Friday, November 12, 2010

Getting out of the salvation business (Sunday Reflections for November 14, 2010)

What business is the church in? What is the church’s product? As I said last week, this can be a bit complicated to figure out. Over the centuries, the church has always offered a variety of products and services. This has been part of its strength as it allowed people to connect with the church in a variety of ways. Still, however people valued it, the church has understood itself to offer one primary product more important than any other: salvation. That product, I believe, has become the church’s buggy whip.

Theologians and church historians will tell us that salvation has always been understood in a variety of ways. That is true, but let’s accept that for the vast majority of Christians, as well as for most people who have heard the Christian message but didn’t accept it, salvation has meant escaping the judgment and wrath of God and receiving the gift of eternal life. That is what has been the church’s primary product and that is what it can’t sell anymore, or even give away for that matter.

In my ministry, I can honestly say I have encountered only one person seriously concerned about going to hell, and she was in a hospital psychiatric unit. Not only are people not concerned about this for themselves, they show no concern about it for others they know (hence our evangelism problem).

My most memorable example of this was a young man whose life was basically one screw-up after another, hurting a lot of people along the way. He finally took his own life and at his funeral (which was well attended) I quoted his brother’s summary of him and of people’s feelings about him: “He was a son-of-a-bitch but we loved him.” Afterward, people congratulated me on my message. No one expressed any concern about his soul.

Salvation and its alternative are simply not on people’s radar screens anymore. Generally we’ve all become pretty vague about what we think does happen in “the next life” or even if there is one. That’s a topic for another time but for now I’ll just note that whatever is awaiting us, very few of us are concerned about it. The experience of dying may scare us (especially our loss of control) and we may be anxious about all those potentially unfinished items on our to-do lists. Yet the idea of being dead doesn’t seem to bother us much. The very-old often look forward to it. In any case, the once awesome image of “meeting our maker” hardly gets a thought.

And to that I say, “Well, it’s about time.” For to me this is testimony that the church’s message has finally sunk in. Whoever or whatever God is, people have concluded, God loves us. God is the personification of love. God is love. That’s all in the Bible but so is a lot of other less positive God-talk. Yet I don’t think the God-of-love has ever been reconcilable with the God-of-wrath. It’s just been too obvious that the God of hellfire and brimstone has been a convenient tool of religious authorities to scare people into propping up religion and its institutions.

As the Hebrew prophets, Jesus, Paul and Luther all discovered, a genuine message of grace inevitably generates violent opposition from religion and the people in charge of it. They just have too much to lose if people ever genuinely believed it. And they’re right, of course. As I wrote a few weeks ago, the Christian message of freedom also means freedom from religion. The inevitable conclusion is: I don’t need it anymore.

In short, humanity has been growing up but religion, including Christianity, hasn’t been keeping up. In fact, it often has been resisting that development. It has been to the church’s advantage to keep its members in a child-like, dependent relationship. Over the past century or two, however, people throughout the modern Western world have been maturing and leaving the church by the millions.

Aimee Semple McPherson
And so to repeat, people don’t need to be “saved”—not from God’s wrath and judgment, not from hell and damnation. That buggy whip won’t sell. Now as I indicated above, for many theologians, as well as many church leaders and even ordinary Christians, this is old news. For them salvation long ago became a metaphor for other human needs and experiences. For them, the gospel is about our experience of God’s love and grace in this life rather than some reward in a life-to-come.

Fine—yet the truth is that even in so-called moderate and liberal denominations like ours, this is rarely said explicitly nor has it significantly influenced our liturgy or the materials we use in Sunday school, adult education, evangelism, and so on. I think there are two reasons for this. One, as I’ve talked about before, is the unwillingness of clergy, especially, to do anything that might provoke those who retain old traditional religious beliefs. Why kick the hornets' nest? Yet, protecting their sensibilities has resulted in the loss of far more people for whom religion has become increasingly disconnected from real life and therefore irrelevant.

The other reason the church has resisted moving beyond “salvation” is that it will take hard work to, quite frankly, recreate Christianity. It will take admitting, once and for all, that ancient Christianity is dead and that the only alternative now is for something new to take its place. It will take major rethinking, remaking, and even some killing off of much if not all of the church’s sacraments, liturgy, liturgical calendar, scripture, institutional structures and self-image.

Billy Sunday & Mae West
It will require re-imaging an adult God for adult people. This God can no longer simply be Santa Claus on a cosmic scale, who’s got a list, checking it twice, to see who’s been naughty or nice; a God who brings treats and toys to good girls and boys but puts coal in bad children’s stockings. This God must somehow encompass a 14 billion year old Universe, vast in space and time beyond our imagining, yet also relates to a human species on one small planet and whose history encompasses only the tiniest last fraction of the Universe’s existence.

The church must get off its high-horse and finally say to itself and to the world, no one needs us. We are not God’s instrument of salvation for the planet. We are not essential to the life or well-being of humanity.

Then, having said it and genuinely believing it, perhaps the church can re-create itself to be something people want in their lives. Then, perhaps, we can rediscover the genuine hope and wisdom of our scriptures and of our saints, buried by centuries of institutional self-interest and stagnation. Then, perhaps, we can again be a genuine force for justice and peace in the world and a source of courage and love in people’s lives.

That could be a viable business plan, with a product that will sell. But first we must accept, once and for all, that the church is not any longer in the salvation business.


Michael_SC said...

But what is the mechanism or paradigm shift that gets the masses of people into adult faith? Many millions are happy to be children, and the major evangelical industries and political affiliates are happy to keep them there. Meanwhile most adults have no use for it. Probably it all needs to hit bottom, then is reconfigured from there; but that might be centuries away.

Doug said...

Michael, I think the initiative has to be with the church. Long ago, theology used to attract the best minds. Now, many are still very sharp but they have withdrawn into intellectual ghettoes and talk in a language only they understand. They've learned that "success" only comes by ignoring the theological realities staring everyone in the face and focusing on esoteric topics of little relevance to people's actual lives.

The church is fast approaching the bottom--it won't be centuries but decades, at the most. At some point I believe the whistle is going to be blown on the silliness the church has descended into and it will rediscover the seriousness and practical value of its tradition. Well, that's my hope anyway.

Brian said...

(quiet laugh) Come down to the deep South. Such language will literally get you run out of town in many places. Not that most of those carrying the pitchforks and torches actually believe what they are defending, but nonetheless, this would challenge their beliefs and well, southerners don't respond with Christian love when traditional beliefs and customs are challenged.

Doug said...

LOL I'm sure you are right, Brian.

Kevin said...

I'm sorry, but as somewhat profound as your write up is concerning the "adult" nature of religion, it strikes me that your assertions nevertheless grease the skids for a societal view of religion that is agnostic, if not atheistic. Sure, while I believe you correctly identified the historical "product" of religion, you nevertheless failed to link this strongly to the "why" of religion. (I mean, you've really NEVER known people who cared about the fate of their loved one's souls? Really?) Well, though you may not personally know of too many, rest assured that there are millions of people around the world who want to know that the (short) lives of their kids (amongst other loved ones) were not in vain, that they were loved while on Earth, but more importantly, that they are currently loved in a place called Heaven by a loving God, best personified through Jesus Christ. Yes, though this view may not be be shared by you anymore (if it ever was), and yes, though you can call me an old fashioned Lutheran, and yes, though you can laugh/mock me in fine Family Guy/Seth McFarlane fahion because I'm a proud native of the South if you'd like, please understand, these protestations don't alleviate the fact that I - and so many others - find your religious views as appealing as the desolation of space. Thus, IMO, your "profound" (though state of the art ELCA) views are only a short stopgap measure until full fledged doubt and atheism kicks in. Perhaps that's your ultimate goal.

Doug said...

Kevin, thank you for responding to my “somewhat profound” post. I actually expected to get more reactions like yours, but you are the first. :) I do know pretty well what I have left behind. I grew up in a very traditional church and spent some time as a committed evangelical. I don’t disparage that time or the faith of the people I associated with. They were good people and still have my fond respect. But that was then and that’s not who I am or how I see things now.

So I have no reason to laugh at or mock you. I do think you should perhaps acknowledge the diversity of beliefs that exist today, even within the church. I am currently leading a discussion group on John Shelby Spong’s book Eternal Life: A New Vision. Needless to say Spong’s views are a far cry from that of traditional Christianity. Yet these church members, all over 65, are enjoying the book and not put off by his unorthodox ideas.

I certainly know that millions of people value traditional Christianity and I bear them no ill will. I am also aware that millions of others (mostly younger but not exclusively) do not value it and it is for them that I am concerned. The traditional church does not speak to them and cannot. I and a growing number of others are trying to.

David said...

"Yet these church members, all over 65, are enjoying the book and not put off by his unorthodox ideas."

Yes, those old folks are brighter than some think.