Patheis Ekklesian

My thoughts on and longings for the Church the Una Sancta

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.

 

Christians Embrace Death and the Particularity and Physicality Of the Gospel

We Christians are anxious about the state of our institutions.  We at the same time want to believe someone has the fix.  So, we make pronouncements.  A number of people including Tony Jones and Brian McLaren have suggested that we are seeing possible end of denominations, others are talking about the decline of particular denominations (such as the Episcopal Church) or groups of denominations (the Mainline), or maybe even the whole kit and caboodle Christianity itself, or even more astounding the Church, is dead or dying.

The reasons given for this  demise are myriad, but they do coalesce around an anxiety that we aren’t or haven’t allowed the Spirit to move and that we are trapped in the institutional and the historical/material manifestations of our faith.  This it seems to me wishing to blame our having bodies, that is those real, actual, physical, architectural manifestations, that aren’t the s{S}pirit.  In a sense what I hear in our anxieties and the various remedies for our demise is the claim that we  are not our bodies.   Which is strange to me.

In college I read Souls and Bodies, a novel about the loss and retention of faith.  As I read it the novels contention was that it was precisely the “spiritual” obsession that denied our bodies that was the reason for the flight from religion.  The characters in the novel longed for cathedral and body to agree in spirituality.    Architecture, institution, body all are spiritual, the crack in our systems of faith and theology is when we dismember ourselves, when our cosmos no longer is imbued with the spiritual.    Religion and faith that can’t bring together body soul and spirit, leave us with corpses and pointless souls wandering in an amorphous and dreary world.  That is at least my impression of the novel 20 years on.  Whether or not it was the author’s intent it is what I took from it, and it spurred me to seek a faith that had form, architecture, institution, and body.

I wonder if our problem is that we are still seeking some essence, some inner spirit that can be decanted into any container.  If this is so then i say we are shrinking from the particularity of God and the church.   It is my conclusion that with all our love for “incarnational” theology we find the actual incarnation of God, in a Jew 2000 years ago, to be a little embarrassing, and possibly just a bit out of date.  We don’t want our future our “destiny” to be tied to that Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, whom we know so little about.  We’d rather create a Jesus in our own image, rather than be confined by a Jew who gathered 12 other Jews around him and sent them out into the world to proclaim the reign of God established by a violent and embarrassing death.

We embrace with difficulty that God is now forever human because, God is forever a 1st century Palestinian Jew who was raised from the dead and is seated on the right hand of God.  We also embrace with difficulty that from the moment of the incarnation God has been gathering together a new humanity through union with this one person jesus of Nazareth, through baptism and eating and drinking bread and wine.

American Christianity (liberal or conservative) tends to  prefer a more generic and American triumphalist universalism.   Actually following a crucified Jewish peasant from the first century Palestine is a bit of lunacy.   Doing so isn’t the way to win friends and influence people, its not guaranteed to gain you access the halls of power to influence the power brokers and leaders of the (free) world.  In fact that Jewish peasant tells us we aren’t suppose to seek power and influence and access, but God’s justice and righteousness first.  The problem for both liberal and conservative Christians is that we believe that justice and transformation of society can only come from in the very least having access to and influence over the power brokers.

Should we be surprised that people may find this all a little too incredible.  Should we be surprised that since Christianity has had access to the power centers for so long and yet used that access not to be open to God’s kingdom but to replace God’s kingdom with our vision of freedom and democracy (liberal or conservative), that people will walk away.  Who needs Christianity if it is simply a version of secular ideologies.  Our universalism our reductions of Christianity to principles, or morals or to social justice, leave no need for a Palestinian 1st century Jew.  Or to make this Jew relevant we ask people to believe something even more incredible, that said Jesus of Nazareth was simply an 21st century populist democrat, or  we ask people to believe in a being that died just so you could accept him into your heart and go on your merry way without a care for the world.

We need to embrace it all.  The messiness, the imperfect way Christians are the body of Christ, and the Jewishness of our God.  The particularity of our material existence is the universal spirituality of Christian faith.  We need architecture, we need art, we need what Christ instituted both sacraments and the historical continuity of  the temple that God is building us into.

We will come to know what reflects this holistic particular universal faith not by reductions and seeking the essential nature of the Spirit, but by seeing that the God who became a Jew a little over 2000 years ago is the God of all, who embraces all, and instituted the Church and is building a temple, which is the new humanity.  Such a vision perhaps simply isn’t compatible with the vision of our age.  In part though that is our fault for we have been proclaiming something else, we have lost who we are, we have sought release from our bodies, so that we could have universal spirit that could appeal to everyone.  This is our demise, this is our death. We are the dry bones and we are finding if we are honest that there is no life outside our body.  Mortal can these bones live?  Lord only you know.   May we prophesy that the spirit return to our dried out wasted away bodies.  May God return to us the flesh we have abandoned.  Our bones can witness to the life of God, but we must prophesy to the breath, and accept our particularity, our mortality.

 

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.

Spiritual Gifts, the Holy Spirit and our Abilities

For Pentecost I preached this sermon.  The sermon emphasizes a certain aspect of Spiritual gifts: namely that they aren’t equivalent to things we do well or like to do.  For instance you don’t have the Spiritual gift of Hospitality because you like to and are good at throwing parties.  To put it another way, having a spiritual gift isn’t the same as being ‘gifted’, as in having a native talent or ability to do X above and beyond other human beings general ability to do X.  What I preached is that Spiritual gifts are about receiving something that isn’t part of one’s native ability or natural inclinations.   The gifting of the Holy Spirit gives us that which take us beyond ourselves.

I have a problem with my sermon: What is summarized above is only part of the story.  Since I was trying to get people to connect with the divine presence in themselves, that stream of water spoken of by Jesus in The Gospel of John, I didn’t explore the connection between our native abilities and gifts and the abilities and gifts received from the divine presence in us, the Holy Spirit.  The only hint I gave that I believed there was some connection between our personal abilities and gifts and the gifts of the Spirit was to emphasize a couple of times that according to Paul gifts were given to each individually.

In my sermon I was seeking  a corrective:  we at times too easily equate a desire or propensity towards something to be our Spiritual gift. Yet,  if take seriously the account of Pentecost in Acts and Paul’s argument in Corinthians the point of being gifted by the Spirit isn’t an aspect of our own effort or ability.  In a sense speaking in tongues and gifts of healing are obvious and thus quintessential Spiritual gifts.  Other Spiritual gifts like hospitality or even discernment could also simply be natural ability or bent, though Paul also speaks of  these as Spiritual gifts.

I didn’t bring it up in my sermon (sermons are limited like that) that I do believe there is a needed discernment of the connection between what has been gifted to us from the Spirit, our personhood and our native abilities and inclinations as persons.

What might be the nature of this discernment?  There are a few things I’d suggest we need to keep in mind and pray about when we have the question of what gifts we have received.

1) As the baptized we have been given the Holy Spirit, in meditation and prayer seeking that flow of life in us is a place to begin.  In this discerning meditation and prayer where in your life, in interactions with others, do you see life springing up both in yourself and in others.  The metaphor of streams of living water for the presence and gifting of the Spirit is to direct our attention to the unexpected places we find life springing up like well watered plants.

2) The Holy Spirit chooses, the Apostle tells us, but also that the Holy Spirit gives to each individually.  While the focus of our gifts isn’t on our native abilities, that the Holy Spirit is God in us and the one who can articulate our deepest longings and desires before God in prayer (Romans 8:26) means that our personality and talents aren’t ignored in the giving of gifts by the Spirit.  I suggest that in discerning one’s gifting one is looking in that space between who you are and the edge of your abilities and inclinations.  This could mean that a gifting of the Spirit takes a natural ability and takes it beyond what one is able to do, or it may offer a means to do something consistent with ones personality but to do something that doesn’t come easy. For instance praying in tongues can be for an extrovert that way to be silent before God and wordless prayer with words, that is a means to meditate for someone who may find regular wordless prayer temperamentally challenging.

3) Paul does connect desire and receiving of gifts.  When in prayer and meditation seeking to know one’s gifting is to seek those places of ones desire.  What do we long for?  Paul seems to even show that in seeking to know the gift one has received that we are to desire certain gifts.  We may find that we aren’t given what we initially desire, again Spiritual gifts do take us beyond ourselves.  Yet, in allowing ourselves to desire good things, which all spiritual gifts are, is key to becoming aware of the gift we have been given by the Spirit.

4) This will require discernment, and talking it out with others whom one trusts.  Spiritual gifts aren’t for our private and personal enrichment, they are how we are to Spiritually relate to other members of the Body of Christ, and the way in which God seeks to bring life to the World.  Therefore the feed back of those close to one: Spiritual counselors and friends are key in discerning what gift one has received.  Again those who are close to us are part of who we are as persons and individuals, they will be able to tell you how they see you fitting together in the Body of Christ.

As I grew in the faith and found my way into the ordered ministry, much of the above discernment happened for me informally and implicitly. Though ordered ministry and office is a different but related thing to the Spiritual gifts, gifting and office also aren’t completely separate.  But that is another post, and a topic that I’m still unclear on myself.  My point though is that this discernment will take time, it also may not always be obvious, or in the moment of a specific conversation where one asks another for feedback on Spiritual gifts.  This process can be those small bits of affirmation, someone  pointing out something one did that one wasn’t even aware one was doing.  There is something organic and fluid to this process, not mechanical or procedural.  And this shouldn’t be surprising because it is about receiving and being the conduit of abundant life, those streams of living water.

 

 

Evangelicalism, the Bowe Bergdahl Affair, and the Church

The Bowe Bergdahl affair(I’ve been watching Sherlock Holmes) raises once again the question of the nature and character of evangelical Christianity.    Christianity Today published an interview with the former pastor of Bob and Jani Bergdahl, Phil Proctor, who has also remained a friend of the Bergdahl over the years.  As an Orthodox Presbyterian pastor he is within what is firm conservative theological territory, even “fundamentalist”.  I’m puzzled by  the pastors sense of surprise and disappointment, by the response of conservative Christians and evangelicals, to Bob Bergdahl giving praise to God in Arabic and to the deal that lead to Bowe’s release.  I too find it unchristian, but  I find Proctor’s surprise as puzzling as that World Vision was so poorly prepared for the backlash around their change in policy around same-sex marriage.  The politics of the Religious Right are uncompromising and founded upon the blurring of the values of the Gospel with other cultural and nationalistic agenda.

A couple of months ago I read David Fitch’s book End of Evangelicalism?  One way to paraphrase and summarize Fitche’s book is to say that Evangelicalism has entangled itself in a politic that contradicts it’s central values and that of the Gospel.  Fitch argues for a politic more in keeping with the true nature of Evangelicalism.  I have a number of questions for Fitch around his presentation and argument (in a forthcoming post), but one observation pertains directly to the reactions we are seeing to Bowe Bergdahl and his father’s use of an Arabic blessing and praise to God.  In order to save Evangelicalism from itself Fitch locates its false politic in relatively recent politics of the Religious Right, yet it seems to me that much of that politic is simply the form of Christianity (before the Fundamentalist/Modernist split) in the United States, which functioned to give religious legitimacy and general underpinning of the Manifest Destiny of the United States of America.

The Religious Right has taken what at one point would have been a form of patriotism (with the perquisite of having Protestant Christian religious trappings and language) and turned it into a basic part of the Christian faith.  For many Evangelicals the defense and insistence upon the U.S. being a Christian nation is a matter of dogmatic adherence equal to other more traditional fundamentals. Evangelical Christians who are up in arms about an AWOL soldier (son of Christian parents), possible deserter, and the Arabic words of praise to God are those who have imbibed these American doctrines as essential to being a Christian.

The Phil Proctor is trying to appeal to Gospel values failing to see that his  coreligionists no longer see a distinction between being good patriots and following Jesus Christ and being part of the Body of Christ.  The cultural war between secular and religious right versions of American exceptionalism have brought about a conflation of nationalism with Christian faith.

In the end my surprise is that we can’t see how Christianity in America has always functioned to compromise the Gospel and the reality of the Body of Christ, through its attempts to legitimize the U.S.A.  This politic has always been there, it’s just that at one time one would simply be labeled as unpatriotic if one put being a follower of Jesus before being a citizen of the United States of America, and generally no one cared as long as we weren’t at war, and you weren’t too vocal about it.  Mostly, the sense that Gospel was something other than being a good American citizen was opinion held in immigrant pietistic contexts like the one I grew up in or in other sectarian places in the American landscape ie. among Mennonites, the Brethren and Quakers, or through allegiance to a foreign power the Pope or other radical Christians.

In the reactions from certain sectors of Evangelical Christianity to the Bowe Bergdahl affair we are seeing a form of Christianity with deep roots in the History of the United States, A Christianity that at one time was the dominant form of Christianity and an account of which one can find in Martin E. Marty‘s work  Righteous Empire.  It is American Christianity in which the Gospel and faith in Jesus Christ are co-opeted and made subservient to a nationalism and patriotism.  The Religious Right and Conservative Christian insistence  that this is a Christian nation is simply one iteration of this compromising of the Gospel in the service of nationalism.  It is fundamentally a denial of the universality and catholicity of the Church the Body of Christ.

I believe that those who wish to counter this politic must do more than reclaim an Evangelicalism, we must reclaim a robust understanding of the Catholicity of the Body of Christ, and affirm that Baptism has changed our citizenship.  Any form of Christianity that attempts to conflate allegiance to Christ and a nation or nation-state denies the reality of Baptism and of the Church. It is  the fruit of the conflation of allegiance that we are seeing in the reaction of some evangelicals to the Bowe Bergdahl affair.  It is very American and we should not be surprised.

 

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.