Saturday, October 29, 2011

Reformation reprise (Sunday Reflections for October 30, 2011)

In honor of Reformation Day, I am reprinting this column from a year ago. It followed an earlier discussion of last fall’s ELCA churchwide lay-offs and many organizational difficulties. Here I respond to those asking what the church ought to do to get past its problems.
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 think 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 are in parts of the world just now entering the modern industrial world. Where modernism has taken hold, however, 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, and so on. In the past, religion was part of the fabric of society. Today religion is just one among many cultural components, all jostling for people’s attention. This cultural “comedown” is why fundamentalist religions are in such a panic. Remembering religion’s glorious past, they are desperately trying to reclaim its power.
The problem for moderate religions, including mainline Christianity, is that 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, 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. When I first read it I admit I thought it was another mish-mash of theological jargon, saying little. Re-reading, however, I decided it actually spills Christianity’s theological beans (though I doubt that’s what Bishop Hanson intended).
Over the years, I’ve come to the realization that Christianity 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, in Paul’s view, is the healing of all separation and alienation. It exposes the pointlessness of a life of 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, but he can’t pull it off. And 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.
Did you feel the air just seep out of the balloon? 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.
Whether you use Hanson’s statement or mine, it’s hard to see how either necessarily leads to joining a congregation, 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 whether the patient will ever accept that prescription.

1 comment:

Judy Fisher said...

I have stated over and over again......."religion divides us but faith unites us. When will we "get" that it is so much simpler than the organized church wants us to believe. It remains a control the message issue by organized religions.