Thursday, October 12, 2017

More Songs About Building and Food

I didn't realize until just now how much that title has to do with church(es).  Anyway....

On the matter of generations, and speaking broadly (which is not to say sociologically, but I'll put mine up against theirs any day):  Boomers were the generation that actively and as a cohort (we imagined ourselves a "generation" because we were told we were.  American public demographics, the division of groups into "generations" based on birth year, a form or astrology, really, began with the Boomers.  Other generations were labelled around that cornerstone.) "rebelled" against their parents.  "We're not gonna take it!" was our mantra.  We had our own music, our own clothes, our own antipathy to a war we had to fight for reasons we couldn't understand, etc., etc., etc.  Debate the validity of those assertions all you want, it was the perception.

Subsequent generations, "Gen Xers" and "Millenials," took that sense of breaking from the parents, as their birthright.  Each saw it as their choice to define their culture, and although all three pretty much did it within the confines of American culture (how much has really changed for minorities, Native Americans, and even women, since the '60's?  Some things dramatically, most things not so dramatically.  The idea of men as "macho" and football watching knuckle draggers is even more emphasized than it was in my childhood.  "Macho" Christianity has even risen from the ashes of the early 20th century, echoing a vision of Christianity that goes back to the "Dream of the Rood."

So it goes.

Boomers left the churches of their parents as soon as they could.  Some returned when they had kids and wanted the stable life they remembered from childhood, giving rise to the "vulture theology" that, like funeral directors, churches would get you in the end (you need us for baptisms, marriages, and funerals, and you want your kids raised "right").  But the Sunday Schools of my youth, packed with the kids of parents who were in church themselves (or sometimes just dropped the kids off for a quiet Sunday morning at home) had disappeared by my daughter's childhood.  Because of "liberal theology"?  Hardly.  More due to the disappearance of the weekend and the end of Sunday as a "sacred space" set aside for church in the morning and pro football in the afternoons.  Kid's soccer and other athletic events crowd the weekend calendar now, and Sunday morning is no longer sacrosanct.  Parents work 7 days a week, and if they don't, weekends are dedicated to all the things Mom used to do during the week (at least for that halcyon post-war era we grew up thinking was the way things has "always been").  "Time, time, time, see what's become of me," is no longer the lament of an adolescent who finds he has to grow up and doesn't like it.  It's the curious result of all out "time-saving" devices not making our life as push-button easy as that of George Jetson, but more frantic and filled with work.  Church is a leisure activity:  it fell by the boards slowly but surely over the decades.

And it wasn't because the churches became more "liberal."  If they were liberal today the words of Dr. King's letter wouldn't be as relevant now as they were when they were written.  If they became less affirming of the world people wanted to hang on to, a world where whites were in charge and everyone knew their place (and I don't mean a white supremacist world; it doesn't have to be that malicious and restrictive to apply), churches did so reflecting the changes in culture of the world they were in, and suddenly being "in the world" but not "of the world" became extremely important.  Except mostly the people demanding that wanted to the church to be "of" a very different world than the world they found themselves living in.

Churches haven't lost members because they became too liberal; they have lost the battle for attention and time.  Even the entertainment factor of "conservative" churches is starting to fade.  Liturgical worship, while it will never been seen in a Baptist congregation, is becoming more widespread and being rediscovered by traditions that had abandoned it.  Churches that never had a "church year," that even would have considered the concept too "Popish," are taking up the idea of Advent and Lent as ways to make worship more meaningful and less the annual routine of sermons about salvation and how to be successful broken only by Christmas and Easter celebrations.  The very purpose of church is being re-examined, and where that purpose centers on community, it centers on the locale of the congregation.  Some congregations form communities which thrive and prosper and reap the fruits of the Spirit.  Some communities are always seed thrown on dry ground:  they never set roots and produce plants that thrive.  This has always been true in the church, too, for 2000 years; but the sense of the place and propriety of institutions which was assaulted by the Boomers, has become almost absolutely unnecessary to Millenials, whose icon is not the CEO but the entrepreneur who, by individual genius, becomes rich by selling to millions.  The church thrived in a post-war world where corporate achievement defeated Germany and rebuilt Europe and left America prosperous and powerful.  Business leaders of corporations gave way to Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, who had a great idea that made them rich and powerful.  In "Blade Runner 2049" the CEO of Tyrell, connected personally to even his humbler employees and seeing himself as still the salesperson for his company, is replaced by the hermit in his isolation chamber who only needs the tools of technology to enact his vision of what the world should be, whether the world wants it or not.  He is god, and he stands alone.  What need of community has he?  Even Ryan Gosling's character has to learn the lesson:  what are people for?

Religion is one way of answering that question; but American culture in general just now seems to think it knows the answers religion offers, and it rejects them.  So if there is a rise of "nones," it isn't because American churches became too theologically liberal, but because the entire concept of religion became too irrelevant.

That seems to be the common wisdom.  Whether it actually is wise, is another matter.

As for the idea that morality and God must go hand in hand, or religion is doomed: this is the inverse of an old canard dating back to the Victorian Era.  In that age of revolution religion itself seemed doomed (Nietzsche is the prophet of this movement, but not in the sense of seeing a future the rest of us can't.  He was simply pronouncing the present; or so he thought.).  This loss was not bemoaned by the ruling class in England (where the revolution began, with the Industrial Revolution and its twin, Romanticism, the revolutionary idea of the centrality of the individual) so much as feared, because without the terror of God as Judge and Hairy Thunderer, how could the many-headed be kept civilized?  They feared the separation of God from morality because they feared the loss of power morality gave them (the freedom basically to do as they pleased, but to tell the hoi polloi to do as they said, not as they did.  The irony being that today the British royal family is more petit bourgeois than anyone in England.).  Sartre was of like mind, and tried to establish an ethic that replaced the authority of God with the authority of the other.  But the assumption that morality is what kept us from anarchy and chaos, and that only an iron fist in the velvet glove would keep us from nature red in tooth and claw, was a Hobbesian holdover we had no more reason to rely on than the assertion that liberal churches slit their own throats by their liberalism.

So, today, is religion losing ground because so many Democrats declare they don't need God to be moral?  What ground did religion have, that it could allow so much injustice (see Dr. King's letter) and still declare itself moral?  What ground do these non-religious but moral people have today?

I'm listening to people on the radio discuss fires in California, and what they are saying is that there is an environment there which expects wildfire, and the more we reject that reality, the more damage we do to ourselves.  Clearing brush, thinning trees, controlled burns:  these are all the practices that allow life in fire-prone areas to go on.  We ignore these lessons to our damage, even our peril.  The analogy to the teachings of the law, the prophets, the gospels, the epistles, is that those teachings are as prescriptive as the rules about living in ares where fire is the norm (or, in Texas, flooding).  The "morality" of the Scriptures is not a series of "do's" and "don'ts" imposed by a prim schoolmarm with a sharp rap of the ruler on your knuckles.  It is the way of wisdom:  of happiness and prosperity for all (not just a few at the top) and life into the ages (not necessarily the metaphysical sweet bye-and-bye).  If morality is simply a series of "thou shalt nots" or "thou shalt face eternal punishment," then we are just extending human power structures into eternity itself, and what then for the power of powerlessness, which is one of the real messages of the Scriptures?  We are prone to live against the world we live in, and it costs us dearly to be so selfish.  Scripture teaches us to live with the world and each other, a way that benefits all.  It isn't about morality and who's doing "right," it isn't about punishment for doing wrong; it isn't even about institutions to keep us in line.  If there is change going on and it isn't a "goosey" feeling, perhaps that is the true movement of the Spirit.  The Spirit has been compared to a goose, but not one you feel or inflict.  The Spirit has been called a wild goose; going where it will when it will.  We need to be lifted from our selfishness and our self-centeredness and our conviction that if we can just create the right technology, the right app, our singular vision can save the world and leave us in comfort for the rest of one life.  We need a larger vision.  We need, perhaps, new styles of architecture, a change of heart.

We don't need to go backward, to recapture the past, in church or in society or in culture.  "Yesterday, all the past...."  Today, the wild goose calls.  Whether we will hear it, whether we will follow, is entirely our responsibility.

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