Sunday, March 29, 2009

God the Great Exam Proctor in the Sky

Rembrandt's "Hundred Guider Print" illustrating the entire 23rd chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, the ultimate expression of "God with Us" in art.

I don't usually comment directly on religious or church matters on this blog. There are plenty of other blogs out there that do a far better job commenting on such matters than me. My expertise in religious matters is very limited, and I consider myself to be nothing more than a pew-sitter with no ambitions to be anything more. My total experience with seminary is a stroll across the lawn of Concordia in St. Louis, and riding in taxis past Union and General here in New York.
But, there is a lot of discussion and controversy over how to interpret the new Pew Survey of religious life in the United States. This controversy came up unexpectedly over at Mark Harris' blog in the comments section of what should have been a perfectly innocuous and unthreatening post about the youth in Fr. Mark's parish of St. Peter's in Lewes, Delaware, and why they are happy (for the moment) to be Episcopalians.
The comments section for the post included this:
" seems the overwhelming theme is membership of the church because that's where they were baptised and where they live, and it's a warm and welcoming place to be. But are these kids Christians or churchians? Not one of them mentioned anything about Jesus Christ, or having a relationship with him, or trusting in him, or trying to follow him. I seriously wonder if you will continue to see these kids in an Episcopal church in a decade's time, or if you will see their kids at all? Perhaps worse would be if they were still in an Episcopal church in a decade's time and still made the same comments as to why they are."

And this was seconded by this comment:
"I don't think that it is unfair to question the difference between Christian and Episcopalian. We all know people who are part of the club. It is necessary to ask whether the youth are being brought up in the faith or merely part of a church related social group. "

The whole argument got me to think about what people are looking for in religious institutions (I know, I know, the "consumerist" approach to religion, the religious "buffet," yadda yadda yadda, but did you ever stop to think why so many people might be so very unhappy now with their churches?). And it made me think back to a sermon by Paul Tillich I read years ago in which he declared that Christ came into the world, not to found a new religion, but to end religion. The burden which Christ spoke of lifting from the shoulders of humanity was not the burden of hard work and misfortune, but the burden of religion. Christ came to lift the heavy burden of purity codes, ritual requirements, ethical laws, contractual obligations and every kind of trial by fire demanded by religion from our shoulders. It also made me think back to the young Luther complaining how the Gospel was but one more calamity laid on the backs of humanity by a God who hated His creation.

Why should religion, especially the Christian religion, be another test? Lord only knows that the world is already filled with a surplus of tests. Why should it be a club? If Christianity is nothing but an exclusive club of the saved, then I have to ask if God really is love, and if He really meant it when He said that He loved all humanity, or that He meant it when He pronounced His creation good. I suspect that the reason institutional Christianity and formal church affiliation is losing its appeal in the USA is because people see religion as but another fiery hoop they must jump through to enter another winners' circle. The world is already full of trials by ordeal for almost everyone; always and especially now. 
I think these campaigns in the various churches to become ever more clear and strict in their doctrinal confessions are but a short sharp path to disintegration. Pop quizzes for doctrinal knowlege and allegiance, blood tests for credal purity at the altar rail do far more to alienate than to attract. As William Blake once wrote to God, "If you have formed a circle to go into, go into it yourself and see how you would do."

I certainly don't advocate religion devoid of content or religious education. Indeed, religious education should be a lifelong process about both doctrine and history, as well as the necessary task of looking at other religions beyond our own creed. Our creeds must make their way in a world that is far more cosmopolitan than the one in which they were created. We all live together with peoples and beliefs that the authors of our creeds never imagined existed.

Christianity succeeded in the ancient world because it offered hope. The classical culture that dominated the world at the beginnings of Christianity had no hope at all to offer, just the stoic command to be and act heroically.
We live in a world that is in some ways even more brutal and hopeless in its dominant outlook, and where "success" is everything. The last thing that Christianity should be offering to the inhabitants of such a fiercely competitive world is another race, another contest, another test.
The Christian message should be now what it has always been, that death is not the last chapter, that no one is superfluous just as no one is indispensable to God. We have our salvation because God loves us, and only because God loves us and desires us to be with Him. Our salvation is entirely on God's own initiative. There are no tests, none that we could possibly pass. No one is worthy to feast at His table, and yet all are invited. Whatever befalls us in life or in history no matter how catastrophic, our end remains with God, and God bears all with us and for us. Our churches should be places where people find rest and hope. 

I think the kids on Father Mark's blog were right all along.


it's margaret said...

This is damn good Doug. You should send it in to Episcopal Life for publication. And, yes, Jesus did not want more religion and more hurdles, just love.

God bless you.

Leonard said...

Do you realize the very mindset of a person who would ¨project¨ that the videos of these kids didn´t qualify them for ENOUGH CHRIST LOVING?

Honestly, I´m not just being angry...I´ve know for many years, because I can read and still hear words (sometimes even in more than one language) that there are many very SICK PEOPLE around us. No, one may not notice them wandering up and down 5th Avenue or elsewhere but they are there (just as sure as there are also LGBT people walking up and down 5th Avenue mostly unnoticed) and the compare, they judge, they hate but mostly they fear...they are fearing themselves into a corner (even though the cluster to support one another) where they will not be able to escape from...some of these folks are going insane (right in front of us, on television too) at The Anglican Communion (Uganda and Nigeria come to mind).

We must be aware and we must NOT make excuses for those who do harm to other (or would in a flash) matter what relgious extremism they are advocating again today we must not keep cutting them ¨slack.¨

Counterlight said...

When it comes to kids, the only thing we should worry about is what we are responsible for, their welfare. Their health and safety is our job and our responsibility as adults.
As to what they will believe or not, they will come to faith (or not) the same way we all did, blundering through life and ending up there -- or not. Either way, we should trust God enough to leave such matters in His hands and in theirs. God loves them and looks after them at least as much as we do, and always will no matter what.

The older I get -- and the more I teach -- the more I come to agree with old Aristotle: virtue cannot be taught, it can only be learned.

Rick+ said...

I think you do theology very well, Doug.

Dennis said...

I've thought much the same myself. I get very tired of people complaining that the Episcopal Church is a "club." Well, what a wonderful club. Most of us want it to be a big open welcoming club. As opposed to being a small sect with pure doctrine and all of the rest of the crap that many of us escaped to get here.

JCF said...

Amen, Doug!

I'm put in the mind of what's been said about the Gospel of John (FWIW, my least favorite Gospel--- w/ my favorite line of Scripture, 16:33): the reason there's no "Take, Eat" in John's Last Supper, is that the WHOLE THING is communion.

Maybe the reason that none of Mark's kids mentioned "Gee' zus", is that their WHOLE EXPERIENCE of Church is Jesus? (Well, that's my hope, and I'm stickin' to it! ;-p)

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

"The classical culture that dominated the world at the beginnings of Christianity had no hope at all to offer, just the stoic command to be and act heroically."

It was the teaching of the Vale of Tears and the Creation as a Prison for the Body.

This eventually lead (by way of Indian Philosophy) to the Neo Platonist concept of an ever progressin emmanation from subtle/refined/etherical to gross/ugly/BAD.

In one word Karma-Mocksha.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Still around in certain Theologies, who are less Theologies than some believe...

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

What Rick+ said!

Anonymous said...

This is a great reflection. I have to say that if I were seeking, the conservatives and their "are you as holy as I am?" tests would be an enormous turn-off. But I guess they will be happy if their "church" is a lot smaller, but very pure.