Thursday, October 28, 2010

The first thing we do, let's kill all the churches (Sunday Reflections for October 31, 2010)

(My Sunday Reflections post a few weeks ago on the latest round of ELCA cutbacks generated a lot of blog hits and quite a few comments. A few of those raised the obvious question, “Well then, what’s the church supposed to do?” Neither in that post or previously have I provided many constructive suggestions. Mostly I have just reported on the problems and how what the ELCA and other churches are doing isn’t working.

The question is a fair one. However, to use a medical analogy, the patient isn’t going to accept the treatment if she doesn’t believe she’s really sick. I believe the church has been, and still is, in this situation. The various “fixes” that have been tried over the past few decades have almost always fallen into the category of “If it doesn’t work, do more of it.” In other words, most still believe the church is fundamentally okay but it just needs to do what it does better. The result—to use the quote from my earlier post—has been lots of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

So I’ll cut to the chase and state my conclusion: religion as we have known it is dead—or dying and soon to be dead. Now I am well aware of the signs of life that still remain. Most of those, however, are in parts of the world just now entering the modern industrial world. Where modernism has taken hold, religion’s trajectory has been steadily downward for decades or even centuries.

Religion has not disappeared but it is now simply a personal option, a life-style choice. Some people still “enjoy” religion but it’s the way others enjoy music, art, reading, gardening, sports, fitness, and so on. In the past religion was part of the fabric of society; so much so that some ancient languages (like biblical Hebrew) didn’t even have words for “religion,” since it was inseparable from the culture. Today religion is just one among many cultural components, all jostling for people’s attention. This cultural “comedown” is why traditional fundamentalist religions are in such a panic. Remembering their glorious past, they are desperately trying to reassert their power and generally being pains-in-the-neck.

The problem for moderate religions, including mainline Christianity, is that basically, we get it. We know what’s happened but we don’t know what to do about it. We know that religion of the past is just that: past, over, done. Yet we also have this gut feeling that there is something of value that needs to be kept alive, that is of value at least to us, even if we can’t quite put our finger on it. That, I think, is what churches like the ELCA are trying to reach for but we’ve been going about it very poorly. We’re like the trapeze artist who just can’t let go of the rope because we’re not convinced another one will be there to grab on to.

A new Lutheran magazine came out at the same time as the ELCA’s latest turmoil and it included Bishop Hanson’s monthly back-page column (which now inexplicably is behind a subscriber's paywall. Can the Lutheran find anymore ways to shoot itself in the foot?) When I first read it I admit I thought it was another mish-mash of theological jargon, using nice-sounding words but saying little. Re-reading it I changed my opinion. I think it actually spills Christianity’s theological beans, though I don’t know if that’s what Bishop Hanson intended.

Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that Christianity really contains the seeds of its own destruction—intentionally so. Historically I think there has always been a minority that understood this but who were oppressed if they started talking about it too loudly. It is a tension that has existed in Christianity from the start, planted by Jesus himself. Perhaps the best symbol of it is the story of his overturning the moneychangers’ tables in the temple. This one we know as the founder of the world’s greatest religion was actually prophesying the end of religion.

Hanson’s essay is titled “Our gospel must be Jesus.” Briefly he describes the many competing, false “gospels” in the world, both secular and religious, with their strenuous requirements for success and salvation. Hanson then uses a series of quotations from Paul (someone else who got it) to describe Jesus’ gospel—of freedom.

This gospel is the healing of all separation and alienation It reveals the fruitlessness of all hoop-jumping and rule-keeping. It gives the assurance of every person’s inherent importance and worth. Hanson summarizes this saying: “The good news we proclaim and believe is that Jesus would rather die than be in the sin-accounting business.” Exactly—and to me this is another way of saying, “Jesus would rather die than be in the religion business.”

Which is why Hanson fumbles at the end of his essay. He wants this to lead to a stirring call for revival in the church. He can’t pull it off, though, for a simple reason: It doesn’t lead there and he knows it. Instead we get this:

When we proclaim this gospel with clarity, courage and conviction, the Spirit will be at work, bringing us to faith, freeing us and calling us so mission will flow from it into the various contexts of our lives and throughout the world.

Why not say this instead?

When we truly hear and believe this good news of affirmation and freedom, we will go out and live our lives with passion and joy, using our talents and opportunities to the fullest, with love and compassion.

The bottom line, though, is that whether you use Hanson’s statement or mine, it’s hard to see how either leads to joining a church, attending worship services, and serving on the property committee.

Hanson quotes Paul from Galatians in what may be the most revolutionary statement in all religion: “For freedom Christ has set us free.” The irony of our time is that the modern secular world gets this, but the church still doesn’t. It wants to take back the most important thing the gospel offers. Realizing its implications, the church keeps sputtering “Yes but…!” in a desperate attempt at self-preservation. It’s not working. More and more people do get it. Our freedom also means freedom from religion.

So, should the church just shut its doors and hang out the For Sale sign? That certainly is happening, but I’m not sure it’s the only option. True to its heritage, however, for it to go on the church must die to be reborn. It must give up what it was for it to become something new and genuinely life-giving. The question is how long it will be before the patient is ready to take that medicine.


Michael_SC said...

Yes, the modern world has arrived and much of the church pretends not to notice. In New England I hear you can visit a place where people (for the benefit of tourists) are dressed up like Plymouth Colony and pretend it's still the 1600's. All good educational fun. But many churches seem to think it really is still 1600 ... same terminology, categories... as if nothing has been learned in the last several hundred years... as if a very old text trumps conscience and experience every time. Outsiders looking in probably think this is odd... why would they join such an organization? I do think the church still has the important missions of 1) providing a community and 2) spurring people to good works. I wish it could do this without feeling the need to maintain the pre-modern baggage. I wonder what would happen if they tried that?

Great blog, I always find your comments insightful and honest.


Doug said...

You've picked an interesting comparison because recently I have often had the sense of the church as a living history museum. Because they've grown up in it, church veterans often just can't realize how OLD the church looks and acts. Thanks for your thoughts, Michael. I hope to have more on this soon.

Laura said...

Doug wrote: “For freedom Christ has set us free.” The irony of our time is that the modern secular world gets this, but the church still doesn’t. It wants to take back the most important thing the gospel offers.

I mostly agree. Where we part is the "secular world" getting it. They don't get it if they don't have Jesus. Sorry, but they are dead in their sins and will remain that way unless there is a preacher who tells them. And I'm not singling out you. I mean anyone tells them about Jesus.

They may know "God is love", but that won't save them, or even get their prayers heard, as I'm sure you know. So at best, the secular world is out there lost in the dark just winging it with some vague idea of the Man in the sky, if that!

If you want to enjoy the freedoms of Galatians 5, you best know what it takes to enter into saving Grace. And you don't have to talk about hell to get there, either.

You up for a challenge? Just tell the next person you see Pauls Gospel to the Gentiles:
1) Believe that Jesus is the Son of God
2) That He died for our sins
3) And was raised from the dead

and just watch how many will say they can believe #1 and #2 but not #3, or 2 and 3, but not 1. And then the kicker - if they believe, ask them to proclaim to someone that Jesus is Lord.

Seems easy, but you might be surprised. Can you say you believe all these? I might be surprised.

Doug said...

Well, Laura, this is very interesting because it shows we are looking at these things through completely different sets of glasses. For that reason it's very difficult for us to even communicate, especially through the medium of blog posts!

So briefly, Paul's "gospel to the gentiles" is freedom from the Law--period. Jews and gentiles are now "one in Christ." They are both justified (a loaded word) by faith. The only law is to love our neighbor as ourself.

As I read Paul, it seems that his understanding of salvation is more about personal transformation than it is a heavenly metaphysical transaction. He says nothing in Galatians, for example, about eternal life or going to heaven. Rather, his focus is on the new life of the believer in relation to the community and the outside world.

So while I think Paul's relevance is limited by the enormous gap in time between us, his practical and existential understanding of "being in Christ" may be of more modern value than we might expect. And for that reason, Laura, I would challenge whether what you mean by "being saved" is the same as what Paul means. I think his understanding of Christ and the cross was much more this worldly than you are aware.

Laura said...

Thanks for answering, Doug. (Is it ok to address you as just Doug?)
Paul's Gospel to the Gentiles -
1 Corinthians 15:1-4, Romans 10:9

I've searched it out, and that's it. That's ALL according to salvation.

I don't think we are as far apart as you may be thinking. I'm a total Grace believer, hungry for the Word I keep one of 7 christian stations on while I do my art work, and I'm so disgusted with what I hear coming from Preachers. Forget the "name it and claim it" bunch. And the other's are so focused on sin - but is that what Paul said we are suppose to focus on? Quite the opposite.

And homosexuality - why the focus on this particular sin? Abortion, I can better understand because it's a life, but in my mind, I see Jesus nailing each of these sins to the Cross, and Sister Christian on a ladder ripping them back off again.

It's only through experience that I have learned that what I thought needed changing about myself was not what God had on His list (not that He has a list, lol). So I quit, and He has been changing me ever since.

Hope you don't mind talking on this older page back here. So I gotta ask, cutting to the chase. Do you believe the Bible is truth? All of it? Do you believe there is such a thing as truth?