Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Chipping out a personal project: no stone left unturned

I have been struggling to find a more authentic Christian confession for a good while now. I have been searching for it since childhood, really, but more in earnest since the time when I left the charismatic movement and took up searching both deeper into Church tradition and higher up in the discourses within that tradition. See, the Christianity I left was unacceptable.

For one, that Christianity could not answer the questions raised by real contact with a real world, nor did it desire to do so. Its unstated purpose was actually the creation and maintenance of a subculture cemented and ordered by religious enthusiasm and ideological sameness. The purpose of this can be positive in that it can sustain a kind of mini-narrative that orders human living and protects it from the tempestuous winds of chilly and chaotic – if not inhuman - modernity. Such social cohesion, however, can also provide an easy platform for the demonic megalomaniac expression of social control. I have many times witnessed the abuse of power enacted and enabled by such systems. Most of the time, the abuse is at the hands of those who, by their protestation of love and concern, claim to be servants of the church. Now if a man strides into a sheepfold with a whip and begins beating the sheep, most of them will not run out of the pen and into the night. There may be wolves! No, the majority will stay in the pen, even if staying means submitting to and enduring the lash. Answering real questions raised by real contact with a real world is not the aim of the sub-culture church. That is why it could never help me. As a matter of fact, it suspected me and often rejected me. It sought to control me and hush my questions, lest I make people nervous (and such control is always delivered with sweet, well-meaning, pleasant words.) This cannot be the church, I said. The church is not meant to provide a sub-culture over against the world, it is meant to stride out confidently into the world saying, “This is Jesus’ world now and we’re here on his authority to give notice!”

The Christianity I left was also unacceptable because it could not solve my inner problems. It could not address my sin. It could not assuage my guilt. Its method is always law, not grace. And its “grace” is just sympathy or therapy, not sola gratia. Further, this Christianity could not contain my joy. It could not receive my wonder. Enthusiasm is suspect, it upsets the social balance and threatens delicate power structures. Finally, this Christianity did not reflect my awe or understand rapture or transcendence. It had no mechanism to reflect these things, no liturgy, no reverence, and only the rudest treatment of the sacraments. It could not comprehend any aspect of meaning other than the political, and this despite the bald fact that all of this and more stood starkly present in the pages of any open Bible, the very Bible upon which this Christianity pledged allegiance. Some sleight-of-hand was suggested, and I suspected as much even from childhood. Yet, I could not bring myself to accept my suspicions. Perhaps I was afraid there might be wolves. If one leaves the pen – and “leaving the pen” is usually condemned as leaving the faith by those responsible to police the sub-culture – then were does one go? A wandering life is a difficult, homeless life, an alienated life. I was ignorant of my options.

Now lest one thinks I am picking on Southern fundamentalism, which is not wholly untrue, please understand that the charismatic movement was no better in my experience. Where Southern fundamentalism relies more on tradition and ideology – along with a good dose of patriarchy – to secure the borders of its community, charismatics rely on mutually shared enthusiasm and experience. The outcome is the same for both, though: the creation of sub-narrative templates or story-arcs for living and thinking, set up for protection against a narrative-less world. In the world of No-Narrative, one may have to do the hard work of cobbling together one’s own narrative, or, worse, one’s children may have to do it and may choose options which meet parental horror or disapproval. This is exactly the freedom from which most human beings spend their lives avoiding, as I have mentioned in other posts. And why not: it is existentially terrifying: the abyss, the Nothing! Of course, in the world of No-Narrative, there is also no hope or salvation, and this is the kernel of truth around which are built these protective Christianities. My beef with these is not that they offer narratives, but that their narratives do not exist for the correct purpose. Their narratives exist for protection and, perhaps, the projection of political will (which is warfare, a function of protection). This is not the agenda of the Kingdom.

The agenda of the Kingdom of God remembers the Other, whether in the person of the Poor or the Powerful, and suffers with both. This is the missionary work of the Son. The agenda of the Kingdom opens itself naked and unprotected to the gaze and mistreatment of the world. This is to be swept up in the new-world-creating flow of the Holy Spirit. And now, to narrow this discussion down quite a bit, I’m thinking more directly about the pattern of worship, and here’s a fragment of my thinking:

We have our spiritual lives only upon the invitation of Jesus to share in his spiritual life. His life is the template within which ours must exist. We do not have our own life. Indeed, we cannot, for our own lives, no matter how beautiful or powerful, are always idols. The cross is the death of our religious “I.” It puts down all self-instigated, satanic, spirituality.

We pray, then, only after Jesus’ prayers. We confess, then, only after Jesus’ confession. And this is not in a simplistic, WWJD sort of fashion where we fill in how we think Jesus would act given this or that unique situation. This is kind of a denial of Jesus' humanity. After all, Jesus’ spiritual life was wholly Jewish. He prayed and sang the Psalms. He participated in temple-worship and in the public enactment and celebration of Israel's feasts. He was born “under the law.” Where Christians differ from Jewish orthodoxy, we do so only upon the permission laid out according to the messianic / covenant changes Jesus instituted upon his authority. The Reformation principle of sola scriptura, then, is not a legislative assertion about the ruling authority of the canon, but a description of the Christian way. It is a declaration of intent: to walk obediently after the steps of Christ; to take on his Torah-keeping pattern and to turn aside from our own. In the words of N.T. Wright, “We bind ourselves to the agenda of [Jesus’] whole ministry.” In my loose paraphrase of the inaugural words of Jesus: “Cut away all your present allegiances and become permanent, law-abiding citizens of the in-breaking Kingdom of God!”