Ecclesial Longings

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.

 

The Spirituality of Place and Physicality (Leaving Our Marks)

I recently talked with a low church evangelical who recently went on pilgrimage to Palestine/Israel.  He reported that it was amazing, but that before the trip he hadn’t given much credence to the possibility that space, architecture, and place could be imbued with Spirit.  Based on his experience at the  pilgrimage sites in Jerusalem, he was convinced that those places were Spiritual, whether other space and places could also be he remained agnostic.

I’m astounded by how often I run across  this attitude that all places and spaces are the same that the Spiritual and the holy don’t attach themselves to place or architecture or space.  This seems particularly strange to me among those whose very belief system claims that God became united with matter and a body in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who as his name states was from a particular place and at a particular time, 1st century Palestine.

We perhaps get caught up in how this might be?  We can’t believe that a reality free of the constraints of physicality would allow itself to be  limited by the physical.  Yet this is exactly the claim of the incarnation.  As St John of Damascus says in his defense of icons in On Orthodoxy ” the uncircumscribable became circumscribed.”

In The Life of the World, Alexander Schmemann claims that our sense of the separation of the physical and Spiritual, mater and divinity isn’t the ultimate truth.  Rather God intended that all creation be the place of meeting between creature and creator.  The Sacraments work because in our unfallen state the whole world was Sacrament to us, God had always intended to meet us in and through the physical and material world.

I’m drawn to forms of Christianity that take seriously that space, architecture, place and physicality are Spiritual.  I’m also drawn to those forms of Christianity that then say what we do with the reality of the coincidence of the material and the Spiritual means certain things for the spaces we pray in, the images we look at, and the way we sing.  All of this isn’t necessarily as bounded (from my current point of view) as these Christians may assert.  I do believe that the tradition of the Church has a form, and not all Christian activity fits into that form.  I’m still questioning that form, I’m still seeking to think into that form.

My sense is that the Church has left its mark.  The Holy Spirit as the spirit of Christ comes to us through forms created and passed down (that is Tradition).  Place matters, the forms our buildings take matter.  These things have meaning.  I encourage us to take pay attention to the physicality of our spirituality, and to recognise it doesn’t necessarily mean all the same thing.  Difference in form is also difference in spirituality and faith.

Are Christian trends the trends of the Church?: Christian, Christendom and Church, once again.

David Hayward, the Nakedpastor, reflected upon Ed Stetzer’s post on current trends around the term Christian and the statistics of the identity.

Stetzer is concerned that congregations (churches/denominations?) don’t see the decrease in self identification as Christian as an indication of the death of the church.  Hayward’s concern is for how this explanation of the decline of self-identification as Christian will create isolationist congregations and groups of “pure” Christians.  He doesn’t come out and say it but I hear behind Hayward’s concerns that this will exclude people of faith and spirituality that could be nurtured by a more open approach to these trends.  Stetzer, doesn’t think his Convictional Christians nor his analysis will lead to the negative and isolationist fears of Hayward.

From my perspective Haywards critique of Stetzer’s article is based on a concern for a narrowing of the term Christian and thus of drawing the lines around church too closely.  I’m less clear on where Stetzer wants to take us in relation to these statistics, though he objects to Haywards pointing out the potential negative conclusions one may draw from Stetzer’s analysis.

This interchange seemed to fit in my own recent attempts to get at some clarity on what Christian, Christendom and Church are and how I’ve experienced them in these blog posts, here and here.

One might place my attempts to distinguish between Christian and member of the Body of Christ in Stetzer’s category of the “convictional Christian”, or Hayward’s group of “pure” Christians. But that would be to mistake my ecclesiology, my attempt to distinguish is seeking to live out my baptism, to be aware of the continuity between the apostles and us now.

My guess is that Stetzer and Hayward have similar starting places for their respective ecclesiologies.  Hayward though has a concern (like I have) for those beyond the walls of our Christian institutions (again note I wish to avoid the term church, this has to do with my ecclesiology which leads me to hesitate to equate all current Christian institution with the Church). Stetzer’s  concern is for those who are in and loyal to these Christian institutions denomination and congregation. Or more charitably concerned about how those in the institutions relate to those outside the congregations and denominations.

At this moment things get a little fuzzy for me: what do Hayward and Stetzer mean by “church” or “The Church”?  In following Hayward at a distance I get the sense that “Church” for him is a non-specific spiritual reality that could also simply be called community.  My guess (and I will admit being almost entirely unfamiliar with Stetzer’s body of work, I know him only by reputation) is that Stetzer would use church and congregation interchangeably and may apply “Church” or The Church to all throughout time who are “true”(however that is defined) followers of Christ.  Yet, I would guess that being genuinely Christian is probably more important to both authors then having  clarity on the nature of the Church.

What I’m trying to get at is to contrast Hayward’s and Stetzer’s approach to the space I’m attempting to clear here in Ecclesial Longings.  I’m less and less concerned about the term Christian, who claims it or whether they are cultural, nominal or convictional.   Based on my reflections and the heuristic I’m seeking to develop I’d argue that Stetzer and Hayward are in differing ways concerned with Christendom.

Christendom is the  space in which Christian belief (of some kind) and Christian institutions (possibly including the Church) form part of the basis and fabric of a particular society or culture.

If this is a solid definition of Christendom, Stetzer’s categories of Christians are actually categories of types of people in Christendom.  If Christendom in our context is collapsing or disappearing, then it’s not surprising that the various types of Christian are also disappearing.  The convictional Christian would also eventually disappear or as Stetzer’s own article suggest simply be all Christians, once the collapse and shift from Christendom is complete. Stetzer doesn’t seem to admit that this collapse of Christendom is what makes Christian identity meaningless to “nominal” and “congregational” Christians.  But also this shift removes the structures upon which most Christian institutions depend upon.  Hayward seems to want to in some sense preserve a form of Christendom, that is keep the church with some influence upon the wider culture.  Stetzer is willing to envision a context where the church has lost its cultural influence but doesn’t (in the article) reflect upon that the institutions of convictional Christians are institutions that are in terms of their form and structure dependent upon the existence of Christendom.    For the local congregation, this is shown in that as “nominal” and “congregational” Christians cease to be those identify as Christian and leave these congregation the congregations and denominations no longer have the ability to maintain structures, programs bureaucracies and buildings all built at the heyday of American Christendom.

All of these trends can be talked about without reference to the Church as Body of Christ.  Why is this?  I think it is because for Hayward and Stetzer church is simply the community of individuals who identify as Christians (Hayward may want to name church as all those who identify as spiritual).  I’d argue this understanding of church fails to see the Church as something that encompasses and transcends individuals who make it up, like Paul’s metaphorical language of church as Body.  Like the affirmation of church as Mother.  Taking these mystical and material affirmations seriously, I’m less concerned about who’s a Christian, or how inclusive or exclusive we are. My concern is with seeking to be part of and lead others into the physical, historical and transcendent reality of the Church.

I have a suspicion that much American Christianity isn’t in that continuity and is more concerned about being right than being formed into the mystical Body of Christ.  Neither a tightening of the ranks nor seeking to be as open as possible are the way to be formed as the Body of Christ. In that search it is good to be aware of the demise of Christendom and the trends around Christian identity but none of that gets to the heart of the matter for one who has an ecclesial longing.

My stab at a definition here: The Church is that which is in spiritual and historical/material continuity with the Apostles and Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, is formed by God and who has as its head Jesus Christ.

If your interested Steve McSwain has a year old series of posts in this arena, the first of which can be found here.  Though here in this review of one of McSwain’s book’s I recommend taking him with a grain of Salt.

The Ecclesial Longing of Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew

Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew met in Jerusalem, to commemorate the meeting of Pope Paul IV and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras 50 years ago.  The Ecumenical Patriarch (confirmed by the Vatican) mentioned that in this meeting the bishops want to move forward in ecumenical relations and decided to plan some form of meeting/gathering on the 1700 anniversary of the first Ecumenical council at Nicaea in Nicaea, now Iznik. This is Kind of astounding.

In our various denominational crises, we can forget that really the last 70 years has been an incredible time for those seeking to move beyond the divisions and parochialism of the various Christian denominations.  We almost take the meeting of a Pope and Ecumenical Patriarch as common place. Dialog between Christian denominations happens regularly.  Certainly, there are still lines drawn in the sand, and I’m sure a number of both Roman Catholics and Orthodox are speaking of the apostasy of either  the Pope or Ecumenical Patriarch, or both.  However, if we focus on these negatives we fail to see the signs of hope and the possible work of the Spirit.

It’s hard to say what this meeting planned for 2025 in Nicaea will be, but in it is a fruit of seeking to meet one another across our divides, to seek to be the Church. We could make to much and to little of the Pope’s and Patriarch’s meeting and of this announcement.

For Ecclesial Longings and the Priestly Goth this all points that for the church the future and the past must collide.  Also, there’s nothing pure about the commemoration of Nicaea.  And there are plenty of Christians who, even if they may want to affirm the creed from that council, find that moment and Constantine’s embrace of the Church and intervention in the Arian controversy to be highly problematic to say the least.  Yet, I say that if we want to understand Christian faith in a concrete and ecclesial sort of way, reflecting on the truth and complexity of the first ecumenical council is needed.

Christianity as a religion can have many interpretations stemming from the person of Jesus of Nazareth, bringing together all these interpretations and faiths that are called Christian probably isn’t a possibility.  But when we begin to talk about the Church as Body of Christ, which is a transcendent, sacramental and mystical reality in time and history, this gives us a lens to focus our interpretation of Christianity.  In this focus, what I call ecclesial longing, I believe there is possibility for unity.  In this focus and longing is seeking in the other Christian and in one self that sign that we are members of the same body.  The faith of the Body of Christ, the Church  was expressed at Nicaea in 325. While Arian faith is Christian it was shown not  to be  the faith of the Body of Christ.

In the least in this invitation to celebrate and remember the Council of Nicaea, we have the opportunity to think the difference between the mind of Christ and the Church and mere Christian opinions. So along with Sam Rocha, I see this planned gathering in 2025 at Nicaea tingling with possibility.  In the midst of our denominational and cultural crisis, I see this as laden with hope.

A dying Church? or is it Christendom or Christianity? (Part 2)

I left off in part 1 with a discovery.  At 5 almost 6 years old by asking if a friend wanted to come t a VBS I discovered there were people that not only went to church infrequently (this was so in my own extended family), but for whom church had no place at all in their lives.  this friend it turns out didnt even know who Jesus Christ was.

My friend never came to vacation bible School (VBS).  An awareness came to me in this moment in this town where school superintendents, police, the pharmacists, those who made up the volunteer fire department, were members of Kingsburg Covenant church and other congregations in the town (I assume that the mayor and city council were also members of these same Christians congregations in town but I don’t recall ever knowing who was the mayor of Kingsburg ) who was or wasn’t considered a “good citizen” were evaluated by their commitments to these Christian congregations.  This sense of things had no place for someone who had no association at all with these congregations. I had assumed  that in someway everyone even if they didn’t attend church regularly was in the orbit of the christian faith, I had assumed Christendom.  At that moment I both discovered what Christendom was and that there was something outside of Christendom.

Around the same time as this revelation, one communion Sunday, I asked my parents if I could receive communion, I wanted to receive Jesus in the bread and wine.  My parents had me ask Pastor Elving after the service.   Pastor Elving didn’t answer yes or no, but had a conversation with me about why I wanted to receive communion.  I don’t remember what pastor Elving said to me nor exactly what I said to him, I do remember sharing the desire to receive Jesus.  I was told later (i don’t remember Pastor Elving saying this) that I had a better understanding of Communion than many adults.  I was impatient for the next communion Sunday,  and it began to feel odd to me that we didn’t celebrate the Eucharist every Sunday.  In communion and in the caring concern of Pastor Elving our moment of shared faith in the presence of Christ in bread and wine was another moment of Church that transcended the particular practices of that particular congregation though it was also mediated and manifested in that congregation and through the Pastoral office as Pastor Elving embodied it.

I can say then that my experience was uneven, and I can’t  imagine what would have happened had my parents and Pastor Elving had dismissed my longing for the body of Christ expressed in the desire to share in the bread and the cup.  I do remember thinking it odd that the adults seemed perfectly content to receive Christ only once a month. Christian opinions about guarding the specialness of this symbolic meal were repeated possibly whenever I asked for an explanation.  This opinion didn’t seem to fit with the words spoken, with the solemnity with which Pastor Elving prayed and spoke over bread and wine, the seriousness with which he questioned my desire to receive.  There was no affirmation of encounter with something that could not be diminished by the frequency of the encounter, no sense of  the need for this mystical abiding through physical and ordered means, which I’m here naming church.

When we moved from Kingsburg to Los Angeles as I began Confirmation, the Covenant congregation we ended up going to (because my sister and I liked the youth and children’s programs ), I discovered Christianity without Christendom.  Many of my pears connection to the faith was fairly shallow in comparison with the many layers of Church, Christianity and Christendom of Kingsburg.  They went to church because their parents went and they were told they had to come.  That in the gathering was needed spiritually, that in coming together with other members of the Body of Christ that one was then formed into Christ, that in church one encountered God and Christ in each other and in bread and wine was largely either unimportant or unknown among most of my peers.  Attending church seemed meaningless to them, at least form my sense of gathering to encounter God.  It was here to that for the first time since nursery that I was segmented off into my age group and no longer regularly was in worship with my parents.

I experienced these distinct and overlapping entities: Church, Christianity and Christendom.  As I’ve interpreted it and recollected this experience, Christianity and and Christendom are partially negative aspects of my experience of Church.  I’d argue that Christianity and Christendom were only negative in their decadent and decaying interactions.  The web of connections between family, congregation, other Christian congregations in the town of Kingsburg and the influence Christianity had upon the civic and social fabric of the town created for me a unified world that was positive and life affirming.  In many ways this entire experience was ecclesial.  Yet there were always cracks in that world.  As I discovered not only a world beyond the institutions of Christendom but also came to realize that for many in congregations (including some of leaders ) that what was for  matrix and life was for them about keeping boundaries,  following rules, and believing propositions, i could have concluded that the Church was nothing but a human institution. Yet I didn’t come to that conclusion, because something in my experience, whichis hard for me to put my finger on, lead me to see the difference between these three things: Christendom, Christianity, and Church.  Only one of these was needful, life giving, and about life,  that one thing is the Church.  Church was manifest and transcended every local instantiation of it i have experienced. In some local instantiation, I must also admit that the Church was hardly present.  It’s possible that many people know Christianity and Christendom but haven’t a clue about this thing called Church the Body of Christ, and I suspect that much of this talk about death of Church is really the uncovering that not every group of Christians is the Church.

 

A dying Church? or is it Christendom or Christianity? (Part 1)

The Anglobaptist brought to my attention the Sojourners blog series “Letter’s to a dying Church”(I  haven’t read all of them but I’ve read a few).  At Tripp’s blog, I’ve said that I agree with those that are saying (some of them in their “letters”, that it’s not the church that is dying but Christendom or Christianity.  I’ve made these distinctions here before.  There’s a key difference between these three entities and phenomena.  but I do see in what I’ve read and in the Sojourner chosen title for this series a tendency to conflate these three, and use in the very least Church and Christianity as synonymous and  thus conflate the Christian religion with the Body of Christ.

I want to focus on this confusion of related but distinct entities, because the title of this series and some of the responses show an inability for a clear path of thinking regarding our predicament.   Thus, as I see it the title of  this series and many of the letters only deepen our confusion and our hopelessness.

But in the spirit of Sojourners letters, I will  take a personal rather than theoretical or philosophical theological approach.   I will in a very American way talk about my experience of these three entities and phenomena, as I have encountered them in the local congregation of my upbringing, Kingsburg Covenant Church in the Central Valley of California, and in the my denomination of my birth, baptism, confirmation, and ordination, The Evangelical Covenant Church.

The place where I remember my nurture in the Faith was a largely Swedish congregation with roots in the Lutheran Pietist Tradition, Kingsburg Covenant Church.  But it isn’t where my story began.  It began in the suburbs of Chicago, At Winnetka Covenant Church, There I was Baptised into the Body of Christ. There community and family deliberately and through sacrament handed me over to another reality: a reality  in which they shared, Christ and the Church.    Before  I was able to take in who I was in relation to family, or nation, or any other human association I was delivered from the tyranny of all those identities, and could hold them or leave them in light of being in Christ.  This is of course a very adult and post seminary and theologians summary of what was implicit in the matrix of my early years.  On some level it was a very simple weekly or more often event.  On a regular basis I was entrusted to those with whom I had no familial connection, who didn’t live in the same neighborhood as my family, many of whom I saw only in this place, but experientially it was clear I was theirs, and my parents left me with them in this place called the nursery.  I don’t remember anything about my time at Winnetka Covenant church. Yet,  Baptism changed me, transferred me to a parallel and other actuality in which my parents were also embraced and nurtured, in that place we were all children… children of God.

Winnetka Covenant church and Kingsburg Covenant church provided me this sense of Church as Mother, the matrix in which we all lived together as Christ’s, as God’s children, fellow heirs with Christ.  I learned this in the nursery.  It was at Kingsburg Covenant Church that I first became aware of my nurture in the faith through two members of the Body of Christ, a married couple who in my nursery days were always working in the nursery, showing us toddlers the love of the Church and of Christ.

For a time in the small town of Kingsburg (my mother’s home town) church, family (my grandparents and 2nd cousins and other distant relatives all went to church together) and community seemed like a unified whole.  My best friend and I saw each other in church, we went to preschool and then kindergarten together, I knew others in town went to other congregations, and that some thought less of some of those other groups, but mostly it seemed to me that all of us were Christian, the reality of the Church, my matrix bled out from those gathered on a Sunday and encompassed my sense of the entire city of Kingsburg.  Here is the realm of Christianity and Christendom in my early childhood experience.   As a child it was largely irrelevant whether or not those other Christians experienced, Christ and the nurture of the church and love of Christ as I did.  I most likely assumed they did if the it ever crossed my mind to wonder? I don’t think it did.

However, my awareness of Christianity and Christendom as distinct from Church as Mother and nurturer of my faith and of my self in God and Christ, came in conflict and a jolt to awareness that not all had my experience of God, Christ, Church and our civic community.  This awareness came about the same age at 5 or six, it came in school, Sunday School, and at the end of my Kindergarten year, so I was almost six.

In Sunday school there were a few teachers who insisted that the children had to say the prayer of faith (my recollection it was the minority of teachers) to become Christians and be saved.  I had experienced the love of Christ in his Church and through that nurture had faith in God and Christ, to the extent a 5 or 6 year old could. The insistence on “the prayer” was just pure nonsense.  I don’t know if this is a supposition based on later life experience or something I experienced then, but I have a sense that for those teachers my refusal was a cause for concern born out of fear not love.  From these well meaning Sunday school teachers, I encountered  a form of Christianity separate from the church as Mother and the Sacraments.  We had to come to God by this isolated expression of faith.  This notion was coercive. Not as coercive as some other contexts, but it was assumed that those of us children who had not said the prayer lacked something.  The saying of the magic words disconnected from relationship or sacrament would make all the difference.  Having felt the embrace of God through the love of the church through having passed through the waters of Baptism this Christianity had little appeal to me.  They wanted me to meet God, but couldn’t see that I was living in the womb of God, the Church.

I encountered Christendom  when I asked a friend from Kindergarten to come to Vacation Bible School.  My friend didn’t know anything about church, or the Bible.  he understood vacation and school (and they seemed like contradictory concepts to him), but Bible and going to church even Jesus Christ were unknown to hi., It was that moment that I discovered a world outside of Christendom: the Chrsitian familial and civic connections that had up and until that point made up my understanding of the city of Kingsburg.   In part 2 I will talk about this discovery of Christendom in the negative, and of a Christendom on its way to it’s death, at least in California in the 1970’s.