The head of a Bible College was disgusted at a picture he saw of me participating in a service for a Buddhist abbot in our neighborhood. He thought it represented a repudiation of Christianity.
Here in “The Land of Smiles” being soft on Buddhism is one of the things that can disqualify you from the ranks of trustworthy Christians. Being openly LGBTK will relegate you to the back pews as well. One cannot be both highly political and a prominent Christian leader. Those three: that’s about it.
Interestingly, having a position on abortion doesn’t wave a red flag. Nor does your conviction about how many days it took God to create the world in which we live.
I take this as evidence that the tests of unworthiness are not the same for Christian groups everywhere. Most of the things which are fracturing Christianity in the USA are fairly inert here. Conspiracy theories in the USA about the causes of wildfires, climate change, or the current pandemic have caused people to leave churches and pastors to resign. But not one case of anything like that has leaked into this country.
Obviously, the corrosive factors that disintegrate religious unity are cultural. If they were religious or theological they would be cross-cultural.
Several years ago the Protestant church in Thailand quaked and some fractures occurred. At the time, I had our class of Master of Divinity students study the cause of these splits. They did interviews and gathered histories. In every case the presenting reason for the impending split was theological having to do with the “power of the Holy Spirit” or the inerrant truth about some aspect of religious practice. But the division in every case was on social lines, one clan versus another, or unwillingness to share power or to tolerate dissent. The struggles became so widespread that the national church conducted a series of gatherings to disseminate the “truth about the Holy Spirit” and quench charismatic zeal. None of the churches reconciled through that campaign although restored calm convinced a couple to remain in the denomination. Our class concluded that since the cause was social-cultural, a theological appeal would not get at the root.
In counseling we know that the presenting issue is rarely the basic issue. “His drinking” may get a couple to a counselor, but the counseling must delve deeper if the marriage is to be saved. You cannot heal a social division by simply addressing the presenting issue any more than you can heal a disease by suppressing the symptoms.
Some very recent surveys suggest that almost half the Protestant pastors in the USA have heard QAnon conspiracy theories mentioned by members of their congregations. In many cases these have led to serious concern about the future of the American church. I read an article just a day ago that worries a QAnon religion (sect or cult) is emerging. At the same time voices are reminding us that the situation in the USA is cultural division which cannot be overcome by appeals for either national unity or religious reform. The problem is that conspiracy-driven evangelicalism is anti-intellectual, and therefore impervious to fact-driven intellectual arguments.
Perhaps viral infection is an analogy. A virus is hard to kill without killing the host it has infected. If the victim does not mobilize anti-viral responses the victim will die. A vaccination works to alert the host to the possibility of infection so that the antivirus is already available when the virus shows up. The body must mount the attack and heal itself.
Since churches and religious organizations are aspects of the cultural body-politic, the protection and preservation of those institutions is not all that’s at stake. The whole body is infected, not just the organs of religion.
Well, I began this exercise by reflecting on how different Christian intolerance in Thailand is compared to the USA. Having come this far, I have one final observation. Christianity in Thailand used to be far more intolerant of Buddhism than it now is. Living together has made a difference, but working on shared concerns has tipped the balance. Justice and compassion are “enzymes” religious organs produce for the whole body. The HIV-AIDS crisis as well as several previous ones (leprosy comes to mind) stimulated inter-religious action that helped religious intolerance and rivalry fade.
COVID could be America’s vaccine to get the body-politic alert to the anti-intellectual virus that’s attacking. If religious organs pump out quantities of justice and compassion they will have done what they can.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.