Christendom

Review of Tom Sine’s Live Like You Give a Damn!

Tom Sine’s Live Like You Give a Damn!:  Join the Change Making Celebration is an introduction to social entrepreneurship and community empowerment for the moribund congregation unaware of these things.  The book is not for anyone already aware and involved.  Sine believes these movements are in differing ways expressions of God’s reign. Yet for a book that wishes to awaken within these congregations the alternative vision of reality of the kingdom of God, there is little critical analysis of what he presents in relation to a concrete theological vision of the reign of God., While I agree with the author a great deal both in the social entrepreneurial field and especially the community empowerment field are signs of the movement of the Spirit and movement towards the reign of God, but at times the author seems to believe that capitalism as such is the engine of God’s work in the world.

I can see that it would have been difficult for the author to balance his desire to encourage congregational engagement with social entrepreneurship and at the same time sustain a certain critique of the underlying system. Again, I’m aware this book wasn’t addressed to me, nor my own concerns.  However, even recognizing this the author seems to equate most any change with the reign of God, thus discerning what may or may not be of God and the spirit and sign of God’s reign in our midst is absent from his vision.

I was particularly encouraged by the authors various accounts of community empowerment.  And what he chose to recount in the realm of social entrepreneurship certainly bodes well for our future, and gives reason for optimism.  Yet, although he spoke of having an alternative vision of the reign of God, Sine is fairly vague about what the reign of God might look like and where it might lead us. Such that in the end the reign of God looks remarkably like reformist neo-liberal capitalism, in which for profit enterprise (now oriented towards making a profit while also working for the common good) and the need for investors who will get a return on their investment, remains the prominent engine for change.  As I see it the Gospel and the reign of God remain a challenge to both social entrepreneurship and community empowerment.  While Sine encourages a great deal of dreaming and expressing our vision for there is little talk about discernment, or any sense that that not all change is necessarily for the better or even that all change even if for the better isn’t necessarily the in breaking of the Beloved Community.  As I read I was seeking some clear articulation of vision of the Gospel and the reign of God, that Sine saw as what should form us as the people of God. The sense I get from the book is more the mind set of a reformist capitalism and that social entrepreneurship should form us as the people of God, because of Sine’s conviction that God was at work in these things (which I think he’s correct, but we only can know that if we have a clear sense of end goal of the reign of God, and some sense of who we are to be as the body of Christ.  I would assert that if we engaged in this sort of discernment the Body of Christ would be in a better position to recognize moments when the Spirit is at work in the world and when the reign of God pops up in the midst of the world.  From the perspective of the Gospel the people of God are called to not seek the benefit of others and change the world for the sake of our own monetary and material benefit rather the Gospel and the reign of God, challenges us to give up these motives, for the benefit of others at times at the cost of our own wealth and benefit.  This requires more than a desire to make a profit and make money in an ethical way, but the abandonment for profit and wealth accumulation.

For the moribund Christian congregation who desires something more but is stuck and unsure how to move forward and let go of past forms of congregational life that no longer makes sense, this book could be a good catalyst for getting out of a moribund rut.  Even for such a congregation the book is only a beginning point.  Yet, the book lacks one needed component, and that is the articulation of the mind of Christ, and vision of the reign of God, that even challenges the good of social entrepreneurship.  If you or your congregation are already aware of various movements of change in the fields social entrepreneurship and community empowerment this book is not for you.  If you or your congregation wish to become aware of these fields and desire some aid in thinking through orienting your congregational life towards such movements this book may serve that purpose and could put a fire into some in the congregation, but it would need to be supplemented with a good resource on the radical nature of the Gospel and some extensive theological reflection on the nature of the kingdom of God. Without these supplements I find Sine and this book caught up to much in a theology of Change that isn’t necessarily an articulation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

New Changemakers
Mustard Seed Associates
Tom Sine interview on the Future of the Church
Tom Sine on Facebook
Tom Sine on Twitter


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

“Racial Tensions” or an affront to the Gospel?: White Christians against Martin Luther King Jr.

Rachel Held Evans has a post on white forgetfulness (She says Christian but she means white Christian) when it comes to our honoring of Martin Luther King Jr.

As we come to the close of this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I won’t focus on the above mentioned forgetfulness but seek to do what Rachel Held Evans suggests but didn’t do, read and examine both King and his opponents, in the letter of the 7 white and one Jewish clergymen and Kings response the  Letter from Birmingham jail.

First I think we should name who these clergy were and their affiliations and not just say 8 clergy.

C. C. J. Carpenter, D.D., LL.D. Bishop of Alabama. Joseph A. Durick, D.D. Auxiliary Bishop, Diocese of Mobile, Birmingham, Rabbi Hilton L. Grafman , Temple Emanu-El, Birmingham, Alabama, Bishop Paul Hardin Bishop of the Alabama-West Florida Conference, Bishop Nolan B. Harmon Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the Methodist Church,George M. Murray, D.D., LL.DBishop Coadjutor, Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, Edward V. Ramage Moderator, Synod of the Alabama Presbyterian Church in the United States, Earl Stallings Pastor, First Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama

They represent the mainline denominations Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist. They aren’t local clergy but members of the hierarchies. These are men of authority and power within their denominations not simply rank and file clergy. Seven of these are White Christian clergy and one is a rabbi.  The presence of a rabbi is erased in claiming this letter is simply from eight clergy.  The rabbi’s presence perhaps, makes this letter not only more complex but more troubling.

The letter is brief and holds itself forth as representing reason and good order.   The situation is a “problem” that can be solved through the law, the courts, and reasoned discussion. A faith most whites still hold to strenuously to this day. They speak of racial tensions, and don’t speak directly to the injustices that are the underlying cause of those “racial tensions”. They also speak about outside agitators.  What is striking is how unobjectionable (if one forgets the real conditions of blacks at this time) and contemporary this letter sounds.  The letter makes no attempt at specificity, makes no mention of the actual reality of segregation.  The letter remains on the level of abstraction and generality and never mentioning by name the matter at hand, segregation.  Rather it is just “racial tension” and the need to solve the “racial problem.”  They object to tactics, that don’t fit with their expectations of peace, and law and order.  Even today white folks would rather talk about problems and how to resolve them and are concerned mainly about peace and tension and not real suffering or injustice.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s  reply Letter from Birmingham Jail is lengthy because, in contrast, he deals in specifics and concrete details and the reality of the oppression suffered.  When accused of being an outsider, he not only shows his connections to Birmingham, but shows those who claim to be insiders are really the outsiders, (willfully) ignorant of the actual conditions of those they call to patience.  While the eight clergy speak of law and order and the courts, urging slow incremental change that doesn’t disturb Whites and the status quo,  King speaks as a minister of the Gospel and out of the larger Christian tradition. King aligns himself with Paul. He quotes Aquinas, and shows his identification with Christ.  King doesn’t lash out and lambaste these prominent clergymen who are representatives of their Mainline White denominations, but he demonstrates, by their lack of care and concern for the conditions under which Blacks  suffer, their hypocrisy and abandonment of the Gospel.  He shows them to be moderate defenders of the status quo and not members of Christ. In the end as a preacher of the Gospel Martin Luther King, Jr. calls to repentance.

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day I’m struck by the contemporaneity of the exchange. White Christian denominations and Christians have accepted the success of the civil Rights movement and King’s tactics because they succeeded and are facts, as much as because of any deep belief in their rectitude and Gospel truth.  This is mere acceptance of what has happened and little more, we have yet to embrace the transformation King was after.   We show our acquiescence by doing, as I’m doing here, nodding to this day and the honor we now believe is due to Martin Luther King Jr, as a personage of the past. What we haven’t done, what the denominations haven’t done, is repent.  We elided over the various ways in which in the very least White Christians have stood by as injustices were perpetrated and are perpetrated on Black people and at worst were perpetrated by we White Christians.  We want to embrace King as though we were right all along; as if it was some foreign power that kept us from siding with the suffering of our Black siblings in Christ, and seeing Black people as our fellow human beings.  When there was always only us White folk and no one else.  We weren’t forced or coerced but chose purely and simply a path contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in blatant contradiction to the reality of the Body of Christ.

For Whites, Christian and non-Christian, our celebration of this day will be empty and hypocritical until we admit that King doesn’t belong among our pantheon of heroes.  King isn’t  honored because he is like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and all our other White heroes, but because he is a minister of the Gospel and the truest and greatest American theologian (I must thank James Cone for this insight into King) and not a builder of America.

If Martin Luther King, Jr. calls us to our truest and most just selves as Americans, it is because he was a minister of the Gospel and a prophet of God, Father Son, and Holy Spirit. If we honor him in our pantheon of heroes it can only be because he exceeds them and isn’t really one of them.  He is the only one of our heroes to call us prophetically to repentance.  A call to which White Americans and Christians have yet to fully and truly respond.

In the Letter From Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. is prophetic, in all meanings of the word and set forth a warning and prediction that came true and continues to be true :

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I meet young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust

We wonder why we are reduced to a shadow of what we once thought ourselves to be. We find ourselves in such a situation as described by King, because we have yet come face to face with what we did, and that we were never who we thought ourselves to be.  If there was true repentance we would cling less to the greatness of White America and its past, and would look to a future in which we as Whites no longer dominate or set the standards by which others must use to gain access to the goods of the world.  Here is the beginning of repentance and our transformation when we accept that those who have most consistently and truly been bearers of the Gospel and who show us Christ are truly those who have been oppressed by us since the founding of this Nation. All else is mere co-option of King and the Civil Rights movement in order to maintain the status quo and continue business as usual, expanded to include those who once served its ends without benefit or reward.

I hesitate to even post this, for I can claim no exemption.  Yet, I speak knowing I’m just beginning, that this is only a beginning.  We must somehow begin without attempting to justify our Whiteness, and make it clean by our own works.

Things have come a long way and there is yet a long way to go.

We can’t get there by seeking preserve Whiteness and the current order.

Re-imagining the Tradition in the face of White Distortions

Transmission of the Tradition and incorporating new groups and peoples into the Body of Christ is a complex process. The second chapter of Ephesians uses a number of mixed metaphors in giving an account of this process, which is ultimately bringing together Jew and Gentile as the church, a living temple.  This process builds a temple of those who weren’t citizens of Israel with those who are citizens.  This building is founded upon the apostles and prophets, but the building is ongoing as the Temple/people of God grows (an organic living building), through the continual addition of peoples.  What Ephesians doesn’t have in view is how human participation might facilitate or muck up this process.  Raymond Aldred’s presentation for NPTS Symposium 2015, Race and Racism, on indigenous reimagining of repentance and conversion, in part demonstrates how the process described in Ephesians was distorted for indigenous peoples.  Aldred’s reimagining I suggest offers a way for the indigenous and any group oppressed by White distortions of the Tradition, embrace the reality of God building the church by incorporating new people into Israel, the Church the Body of Christ.

Aldred’s paper didn’t have in view the ecclesiology of Ephesians, but was attempting an account of repentance, which values indigenous spirituality and experience as able to provide a deepening of Christian theological concepts.  Through valuing of indigenous spirituality and experience and reimagining repentance Aldred liberates the concept from White distortions of repentance and conversion. However given the oppressive distortion of the concepts of conversion and repentance by white Europeans,  I suggest that Aldred’s project is made possible through the divine act of building the Church throughout time and with all peoples as describe in Ephesians.

Aldred offered a reinterpretation and reimagining of repentance for indigenous, specifically Cree, Canadians.  He reinterprets repentance as a decision to turn and embrace the life Creator has provided, have sorrow for a lost identify rejecting the shame put upon indigenous people, and taking responsibility to work towards healing all relationships.  He argues that this reinterpretation fits with traditional and Biblical definitions of repentance that can be summarized as a contrite turning from, sin essential for conversion, and for living out of the day to day Christian life.

A substantial portion of Aldred’s paper gives the historical (some very recent) reasons why this reinterpretation is necessary. When the Newcomers came, these Europeans presented to the indigenous populations an equation of Whiteness and Christianity.   The Newcomers teaching on repentance and conversion was to teach an absolute rejection of indigenous culture based upon the absolute identification of European and Christian.  To my ears Aldred’s indigenous reimagining seems more a retrieval of the true meaning of repentance and conversion and a rejection of the heretical idea that Europeans were the Church, the people of God.  His approach to retrieving repentance for both First Nations and Newcomers, suggests a method for a retrieval of the Tradition after White ideological distortion of the tradition.

Aldred’s “method” in the paper could be stated this way (though he doesn’t so summarize nor even acknowledge a method): Identify what is the Tradition of the Church that was received by the Europeans, Identify the distortion(s) of that Tradition by Whites in their encounter and oppression of those who aren’t white (in this instance the indigenous populations of North America) the reimagining of the traditional categories through retrieval of the Tradition which is also an enculturated expression,  and thus rescues the Tradition from White oppressive distortion.

Ray Aldred’s approach suggests a need to reexamine how we conceive and talk about transmission of the Tradition of the Church through the age of European conquest and colonialism. We often speak of European interpretations of the Tradition as legitimate enculturation that becomes oppressive or illegitimate upon transmitting to other cultures and peoples the Tradition as enculturated by Europeans.  However, what Aldred’s limited account shows is that the situation we find in European colonialism isn’t merely a failure to allow enculturation of the Tradition among those who aren’t European, but a distortion of the received Tradition by the ideology of White Supremacy.

What is this distortion?  In the attempt to assimilate indigenous into Newcomer culture and society, Christianity was used to condemn indigenous culture and lift up Whiteness.  Repentance and conversion is explicitly and at times intentionally distorted for both indigenous and Europeans, through the claim that repentance involves turning away from the entirety of indigenous culture and conversion then is seen as becoming European. As I’ve said being Christian and being White became synonymous.

How does this distortion happen?  This is more than enculturation.  This is an identification of the People of God with being European and White.  This is a subtle but drastic move from enculturation to actual heresy, a misapplication of the understanding of The Church as the people of God and continuation of the Work of God begun with the people of Israel.  To fully trace out this movement is, of course, beyond the scope of this post.  However, prior to this distortion as new peoples were incorporated into the church and received the Tradition it was acknowledged that any people had witness of God in their own culture.  While there were demonic elements in each culture (primarily identified with idols of the god’s of any particular people) as a people converted to Christ and were joined with the people of God the church, there was a process in which the witness of God to people was sought out in the culture.  This process often was fraught with conflict, a well-known example of this is the bringing in the insights of Greek philosophy into the Church and Tradition, opposed by Tertullian by his famous phrase “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem.”

For the Church and the Tradition this process has a twofold necessity.  First the Church and the Tradition it transmits is in continuity with the People of Israel. Paul speaks of this with the metaphor of cultivation in which a branches from one tree are grafted into another tree. Israel is the cultivated domestic olive tree, into which all other people are grafted into through faith in Christ.  Second, while the Church is the continuation of the people of Israel as the people of God, the people of God are no longer a racial, or ethnic or national identity, but a coming together of all peoples through incorporation in Christ.  In this view, no longer can any particular nation, people or race claim to have a special relationship to God based on such identity, only being in Christ makes us members of the Israel of God.  This process was interrupted and distorted by an identification of White and European with being the people of God, the new Israel.

By this misappropriation for themselves of the designation of the New Israel to a particular people, the White race, Europeans, no longer could transmit the Tradition, nor be agents of incorporation into the body of Christ. Thus, reinterpretation, reimagining and retrieval along the lines of Aldred’s reimagining of repentance for indigenous and newcomers in Canada is need across the board if we are to regain some semblance of church and Tradition as Whites.  In part this means accepting that God has been at work, in spite of heresy incorporating peoples into Christ, and aspects of the Tradition have been received even when there is such distortion and great heresy.

The Remnants of Christendom among Revivalists and Pietists

Recently it has come to light that Holly Hobby Lobby who posed in a photo with automatic riffle in one hand and the bible in the other, proclaiming her love of God, country, guns, and “family values,” had an adulterous affair with a video editor fo the Tea Party News.  hollyfisherI’m not surprised.  Not because I think all Tea Party members and conservatives are hypocrites but because this person’s Christianity is a remnant of common sort of Christianity in Christendom.

More to the point, I’m not surprised because Holly Hobby Lobby’s Christianity, at the height of Christendom, would have been seen by many (including my forebears) at most as a place to begin the call to conversion and repentance. We don’t often talk about how Christendom functioned to keep people in the orbit  of the Church and Gospel (granted with other less positive effects).  Without Christendom revivalist and pietist call to conversion would have been meaningless.

Excursus: “Church” is a tricky term, and discussions of this sort often fail to define the term.  For the purposes of this post I’m combining a sacramental and pietist understanding of Church. Thus Church is both an entity, the Body of Christ, that transcends time and space and made up of the baptized as the body of Christ, and this body of Christ is best identified by those who are truly converted by and to Christ.  And while were at it: I see “Christendom” as the cultural, societal and political space where the religion of Christianity is dominant and provides a cultural and political supportive environment for the Church. I see the case of Holly Hobby Lobby as a way to flesh out these two definitions in a time of post-Christendom.

Let me give an account of Church, Christianity and Christendom, from a pietist perspective, and specifically Lutheran pietism.  In Lutheran Christendom, as in most forms of Christendom, the state made Christendom possible through making citizenship and being Christian equivalent. In Lutheran Christendom to be Christian was to be Lutheran. ( I know your hackles are all up, but lets let this be a lesson in history for now.)  Pietists tell the story of the State sponsored Christianity as a dead Christianity.  Pietism is in part a critique of dead dogma, and lifeless faith.  As we tell it, Pietists came along and brought the vitality of the Gospel and encounter with God into dead Lutheran orthodoxy.  What this early negative evaluation of Christendom doesn’t recognize is the ways in which Christendom and Christianity of  Lutheran Orthodoxy and State church brought people into the orbit of conversion and encounter with Christ, which then the Pietists could offer.  Pietism fails to recognize it’s own dependence upon Christendom.  Because of Christendom (and that means also dead orthodoxy)  Pietist didn’t have to explain who Jesus Christ was, nor who the God of Jesus Christ was and is.  In the Lutheran state churches since to be a citizen was to be a Christian, one had to know the catechism, the creed, and Lords Prayer.  We pietists, to use the tired phrase, brought head knowledge into the heart, but without Christendom, and the role of the state in making it’s citizens Christian, there would have been know mere “head” knowledge of the Gospel, God , and Christ.

 Pietist and other revivalist Christian groups in Christendom assumed and made use of the common cultural religious assumptions of being Christian, and called  conversion what was, from one point of view,  simply a deepening the Christian commitment and faith of the Christian citizens of Christendom.

What happens then when the fabric of cultural assumptions of Christendom are in tatters or non-existent, and a certain group of Christians, and Christian leaders, still seek to claim that to truly be a citizen of a particular state, one should claim a Christian heritage?  My answer is you get people like Holly Hobby Lobby, who through their own actions show they haven’t a clue what being a member of the Church is truly about, let alone what it would mean to follow Jesus Christ or to have the Mind of Christ, as we Pietists might say.

Granted in the United States Christendom was perpetuated and created through less overt political means.  In the U.S. Christendom was the result of cooperation between various Christian groups that came to be understood as denominations.  So, we still need to account for how we went from Revivalists and Pietists calling for deep commitment and conversion to Holly Hobby Lobby’s identity without conversion and change of being and mind.holly-fisher From the revivalist and “evangelical” view the culturally established and powerful denominations represented the domain of dead and nominal Christianity, as long as these “dead” denominations, the “mainline”, were willing to do the work of maintaining Christendom (if one wonders what I’m talking about a remnant of this reality is still found in the denominational affiliations of the United States Congress, and that oaths are still made upon the Bible).*  As the dominant mainline denominations began to embrace a more secular and pluralist view of the U.S. slowly abandoning Christendom (most likely unwittingly, or so puzzlement over their loss of relevance indicates) Revivalist and Pietist denominations were gaining ascendancy and began to take up the mantle of preserving Christendom, that is America as a “Christian nation.”  It’s not surprising then, that some members of these denominations would come to assume Christian identity as a heritage, and not as a break with the dead identity of the Christian citizen.

Revivalist and Pietist Christian language has now been put to use in shoring up Christendom.  Strangely then conversion for some results in being passionately patriotic.  Before the mainline abandoned Christendom, the revivalists and pietist could leave aside the question of Christian identity and American identity. We could call to conversion and new life in Christ, and such calls wouldn’t necessarily call into question ones American Citizenship nor even have to challenge patriotism. Christendom benefited from more vibrant faith as long as such a faith wasn’t too radical in questioning of the equivalence of citizen and Christian (we know such groups as the Anabaptist or the radical reformers, Mennonites, the Brethren and Society of Friends (Quakers) were seen as trouble makers.).  However, the pietist faith didn’t need to couch itself in patriotic trappings, since cultural assumptions of the Christendom had that covered.  If conversion led some to take up activism to correct the ills in society, well these reformers were working for a better Christians society that all tacitly agreed was a good thing (not to deny that these pietist and revivalist reformers were at times opposed, often by members and leaders of the “mainline”.)

Back to Holly Hobby Lobby: Such a form of Christianity comes out of a pietist and revivalist faith become guardian of Christendom. However, as such it is no different from the “dead faith” of Lutheran orthodoxy. My forbears would recognized it for what it is, at best the beginning, the spiritual space in which the call to conversion could take hold, at worst it is a dead, useless, and hypocritical faith.  As such Such a Christianity can hardly be called faith, and can’t claim to know much if anything of the Mind of Christ or the Church.

* Also, I can’t recommend highly enough Martin E. Marty’s book Righteous Empire: the Protestant experience in America for one account of this reality before and during the Modernist/Fundamentalist split and before the Mainline abandoned Christendom to support a more pluralist and secularist societal fabric. 

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.