Monday, August 08, 2005

Battling Theologies

McKibben identifies a very real problem for churches, one apparent in the contrast between American and European societies. As McKibben notes, European societies have managed to take care of the poor, the "widow and the orphan," in Biblical terms, without Marx or Jesus. The American church, on the other hand, has managed little more than its own stock portfolio, at best. As a moral voice in this country, whether the issue is babies having babies or illegal and immoral wars, the church speaks with the voice of the turtle. But there is a reason for that, and it is at once the rose, and the worm in the heart of the rose, for Christianity.

The Church in Europe for centuries was the conscience of the king. (Although it didn't last long, in the English tradition the King, on Good Friday, would re-create the "last supper' of the Gospel of John by washing the feet of beggars in court, and giving them gifts; a reflection of the Biblical injunction to care for the poor as a matter of justice). But kings did not rule long who abused their people harshly (the lessons of the French Revolution were not lost on Europe). Kings always had a charge to take care of their subjects (the common law of England was based on the premise that even the peasant was the king's property, and to assault the peasant was to damage the king's property. Thus the state had an interest in keeping the peace and in punishing perpetrators of assault, or other crimes). It was an easy transition, then, from the monarchical state to the "socialist" state, and as the Church withered in the Enlightenment and afterwards (even Romanticism spurned the Church), the spiritual connection to care for others was easily replaced by the social obligation to "do the right thing." Or, at least, be civilized.

In America, self-reliance became the myth, and the church became the provider of charity (usually delivered with a strong dose of a gospel of "God helps those who help themselves!"). The American church, in other words, was always more concerned with personal salvation than with material security (after all, if you are "saved," then your material needs will be taken care of; if they are not, then perhaps you are not "saved").

But now, material comforts are the way to salvation. Now we even say that comfortable, middle-class people can't be Christians. Which would be a solution, except for the example of Central America, where more and more people are turning away from "liberation theology" and embracing the "gospel of wealth," the idea that Christianity is all about amassing your treasure here on earth, where God can protect it from moth and rust (apparently).

The flip side of this is something McKibben himself alludes to (albeit unintentionally), something I've come to call "vulture theology." It's a popular excuse among pastors and church judicatories: that the "people" will come back to "us" when they find out they really "need" us." When the "kids" grow up and have "kids," and want their kids to have a moral framework to learn in (Sunday school, at least). Or when they get divorced, lose a parent, a spouse, even (sadly) a child. "Vulture" theology, in other words: if we just wait until something in them dies, they will have to come back to us.

We never put it that way, of course, because it would appall even jaded pastors. But it is what we mean. Which is part of the tension between the individual and the institution. In a nutshell, I agree with what Diogenes said about church in the comments below. And I'm Protestant enough in background to be wary of prebendaries and prelates and all the other pomp and circumstance of the RC and Anglican communion. But institutions are a necessary human evil; without the church as it historically developed (although that development was neither a necessity nor an inevitability), none of us would be, or know anything about, Christians, as there would be no Christianity to profess. But professing Christianity does not mean professing the tenets of any one church above another, or against another.

Still, we need the institution; and the institution needs us. But does society need Christianity? And if so, which version? The European model? The American? or a third way, such as, say, the Celtic?

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