Ecclesial Longings

Icon of the Epiphany

EpiphanyBaptism

Yesterday was the feast of the  Epiphany.  In the west this feast is the celebration of the arrival  of the Magi and their adoration of the infant Jesus of Nazareth presenting him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  In the east the Epiphany is the feast of the baptism of Christ in the river Jordan, the above icon is the icon of the Epiphany or Theophany.

The icon is rich.  In the lower portions of the icon in the water are the depictions of spirit manifestations of water, the figure with the wings and wild hair and a beard represents the Jordan river.  on the other side is Leviathan, these are the spirits the personifications of water.  Christ’s hand of blessing is not raised as in of the icons but is in the water, blessing the water.

Jesus stands in a way reminiscent of the crucifixion

Processional cross, Egg Tempera and gold leaf
Processional cross, Egg Tempera and gold leaf

feet and legs together, dressed only in a loin  cloth.

John the Forerunner’s preaching is represented by an ax laying against a bush, “…the ax is at the root…”

It is also, not surprisingly, a Trinitarian icon.  At the top God the Father, un-circumscribed of whom we can’t make any image, unknown but by the Son and the Spirit, is represented by the semi circle of blues and black.  The Spirit represented as the Gospels describe descending on Jesus of Nazareth as it is revealed (epiphany) that this human is God the Son.

And Angels Attend, (indicating Jesus Christ’s temptation in the desert, after which the Gospels say he was attended by angels.).

I painted this icon as a medallion, in part to strengthen the sense that God in Jesus Christ comes for the whole earth and all of creation, represented by the river and its spirit manifestations in the painting.  The extent of the realty hear represented is particular and universal, cosmic.  Salvation, Reconciliation, Liberation, is in this material world, in (re)connecting matter the created world with its source, the very Life of the world.  A great estrangement took place and God the Son, as Jesus of Nazareth comes, and we can see God, and find our true life, the life of the whole cosmos.  God is now forever part of the matter in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

This radical act of God, is the very thing that makes possible the painting of icons.  If God had not become flesh and a human in the Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, God would have remained beyond us.

The above icon of the Epiphany/Baptism of Our Lord is available in my Etsy shop, Prietly Goth Icons

Celebrating the Holy Nativity, #StayWoke

A friend of mine in a Facebook post comment thread mentioned that the Christmas story is often told as a children’s story.  I think there are several layers to this characterization.  One the Holy Nativity is often seen as a cute and comforting story, a G movie  safe for the viewing pleasure of the entire family.  Secondly, as a cute, safe and comforting story it takes on the character traits of the Disney fairy tale (in contrast to the Brother’s Grimm fairy tales).  Lastly the Christmas story is often simply kitsch, as most nativity sets for sale in Christmas isles clearly demonstrates. The above is all part of the celebration of Christmas that knows nothing of the season of Advent.

Here, and at the Oratory of Jesus Christ, Reconicler, I took up reflecting on the season of Advent as a time to stay woke.  But what now in this twelve day season of Christmas (yes Christmas day is simply the first day of Christmas, we have Christmas all the way until January 5th.)?  The seasons of Advent and Christmas are seasons of the Holy Nativity, God’s revelation in and through a the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.  As such can we see the Holy Nativity not as some comfortable story but something that stirs something in us, even something that disturbs us from slumber?

I think so and I think the Icon of the Holy Nativity is more helpful in this than the typical nativity set one can buy on the Christmas shelves in stores.

holynativity

 

Take some time to reflect on this icon and it’s meaning: at its center is Mary and the baby Jesus in the manger.  If you are familiar with iconography, the cave and the manger should remind one of icons of the empty tomb, the manger is a sarcophagus the cave a tomb.  Also, Mary is lying down, she has after all just given birth.  In one corner two midwives are washing the baby Jesus.  These midwives not mentioned in the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus, are part of a type of realism, there surely were midwives, but also hearken back to the story of Moses. Midwives are an important part of the story of liberation and salvation.  And Jesus is not only  a second Adam but also a second Moses, come to deliver God’s people.  In the other corner sits Saint Joseph, in conversation with an old shepherd, or is it the shepherd who is attempting to draw Joseph out.  This is a great deal to take in.  Joseph, perhaps has his doubts about what all this means.  How is it that the messiah is born in such rough conditions and greeted by such rough persons.  Does God reveal God’s self in such common rough and uncouth ways? But then Above Joseph are the Magi traveling following the sign in the heavens.  These are men with power and wealth, but they aren’t Isrealites and Children of Abraham.  One may look at this icon and simply see confusion.  The whole story here depicted in form and color may not make much sense.  How is this a holy image.  How in such common place things, midwives at work, a feeding trough and Mary and Joseph silent puzzled without answers, a depiction of a holy and revelatory event.

Can it truly be that this even changes everything.  That God is found not only in this crazy story, but in that little infant born so long ago, Jesus of Nazareth.  Is this how liberation comes?  Does this shock and disturb?  Perhaps it should.  In this infant God dwelt in our midst and is now united with the entire cosmos.

But the story of Christmas and it’s celebration doesn’t end here: the next three days we in Celebrating God’s revelation in coming as a little child, we mark the first martyr, Saint Stephen, remember the Evangelist Saint John the Apostle, and Herod’s massacre of the infants in Bethlehem, the Holy Innocents.  If you haven’t guessed this isn’t a children’s story, nor Disney Fairy tale.  This is a celebration and a story that isn’t afraid to face the worst humanity can offer.  It certainly is a match for facing our countries continuing struggle with the Racism that has been woven into the very fabric of its history and policies. It’s also a story and an icon that can encompass our questions, doubts, confusion and despair, and say at the same time God has come, liberation, justice and revelation have come in the midst of all this horror and confusion.

Longing for Justice in Absence: #StayWokeAdvent

WIN_20141130_143419O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence–
as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil– to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!  (Isaiah 64:1, 2)WIN_20141130_143444

This cry for God to act from the lectionary  for the First Sunday of Advent seems very fitting.  Calling on god to tear open the heavens.  Tear down the barrier between heaven and earth that keeps the kingdom from coming and God’s will from being done on earth as it is in heaven.

But what if this has happened?  What if the heavens have been torn open and God has come down? (As depicted in these depictions of heaven opening up)  In Advent what we wait for, what we are awake to is that God has come in the incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth.WIN_20141130_143332

The tearing of the heavens and God coming in justice happened. It happened in a very strange and nearly imperceptible way.  The nations, the powers, have been shaken.  Yet we can be unaware, live as though all is lost.  Admittedly in times like these, it doesn’t seem like this story has much relevance or meaning.  If true what good has it done for those who continue to suffer injustice, oppression and death.

Isaiah a few verses below the words above, wonders why God doesn’t act as in the time of Egypt and Israels deliverance from the oppression of  Pharaoh and Egypt, the empire and power of the day. But think with me on that story:

Did Israel’s freedom from enslavement and oppression at the hands of the state power and government come because Pharoah gradually made reforms and improved the conditions of the Hebrews?  Did the justice Isaiah recalls and longs for come from Pharaoh, or even with Pharaoh’s help and coöperation?  No, it was wrested from pharaoh by God.

But in a sense God remained a part from humanity and creation in that moment.  God crushes the power of oppression destroying its ability to exact its legal penalties, and it’s justice.  It was fearsome and violent, and at Mount Sinai the Israelites weren’t so sure what to make of all this shaking.

But when we speak of God’s advent, we are no longer speaking of the shock and Awe that Isaiah is longing for in the tearing open of the heavens and God coming down, yet even so the heavens have been torn open and God has come down.

WIN_20141130_143456It is perhaps worth noting that this didn’t happen only once, God tore open the heavens in the incarnation, and then again as the Spirit came upon those followers of Jesus, to form the Church on Pentecost.

Yet, none of this has brought an end to injustice.  The heavens have been torn open and God descends… and then what… disappears?

Christians, perhaps even the Church, are and have been as much a part of oppression and injustice as working for liberation and justice.

There are questions… is something awakening?

We wait in darkness with not much light.  This is Advent and a place of deep longing.

For now lets sit with heavens torn open and God come down, but seemingly little shaken, and ask what is the source of justice and liberation?  What are we looking for and who will provide it?

 

Wake up and Keep Awake: #StayWokeAdvent

I’ve kept mostly silent about the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown.  On Social media I’ve attempted to direct people’s attention to Black and other voices from the margins around what happened and the continued unrest in the wake of the announcement of the grand jury’s decision.

In terms of white voices this post by Geoff Holsclaw is a good response from a position of privilege that is seeking to be open to move beyond privilege.

As the strange juxtaposition of the lit sign of Seasons Greetings and heavily armored police showed we are in the Holiday season that begins with Thanksgiving.  I’ve never particularly seen Thanksgiving as a religious holiday, and the attempts to make it a Christian Holiday have always struck me (even as a child) as strange.  As a child it was one of the few Holidays that my family celebrated that was really just about family.  Christmas and Easter were times for family to gather but they were first feasts of the Church. It’s not that God was absent from the celebration, but I don’t remember ever attending a worship service on or around Thanksgiving.  My Grandmother (on my mother’s side) was the daughter of a Swedish immigrants, My Grandfather (mother’s father )second generation Swedish American.  My father was a naturalized citizen of the United States, his family were refugees and displaced persons after World War II (a story for another post).  As immigrants who had been able to assimilate into White America we were genuinely thankful for the life we were able to lead in the U.S.  As for me as a child the story of Thanksgiving never really touched me.  It’s problematic and racist themes eventually came to mean that mostly Thanksgiving is an excuse and a means to see my family.

I say all this to draw attention to what looms on the horizon on Thanksgiving if one keeps the liturgical calendar of the Church: Advent.  The transition between Thanksgiving and Advent  always felt abrupt and jolting.   The pallid whitewashed soporific mythology of the Pilgrims was in stark contrast to the jarring scriptures of wakefulness and prophetic words anticipating God’s justice come in human flesh.  At Thanksgiving we were full and thankful, on the First Sunday in Advent we were in the dark, empty waiting for fulfillment.  Hopeful, yet aware of things being out of whack.  In Advent we were called to admit our failings and await God’s loving answer to our violence and hatred.  Thanksgiving pretended all was as it should be. Advent said we were still waiting, but the dawning transformation of the world was on its way.  In Advent we were to hunger for the righteous reign of God.

Clearly, the shooting of Michael Brown and now with the failure of a grand jury to indict Daren Wilson has jarred us from the whitewashed and soporific mythology of America that continues to be told on Thanksgiving.  Many of course want things to just calm down to not look at the reality that the system of America is and always has been racist, that since I’m deemed white I have privileges that people of color and certain blacks continue to not have.

We’ve had an Advent moment come before Thanksgiving, don’t be lulled back to sleep, Stay woke.  Being awake isn’t easy.  To open your eyes to the world and the systems we inhabit.  This Thanksgiving to be awake probably means to lament, to grieve and to confess.   Sure there are also reasons to be thankful, but I doubt it is for the reasons that the Thanksgiving mythology wishes us to believe, and the source of that goodness isn’t  from the god of the altar at which we are to burn the incense of our thanksgiving.  But then as a member of the body of Christ our Thanksgiving (Eucharist) isn’t the founding of another principality of the world but in one crucified by the systems of the world.  And this crucified one says wake up, stay awake.

This Advent, I encourage  saying awake by listening and waiting with Theology of Ferguson and Stay Woke Advent.

Social Media, Denominations, and Ecclesiology

Last week Drescher in The Narthex  analyzed the recent GTS conflict and possible resolution in terms of social media, its use by the GTS8 and the possible implications for denominational power dynamics and ecclesiology. The way the conflict has played out certainly has a great deal to do with social media and how the  GTS8 used it.  It is worth reflecting on the ways this would have played out differently before social media. Had this happened 10 to 15 years ago I probably would have read about the conflict, if I would have known about it at all, in the Christian Century of Christianity Today. As I’ve  sat  with  Drescher´s  article  I’ve  come to  think  my  difficulties  with the  piece  that I  briefly  outlined  here,  are  clarified  by my  asking  what’s  at stake  in her ecclesiological  claims for  social media.

If I’m  reading Drescher  correctly  what is  at stake  is  the possibility  of a more just  and truly  ecclesiological  functioning  of the  church ( read  denominations?),  made possible  by an  embrace  of social  media. Or  more to  the point, what’s at stake  for Drescher is that social media offers a way to truly fulfill the priesthood of all believers, in a rewiring of the church. What follows is my beginning to reflect upon the possible effects social media might have on the church and what that may or may not mean for our ecclesiology.

A side note to my reflection here: I’m not sure that the case study of the GTS8 shows social media put to use in a way that exemplifies the priesthood of all believers or even one where the powerless through social media have made the powerful hear them.  While professors and priests are seeing their positions of privilege and power decreasing in the society, still to be professors and clergy professors in what is essentially the Episcopal seminary, makes this case study more about two powerful factions within the Episcopal church.  Thus, I don’t see this as a conflict between the high-handed magisterial institutional and those without access to this magisterial institution, rather this is a conflict within the magisterial institution itself.  Granted the GTS8 stood to lose their standing within the institution and unjustly. However, even without social media I’m certain (but willing to be corrected) that the GTS8 would have in the least  had the ear of members of the magisterial institution, and would have had this ear because they walk quite freely in these halls of power.

The above quibble though shouldn’t ignore Drescher’s experience that social media drew in those who had no immediate connection with any of those in the debacle and that social media makes things public that at another time could have easily been and probably would have remained behind closed doors.  In short what Drescher is pointing out is that social media fosters networking, wider participation, and truth-telling.

That social media fosters networking and quick transmission of information about events and situations as they develop this can draw people into action and participation, but it seems to me it also (even in my engagement in social media) encourage and fosters by-standing, the rapidity of information can overwhelm and make it difficult to know what or how to act or even know if action is the correct response.  Some of Drescher’s positive claims about truth-telling and social media work mainly (it seems to me) when the sufferer of injustice is able to harness social media adeptly and those in power or the oppressor either doesn’t make use of social media or  is inept at harnessing the social technology. It becomes no easier to discern and know what is going on nor how to interpret the flurry of  claim and counter-claim when all parties are able to use social media equally well.  Also, social media can be used by anyone for the pursuit of their ends and can do so effectively. (e.g. One could argue that social media was used expertly to turn back a just decision by the board of World Vision concerning their gay employees.)

The shift I see isn’t necessarily towards the priesthood of all believers, though the connectivity of social media and it’s flattening effect may be harnessed in that direction, rather there is a shift in power based on who can best use the new technology.  This technology makes it possible to rapidly harness a wide-ranging network of people that with the old technology took much longer to build and required institutions like denominations to keep up and grow those networks.  With Social Media these can rise up (and just as quickly disappear as Drescher’s article tacitly recognizes), and it is more likely that those not at the centers of the old way of doing things are more comfortable with these new techniques of social organizing. The shift then is towards those who are comfortable with and have access to social media.

Ecclsiologically this new technology we call social media shows us that the old social technologies weren’t the church, but technological means to organize and divide (lets be honest, or perhaps more aptly to organize by dividing) Christians (and thus the church). Thus, social media does challenge the denominations attempt to claim exclusively “church” and “body of Christ”.  The old means of organizing weren’t unequivocally the church.

So, we should be very hesitant to claim that those who adeptly make use of social media are somehow incarnating the truer ecclesiology, because like all technologies social media isn’t unequivocal.  Whether the church in her essence is seen as a priesthood of all believers or as a holy ordering of bishop, priest, deacon, and people (though these aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive ), social media can be harnessed for the living out our life together, and it may reveal some aspects of the church that have been neglected or hidden. However, it is the human heart and an openness to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit that determines whether these means of organizing ourselves will be consistent with transforming work of the reign of God. Certainly social media has peculiar ways it can connect with this transforming work, but in our use of the technology we can undermine that possibility, just as our use of the old technologies undermined said possibilities.

Privilege, Privileged, Privileging

Once again this year at the North Park Theological Seminary Symposium on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (this years theme The Human Response to God) I have found my thoughts turning to privilege.  Some of the presenters have directly or indirectly addressed the problems of privileging certain aspects of the human over others which then  can undermine our seeing an other human as fully human.   White and male privilege haven’t been addressed directly  which was the subject of this post of mine around the symposium last year.

I want to sit with these words: privilege, privileged, and privileging.

As I grew up my parents would give my sister and I privileges.  These “privileges” were at times things we could earn, say by doing our household chores without grumbling and without being reminded by Mom or Dad that we should do them.  Also, what we termed “privileges” in my family had to do with allowing us age appropriate freedom that  also challenged our ability for self-regulation: meaning that if we abused the said privilege we could lose it.

My having a certain set of privileges didn’t affect my sister having the same or other  privileges.  So, If I had privilege X it didn’t mean of necessity that my sister didn’t have said privilege.  Also, as far as I recall, our privileges (nor our responsibilities at home) weren’t doled out based on gender (though, I suppose to be sure of that you’d need to corroborate that with my sister.  As evidence though I submit this short list some of my responsibilities growing up: cooking supper, doing laundry, and mowing the lawn.)  My point is that privilege in my family was a bonus that was something good for you but receiving the privilege didn’t negatively affect others in the system.

In this system it also meant the opposite of a right: a privilege was something granted, by my parents, that could be revoked. For instance use of the family car once I had my drivers license was a privilege.  As a privilege I couldn’t assume I’d have access to the one or two family cars we had at the time (there was a period in high school when we as a family only had one car for three potential drivers).  Failure to come home with the car when I did or taking the car without permission would have meant losing the privilege of using the family car. Privilege, in my family’s usage, was context dependent and something I couldn’t demand or assume.

I might also say something like “I’m privileged to know you.” or “It is a privilege to know you”.  If I say this it means that I have something others (those who don’t know you don’t have) but having the privilege of knowing you isn’t bound up in others lack but in the quality of your friendship.  For the phrase to make sense to be privileged is to have something others do not have and in a different context I might not have and which I find valuable.  However, there is also an element of gift in this phrase, the acquaintance isn’t something I can take credit for and depends on the addressee having given the gift of their presence to me.  Others lack is implicit here however again the privilege is granted and the phrase expresses that the privilege that has been granted can’t be assumed or taken for granted.

At the symposium last week the first two presenters talked about privileging qualities and privileging certain persons when examining the nature of what it means to be human (remember we were talking about the Human response to God, to some extent one’s definition of humanity might decide your sense of a human response to God.)  The presenters sense of privilege in this context does entail exclusion. To privilege something or someone in this context is to exclude other things or certain people.  To privilege say reason as the quality par excellence of what it means to be human is then to exclude and ignore other qualities.  In this sense privileging means something or someone looses out. It though also means an assumption of superiority of a particular quality, say reason.  That is qualities that aren’t reason thus aren’t considered when defining human being.  Thus, the problem of “privileging” in this sense of the term means that other qualities that might be attached to human being aren’t considered as expression of the human and thus those qualities and certain set of humans lose out.  Privileging then as used above entails assumptions of superiority without regard to context and in the act of privileging others lose out automatically.  Privileging is preferential and as such entails that the other can’t have the privilege that the act of privilege bestows upon the object of the privileging.

I contend that in this brief  examination “privileging” comes closest to what we mean when we are speaking of White and male privilege.  White privilege is an act of privileging.   By definition to have white privilege is to have something that those who are not in the constructed set “White” do not have.  In addition these assumptions are assumed and in the system that constructs race. As an assumption the privilege isn’t seen as gift that could be given to any in the system but a right that is intrinsic to the set “White”.  Similarly this is what is at work in male privilege.

privilege, privileging, and privileged in usage has a range of meaning may cause some confusion when thinking and reflecting on how to address White and male privilege.  For instance if we assume White and male privilege are like the privilege of using the family care when I was in high school, we may say that White privilege should and could be used for good and the betterment of others.  By way of example, I could have in high school used my privilege for merely selfish and self-centered activities (which I think I mostly did) taking myself and my friends to the movies or party and such.  However, I could have used that privilege (which I think I did on occasion) to drive someone to a doctors appointment who didn’t have a car, or offer a ride to a friend or acquaintance for an errand that I wouldn’t benefit from in anyway.  Or even more pertinent voluntarily taking my sister and her friends to the mall or a movie when I had no intention to shop or see a movie myself. I contend this doesn’t work for White privilege because the logic of the privileged use of the family car didn’t obtain automatically to me because of who I was in the system (ie. oldest male son, once my sister had her license she had the same privilege as I).   The privileges we are referring to when we speak of White privilege are intrinsic to being “White” and depend upon that those  privileges don’t and aren’t granted to those who aren’t classed as “White”.

When I wrote and spoke about renunciation of White privilege it was an attempt to address and confront the intrinsic nature of the privileges of being White.  To use white privilege to reform or change the system is to re-inscribe white privilege in the new situation created by those reforms.  The use of white privilege for the betterment of others who aren’t white has already been part of the racial system we inhabit, it is known as “the White man’s burden.”   If I use my White privilege to reform and change the racist system and that use of white privilege is seen as necessary for the system to be reformed then certain dominance and privileges will continue to pertain to the class of “White” qua “White” if nothing else as the proper subject of the system.   One thing I’m saying is the conditions  for justice to prevail and oppression to end do not depend upon I as “White” (and male) to act.  Rather I’m suggesting that it is when I as White renounce that any intrinsic privilege attends to me qua “White” (though not denying that the system grants both my class and attendant privilege) and as White refuse the burden that will  re-inscribe the privilege that is the source of the injustice and oppression we seek to end.

All this of course is a denial of the claim that the racist system wishes to keep in place namely that the classifications of the system are ontological and biologically grounded, and not a social construction of biology and ontology.

P.S. I haven’t addressed male privilege, though I think one can argue that in the current racist system it is and has been also a sexist system, such that any privileges granted to the White female are derivative from being White and male.

 

 

The Meaning of Decline: Christianity, Religion, and Spirituality

Recently discussion of Lillian Daniel’s essay in 2011 and subsequent book on the Spiritual but not Religious (SBNR) and the need for institutional religious community, has been appearing in my social media streams and in a few blog posts.  This has dovetailed with two books I’d picked up recently. I wasn’t surprised but, I’m finding that we’ve been anxious about the possible decline of religious institutions and Christianity in the U.S.  for the past 40 years (Most if not all of my lifetime).

The first  book is from 1973, A Fire We Can Light, Martin E. Marty’s prognostications on the state of Christianity in the United States at that time.   Marty writes at a moment of an upsurge in religious fervor and conversion.  However,  Marty reports a lack of commitment to the trappings of religious institutions.  Marty puzzles over this growing interest in Christian faith that doesn’t care about American Christian institutions.  These movements were the Jesus People and what Marty calls new Pentecostals but soon would be called Charismatics.  Marty notes the interesting ways these groups have an unusual relationship to institutions.  The Jesus people are depicted as being unconcerned with doctrines or even consistency in beliefs, Jesus’ divinity, Resurrection and reincarnation are said to coincide in one person.  The new Pentecostals retain denominational identity but are an ecumenical phenomenon.  Marty anticipates both that these “Pentecostals” will have continuing effect in the various denominations (My wife is the daughter of some of these Pentecostals in the Episcopal Church), and that something like but unlike denominations will emerge out of this group, eventually Vineyard and other loose confederation of charismatic congregations (my mother-in-law, is currently in one of these congregations.)  However, Marty is concerned that these groups aren’t going to really contribute to the life of established religious institutions.  Reading A Fire we can Light now it is interesting, for there is an anxiety about decline and yet report on a great deal of dynamism in the religious (we might say now spiritual) landscape in the U.S.

The other book I’m reading is from 1996 (my first year at Fuller Theological Seminary) Robert Wuthnow’s Christianity and Civil Society.   The main thrust of the book is for another post, however, the questions addressed and raised by Wuthnow, are rooted in an anxiety about the relevance of religion in our culture and society.  He’s asking what if anything our religious institutions can or should contribute to Civil Society. In seeking to answer this question Wuthnow doesn’t  know what to do with the seemingly contradictory statistics about the importance of religion in the United States.  Reading this now I say, ah this seeming contradiction is that in the statistics we are seeing the emergence of what we’ve now label SBNR.  Yet scholars like Wuthnow and the writers of surveys hadn’t noticed that a distinction and line was being drawn between spirituality and religion.  Even now if I use the language of Religious Studies, SBNR are religious, just religious outside of traditional institutions. From a Religious Studies standpoint “institutions” aren’t’ the essential component to being religious, though at the same time Religious Studies has been adverse to essential definitions of religion, and have stuck to phenomenological ones.  So I can tell you this is an instance of religion but I can’t tell you why all instances of religion belong to that set.  But I digress, in apart because Wuthnow was well received in Religious Studies as well as Theological circles.  Wuthnow seeks to be upbeat, the most negative reports on religion he feels are exaggerated, because of the continuing reports of belief in God and the practices of prayer etc.  Even so, he can’t deny the decline of the “Mainline”.  From the data Wuthnow sees that Americans don’t seem to be any less religious then we have been especially if one looks over the long-term (and not simply comparing the 1990’s to the 1950’s).  Yet at the same time there does seem to be a decrease in interest in the religious institutions, specifically at this time represented by the decline in the formerly dominant religious institutions of the Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians.  Even, so Wuthnow seeks to be optimistic about American religious institutions.

Both Wuthnow and Marty can’t quite make sense of the phenomena they are seeing and describing.  At first I just chalked it up to hindsight being 20 x 20.   But I was also intrigued by their difficulty of seeing genuine religious conviction and experience outside of the established institutions or even outside religion as an institution.  That this happens in the thought of Martin Marty a key figure in established Christian religion in the United States is understandable especially in 1973. However, it is more striking in 1996 from Wuthnow a prominent sociologist of religion to miss almost entirely what I already knew as at that time: people were already identifying as spiritual and not religious, it hadn’t become a thing “Spiritual but not Religious”.  Many of my friends and acquaintances were already expressing such sentiments in the late 1980’s, by 1996 to me this was old already simply the landscape in which I lived.  It was already obvious to me that people felt they had religious experience and faith outside of American institutions of religion.

So, what is in decline?  Does it matter?

It matter’s to people whose sense of religion and faith are dependent upon American religious institutions.    It matters because many people who may have named their experiences of transcendence and connection with God as religious and then found their way to Church are now calling that experience “Spiritual” and concluding not only that American religious institutions aren’t necessary to nurture their “spirituality” American Religious institutions (including mainline and progressive ones) stand in the way of nurturing spirituality.  And I think this evaluation is largely correct, and much religious institutional life in the U.S. was either useful in the 1950’s or always about these institutions captivity to values and outlook that have little to do with Church or Christian spirituality.  If so, then what is in decline isn’t religion or the Church or Christianity per se but certain trappings that either were only a very particular cultural adaptation or things set against the very values these institutions claimed to uphold, that is it’s  either dead wood or hypocrisy.  I say let it go, let it decline.

If your religious community is genuine it may shrink in this context, but it won’t disappear.  Sure American religion and the Church in America may not look like it has for the past 50 years (or may not look like, but that’s okay.

We need to embrace what’s happening and let things decline.  If we do, maybe some SBNR may see the Church as the  spiritual institution it is supposed to be.

We need to stop trying to preserve “religion” or “denominations”, but seek to follow Christ and be the Church in our time and place.  Sure that produces anxiety because we may get it wrong, and we don’t know what we are doing any more.  That’s the risk.

I’ll conclude with this anecdote:

This past Saturday I was at a gathering of Church Planters for the Central Conference of the Evangelical Covenant Church.  In this meeting were African-American and Hispanic church planters.  A few  African-American church planter’s I talked to were coming out of large African-American congregation with programs and large attendance.  These pastors spoke wearily of how these congregations were full of “church people” who only interacted with themselves and of programs once created by these congregations to reach the community and now simply perpetuating themselves with no sense of what was actually going on in the community.  These pastors were becoming church planters because these “church people” and institutions were  a barrier to the Gospel.  A Hispanic pastor spoke of the difficulty of starting a Hispanic church plant in neighborhoods that are diverse and thus missing whole groups of their neighbors because everything they do as a congregation is in Spanish and for Spanish speakers.  This was perceived as a negative limit and not being responsive to the environment in which they as a congregation existed.  These are insiders, those committed to religious life, saying American Religious institution (even those of ethnic immigrants having their separate institutions, denominations and congregations) works against the values of the Church and the Gospel.

Perhaps it’s time for these things to decline and pass away.  Perhaps we’ve been asking the wrong questions, and American Religious institutions don’t need to be saved or preserved.

Church, Race and the Nation State: Prolegomena

I’m embarking on a series of posts in which I want to look at what it means to be church in light of Ferguson, Missouri and the killing of Michael Brown at the hand of a police officer (and that this sort of incident is a far too common.)  This inquiry assumes much that I’ve written about and be wrestling with here in Ecclesial Longings.   Ecclesial Longing emerges from a conviction that  Our current understandings of Church among all Protestants does not offer a means to fully live into who we are in Christ.  The Believers Church idea of the Free Church was possibly a needed corrective of ways of living into the Body of Christ that were too focused upon two of the four main orders of the Church. However as I have begun to articulate here and here, as a robust theology that takes into account the organic and architectural metaphors of Ephesians it falls short.

AS for this series of posts, it seems to me that American White Protestant (that I can legitimately put all these qualifiers on our identities as Christians should make us uncomfortable) understandings of church do not give us a means to see how the Nation-State desires (demands?) from us  the sort of identification we are are only to have with the Body of Christ.  The Nation-State co-opts or replaces, sometimes both, the Church.  In my view, this is easy to do when we view the church as a non-physical purely spiritual (non-institutional) reality of some vague connection between all individuals who “believe” in Jesus Christ. This is a very weak sense of identity based upon our sense of connection with other individuals are Christians.  To my eyes this appears as an atomization of ourselves as members of Christ’s Body, and allows for  the Nation-State to pick out the Christian from her proper identity and insert her into the Body of the Nation state without here being aware that of the dislocation or conflicting allegiances.  I don’t’ think I’m alone in making some of these observations  (Hauerwas comes to mind).  What I’d like to suggest is that the higher ecclesiologies represented by Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy have something to offer here.  Though, not necessarily in every aspect.

In recent two posts over at Personal Musings I have suggested that the Nation-State is the systemic seat of  Racism.  I think this is key to understanding how policing (one of the two coercive and violent arms of the Nation-State) remains racist and how then routine policing ends up disproportionately targeting Blacks and people of color.

I want to examine the Nation-State from its emergence in Europe as a state that was for and to govern a particular ethnicity, that is a nation.  The boundaries and the State itself in its original idea was for being able to clearly identify  the French and the English. This emerged also as a mean to separate from the State of the Holy Roman Empire.

Given in part that this ethic identification of State land and people was in conflict with the Holy Roman Empire, the emergence of the Nation-State in Europe is also an emerging reality out of conflicts between church and state in the late middle ages.  I wish to suggest then that there are ecclesiological consequences of the Nation-State, on some level the Nation-State is to replace the role of the Church in it’s unifying function as it was understood in Medieval Europe

I Haven’t yet read Willie Jennings The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origin of Race , but my from what I know and from lectures I’ve heard of his I think some of what I’m attempting here is related to his analysis in this book.

I will seek to articulate in this series, that Racism is the result of a series of ecclesiological heresies, and thus is as such a an ecclesiological heresy itself.  But it isn’t just about ideas, but that these heresies actually hide from us the true nature of the Nation-State and the systems (powers) we take for granted and are told are necessary for our survival and are simply the  natural way of things, and the height of our human achievement and progress.  When in fact they are inventions, and more to the point spiritually speaking are the same powers that crucified Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.

I am engaging  this inquiry out of the conviction that knowing who we are as the Body of Christ is what will allow followers of Christ to act not out of the systems of the World (that is the logic of the Nation-State the current system of the World), but of the new system/cosmos The Church, the Body of Christ.

Lastly, I recognise that I can’t escape being White.  Much of what I write is an attempt to address White heresies.   In a sense what I’m doing here is also an attempt at renunciation (see this post on renunciation and privilege) of trust in systems that have and still privilege and benefit Whites.  I recognise the possible limits of what I will be exploring.  This should not be read then as trying to correct or evaluate theological systems of the African-American Church or Latino/a theology or feminist theology, Liberation Theology and so forth.  I would hope some dialogue could ensue, that we can approach this as a means to continue to learn what it means to be the Body of Christ in the World.  For myself this line of thought is already followed out of listening to and reading various authors, voices and theological perspectives.

Minorities and the meaning of Christian, Christendom, and Church

Not long ago I was talking with a colleague in leadership in an African-American congregation.  We were swapping stories of our relationships and encounters with those who don’t attend church.  Our perceptions and experiences had some overlap but also were quite different.  The overlap was that we each of us knew and met those who either knew little about Christianity or who had rejected the  Christianity they were raised in.  We differed in that my colleague assumed that the majority of those he interacted with who weren’t active members of a congregation shared a more or less Christian perspective.  Where as I assume that anyone who isn’t active in a Christian congregation doesn’t share Christian language and perspective.

A question that arose for me was the degree to which in ethnic minority contexts does Christendom still function? I’m wondering what meaning if any might my distinction between Christian, Christendom, and Church have in African-American or ethnic minority contexts?

When my Swedish forebears came to the United States, Swedish Lutheran and Swedish Mission Friend congregations served as not only places for worship and community with other Christians and Swedes but also, a place where one could get help finding a job,  support in illness, or aid while jobless.  Congregations were places of empowerment and mutual support.  This function of congregations seems to be one function Christian congregations have in Christendom in the U.S.  I’ve noticed that some multicultural congregations, most African-American and Hispanic congregations in the evangelical Covenant Church still are such centers of community, mutual support and empowerment for both members of the congregation and for those in the larger community.    Outside of these context congregations don’t function that way.  Also, it seems that once the Swedes in my denomination assimilated and became English-speaking congregations that we developed programs (another aspect of Christendom in the U.S. in my opinion) and ceased to be places of mutual aid and support.

Something is needling me around my own categories and the debates and the anxieties around all the future of Christian institutions in the United States.  Are these problems and anxieties around our institutional life really about loss of dominance and influence, the loss of privilege, thus a “White” problem? (C.F. Tripp Hudgins recent post on seminary education and pastors being middle class.)

The question emerged out of my conversation with my African-American colleague, as I experienced a difference in presupposition rooted  in a difference in the lived experience of congregational life.  The impression I was left with from our conversation was that I engage the world based upon the assumption that Christian faith no longer holds a privileged position in my (White?) contexts.  For me acting as if I could have a shared perspective and language based in Christian presuppositions is to insist on privilege.  I chose to let that go.  From my colleague’s approach to the world was the presupposition that the shared Christian milieu was a means of empowerment and mutual aid and support.  Thus, for him to encourage a return to Church or Christ to those he meets on the street and interact with socially was an invitation into a community of empowerment and mutual aid, and a means to work against injustices.  There are contradictions here since the source of that injustice and oppression is other (White) Christians, which is the reason some my colleague engages outside his congregation is rejection of Christianity as a White religion. An assertion my colleague obviously rejects.  Though it does show that even for my colleague a shared Christian understanding isn’t  monolithic in his context.

Yet, what I’m seeing is that my attempt to make sense of and faithfully respond to our changing context is based upon a presupposition that much of U.S history has been a history of Christendom, and thus privileging of Christianity.  I assume that the way through is let go of the privilege.  However, for my colleague Christendom didn’t offer a privileged status, rather the structures of congregations in Christendom allowed for, in a segregated context, centers of empowerment and mutual aid.

I guess I saying that even as we seek to figure out where we are at and at the same time seek to work for justice that those from privileged places need to accept a loss of privilege while not dictating to those without our privilege how to navigate the changes, and those changes may actually be different in their contexts.

The problem is that it leaves us still separate, segregated even, in the ruins of American Christendom.  I’m not sure what to do with that.  Perhaps, it is finding ways to listen.  Our place of meeting may be that we all need to find ways to carry the reality of the Church, as Body of Christ, into our changing context, while letting go of the trappings of Christendom and Christianity that no longer apply.  We need to do this together but without telling each other how to do it.  It perhaps begins as my colleague and I did sharing and swapping stories of how we minister and live out our faith before the world.