Thursday, May 04, 2017

"An Atypical Presentation of a Common Condition."

I am unashamedly lifting that title from Charlie Pierce because it convinced me to turn an e-mail to a friend into a blog post (and now you know what it's like to be on the receiving end of my correspondence!).  I'm not as thrilled (as I say below) with this metaphor as I was when I hadn't written it down; then again, the idea of shell we put around the message that makes the good stuff both look unpleasant and be very hard to get to, may still have resonance.  I still have to work on that; and that title is pointing in the right direction.

Anyway....(The "subject" by the way, was a simple question:  "Is church over?")

I tend to go ‘round and ‘round on this subject, and I intend here to do better than that.  The question is “What is church for?,” the kind of thing you and I call a question of ecclesiology.  I think the question actually is “What is Christianity for?”  The sociologists (well not all but some) answer that question by discerning between the Church of Belonging and the Church of Meaning and Belonging.  You and I are tilted toward the latter (I’ll try not to presume too much about you after this); many people prefer the former.  The distinction is pretty clear.  The details can be tedious and confining, so I won’t bother with them.  It’s also not my major point of interest, but we have to stake some markers or we’ll just go around in circles.

Actually, we may to that anyway.  There is no system that will save us from ourselves.  “O machine, O machine!”

Sorry.  Where was I?  Oh, yes; church and religionless Christianity.

Well, I was going to be there, I just hadn’t got ‘round to it.  Soon as those round-to-its come in, I can get around to something, I’m sure.  Anyway….

Cutting to the chase because this is going in no particular order, and if it gets too ordered I’ll lose the thread and never get out of this maze, the problem in fine is not with the church directly (as in, what do you do on Sunday morning, and why do you do it?), it is with the message directly, and the church indirectly.

My understanding of Jesus of Nazareth is much altered by seminary, and much improved.  I know Rick Allen (bless his soul!) is more than overtly challenged by my appreciation for Crossan and what I was taught 20 years ago (all doubtless hopeless dated by now.  It is so hard to stay on the bleeding edge!).  But without it, my appreciation for Christianity and my own beliefs would have faded badly by now (worse than it has as I am, again, a decade or so away from church.  It’s a rhythm in my life, and ebb and flow.  But we’re not about that now! On!  On!).  It is the humanity of the gospels that shines through for me; the humanness of the documents.  If I shrink it to a nutshell, I would put it in the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:

“The Bible is a book about men, rather than mans' book about God.  And the great problem is how to answer. to response to the human situation and somehow religion religious leaders have often become petrified in their own traditions and understandings and couldn't relate to the burning issues of the day.”

Stop with the “how to answer” portion; we’ll come back to the other half in a moment.  That is my great understanding, my epiphany:  those who wrote the Bible are not so far away as to be saints themselves, not so distant in culture as to be other than as I am, not so removed in time as to have nothing to do with me.  The continuity, the connection, is profound and moving and inspiring and true.

Or perhaps this is caught up in my experience of God; surely so, because objectively the Scriptures can be read as literature, or as simply human documents, of interest as I am interested in the Tibetan Book of the Dead.  That book has a profoundly different meaning to a Tibetan Buddhist than it does to me.

But if the Bible can be that central, that important, that necessary, why do we hide it?  I mean, in the lectionary we barely get to the Book of Job or Ecclesiastes or even Proverbs, and John’s Gospel only shows up on special days when it seems right to replace one of the canonicals with it (it’s no accident the lectionary is on a three, not four, year cycle).  Many of the letters never show up at all.  But that’s a symptom, and a minor one, and one suffered only by those of us who use (used) the lectionary.  Those who don’t have their own problem of leaving out valuable books in favor of favorite, and comfortable, books.  Of course, even the lectionary becomes comfortable soon enough.

But this isn’t about the comfort of the preacher at sermon time, when she is required to deliver the wisdom of God because, good Protestants that we are, the Word is always equal to, if not superior to, any Sacrament.  (And just using those terms sets us back from the 21st century, doesn’t it?  See what I mean about getting tangled up and going ‘round and ‘round?)

No, that’s not my point either, but it’s on the way there.  My point is to examine what the church delivers as the Message:  Get Right with God?  Sinners in the hands of an angry God?  God is still speaking?  God wants you to win the lottery of life?  God wants the church to have a mission?

Each of those answers is fraught with peril, even the last one.  When I grew up, “mission” meant supporting missionaries and giving them a covered dish supper once every summer or so (more likely once every three summers or so) as they came to tell you what good your contributions were doing in the benighted places of the world across the waters.  And it might include gathering items at Thanksgiving or Christmas for a “needy” family.  That’s as much “mission” as the church I knew ever had.

And that’s just one issue:  “Mission?  And MY mission?”  But it seems to me the more basic problem is messaging at all.  The accepted Xian message runs along some softened lines of avoiding damnation.  It rests, as you and I say, in soteriology:  you must know you are a sinner, you must confess your sins and accept Jesus Christ into your heart (location, location, location!), to be saved!  Atonement, atonement, atonement!  You know, the message that prompted the Inuit to ask the missionary:  “If you hadn’t told me about this, would I have been damned?”  And when the missionary admits, no, you can’t be damned for not knowing, the Inuit asks:  “Then why did you tell me?”

Mission?  and MY mission?

The church has a messaging problem, and I don’t mean any particular church (let’s not digress into particulars, hmmm?).  If we solve that, will people flood back to our precincts like the nations coming to Isaiah’s holy mountain?  Nah!  But could we do a bit better at explaining ourselves?  Yup.  And what’ the problem?

The problem is metaphor, a handy tool when dealing with abstractions like God and “love” and, yes, even “mission.”  We need a helpful metaphor.  I think I have one.

What we have on our hands, in the church, is a lobster.  I’m partial to crawdads, myself, but it doesn’t matter; lobster will do, since it takes a lot of crawdads to make a meal, but one lobster is plenty.  Now, the thing about lobsters is, they’re basically cockroaches of the sea.  But they’re tasty, if you can get to the meat.  And a lot of what’s necessary to the lobster, isn’t at all needed by the diner.  Moreover, to get to the meat, you’ve got to do a little work.  You’ve got to know what you’re going for, and how to get it and, most importantly, how worthwhile the effort is.

I don’t mean to push the analogy past that, if that far.  What I mean is:  we have a lovely message (the meat) hidden in a shell that’s rather hard to get at.  And while most people know how good lobster can be, some people would still rather not eat it at all, than face the prospect of tearing a lobster apart at the table (or crawdads, for that matter).  It’s a cockroach, you see; and they’d rather just not think about it at all.

Don’t get too hung up on the cockroach and try to find analogies for that; I just mean to say it’s a message the church has which is rather difficult to get to, especially by people who don’t already know it, and what most people know now is that the message of the church is the shell, not the meat inside.  It’s the shell because the message is soteriology (certainly the shell is the salvation of the lobster!  Well, for a while…..), but the meat is…..well, it ain’t the shell.

If Bonhoeffer was right and there will be a religionless Christianity in the future, could it be one divorced from the liturgy of salvation and confession and abjection?  I understand the value of humility.  I understand humility is the heart of the gospel.  The first of all will be last of all and servant of all.  We destroy the gospel to ignore that teaching.  But is the servant of all the most abject of all?  Are we humbled by our sins?  Or are we humbled by the recognition that the world is not about us, but about others?  Are we humbled by learning and recognizing the power of powerlessness, rather than by replacing the power of the world with what we think is the power of God?  A great deal of the complaining about why God didn’t help me or save him or intervene to relive suffering is based on that misunderstanding:  that the power of God is just a substitute for worldly power (it’s also the basis of the error that we have attained god-like powers through science and technology; contrary to The Last Whole Earth Catalog we are nothing like gods, which is why 45 years since publication, we still haven’t gotten any better at it).  We have the message that Isaiah said would bring the nations to the mountain.  The problem is, we keep it in the lobster shell.

The shell can be TULIP based soteriology; it can be “God is still speaking” (but saying what?  Everyone is speaking.  Too damned many people are speaking.  Who is worth listening to, and why?  That’s the question!); it can be “God wants to buy you a Mercedes Benz!”  We need to crack the shell; we need to get at the meat for people who don’t even know they like lobster.

Which is not as helpful a metaphor as I thought it might be, because it doesn’t tell us what the meat is.  Personally, I think it’s found in a deep dive of the gospels, where the woman who comes Simon’s table to bathe Jesus’ feet in her tears is not showing great devotion, but it performing an erotic act (Gospel porn!  Think of the marketing!).  And the lesson in that, how Jesus turns it into an act of devotion (probably surprised her as much as anyone!) and forgives her sins, just to teach Simon a lesson, but to teach her one, too.  Or a deep dive of the letters, moving away from Paul’s theology (which ain’t as systematic as we want it to be) and into his relationships with his churches, and his pre-Augustinian (I’ve studied my Stendahl) ideas about both God and conscience.  Or the non-Pauline letters, which nobody bothers with; or even the Revelation, which isn’t so weird and hallucinatory as everyone takes it to be.

Yeah, I know, I’m pumping for teachers.  To the man with a lectern the whole world looks like a lecture hall.  I’m well aware few people want to be students, and I’ve not desire to make disciples (students) of them with my predilections foremost.  But there’s something to be said for cracking the shells and getting the meat out for them, rather than trying to tell them they should develop a taste for ocean cockroach.

Maybe if we use the metaphor that way, we’ll get somewhere…..


  1. Surely any Christian can give some sort of answer to what the Church is for, what Christianity is for, and it shouldn't be too surprising.

    I would say that they are to tell us who we are and what we should do. They introduce us to God, whom we may or may not intuit on our own. We are to love God and love one another, and we are given ways to escape from our alienation, from our solitude, from our slavery to our own desires. They are for giving us hope, and meaning, and to make us happy, and to reveal the beauty of this world, and of the other world. They are for overcoming death, and despair. They are to make us like God, who is love. They provide a means to make us whole, when we fail to become like God, and they help us along the way with grace, the very life of God.

    Now I know a lot of people would leave out the God-stuff. But I don't know how to take him out of Christianity and have something left beyond leftover Christian morality. To say that the bible is about man, not about God, is, to me, to raise an unnecessary either/or. Why can't it be about both? Why shouldn't it be about both. He's there on practically every page (well, except for Esther).

    Whatever happens to Christianity--who knows?--the things that Christianity is for will linger so long as we are human. Which is to say, we can I suppose suppress those aspects of our existence, drown them out with apps upon apps, concentrate on satisfying our desires to the exclusion of everything else. But I'm just naive enough to think that mere satisfaction isn't going to satisfy, and Christian enough to think that the faith of the Church is what we really need.

    I think I understand what Bonhoeffer meant by religionless Christianity, but I think he was wrong about it. The things that Christianity is for are not really satisfied by knowledge, or science, or technology, or art, or culture, or pleasure (that is, unless we make religions of them). It's odd, to me, that Bonhoeffer (whom I admire greatly, and whom I have begun to re-read after having been introduced to him in college) talked about the "world come of age" at a time when his world had regressed into a savage primitiveness, a selfish, murderous ego-centricity and pathological childhood almost unparalleled in history.

    I get why people hate religion. Hypocrisy. Using religion for ends of political or personal power. Smarminess. But that's just a confirmation that what is best has the most potential for corruption. And where else do we have to go?

  2. No offense, but your last sentence smacks of what I call "vulture theology." And the question is not "what type of Christian is church for?", but "why be a Christian at all?"

    Which is much closer to what Bonhoeffer was after, especially given the context of his comment.

    But I'm typing this on my phone, and misstating myself badly. I'll have to emend this later.

  3. I"m also not sure Augustine speaks to that many people today. "Our hearts are restless" is not the universal sentiment it once was. IMHO, of course.

  4. My last question was meant to be that of Peter to Jesus, when everyone appeared to be leaving. Where else to go? It's a practical question. I'm a democrat, but are our hearts satisfied with politics? I'm an American, but is my own restlessness cured by nationalism?

    It's odd, I agree that Augustine is wholly unintelligible to the contemporary world, but I find him more compelling the more time I spend with him (which isn't much, unhappily), and from my own little corner I do see a restless and largely frustrated and depressed world with no clue as to where to turn for a way out.

    (Though in the mean time we do have the New Golden Age of Television.)

  5. Not to turn it against you, but part of the problem is expecting a way out. Our hearts are not restless, we just want to be relieved of responsibility. But"religion is responsibility, or it is nothing at all."

    Which may be the real source of the problem.

  6. I guess I would say that finding our way is a large part of our responsibility, since our proper way leads us back to God and our neighbors.