Wednesday, June 06, 2007

One for Tena

As I've said elsewhere, the Biblical message is about sacrifice and the greater good of the community. That's not a popular message or even, really, a populist one. You don't win crowds of people by telling them they must be last of all, and servants of all.

Isn't that message of the gospels? I thought Jesus preached that message to multitudes. So I have a bit of trouble seeing this as something that is a message the world cannot embrace; only individuals can.

If that's true, Robert, then what are ministers for? What is theology for? If it's one on one and all revelatory, then you're talking gurus and students and knowledge passed directly through methods the invoke that revelation.

On the other hand, the relation between these two hermenuetics begins to reverse itself once we begin to consider the other side of the narrative, namely, the confession of faith.
This is the most important thing Ricouer has to say, but when you put it in the context of hermeneutics and the phenomenology of Heidegger, it tends to get lost. Still, this is the crux of the matter: the confession of faith as foundational to the narrative of the religious.

If you look at this dispassionately and entirely as an academic matter or an intellectual exercise, you follow Ricouer's thought or some similar line (not that there's anything wrong with that!). But if you apply it pastorally, to an ecclesial setting, and try to see it at work there, you get something that can only be understood passionately; which is not to say solely with great emotional fervor devoid of understanding or discernment.

What Ricouer is discussing, if you apply it pastorally, is: what is church for? This is the question Tena raised, because our culture has been shaped now to understand church as doing one of two things: offering worship of God (which pretty much offends our democratic sensibilities; after all, why should we bend our knee to anyone or anything? And isn't "worship" simply ego-aggrandizement for rulers?), or evangelism (and all aspects of church life are bent constantly in that direction). I got into the latter side of this discussion over at Fr. Jake's, an argument that truly went 'round in circles because, at heart, it depends on where the emphasis lies: is the kerygma of the Christian gospel Matthew 25 (the parable of the sheep and the goats)? or is it in the "Great Commissioning" ("Go ye into all the world and make disciples of all nations")? Read the latter exclusively, and the two are absolutely irreconcilable; the "Great Commissioning" also makes all worship about reaching masses, otherwise:

...then what are ministers for? What is theology for? If it's one on one and all revelatory, then you're talking gurus and students and knowledge passed directly through methods the invoke that revelation.
Which is not to say I would reduce the gospels to one parable (any more than it should be reduced to John 3:16), but the line between the two understandings of Christianity can be drawn between those two sets of teachings. We also have to keep in mind that, while Christianity is an evangelical religion, it is not solely evangelical in the American sense of that word. There are a lot of Christians, not just Roman Catholics but several flavors of Orthodox, not to mention Egyptian Coptics, who don't rely on either the technigues, nor even the theology, of American evangelicals, and feel no particular loss from that at all.

So, what is church for? Is it for evangelism and instruction, or for worship? The Protestant emphasis on the sermon has pushed worship about as far toward single purposes as it can go. Joel Osteen is regularly on one of the cable channels here, and I never seem to see any more of him than his sermons. The same is true for other local TV preachers who get televised at times other than Sunday morning. The focal point of the broadcast is clearly on what the preacher has to say. And how does the preacher speak to people who have no confession of faith, whose narrative about the world doesn't include a confession at all?

I've run aground in English literature classes trying to explain Milton's Paradise Lost or even the reference to Cain's descendants in Beowulf, teaching high school students with no experience in a Christian church. The confession of faith of Christianity is certainly no part of their narrative of the world, but neither is the story of Jonah or even David and Goliath. It can be tricky trying to explain the story of Noah's ark or Jonah and the whale, or even the Crucifixion and the story of Creation when I teach "The Dream of the Rood" or "Caedmon's Hymn"; now try preaching from a position of faith on those subjects to such an audience. Which is to say, the church more and more finds itself back on the ground it started from in the pre-Constantinian world.

But our worship services, especially our Protestant ones, were always heavily dependent on the culture for their shape and meaning. The Reformed service which rejected the Catholic liturgy was rejecting a model known to almost everyone in that society. It is a model almost unknown today.

The central problem, though, is this one:

"You cannot lead people toward the good."

Yes, but you can encourage and nurture the good in people, just like you can encourage and nurture the bad. Isn't that obvious? Doesn't this government encourage and nurture the very worst in people, and almost strictly through persuasion and controlling the message that they send out not one on one, but to the "community"?
You can, of course, encourage people toward the good; but the "good" is, as Wittgenstien said, "outside the space of facts." It is non-material, and yet what we have learned since at least the Industrial Revolution, is that we can find happiness in the material, that we can purchase the "good," that it is (or should be) easily accessible to all. That's part of the problem: pastors/priest cannot lead people toward something which does not exist in material form, or even in the "space of facts." The other part of the problem is that, as Auden said, "Maps can point to places where live is evil now." The good may be outside the space of facts; but evil seems to be quite real, and quite present. Which makes the good seem even weaker, if it cannot be present, also.

So what "Good" are we looking for? What does our faith confess?

One of my favorite lines from my childhood among the Presbyterians is the opening line of the Westminster Catechism. Presbyterians are linked to "dour Scots" and the "frozen chosen" (but almost every Protestant group claims that title, at one time or another), yet the first line of the Catechism is a revelation:

What is the chief end of man?
The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.
It's a lovely sentiment, when you think about it, and a lovely aim for life: not to be healthy, wealthy, and wise; or dour, ascetic, and "holy." Just to glorify God, and enjoy God forever. But that brings us back to the entrance requirement: the confession of faith. Even that narrative makes no sense without a confession of faith, if only because the 'glorify God' language sounds, in this post-Modern, post-Enligthenment context, like empty and shallow ego-gratification so the volcano god doesn't explode and rain ash and lava down on us again. Which isn't what worship is about at all; but until you penetrate the confession of faith, how do you know that?

We're wandering into issues of conversion, here. Fr. Jake had an excellent post on that recently, though I disagree with his idea of conversion altogether (that's yet another matter!). The excellence actually (no offense to Fr. Jake) in the book he cited, Take this Bread by Sara Miles. Her experience is more than a little relevant to my discussion, because her conversion experience came about through very physical means: the bread and wine of the eucharist, the body and blood of Christ, to those of us who make the confession of faith of Christianity. She made the conversion based on the offering, and more importantly the acceptance, of these things. From them she was led to make the confession of faith, to hear the narrative with that understanding. This was an individual decision, but without the community of believers, without the church to walk into, without a priest speaking to a crowd (however small), there would have been no offering for her to receive. Is this good? Yes, but it's also, clearly, outside the space of facts. Non-believers will say it is good for her; though some atheists, like Hitchens and Dawkins, probably won't say that much. But that puts us in another peculiar position: if evil for anyone is bad, and I can know that; why isn't good for anyone good? Why can't I know that?

I meant to answer more questions than I raised, when I started this. That's why it took so long to finish this one; and here I am, still unable to finish. Well, something to work on, then....

UPDATE: We'll see if this system works.

Tena comments (in part):

This is a problem of learning. It's one I worry about, with kids growing up with clocks that don't go around. I do worry about the future survival of classic literature - will anyone read it,will they understand it? But that's a different issue than the rest that you've talked about.

A very good working knowledge of the Bible is a requirement of understanding literature. I agree. But that is nothing to do with faith.
A fair point, but I think that's the point of the narrative being connected to a confession of faith; because, after all, the narrative is the concrete thing which leads us to and which confirms our faith. The eucharist which drew Sara Miles into the church is from a narrative, and is bound to a confession of faith. It is very much, as Ricouer understands, a matter of what narrative you know.

Missionaries going to a culture with no background in European Christianity (or in European thought, for that matter; the Grecian thought that is the basis for our culture is hardly universal) struggle with this. The church in Western European culture assumed the centrality of a Christian basis to all thinking, including morality and especially stories such as "Adam and Eve."

But unless Bible stories are taught as cultural matters (which raises all sorts of hackles, and frankly, even in private non-religious schools, doesn't show up on an achievement test), most students who don't go to a Christian or Jewish church/synagogue, don't know about Jonah and the Whale, David and Goliath, or Adam and Eve (or even Cain, if you're talking about Beowulf and Grendel).

And if you don't know those stories, it's rather hard to understand what the preacher is talking about on Sunday morning unless, like Joel Osteen, you never mention them. So as a preacher, I have two audiences: one steeped in Biblical lore, and one completely ignorant of it. And how do I, for 15 minutes on Sunday morning, inculcate faith in both of those groups?

No comments:

Post a Comment