Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Winter Is Coming

That time of year thou may'st in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare, ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

--Willie the Shake, during the off season

This is basically a long comment to this post; so you might want to read that before reading this.

I like Rahner's metaphor of "winter" as it relates to Christian faith.  It's an apt one.  But if you're going to establish the metaphor of the long season of death (or near death; winter always implies spring, and resurrection. Probably why Christmas comes in December, and Easter in April.), you have to stick with it.  Which is the problem with this recommendation:

It is a source of never-ending concern to Rahner that much of what people hear in the preaching and teaching of the church draws on a primitive idea of God unworthy of belief[**],rather than communicating the reality, the beauty, the wonder, and the strange generosity of the mystery of God.  The average sermon, along with the popular piety it encourages, has a basically retarded notion of God, he judged, acknowledging neither the absolute difference of God from the world nor the marvelous truth that God's own self has drawn near as the inmost dynamism and goal offered to the world.  All too often sermons work with the tired ideas of modern theism, reflecting a precritical mentality that sees God as someone whom we can calculate from our formula of how things work, thus replacing the incomprehensible God with an idol. They fashion the Holy in the image of our own concerns, our neurotic fears, our puny hearts, rather than honoring the impossible outpouring of love by which God not only sets up the world in its own integrity but, while remaining radically distinct, gives the divine self away to the world.  They neglect to inform us of the most tremendous truth, that we are called into loving immediacy with the mystery of God who self-communicates to us in unspeakable nearness.  After listening to such dismal sermons can we really say that the world "God" brightens up our lives?   Unfortunately Rahner wrote, it is more often the case that the words of the preacher fall powerlessly from the pulpit,  "like birds frozen to death and falling from a winter sky."

I don't disagree with this critique, but popular piety is an implacable stone that is not moved easily; and sermons are hardly the unstoppable force beating against it.  It isn't just the average sermon that has "a retarded [sic] notion of God," it's the average pew sitter.  Those who want a more challenged and challenging notion of God usually have their own ideas what that is, and will eventually feel slighted by the preacher enough to leave.  Those who like the popular piety will also be insulted, but they are more likely to have a rounded stone quality to them:  the rivers of tradition have washed over their beliefs so long, shaping them and even creating them, that the generic God of piety and 19th century sentimentality ("I Come To the Garden Alone") is a comfort to them.  Like rounded stones they lay flat and form the river bed.  The jagged stones of prickly particularity don't stick together, and don't even conform with other jagged stones.  Church is, at heart, a voluntary community; people don't volunteer to join a community that doesn't suit their interests, either in providing comfort, or in conforming to their preferences for particularity.

I agree with what I consider to be the more Jewish/Hebraic theology of God:  God was Other, God as Creator whose relationship to us is based in that fundamental act, as well as a relationship chosen by God and not created by us.  The "mystery of God who self-communicates to us in unspeakable nearness" "while remaining radically distinct," and "gives the divine self away to the world."  But honestly, what does that communicate to a mother grieving the death of her babe in arms?  What does that communicate to a broken soul seeking comfort and raised in the pieties of "Jesus loves me, this I know"?  God drawing near "as the inmost dynamism and goal offered to the world" may be a better theology than the misbegotten interpretations of John 3:16 that put atonement as the be all and end all of Christianity, but neither one offers much comfort in a funeral service, or to a couple considering divorce, or to abuse victims, or teenagers just trying to figure out how to be adults.  It isn't particularly meant to, but how do you replace centuries of Christianity, from sentimental pietism to the harsher cruelties of atonement and doctrines of original sin, without realizing you can't just wipe those things away, and the fact that preaching really isn't the most important work a pastor does?  Indeed, the emphasis on the sermon is the emphasis on "This is what we're here for."  It's a very Protestant emphasis, and it may actually be the problem of modern Christianity is the emphasis on the Word, rather than the praxis.

Two communities which tried to reimagine Christianity in modern times are Taize and Iona Community.  Whether they are still going strong, or have faded away, I have no idea.  Certainly neither "reformed" Christianity, nor did they mean to.  If anything, the accepted with metaphor of winter Rahner posits, and responded to it positively.  But I don't recall hearing any great preaching coming out of either community.  No one posted their sermons on-line (then again, neither group was ever associated with a U.S. presidential candidate).  I don't know of any real sense of preaching coming from either group.  Prayer and singing, yes; preaching?  Not so much.  I don't mean preaching was disdained; but the preaching of the Word, an emphasis of Protestant (especially Reformed tradition) churches, doesn't seem to have been central to either group.

In seminary we learned to "exegete" worship spaces.  There was an old German E&R (now UCC) church in the town where I first had a pulpit.  The original pulpit was in the back wall of the sanctuary, high above the pews.  It was a church with a balcony on three sides, not just at the back as a choir loft.  Built in the days before PA systems, it was also meant to put the preacher above the people, so all could hear.  But it emphasized the place of the Word in worship.  The sacrament of communion was probably practiced 4 times a year, not monthly as is the modern Protestant practice, nor weekly, as is the practice of Episcopalians/Anglicans and Lutherans (among the Protestants).  The Word was the center point of the service, the focal point of the worship space.  It is not at all unusual to find old Protestant churches where the pulpit is in the center of the chancel, or a chancel without an altar at all, merely a table to hold, occasionally, the communion elements.  The main thrust of the Reformed movement, to distinguish themselves from Catholic practice, was to center worship on the Word, rather than the eucharist.  Even the altar, meant to represent the place of sacrifice, was transformed to a table, meant to hold the food for the meal.

Maybe it's merely time to swing back to emphasis on the act of worship (liturgy, common prayers, singing), rather than on the observance of worship (listening to a sermon or, worse in my eyes, watching a performance presented as worship, and all you have to do is enjoy the band and the singers, and not be too disturbed by the "message").

I am a great fan of worship as an encounter with the living God, an encounter terrible and unworldly when it occurs.  I treated worship not as a battery recharge, filling up your spiritual tank with enough God to get you through the week before it was time to return to the filling station of the church; but as the time when you were most likely to encounter the reality of God, an encounter that would put the rest of your week (at least) in perspective.  If some pastors secretly affirmed "vulture theology," the idea that sooner or later (for weddings, funerals, crises), you had to "come back to church," then mine was akin to "eat a live toad first thing every morning, and nothing worse will happen to you all day."  I didn't mean my doxology (philosophy of worship, loosely stated) to be quite so cynical, but I did mean to turn the emphasis around from what God can do for us, to what we can do having experienced God.  Had I been a better pastor overall, it might have actually led somewhere.

So if I disagree with Rahner (well, as presented by Elizabeth Johnson), in the end, it is a disagreement with the assumption that Protestantism as we have known it will always be with us, and will always be essential to Christianity.  Even the Southern Baptists, the most reformed of the Reformed tradition (with the exception, perhaps, of a few small and virulently Calvinist denominations), are trying to rediscover Advent and even Lent to give their worship year a bit more of a structure than just Christmas Even and Easter Sunday.  Southern Baptists will never become liturgical, and I encountered enough resistance to my "Catholic" style of worship to last me a lifetime, or to make me think all Protestants will ever agree on anything.  I agree with Rahner that winter is coming; but I'm also convinced no shift in preaching is enough to assuage the pain of the losses winter brings.  Then again, winter always leads to spring, and even winter is a time for joyous holidays.


  1. I suspect that even the most unsophisticated believer, when pressed, would acknowledge that most of our language about God is metaphorical. Few would say, for example, that God has a right hand that you could see or shake or sit beside.

    But when our theologians--not that I blame them for this--try to express what the metaphor is a metaphor for, I'm not sure that we get any farther. God as, say, the "transcendental horizon of thrownness" is still a metaphor, just one harder to understand.

    I read Rahner's "Grundkurs des Glaubens" a few years ago. It's the only thing of his I know, and I got a lot out of it. But nothing that would make me think less of those with neither the education nor time to make head or tails of it.

  2. It crossed my mind, while writing this, to mention how Rahner seemed to be following in the footsteps of Bultmann's "demythologizing." I was even going to mention I first heard of Bultmann in college, in the works of Francis Schaeffer (who isn't fit to untie Bultmann's scholarly sandals), so how do we get Bultmann to the masses, as Rahner seems to want to do?

    You don't. Bultmann was off-base with that shtick (like most Biblical scholars, he sucks at theology and is even worse with homiletic). The belief that people will believe if you just pitch it the right way is another false idol. True, I cannot speak of the God of Abraham and Jesus the way Paul did in 1st century Palestine, but neither need I speak in terms of process theology (does anybody do that anymore? I think it went the way of logical positivism.) or even Tillich's "ground of being" (never had much use for Tillich, actually).

    I prefer Kierkegaard's experiential existentialism and the concept of "wounding from behind," mixed with Crossan's idea of the "dark interval," where the parables have more to do with creating intellectual (or even cognitive) conflict than with being allegories for God and heaven. Then again, I prefer the Jewish (one branch, anyway; Judaism is no more monolithic than Christianity) otherness of God, the emphasis on the Creator of the Universe rather than the White Guy with Long Beard.

    But insisting there is a better way, if everybody would just listen to me? I finally gave that one up. True, it makes me wishy-washy on hard questions, but I prefer to make people figure those out for themselves by looking hard at the answers. The rest is about taking care of each other, as Micah said: doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with God (whether God is Cosmic Thunderer or unfathomable Ground of Being, or both and a little of neither).

    Theology is best understood as an act of humility, not of understanding. If anything, especially after reading so much Derrida, I tend to disavow understanding, except as a way to understand how much you don't understand. Especially about other people.

    And what is knowing God about, except other people?

  3. Rahner was a great advocate of encountering God in everyday life by everyday people, he was a great advocate of the necessity of the direct experience of the divine.

    I think it's one of the advantages, at times disadvantages, that to an extent the hierarchical structure of Catholicism can shield a priest from the dislike of the congregation they're assigned to. Sometimes that results in priests being free to tell hard truths to people who might not want to hear it but who don't have the power to fire them, sometimes it works out pretty badly. The town next to ours had a really awful priest, a horrid old Jansenist who liked to preach Easter sermons about what cheapskates the parishioners were, who loved to rail against what he said was the inadequate housekeeping of the women of the parish(more on which below) and on one memorable occasion scandalized the flock by telling them that God hated them when they sinned.

    We learned about this when my mother's best friend, a member of that parish, said that when the priest came on his irregular parish visit, she stood in the door and told him he couldn't come in because her house was too messy.

    Many of the members of the parish merely started going to mass in the town next to theirs until he retired.

  4. My parish experience left me jaded and cynical. Some want to experience the divine. Some want the divine to experience them. Most want to be left alone.

    Then again, such thoughts reflect my limitations as a pastor, not the state of reality.

  5. Expanding on the familiar quote from the masthead of this blog:

    “The Christian faith holds that those who are able to look on the crucifixion and live, to accept that the traumatic truth of human history is a tortured body, might just have a chance of new life – but only by virtue of an unimaginable transformation in our currently dire condition. This is known as the resurrection. Those who don’t see this dreadful image of a mutilated innocent as the truth of history are likely to be devotees of that bright-eyed superstition known as infinite human progress, for which Dawkins is a full-blooded apologist….

    “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.”

    I would add to Eagleton here and say that those who don’t see the dreadful image of a mutilated innocent as the truth of history are probably my church-going neighbors who are fine with Trump ripping away the innocent children of immigrants and refugees and imprisoning them. And if forced to face the discomfort of being called out on this issue long enough they’ll have no problem calling for detractors to be imprisoned, or worse, in the name of safety and security.

    Nationalistic religion vs those who’ve been broken open by some experience of either conscious suffering or the Divine: I think that’s the age-old challenge facing Christianity and pastors and the message of this winter for me.

  6. "Nationalistic religion vs those who’ve been broken open by some experience of either conscious suffering or the Divine: I think that’s the age-old challenge facing Christianity and pastors and the message of this winter for me."

    'Aye, there's the rub.' Willie the Shake, again. And probably why I'm happy to see the church go into its winter of discontent (!). Although a message of absolute challenge can be an idol (what does "the dreadful image of a mutilated innocent as the truth of history" say to the mother mourning the death of her infant? To the wife trying to decide whether or not to remove the life support from her husband? To the person with multiple-personality disorder brought on by childhood trauma?), it has to be part of the challenge to us, so that we always see God more clearly, love God more dearly, and follow God more nearly day by day.

    That challenge is multi-faceted, and our only hope is in humility and recognizing the power of powerlessness.