Reasons I struggle with America’s (Dis)organized(?) Excuse for Religion Part 3

1c: What I believe in:

But the reason I dislike all these things is because of what I stand for. I intended to be brief, but I have been working on being more thorough, so thank you for bearing with me. I think it’s important to know what you’re standing for far more than what you’re standing against.

And here it is:

1. God matters for more than my salvation, my soul and my desires, an assembly that makes me aware of this is likely teaching me well.

The first thing that really learning the faith taught me was that, I am singularly unimportant in the grand scheme of things and I should get used to it. However, learning this gave me some insight into true importance, into what really matters. God matters, his plans matter, his books, matter. His life matters. His people matter. It is only as a contingent of all of this that I begin to have any importance whatsoever, and my importance can only be chief after I have necessarily accepted and appropriated all the aforementioned.

When it comes to churches, most American churches do not cultivate this awareness, instead they champion the individual, something mind you, that the biblical authors do not do. The churches in the south and Midwest are particularly fascinating in their ability to be nonperturbing in their radical departure from any semblance of orthodox/universal Christian faith.

Churches have come to look like banks, like businesses, and self-help centers. They pride themselves on being relevant to me, tailoring to my needs, and making sure that they help Americans do the one thing that unites this culture, avoid the feeling of impending death. It is no surprise that funerals are marked by cremations and sentimental arguments about a better world, another life, an instant heaven.

A Church that does not challenge my fundamental assumptions about my own importance and the importance of my faith’s place in the world as a political action, as a spoken declaration that Love is possible, that war is absurd and that violence is sickening is not a church I want to associate with. Any church that has no great tolerance for the forefathers of the faith as active voices in the way we shape our lives is not a community being shaped by the common story of us all.

The thing is, for me, I must denounce the oligarchy of the living, so that I may make room for the dead. There is no death in Christ, and treating the saints that have gone before as unimportant details rather than essential ancestors is a shame on my part.

2. The institutional church is not a monster, it is a reality, but one that we should embrace despite failures, and here are some reasons why:

a. despite institutional abuses by persons in leadership, the institutional church has the capacity to embrace a multiplicity of forms, including monasticism, and political campaigning. House churches have no such capacity and can only breed homogenous mini-cults instead of a truly universal Chrsitianity.

The early Church did not mutate into a truly universal body, but out of a theological commitment to the universal Lordship of Jesus of Nazareth, these churches within the first 100 years and an episcopate with bishops in place, and a fundamental understanding that their mission was to develop a new nation and peoplehood based on covenant participation in and through Christ.

b. I believe the creed. I believe the creed tells us to build a catholic church, a universal church, a church that is recognized in all times and in all places as the one church through her unified voice and witness. A house church cannot stand with the Church if she is busy thinking that only her splintered and fragmentary knowledge is the true gospel.

c. everything needs structure, and the structure of the institutional church, while imperfect and open to abuse is far less prone to it than say, no formal leadership structure.

another history moment: from the earliest days teh apostles sought to establish a body of believers that respected their authority and the authority of those they placed in power. The institutional church is not another animal, it still has teh same DNA as the early church but now it is the butterfly to the growing animal that was the early Christian communion. The Church unified to prevent heresies, and to prevent abuses, and it is not a bad idea to have done so.

In this country we have so called “conservatives” who run around defending the constitution, and touting the declaration of independence and would violently defend it, given the appropriate circumstances. However these same people, based on an ignorant and childish view of history reject the founders of the Church. What I am saying is, if you’re going to defend your country’s founding and charter, the least you can do is take your faith as seriously.

d. The institution of the Church is all we have to go on, and if we would restore Christianity, it will not be through abandoning her. Just like the renaissance revived the classics, so too we need the saints and the church fathers, the creeds, the sacraments and our dogmas, the spirit and the liturgy. These are all things developed in and through the structure the Spirit set in place. The institution provides a means to understanding what sort of relationship we must have with this God, because surely it’s not our opinions that matter so much as his work in and through our communities.

e. We need historical unity as well as visible unity, which means looking like one church. If what we have in the scriptures and the tradition are a record of people’s interactions with the God who is called Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then we must make sure to align ourselves with this scripture firstly and the tradition it has inspired as two voices working toward the same end. The uniting of the churches on a common path towards the goal that is new creation.

f. The institution of the Church is not bondage, but freedom.

3. I believe in the Church.

Ultimately I believe in the people called by God, I believe in the witnesses in time, space and history. I believe in the apostles, and their successors who shared the self-same spirit.

1. Despite our best efforts to redefine the church as this person that person, a transcendental reality, this isn’t the biblical interpretation laid out by the apostles or their followers, and for good reason.

I am not the church. I am not the sole criterion of history. We are the Church all of us together, and yet it exceeds us, it supersedes us, it is an ideal and a reality at the same time. It challenges those inside

2. I believe in the Church’s experience.

I believe that the book that was redacted and handed down holds key evidence about the God Christians worship through this Jesus of Nazareth. I believe that the oral tradition from the church and the written tradition from the gospels work together to create a single voice. This voice is a record of the Church’s experience of this god, and everything He might mean to this community. As such, it is imposed on me to accept this record of experience and under its judgment if i am to stand as a character in this story.

As such, I do not believe Christianity began with the reformation, nor do I believe that today is the most important moment in church history. I believe that for 2000 years great men and women have drawn near to this difficult God, and have had various experiences, all contributing to a common voice, a single record, a spoken word to us about what kind of God we are interacting with.

I think it is ridiculous to try and shape our contemporary churches from the scant texts we have in a few new testament letters, but if we embrace these texts with others from the time period, we see a more coherent picture of not only their worship, but what all Christian worship practices should look like. When we look across time we see that protestant churches, house churches and the like are only further splintering away, they refuse to stand in judgment, the shirk accountability. But this is the great challenge of Christianity, the type of honor it lends to the dead.

It takes true faith to stand under the judgments of the ancient Church and to let her judge us in her fullness without reservation, examining our practices and confessions, but without doing so there is no Church, and there are no churches, only a disorganized self-help collective who attributes their self improvement to a higher power.

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3 thoughts on “Reasons I struggle with America’s (Dis)organized(?) Excuse for Religion Part 3

  1. Hey my friend! Though I’ve been immersed in a freelance writing assignment for several weeks, I’ve been following you posts, and in particular this new series, of which this is the third.

    When I read your words, as a non-Christian who loves Christians, I feel and think so many things that a month of talks like “My Dinner with Andre” would barely suffice a meeting of minds and defining of terms. (I wished we lived close enough to have such dinners!)

    Anyway, I know you are preaching to your flock, and I know you are speaking as a reformer to a church that has clearly lost its way by any measure, but much of what you say speaks to a hierarchy of authority and tradition that, frankly, scares the hell out of me as someone who intimately knew and studies church history for much of my life. While there are perhaps core truths, the early church “father” (note the sex) and their world views absolutely inform and shape their God views and their views of how a church community should behave. You not the lack of care or concern in Middle-Eastern religions for the individual, and that’s exactly the problem with them. They and their religion is grounded in the tribal and in the group and they seem to only barely glimpse at time the majesty of man in God’s image, except for a special exception in Jesus.

    The idea that we are insignificant is a partial truth, or a half truth; the other being that each individual is infinitely precious in the eyes of your God and that each one of us has God’s *full* attention, as mother to child, and father to son. The insignificance of the individual *cannot* be in relationship to the tribe or the collective; we’ve seen what that idea has done in history in the church and in societies. It’s always monstrous. What is insignificant is the limited, false, and entirely constructed sense of self we have which puts itself at the center of the universe, and doesn’t see the interdependence and “inter-being” to use my Buddhist teacher’s term, of all things.

    While I undestand your appeal to authority, scriptural and historical, that authority is so dependent upon *interpretation* of that authority, of scripture, and of what the words mean or don’t mean. This is a huge problem, which isn’t to say the truth isn’t discoverable but it can’t come done from fallible, sinful human beings clothed in the garments of churchly authority and power. The slimmest chance of success of your program has, to me, at its fulcrum this issue of authority, and thus, of power. The historical church is absolutely enmeshed in hierarchy, patriarchy, and views of women, for example, that absolutely speak to the culture of their times and to the fallen-ness of men (yes, *men*).

    As I read you points, I thought to myself again and again, “Great, but *who* determines this; who says what is and what isn’t right, orthodox, true? Who says what the form of things should be? Who? Well, if you had the *power*, I’m afraid it would be *you* who would set things straight, say what was church and not church, what was gospel and what was not gospel. This has always and ever been the case throughout the church’s history. Absolute power does corrupt absolutely; and absolute authority needs absolute power. The whole agenda is so “top down” with the hidden assumption that the person at the top knows what is the beautiful, good, and true for all others.

    And finally, and here’s where I was a protestant’s protestant, when I was working with he Christian world view, so to speak, is that final authority does *not* rest with the church, or any saint, or any theologian, or any tradition, and even the words attributed to Jesus, so far as we can know what they are. The final authority lies in the sacred, inviolate relationship of my heart with the divine, with what the divine itself reveals as true and not true, authoritative or not authoritative. (And yes, this “heart” doesn’t always get it right, is not infallible, is subject to growth and cleansing.) BUT, limitations and all, it is the God experience itself that has to have the last word for me, not what *anyone* else says or believes, no matter what any scripture says, Christian or Buddhist or whatever.

    This inner light has always and only been my sure guide through all of this authority stuff, through all the views, theological and metaphysical, that stand in the way of the direct knowing of the divine. If a church can be built on this, then that’s a church I could join hands with. But the historical church, built on the authority of men, scriptures, traditions, culture, and philosophical metaphysics has shown it’s utter inability not to be corrupted, not to be dictatorial, not to be a repressor of all that is not its orthodoxy.

    So, this is a peak of what our “dinners with Andres” might be about if we had the opportunity. I can get and even agree with much of what you say, but I have the most profound reservations about the overall project, so to speak.

    As always, thanks for listening, and for making me think, and for impelling me to consider what I really think about issues of power, authority, tradition, and the experience of the the divine.

    With greatest affection, my dear brother,

    Steve

  2. I apologize for taking so long to reply it has been hectic, and I’ve taken to an autopost every 4 days thing to make time for other things in life that have been a bit more pressing.

    However, I’d like to reply, so here we go. 🙂

    Your opening paragraph is about the tribalism inherent in the position represented by tradition, to which i reply:

    I do not find my position beyond criticism, but neither do I find yours. I love Christianity, with everything that I am. I love this Jesus of Nazareth truly, and I wanted to know what He was really on about. I began studying, and while I started off as a liberal of sorts, the more i studied, the more I wanted to know history. What I found was that John Henry Cardinal Newman’s assertion was right: “To know History, is to cease to be Protestant.”

    My main contention with alternate interpretations of Christianity and the more freelancing “pop spirituality” and general senses of civic religion is this: They’re made up, and formulated of opinions that have little regard for the historical Jesus that early Christians were willing to be martyred for. Furthermore, while we may approach anything with skepticism, I’d prefer to approach myself with skepticism, and the Sacraments with faith. It took time to work my way around to that, but once I did, it was like nothing else had ever mattered.

    The churches have a witness that is not always historically pleasing, but it is True, at the very least on the merit of their historicity. But when we study this history, we see that while there were abuses by leaders, the Institution as a whole was never an utter failure, and still is not. There are lapses among individuals, but they are forgivable. I would like to forgive many sins where i notice things that disappoint me, in order that many of mine may be forgiven. I found that in approaching the Church on Her terms, her witness was truer and more faithful, and bought with the blood and heartfelt loving intercession of many more holy people than I could imagine.

    I wanted to understand the Church, and I wanted to understand why some of my heroes had converted. The place I start that is with the Church, her leadership, and the testimony of the saints. As a Jew wrestling with Jesus, I wanted to real Jewish Jesus, and I discovered something surprising. The Jewish Jesus is an Orthodox Catholic one. I was questing for the Jewish Jesus, and I found Rome. The most Jewish expression of Christianity is the Orthodox/Catholic tradition, and that’s what keeps appealing to me time and again.

    When I spoke of our insignificance, it was in relation to the idea of a religion that cultivates a healthy self-negation, not an irresponsible no-self. The Church teaches a renewed self, a self outside ourself, that Self is Christ in us and in the rest of creation, and our goal is to develop this life. The inter-being of all things in Christian thought is called “perichoretic union” or to use a simpler term “interpenetrating life.” We too believe that self is a shared experience, that self happens between people as well as in people. There is a sense in which there is no I without a Thou, and that Thou is both vertically inclined towards God, and Horizontally inclined towards others(forgive the imperfect spatial metaphor, it’s all that comes to mind).

    I also, suspect your suspicion of Church patriarchy is due to limited exposure to a Church i have discovered. I discovered a more gender healthy church when i learned Mariology. Many of my Protestant friends struggle with a place for femininity in their faiths, and that makes me truly sad. However, I discovered a proper Theology and Philosophy of Woman when I read the bible with orthodox eyes, and saw Mary and other female saints and the way that they have been venerated and honored.

    Catholicism has a sacred (note, NOT divine) feminine, embodied most concretely in Mary, Mother of God, but also in the theology of the Church that she has developed, and also in the way we go about asserting the place of women. Simply because it does not appeal to contemporary culture does not make it backwards or foolish. I guess this comes from my refusal to see the present as the greatest or highest time in human history philosophically, sexually, or otherwise.

    There is something powerful about a Church that is willing to say no to my every desire and whim and interpretation, and it speaks to me an objectivity that my early Christianity lacked. My interpretation is limited by youth, and frame of reference. The Church can develop across time, space and generations. Looking back on what I was crying out for, i see that I was Catholic already, I just didn’t know it. I wanted a faith that could span generations and develop a culture and responsibility and a tradition that could have validity to not be reinvented every thirty years. I guess from where I’m standing this is simply being truthful to my nature and the appeals to my logic and faith that Catholicism has made on my person.

    My only contention against your “top down” reading of Catholic and Orthodox hsitory, is that the “top” has always been held tightly to the faith both by the fiathful in the ranks of the top, and also by the saints most of which are actually very very low. Like Francis of Assisi, who in many ways is the most humble human since Christ. A simple monk, has had an impact on so many of us, and he was nowhere near the “top,” yet the “top” has had to hear his prophetic critique. The Church self corrects/stays faithful through the selfless witness of her saints, especially the lowly ones.

    you said: “The final authority lies in the sacred, inviolate relationship of my heart with the divine, with what the divine itself reveals as true and not true, authoritative or not authoritative”
    I guess my only point is that, if there are other people who have had the same God-experience, are they to be ignored if it does not immediately resonate. For example, if you met a great Zen master who was clearly a master in every way, and they said something that did not immediately appeal to your inner light, would they be wrong? Not necessarily. I think that this is how as a pentecostal/charismatic who is converting I read the History of the Church, especially the lives of the saints. It’s one big God experience. (I am actually sort of working on a book with this idea in it. I read both scripture and tradition as parts of a coherent God-experience with an entire people, from Abraham to Jesus from St. John to Pope John Paul II).

    I mean, I understand your concerns, because I really don’t have all this down pat. I know I don’t. But that’s some of the reason I acknowledge the Tradition the way I do. I see it as a coherent God-experience across time and space. I suppose I am a tribalist in that I prefer the Christian saints, both from before Jesus, and after Jesus. When I look at the overarching God-experience of these people, they cohere with my own God-experience, and thus I have no choice but to affirm that they are right. Where i have doubts, I am attempting to learn the ways of my “zen masters” so to speak.

    As always, I love the time and love and energy you invest into your thoughtful responses. I hope that I have had the charity which you show me, and I also hope that my position might be a bit clearer now.

    With great affection until we see ‘face to face’ my dear, dear brother and friend,

    Eli

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