Christianity, A Religion of Negatives
Christianity, especially fundamentalist Christianity, is often cast as a religion of negatives. It is quipped that Christians are known by what they are against, not what they are for. George Marsden has highlighted the particularly negative Christianity of fundamentalists by calling them “evangelicals who are angry about something.”
Numerous examples could be adduced. High profile negative religious folk like Jerry Falwell who blamed 9/11 on homosexuals, Ten Commandment courthouse crazies who insist on a statue remaining outside a courthouse while doing very little to contribute to the social, moral, and spiritual decline of our country, abortion clinic bombers, and Zionist preachers like John Hagee who fervently mix politics with faith.
These negative and angry expressions of Christian faith (which cut across denominations) are, at the very least, misguided and unfortunate. Jesus Christ was primarily known by what he was for. He had a way of wooing followers with his inherent divine goodness, his gospel message, and his ministry to the spiritually blind, resource poor, and emotionally broken-hearted. When Jesus did rattle off what he was against, it was typically against religion and self-righteousness.
Focusing on the Fall
One way contemporary forms of Western Christianity have gotten off track is by misinterpreting the Adam Eve narrative. Many Christian traditions have so focused on the badness of the Fall that they have failed to recognize God’s goodness in Creation. They take God’s negative injunction concerning the tree as the norm of Christian faith—don’t do this or that and God will be happy. This is simply not how the story reads or how God primarily relates to his creation.
Christian tradition holds that man was corrupted when he ate from the forbidden tree in the garden. (Whether you believe in “the Fall” or not, something has to account for our bent and evil nature.) It should go without saying that humans aren’t born good these days. Every child needs correction and every adult has their demons, but that doesn’t make the whole world thoroughly corrupt. There is still much that is good and beautiful.
Many Christians proceed in their faith by trying to not repeat the folly of Adam and Eve, to not “eat” what is forbidden. As a result, Christianity has often been framed as a religion of negatives, a moral framework of prohibition which, when forced onto culture, becomes a self-righteous rant. This, however, is a distortion of the biblical story. Creation and God’s grace precede any negatives whatsoever. In fact, creation and new creation straddle the Fall. As Cornelius Plantinga points out, “The Bible’s big double message is creation and redemption. Sin intervenes but never as an independent theme. Thus St. Paul, the Bible’s chief theologian of sin and grace, speaks of sin in terms of what it is against.” Sin is against all that God is for, and God is for grace, truth, goodness, beauty, and peace.
The Positives of Creation
The biblical story begins, not with the Fall, but with Creation. The injunction to “not eat” is preceded by a rich description of God’s creative provision in which he formed a lavish world for Adam and Eve and all humanity to enjoy—heaven and earth, seas and skies, fish and birds, plants and animals, fruit and friendship. Moreover, God created a special garden where he spent time with man, the crown of his creation, satisfying every need we could ever have. God’s negative command was couched in ten million positives!
God created us for a lush world, companionship, sex, colors, mountains, rivers, language, culture-making, and ultimately for soul-satisfying communion with him in and through all these things. Adam and Eve had every reason to believe that the prohibition to “not eat” was designed for their good. All they had to do was look around to see that God was for them, not against them, that God called them into a relationship of grace and love, not law and rule-keeping.
Christ came to undo the damage done by man’s rejection of God’s goodness, to reorient our affections and hopes back to our kind Creator and toward a re-newed creation. He did this at the costly price of his own death, offering us new creation life and hope in his resurrection. Recognition of the positive context of creation and new creation should lead us away from negative Christianity and into faith and worship. Thus, John Calvin wrote:
God’s inestimable wisdom, power, justice and goodness shine forth in the fashioning of the universe, no splendor, no ornament of speech, would be equal to an act of such great magnitude…It is to recognize that God has destined all things for our good and salvation but at the same time to feel his power and grace in ourselves and in the great benefits he has conferred upon us, and so bestir ourselves to trust, invoke, praise, and love him.
Some negatives are a temporary necessity
Nevertheless, there are some good negatives which are a temporary necessity. Like children, we have to be told over and over again not to touch the stove, run into the street, or disrespect our parents. But the promise of faith in Jesus is that even the good negatives will eventually be unnecessary, as God writes them into our hearts, where the goodness of God will be full. Faith in Jesus initiates this process of personal, social, cultural, and creational renewal.
The Christian faith is not a religion predicated on don’ts. It is a faith littered with awe-inspiring promises by God himself. It is not a religion of negatives, but person-renewing, cosmos-restoring reality available only in Jesus. Jesus is calling angry Christians away from their rule-keeping, self-righteous religious ghettos and into Creator-honoring, joy-promoting, cosmos-restoring glory. It’s hard to imagine a faith more positive than that.