.
This is because I was raised, and have lived my life, in the second "Christianity." This religion is superficially similar to the first. It shares the same sacred texts and, for the most part, the same metaphysical tenets. It also comes in Catholic and Evangelical flavors, as well as more exotic mixtures called Orthodoxy and Mainline Protestantism, as yet undiscovered by the mass media but dimly remembered by those of a certain great age.
I often hear people who are familiar only with the first Christianity wish that there were a second. "If only," they sigh, "there were a Christianity that valued women; that did not make gay people hide in closets shaped like the organ bench; that saw the beauty of science as a means of understanding the Creation; that welcomed dialogue with other faiths; that wrestled honestly with the moral complexity of abortion and warfare; that critiqued itself and remained humble when others challenged it; that was not merely capable of change, but desired to change."
In fact, such a Christianity does exist, not merely as a movement within the first (although that too), but as a distinct, organized group of churches. It is more or less what is meant by the term "Mainline Protestantism," although large swaths of the Roman Catholic world share in its character as well.
Mind you, the second Christianity is far from perfect. For half a century or more, much of it has embraced women in leadership with nearly the same passive-aggressive mixture of adulation and resentment it has long offered to men. (More recently, it has extended gay and trans people an equally awkward, stiff-armed side-hug.) It talks, almost incessantly, about the need to create a more just society, while steadfastly failing to accrue or exercise the actual power required to do so. It is by no means immune to missteps and even scandal, the chief difference being that, rather than rushing to denial, its adherents are the first to point the finger at each other, demanding personal repentance and institutional reform. Its ministers are each others' harshest critics, and its official organs are quick to exclude -- like Caesar his proverbial wife -- any who have faltered or even been rumored to falter.
Imperfect? Yes, indeed. Much of this blog's seventeen-year tenure has been devoted to documenting the imperfections. But the fact is that the second Christianity -- mainline, moderate, ecumenically open and socially engaged -- offers precisely what people complain that they find lacking in the church they see in the news.
Each time I hear a friend wish that Christianity were different, I cough a little, probably too little, and mutter something like, "Have you considered Lutheranism? Or Episcopalianism? Presbyterianism? The United Church of Christ? American Baptist Convention? Watched some videos by Richard Rohr, or read an essay by Anne Lamott?"
Because -- and here's my point -- the second Christianity (which is arguably older than the first) exists. It does not often make the news, and it has certainly seen days of greater prosperity, but it exists. It is sitting right where it always has, on the main street of most downtowns, going about the business of loving God and a neighbor. You might visit, sometime, and see if it isn't what you wanted all along.
We have coffee.