Christians today do not have to look long or hard to notice a key characteristic of both the modern world and the modern church: conflict over ideas. Some of these conflicts are longstanding: the Reformation, for example. Others are brand new. Christians know these conflicts well. The old arguments over Catholic versus Protestant are now supplemented by new arguments between traditionals and progressives, complementarians and egalitarians, and, in the public space, between liberals and conservatives, libertarians and authoritarians. Increasingly the goal in these arguments is not to persuade, but to silence: to suppress opponents, demonize them, and ultimately, to shut them up, so that their unwanted ideas will no longer be expressed.
One key reason for this conflict over ideas is the amplification of ideas by technology. Just as the Reformation was fueled by the printing press in the sixteenth century, so the discussion today is fueled by the internet and social media, the printing press’ spiritual descendant. Information technology amplifies ideas as abstractions, disassociating them from the people who have them. This amplification of ideas has been remarkably transformative in the world, more than people realize. Consider, for example, the United States, a nation that has had rather a lot of influence in the world for quite some time. The United States is a nation where citizens swear allegiance not to a person, but to printed documents. Yes, documents: the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America. If this is the historical effect of the printing press, one wonders what will come out of social media and the Internet?
When it comes to the Church, while information technology has done some good, it has also done harm. One key area of harm is the diminishment of the recognition that Christianity is not about ideas, it is about a person, Jesus, who is God become man to save us. Debates from the Reformation about salvation by faith versus works, while important and informative, miss the key point. Faith is salvific not because it is faith, but because it is faith in Jesus. Similarly, works of the law fail to be salvific not because they are works, but because they are of the law: it is Jesus, not the Jewish law, who saves. While the Reformation got it right when it recognized that salvation is by the grace of God alone, too often “grace” has been abstracted and depersonalized, as if it were an idea. But grace, the grace that saves, is personal: grace is what Jesus does and who Jesus is. Grace flows from a person, not an idea.
Today, faced with internet-fueled ideas, the Church faces even a greater risk of losing its way: ideas, amplified technologically, are loud, even deafening. In comparison, Jesus is quiet. The Church too often falls into thinking that Christianity is an idea, a correct idea that must prevail over other, incorrect, ideas. This affects conversations inside the Church, for example, debates about liturgy, or authority, or moral theology. It also very much affects the relationship between the Church and the world. The Church measures the world against the Church’s ideas, and finds it lacking; the world does the same thing, and finds the Church annoying. But this, too, is beside the point. Of course the Church, like every other contributing member of society, should participate in the societal exchange of ideas. But this participation, in itself, will not save anyone. It is only Jesus who saves. The Church saves the world not through persuading the world of the merit of the Church’s ideas, but by making Jesus known. It is Jesus, not the Church or its ideas, who does the saving.
On a personal note, this is why I write about Jesus rather than focusing on the various ideas of our time in the Church and the world. It’s not that I don’t have views on these: I do. But they are not what really matters. The only source of salvation, for the Church, for the world, and for us individually, is Jesus himself. The call of a Christian is to come to know, love and serve Jesus. There is no other way. There is no grand idea that will save us. There is only Jesus: follow him.