Wednesday, September 13, 2006

At last!

A chance to talk about religion and politics!

President Bush said yesterday that he senses a "Third Awakening" of religious devotion in the United States that has coincided with the nation's struggle with international terrorists, a war that he depicted as "a confrontation between good and evil."

Bush told a group of conservative journalists that he notices more open expressions of faith among people he meets during his travels, and he suggested that might signal a broader revival similar to other religious movements in history. Bush noted that some of Abraham Lincoln's strongest supporters were religious people "who saw life in terms of good and evil" and who believed that slavery was evil. Many of his own supporters, he said, see the current conflict in similar terms.
Atrios thinks this means Bush has "messianic delusions," but I don't think so. I think this is simply Bush trying to secure his place in history, even as that place slips rapidly away from him.

There is a lot of discussion in ecclesiological circles around a "new Reformation". It is usually centered on either the "success" (I am dubious, so I put it in quotes) of the American "mega-churches," or the equally dubious success of some new form of "more rational" theology (equally dubious). This latter claim is largely a post-Bultmannian one, resting more or less on Bultmann's concept of "demythologizing" (in a nutshell, that's what Shelby Spong is on about), or perhaps on "process theology" (one of the major proponents of that school, Shubert Ogden, is a student of Bultmann), or on the scholarship championed by the Jesus Seminar (Robert Funk, the founder of the JSeminar, is also a student of Bultmann, IIRC). Bultmann, ironically enough, did his best theological work in The Gospel of John, which is basically rea reading of the fourth gospel through the lens of Kierkegaard's Philosophical Fragments, with Martin Heidegger (Bultmann and Heidegger were on staff together at the time) as sparring partner. Bultmann's scriptural work is basically an extension of the Germanic scholarship and philological work of the 19th century, so while it isn't far to label him as anachronistic, he doesn't exactly represent a "new thing."

Except to the laity who are still catching up with the scholarship of 200 years ago, and who may or may not be enthralled with any of these ideas. Depends on who you ask. Probably the "newest thing" going right now is either Matthew Fox (who has pretty much petered out as a dynamic force), or liberation theology, which more than one institution seems to have been determined to strangle in its crib. It is certainly not a potent force in theological circles at the moment, anyway.

So is there a new "Reformation" underway, or even a Third (or Fourth, depending on who's counting) Awakening? Frankly, I don't see it; and I see people looking for it as simply looking for a star to hitch their wagon to, or maybe a bandwagon they can jump onto. Little more than that, really. Certainly hoping for such a sweeping change in history is not to automatically place yourself at its head or to imagine yourself as its reason. In a sense, it's kind of akin to apocalypticism, to the idea that you have keen enough insight to see the end coming, or at least to be able to predict it. This is a common failing for the terminally pessimistic just as it is for the ludicrously religious, in which latter category I would put Bush, based on the quoted remarks. It's a seeking after order in what seems to be a chaotic present, a need to define, using the past as guide, what seems only to be senselessness in the present and coming from the future. Who, after all, can define the present except by looking back from an imagined future?

But we forget history when we do this. Luther, for example, meant to reform the Church of Rome, not create a church in oppsition to it (his opposition would have cost him his life if not for some powerful protectors). Most people who imagine being present at a time of such dramatic change also imagine the outcome is inevitable and predictable, because they imagine themselves seeing it from the projected future they are sure is arising from the madness of the present, that future when this present is past, and makes sense. In short, it is simply a desire to be identified with the winners of history, not the losers. Looking back, it is easy to see the benefits of the Reformation; but at the time, Luther was merely an irreverant upstart heretic who had violated his vows (he was an Augustinian monk when he nailed his 95 thesis to the Wittenberg church door).

Frankly, what worries me is the simple dichotomy of "good v. evil," because that always means the person doing the identifying is good, and the people that person disagrees with or opposes, are "evil." And in that context I always remember the words of Jesus when the man approached him and said: "Good master, what must I do to have eternal life?", and Jesus immediately asked: "Why do you call me good? There is no one good but God alone."

If we're going to start awakening, let's start by awakening to that humbling truth. If there's something unfortunate about sweeping religious movements, it's that they almost never start there.

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