The charge of “blasphemy” rings as both quaint and dangerous nowadays. Given the precipitous decline of religious belief in the United States (as in Europe), mocking God can raise as much ire as mocking the Great Pumpkin. On the other hand, the word also conjures fears of censorship; the 2015 shooting at the offices of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo drew widespread condemnation, yet also ignited a debate about the role of “blasphemous” speech in civil society, with some, including Pope Francis, even calling for an end to “making fun” of others’ religion.
So what is the status of blasphemy as a theological, moral, and political category in secular society? Should Christians even care about it?
Although the vulnerability of Jesus to hunger, thirst, fear, pain, and death complicates the Christian understanding of God, Christianity is not concerned about blasphemy because it harms God; as eternal and non-contingent, God’s integrity is beyond the reach of anything in the world. The problem with blasphemy, rather, is what it does to us.
By mocking God, Christians believe, we mock the purpose and meaning of human life itself. If it is true that God exists and that the source and summit of human happiness lies in cultivating a relationship with God, then to blaspheme is to create the impression that the highest good is, in fact, contemptuously laughable.
In other words, the primary problem with blasphemy, for Christians, is, to use an old-fashioned but still relevant word, scandal. It takes an usually-strong faith to weather the charge that one is not only wrong for believing in God, but also an idiot. And if enough sources of cultural power converge on the narrative that Christianity is, at best, naïve, and, at worse, superstitiously oppressive, then it should come as no surprise that churches can and do die — and take their values with them.
So what are Christians to do with mockery in the public square? The recent gala at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of art, themed “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” provides a helpful test case. Numerous news outlets have covered what otherwise should have been a dog-bites-man story (preening celebrities in expensive clothes getting their picture taken) with an outrage angle: some of the suits and dresses not only pushed the bounds of good taste; to some, they represented blasphemous representations of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.
Is that characterization fair? As with every other expression of outrage, it is always best to pause before condemning. Blasphemy is a serious problem for Christians, but it is not always clear whether a particular argument, image, or symbol is, in fact, blasphemous.
Cases in point: Jesus was condemned to death on the charge of blasphemy, early Christians were regarded as blasphemous by the Romans, and, in the Catholic tradition, some works of theology and art, like those by St. Thomas Aquinas and Michelangelo, were regarded as blasphemous by some before becoming revered as expressions of orthodoxy.
But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that at least some of the “fashion” at the Met gala — like this bondage mask decked with Rosary beads — does qualify as public mockery. What’s the right response?
Some Suggested Shall Nots
Here’s how Christians shouldn’t respond.
Do not claim victimhood or engage in whataboutism. Yes, it’s true that the Met would never have done a similar event themed on Judaism or Islam, but if pointing that out means that nobody can say anything about a religion (or any other system of beliefs) unless they are a member of the group, then we are squelching the productive engagement of different beliefs that makes intellectual progress possible. Identifying as a victim also plays into the narrative that pluralistic society should be understood as a mercantilist competition among identity tribes. The expression of outrage as a power play for recognition is a game in which everyone ultimately loses.
Do not call for, explicitly or implicitly, any kind of censorship, no matter how bad the offense. The unescapable price for the freedom of worship is to live in a society that is free to mock without criminal or civil sanction. Trading free expression for state-coerced respect for any form of public piety (including secular pieties) is always a deal with the devil. That doesn’t mean that all belief systems are equally true or defensible and should be treated as such; it just means you don’t want the state deciding winners and losers on questions of speech.
Do not retreat, either physically or virtually, to enclaves of like-minded people who will only confirm everything that you already believe. Total retreat is not only foreign to Christianity, which is a missionary religion, but also precludes the possibility of addressing the root causes of the mockery.
And Some Shalls
None of this means Christians should passively accept public mockery, either. Here are a few things that can be done.
Do stop feeding the beast. Mockery needs an audience, and not only of fellow mockers. It loves outrage. Do not give it what it loves. Imagine all the people ignoring the dumb provocations at the Met gala, and the crucifixes in urine, and Virgin Marys made out of feces, and ignorant films. If all you’re dealing with is offensive words or symbols whose only purpose is to offend, consider tuning out.
Do double down on the study of Christianity and, in particular, its intellectual and moral relationship with competing systems of belief. Know the arguments against your beliefs better than those who make them. Become a philosopher and theologian. When possible, do something constructive rather than defensive.
Do practice everything you preach all the time without exception. Arguments are ultimately won by examples, not words. There is no greater poison to Christianity than hypocrisy, and no better advocate than a saint.
Do learn and practice the virtue of prudence. Prudence is not about knowing what you believe, but knowing how to apply what you believe in every different circumstance. Learn when it is productive to engage in an argument, and when it’s not. The greatest danger in every battle is to fall in love with the fight as an end in itself.
Do learn to be courageous and to persevere. Holding fast to Christian beliefs, even if you believe those beliefs are rational, will always cost you. Be willing to pay.
At the heart of the question of how Christians should address mockery is a question about Christianity’s self-understanding. Whatever else defines the faith, one of its constitutive features is that it is in the world but not of the world. This liminality will always cause a tension in Christianity’s identity. For example, Pope Francis has famously called Christians to define the work of faith as setting up a “field hospital” in the world. It’s an evocative image, one that brings to mind a religion defined by its attention to the wounded in a make-shift structure whose primary purpose is to heal, not to protect its own institutional integrity.
There’s something incisive to that, but let me suggest a complementary model, as well: the monastery. Unlike the field hospital, the integrity and beauty of the institution is the purpose of the monastery. It exists to be a refuge from the world, a place where Christians can practice the purest expression possible of their faith.
So where should Christians set up shop nowadays, in field hospitals or monasteries? The public mocking of Christian belief can understandably generate an impulse to retreat behind walls. There’s nothing wrong with that; everyone needs a refuge, a place to regroup, rethink, and re-equip. This kind of fortifying is an authentic expression of faith. But if Christians actually believe in the God they say they do, that retreat must always be strategic, pulling back only in order to return to the fray and carry on the good fight — forming societies in which mocking God is rare not because it’s prohibited, but because most people authentically believe it’s a bad thing to do.