Friday, July 15, 2005

Blowing leaves seek solid ground

A few thoughts on the state of the church as I have experienced it. Lots of people are frustrated and turned off by the church. Witness even the response of faithful church-goers to the phrase, "organized religion" or simply "religion." These frustrations are well-founded and reflect the systemic problems which are just now beginning to be addressed. Indeed, one thing I have begun to realize is that many of the problems which seem to beset every church are actually particular manifestations born of the cultural situation of the church, and - larger even - religious belief, as anything else.

Here are two examples. First, what does it mean to be the church when the church is not longer the political religion of a country? The church has largely been the “religion of power” in the west since 321 CE. Thus, it has defined its emphases as much along the path of “what is good for the culture” as “what does Jesus call us to do?” This is no longer the situation, and is increasingly less so – a paradigmatic change that is only 30-50 years old in the US (more than that in Europe.) The second manifestation of this cultural problematic has to do with evangelism. Isn't it obvious to everyone whenever the subject of evangelism is broached that some “paradigmatic rift” has occured deep into things? Churches, and especially evangelical & fundamentalist churches, are always talking-up evangelism, but it is quite plain to everyone with a brain that the vocabulary of evangelism is dead. There is simply no real forum for evangelistic conversation in our culture. We do not even know how to talk about religious faith, ourselves or that of others, much less enter into serious dialogue that considers the claim of this or that religion. Still, I have never met a church leader that even gave a nod to this difficulty. Instead, they just crack the whip: Christians should evangelize. May as well be saying, “Christians should jimp the jibber” for all the understanding that this imperative is met with – at least in my mind.

What I am getting at is that most church-goers don’t realize that the issues they have with their local church are the result of rifts that go so far down that it is going to take some really innovative and exhaustive thinking to begin to address them. Few understand the situation and fewer still are beginning to construct any sort of effective response (other than circle-the-wagons fundamentalism.) The emergent church, to think of one, is an example of the contemporary struggle to meet these problems. Before that, there were the explosive rise of para-church ministries (though everyone has come to see that the solution cannot grow outside of the church itself.)

So where can one go to make a beginning at an answer? To repeat, we have this question: church. The church is put in question because we live in a time where the question, “What is the church?” is as much up in the air as it ever was. It is put in question on every side: from its being asked in the context of the post-Christianity of the West, to the liberation theologies of the third world, and the immanent collapse of the Anglican church over the ordination of a New Hampshire homosexual to the bishopric.

As friends and I have debated and pondered this bottomless pit of uncertainty, it has become clear to some that, whatever the answer is, it is going to be found within a bounded area. Think of an infinite plane suddenly being inscribed by circles, each within the other, thereby reducing the surface-area to be considered within their narrowing diameters. The broadest circle is labeled, “the Kingdom of God.” The circle just within that is labeled “community.”

And lately I have begun to think another circle can be drawn which will narrow further the area in question. This circle I label “the flesh and the poor.” Whatever “church” is, it is going to find itself in relationship to these two poles: flesh (the application and continuation of the process of the new birth; the putting down of sin and enervating of the image of God; the “first tablet” of the law) and poor (mission and the ethical call to neighbor; the “second tablet” of the law).

Finally, we must continue to live in the present situation. I can’t get around the fact that the New Testament addresses people corporately far more than it addresses them individually. The Reformers said that the marks of a true church are the Word properly preached and the sacraments properly administered. I can’t see how either of these can be accomplished without the Other of other people (and the addition of my Otherness to them.) “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” You can't simply pull out of the community in the name of radicalism or the pursuit of purity. One must throw the hat of commitment into fellowship. Otherwise, there is the risk of doing your “good works” with and for people whom you deem appropriate or worthy, who don’t offend or confront or challenge you. Doesn’t ethical living require a certain amount of vulnerability to a community, or a certain amount of risk? This is where I am – I don’t always want this kind of bumping-shoulders community living, but I can’t see how the answer to the problem called “church” can be located in any other place. Whatever the answer is to this question called “the church” it is going to be found in the pursuit of community.

; ; ; .

Thursday, July 14, 2005

the wave that has us all

Marshall Berman in his book All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity (Penguine 1982) describes modernity as a dynamo, building, destroying and then re-building with unchecked insatiability.

The innate dynamism of the modern economy, and of the culture that grows from this economy, annihilates everything that it creates--physical environments, social institutions, metaphysics ideas, artistic visions, moral values--in order to create more, to go on endlessly creating the world anew. This drive draws all modern men and women into its orbit, and forces us all to grapple with the question of what is essential, what is meaningful, what is real in the maelstrom in which we move and live.

Berman goes on to describe his own experience of modernity growing up the Bronx in the late-40’s. Overnight, from out of nowhere, the idyllic Jewish & Irish neighborhoods of his youth were torn apart by “an immense expressway, unprecedented in scale, expense and difficulty of construction.” Worse, he continues, this was done on the back of the very values of the dispossessed. To oppose the destruction of their homes was to oppose “progress.” To oppose “bridges, tunnels, expressways, housing developments, power dams, stadia, cultural centers . . . few people, especially in New York [are] prepared to do that.” New Yorkers identify themselves and their city with progress, and so the world beloved by Berman’s family and tens of thousands of their neighbors was destroyed “in the name of values that we ourselves embraced.”

This, friends, is the wave that has us all. This is the overwhelming cultural current in which we all live. From the latest rise of Islamic terrorism from eastern Mosques to the malaise and alienation we feel in our Western churches: this is the riptide that joins us both. And it is disorienting. One may experience it as “alienation” one moment and as “freedom” the next.

It's effect is omnipresent. I hear it in the guitar stylings of Jimi Hendrix--the way he sweeps effortlessly along the frets, touching his figertips down lightly here or there just long enough to tap on or half bend a note which races off again--and in the anthropology of psychologist and one-time-cofounder of the Frankfurt School, Erich Fromm.

In Fromm's last book, To Have or to Be (Abacus 1976), he argues that two ways of existence are competing for "the spirit of mankind": having and being. The having mode looks to things and material possessions and is based on aggression and greed. The being mode is rooted in love and is concerned with shared experience and productive activity. The book ends by asking about the new man and the new society.

So then, have we come any further than the 1960’s? Is John’s apocalpytic city of the world, Babylon, really so apocalyptic, or is it the air we breathe, the way we dress and the political discourse of our nations? Fundamentalism is not an option; the church can’t hide from this. Some meaningful response has to be spoken into the gale, some way of properly saying “Kingdom” into the podcasts & videophones of the world. Some way of making words meaningful again, when we ourselves hardly find them so.

This entire series can also be read as a single document.

; ; ; ; ; .

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Moltmann on Evil

Taking a page from Paul Whiting, I'm going to begin putting together this article survey here, and will move it over to jm later.

Moltmann, Jürgen. "'Deliver Us from Evil' or Doing Away with Humankind?" in World Without End: Christian Eschatology from a Process Perspective. ed. Joseph A. Bracken (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman's Publishing Co., 2005), 12-27. ISBN: 0-8028-2811-6 Hbk.

There is a great difference between real and imagined Evil [Moltmann capitalizes "Evil" throughout]. We enjoy reading about Miss Marple or watching television shows which depict the machinations of the criminal mind because we always know that in the end all turns out well. Unfortunately, such denoument is not real. Real Evil hates, murders, lies, and lays waste to individuals and nations, cutting a bloody swathe through human history and the history of the planet. "World history," says Moltmann, "does not read like a detective story, either for us or even less so for God" (13).
Better an end
with violence
than violence without end!

There are reasons why Evil is so attractive. Psychoanalysis has long described the psychic attractiveness of killing and cruelty. Clear and immediate experience is so closed off to postmodern human beings. Our virtul worlds do not provide the same feeling of newness and originality as can raw destructiveness and pornographic violence. There is a mental high, a trance, a feeling of god-likeness the comes over the killer, the torturer, the rapist. For many of the religious peoples of the world, Evil is attractive because it ushers in the apocalypse. Many look forward to such an ending, when the enemies of God will be finally put down and this history of suffering will come to a close. Better an end with violence than violence without end! (14)

more to come . . .

; ; ; .