"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"...doesn't philosophy amount to the sum of all thinkable and unthinkable errors, ceaselessly repeated?"--Jean-Luc Marion

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Does this mean I can blame Social Security?

According to this really interesting story from NPR this morning, Social Security virtually invented retirement in this country.

The short version is that people didn’t earn enough in their lifetime to consider retiring and living on their savings, and most simply worked until they died. In the 1920’s, the idea began to take hold that something should be done to encourage 65 year olds to retire, to make room for young employees. This gave rise, slowly, to pension plans (to encourage retirement, partly because young employees were cheaper), and finally to Roosevelt’s Social Security plan (which was to serve the same purpose, but on a uniform, national level, and as a response to the unemployment of the Great Depression). FDR also saw it as a way to pump money into the economy by making retirees consumers with money to spend, rather than simply burdens on their children (which is what happened to those who lived long enough not to be able to work anymore).

Eventually this gave rise to a class of people with money to spend on travel, etc. (although, if memory serves, that actually burgeoned in the 70’s, and 80’s, or even later), and contributed to the notion that “old people” should be able to both live longer, and enjoy life “after work.” Which, in turn, supported geriatric medicine and research.

Which brings us to the state of the church in America, today. It is, in large measure, divided along generational lines. In Protestant churches in particular, this is both inevitable and unfortunate. But it has less to do with the aging population, than with the nature of Protestantism.

Hard to adequately encapsulate 2000 years of Christian church history into a paragraph or two, but essentially, modern scholarship understands that Christianity began as, and was intended as, a marginal movement; not one aimed at the power structure of society, but at those at the margins. Paul had less to do with the eventual shift than is widely imagined; it actually had much more to do with the conversion of Constantine (and the human desire to keep the whole business going by giving it some stability. The problem with the margins is that they are inherently unstable. But that’s a theological issue for another time.). When Constantine converted to Christianity, much of the state quickly followed; not out of a sudden conviction and conversion, but out of expediency. By the mid-19th century Søren Kierkegaard would condemn this as “Christendom,” a state in which people adopt Christian beliefs because of society, not because of personal conviction. But that gets ahead of the story.

As the church struggled to establish itself (and almost immediately abandon the radical egalitarian roots of the church described in Acts), it went through many changes, finally settling into one dominant Christian church in the West, the Roman Catholic church (I told you we’d be compressing like mad here). That church dominated Europe and didn’t have to worry much about conforming to the culture after a certain point, because ultimately it was the culture (I recognize I’m speaking very broadly here. Bear with me). The Protestant Reformation of Luther was fueled in large measure as a reaction to that culture, brought about by changes in European society as massive as the 19th century Industrial Revolution, and as sweeping. Luther meant only to reform the Catholic church, but what he proclaimed resonated with a culture ripe for new forms of church and worship, and Calvin and Zwingli, among others, soon championed whole new beginnings apart from any sense of “reformation” of the Church of Rome. It is that resonance with the culture of the time that most interests me here.

Protestantism began, in other words, as a cultural movement. The Roman church had long since established its institutional culture, and while the shift away from dominance was anything but clean and easy, it was eventually done. Protestantism, however, depended heavily on the culture for its own structure and identity. It was no accident that Calvin, for example, set out to enact the very “City of God” Augustine had merely envisioned as a pedagogical and evangelical argument. It is also no coincidence that Luther found so much support among the German princes. Without them, he would have died early and all but unnoticed. With them, he built a new church, as did Calvin; as did Zwingli; as did others. But those churches owed much to the cultures in which they arose. They did not shape them, so much as they were shaped by them.

And in the very nature of Protestantism, those new churches quickly shook off the idea of central control. Identity was formed, not by a hierarchy of priests and bishops, but by the “priesthood of all believers.” And those believers had definite ideas about what God wanted, based on what their particular culture valued. And, in large (and again, very broad) measure, the whole thing ran on wheels; until World War II.

I’ll have to leave it there, and return to this topic in the next post, a bit later on. Where this leads, eventually, is to why there is a "generation gap" among many of the Protestant churches. Sorry to leave you hanging, but these narrow columns are hard enough to read without jamming an essay’s worth of text into them.


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