The Modern Age, the zeitgeist of which has long been known as liberalism, has driven the wedge of secularism between much of the society, culture(s) and civilization of what was once Christendom and the Christian faith and religion. If the influence of liberalism extended only to the temporal this would be bad enough but it has permeated the Christian Churches and sects as well. Over the last century and a half the word liberal developed a special connotation in the Churches and sects where it denoted people who saw the narratives of the Bible as belonging to the same category as Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales, that is to say, stories valued for their utility in teaching life lessons to children rather than for their truth, people who saw no inconsistency in calling themselves Christians and going to church every Sunday even though they did not believe in the supernatural assertions made about Jesus Christ in the ancient Creeds. Liberals, in the theological sense, often cloaked their unbelief in ways they thought were clever. For example, they would say that they believed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ “in the sense” that He lived on in the hearts of His followers. This meant that they did not believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ as that phrase had been understood by everyone from the Apostles through the middle of the nineteenth century, i.e., that Jesus Christ, after He had been crucified and buried, returned to life in His body, left the Tomb, and walked and talked among His disciples again, before ascending physically to Heaven. Perhaps the theological liberals thought that those who continued to hold to this traditional belief in this traditional understanding were so much less sophisticated than themselves that they, the traditionalists, would never catch on to how this re-interpretation of the event made their profession of belief into one of unbelief. If so, theological liberals are well-named for that is the same attitude that more generic liberals take to non-liberals in general.
In his Christianity and Liberalism (1923), J. Gresham Machen, then Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, contrasted traditional, orthodox, Christianity with theological liberalism and drew the inescapable conclusion that they are two separate religions. This same assessment was more recently asserted by retired Anglican priest Rev. George Eves in the title of his Two Religions, One Church. Indeed, it has long been a bit of a puzzle as to why liberals continue to see themselves as belonging to the Christian faith. A partial answer can be found by considering the matter in terms of the Aristotelian distinction between essence and accidents. Orthodox or conservative Christians consider the articles of faith in the ancient Creeds to be the essence of Christianity. This is true even of conservative Protestants who belong to non-liturgical, non-sacramental, sects who might shudder at that wording as being too “Catholic” for their liking. The doctrines that they regard as essentials or fundamentals of Christianity rather than distinctions of their denominations are ones that either can be found as articles in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds or which express the basic unspoken belief underlying the Creeds that the Christian Scriptures are authoritative special revelation from God. Fundamentalism, for example, in its original form - an inter-denominational co-operative effort of conservatives fighting the encroaching liberalism - identified “five fundamentals” as being particularly under attack by liberalism at the time and as forming a basis for their contra-liberal ecumenical efforts. Originally taken from a 1910 Presbyterian declaration, these have been formulated in a myriad of ways, each slightly different from the others, but basically, the first is a strongly worded affirmation of Scriptural authority, usually using words like inspiration or inerrancy, and the other four are affirmations about Jesus Christ all of which can be found in the articles of the Creeds – usually His deity, Virgin Birth, Resurrection, and Second Coming. This can be criticized from a more conservative or orthodox position as being too reductionist – the Apostles’ Creed, the simplest of the ancient Creeds, famously consists of twelve articles, one for each of the men from whom its title is derived – but my point is that conservatives, whether traditionalist or “fundamentalist”, all recognize the articles that make up what we call “the faith” as essential to Christianity. Liberals, by contrast, see all such articles of faith more as Aristotelean accidents, external trappings that can be discarded without altering the essence of Christianity.
The conservatives, obviously, are right. One of the things that has made Christianity distinct among the religions of the world from the very beginning is that Christianity, more than any other religion, is a faith, a community held together by a set of common beliefs and defined by those beliefs. This is true even if we limit the comparison to the monotheistic religions that look to Abraham as a spiritual patriarch. What is believed is and always has been far more important to Christianity than to either Judaism or Islam. It is ludicrous therefore to take that which has historically defined Christianity and make it out to be her disposable outward trappings rather than her very essence. It becomes even more ludicrous when we turn to the question that necessarily arises out of this observation about liberalism, the question of what they regard as the essence of Christianity, if they see the articles of faith as her accidents.
The answer, of course, is that for liberals it is Christianity’s ethical or moral message that is her essence. Note that the first obvious immediate effect of making Christianity into an ethical message cloaked in the external trappings of a supernatural belief system is to radically decrease the difference between Christianity and other religions. This is so for two reasons. The first is that which we have already observed about Christianity being distinct from other religions, even the other Abrahamic monotheistic religions, in prioritizing belief. In Christianity what is believed comes first, what is done comes second. In every other religion what is done takes precedence over what is believed. A theory of Christianity that makes her ethical message her essence and her article of faith her accidents eliminates this distinction. The other reason is that Christianity’s ethical message has never been her most distinctive element. In explanation, let us start by limiting the comparison to the Abrahamic monotheistic religions and more narrowly to Christianity and Judaism. In His ethical teachings, that is to say, His teachings that pertained to how people were to behave and live their lives, Jesus Christ taught the Mosaic Law as an absolutely authoritative text. While this is often missed by those who superficially read the “ye have heard it said…but I say unto ye” contrasts in His most famous Sermon and gloss over the warning He gave at the beginning not to take His words as contradicting and setting aside the Mosaic Law, it is nevertheless the case. The difference between the ethical teachings of Christianity and the ethical teachings of Judaism could be said to be the difference between the Mosaic Law as taught and interpreted by Jesus Christ and the Mosaic law as taught and interpreted by the rabbis (originally the lay teachers of Pharisees, a sect within Second Temple Judaism the clergy of which were the Levitical priests, these took on a more clerical role in post-Temple Judaism). Without wanting to make this difference less than it actually is, for most of the last two thousand years had you told either Jews or Christians that the most important and essential differences between the teachings of their two religions lay in the realm of ethics they would have thought you belonged in a nut house. Broadening the comparison, while certainly instances can be pointed to where different religions take opposing positions on particular ethical issues, a good case can be made that of all the different areas that religious teachings address this is the one where they have the most in common. See the appendix to C. S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man (1943).
That liberalism’s making Christianity’s ethical teachings into her essence and her articles of faith into her accidents radically reduces the difference between Christianity and other religions is something that is appalling to Christians who believe in Him Who said “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” and of Whom St. Peter said by the power of of the Holy Ghost “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” but appealing to religious liberals qua liberals. Liberalism, not just religious liberalism but liberalism in general, has long been obsessed with the idea that it can create a better world in which all people live in peace and harmony and that differences between people – originally and especially religious, but also differences of race, ethnicity, sex, etc. – are stumbling blocks on the path to this man-made Paradise that they need to clear out of the road. Even today’s “woke” left, which on the surface seems like a movement deliberately trying to do the opposite of this, to create a world of disharmony and strife by magnifying said differences to the nth degree, is, in fact, another variation on this same liberal theme, one that is distinguished by the tactic it shares with Nazism and Communism of othering and scapegoating, of placing all the blame for disharmony and strife and basically the world being anything other than an earthly Paradise on specific groups, religious (Christians), racial (whites), etc.
Liberalism, as argued three paragraphs ago, is wrong that Christianity’s ethical teachings are her essence rather than her articles of faith. This error is compounded by the fact that religious liberalism’s ethical teachings are radically different from what Christianity has taught about ethics and morals for the last two thousand years. Liberalism explains this by claiming that Jesus Christ’s original ethical teachings were corrupted by His disciples and especially by the Apostle Paul into something that conformed more closely to those of Judaism and/or the Greek philosophers. The only historical evidence we have, however, is of the Jesus Whose teachings as recorded in the Gospels harmonize with those of St. Paul in his epistles, and not of the hypothetical Jesus with radically different teachings postulated by liberalism.
Exactly what liberalism claims the “true” ethical teachings of Jesus were has changed over the course of the century and a half that religious liberalism has been afflicting the denominations of Christianity. Generally, however, the values of the ethical teachings of religious liberalism’s “historical Jesus" line up closely with those espoused and promoted by political liberalism at any given moment in time. This has remained constant, even though the values that political and religious liberalism promote together frequently change. There is one other constant, however, and that is the idea that Jesus’s teachings essentially boil down to “be nice to each other”.
This particular idea requires special attention because a) it has spread beyond the kind of religious liberalism described above and can be found espoused even by some who would usually be considered conservative or orthodox and b) it correlates with a problematic phenomenon in the broader society. This is the phenomenon in which such an exaggerated value is placed on such things as being positive and non-confrontational, always smiling and acting cheerful, and the like, that they either a) hinder or outright prevent a host of other things of equal or superior value, such as truth and honesty or b) serve as an outward, superficial, mask of thoughtfulness towards others behind which those who are exceptionally self-centered and who delight in controlling and/or hurting others hide. Feminist writers – I think that Elizabeth Hilts, the author of a series of books giving exceptionally bad advice to women was probably the first – have been referring to this phenomenon as it pertains to the first of the two identified drawbacks at least insofar as it affects women as “toxic niceness” for decades. Such writers, in my opinion, speak from the perspective of a repugnant solipsism that tends to blind them from seeing anything outside the perceived victimhood of their own sex and which renders their idea of which truths are suppressed by excessive niceness highly inaccurate. Nevertheless, since the phenomenon is real and affects both sexes rather than merely the one, we shall borrow their term for it as a better one could hardly be coined. We shall concentrate, however, on the second drawback.
That toxic niceness, this cult of excessive and unbalanced positivity, can serve as a cloak of hypocrisy over a particularly vicious form of nastiness is quite evident. Indeed, it is almost axiomatic to say that the sort of people who are always acting upbeat, who always wear a big smile plastered on their faces, who try never to say anything that isn’t positive turn out, if you get to know them at all, to be the biggest jerks and jackasses. Who is not familiar with the kind of person who smiles and acts like your best friend to your face but who stabs you the moment your back is turned? Or the sort of person who never confronts anybody, who never goes to someone and says “Hey, I have a problem with what you just said/did”, and who may sometimes go around bragging about what a non-confrontational person he is, but who is constantly running with complaints about everyone to those in positions of power and authority as fast as his tale can tattle.
Here in the Dominion of Canada we have in recent decades allowed toxic niceness to permeate the culture to the point that we are all suffocating from it. My province calls itself “friendly Manitoba”, an expression that can be found on the license plates of our automobiles. Yet Winnipeg, the city in which I live is a city in which it is notoriously difficult to change lanes when you need to do so because other drivers will speed up or slow down – whichever it takes – to prevent you from doing so. Just last week I heard a radio station, I forget which one, in which an advertisement referred to our city as the place where turn signals are optional. In Winnipeg, if you signal that you need to change lanes and there are vehicles behind you, they will immediately pull into the lane you wish to move into and speed up – all without signaling themselves – so that you either have to aggressively beat them into the lane or wait for them all to pass you, even if this means missing your turn or illegally brining your car to a stop in the middle of the street. This is one of the most inconsiderate, jerkish, ways of driving that can be conceived short of something criminal and cartoonish like driving down the sidewalk and stamping out a tally of the number of pedestrians you knock down on the side of your car. Yet it is typical of the drivers in the capital of “friendly Manitoba”. This example is topped, however, by that of the current Prime Minister of Canada who could be said to be the poster boy for toxic niceness. He won his first election on a platform of empty positivity which he contrasted with the supposed negativity of the previous government. He borrowed the phrase “sunny ways” from Sir Wilfred Laurier as his motto. He carefully crafted this image of a smiling, upbeat, positive person who is all about caring and listening and being inclusive. Beneath it all, however, he quickly proved to be a truly nasty jerk and bully, a real υἱός τῆς κῠνός with an abnormally low level of toleration for those who disagree with him, who saw the caring and compassion of other Canadians as a means for him to exploit to rob Canadians of their basic civil rights and liberties and seize more power for himself.
These examples from the broader culture and society show how beneath an excessive emphasis on being nice the worst sorts of nastiness can be hiding. What is true of toxic niceness in the broader culture is also true, perhaps even more so, of the reduction of Christianity or at least her ethical message to the idea that we ought to “be nice”.
How anyone ever got the idea that Christianity was all about being nice is beyond me. Those who use the word “Christlike” as if it were a synonym for “nice” are especially befuddling. Have they never read the twenty-third chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew in which the dear Lord gives a harangue, almost the length of the chapter, directed against the scribes and Pharisees in which He repeatedly calls them “hypocrites” “fools” “brood of vipers” and the like, likens them to “whited sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness” and threatens them with hellfire and damnation? Ironically, if any of the sort of people I have in mind were to hear anyone today talk like this the first thing they would say would be that he is not being very “Christlike”. It does not seem from this chapter that being nice was top priority with the Lord Jesus. Nor would the incident recorded two chapters previously in which, having arrived at the Temple after His Triumphal Entry, He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and dove merchants and drove them all out (St. John in his Gospel records a similar incident that took place prior to the start of Jesus’ preaching ministry in which He drove the merchants out of the temple with a scourge) suggest that following Jesus’ example means being nice all the time.
Jesus did not tell His disciples to be nice, a word that does not appear in the Authorized Bible and which in other versions appears only in the Old Testament in reference to things, words, and situations rather than people. Indeed, the very appeal of niceness to so many today, whether they be professing Christians or just members of the broader society, is that unlike those things which Jesus did enjoin upon His disciples, such as a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 5:20) and to love one another (Jn. 13:34), niceness is neither difficult nor does it cost its practitioner anything. It is the ideal virtue for the virtue signaler, the sort of person who likes to go around showing off how good of a person he is with cheap, shallow, and empty forms of goodness that either come with no cost or have a cost that he can easily export to others, in order to gain the praise, credit, and applause of other people. The sort of person, in other words, who does the same thing Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for doing in Matthew 23:4-5.
When He comes again
in His glory to judge both the quick and the dead, what will He say to those
who are promoting toxic niceness in His name?