According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson
We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord
Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Thinking About a New Kind of Christianity. One that is Postmodern. Part 3/3

Reflections on Cognitive Dissonance:
Theologian Stanley Hauerwas and Newsweek

by Roger Olson
posted April 6, 2012

Recently I’ve been reading a lot of Stanley Hauerwas who Time magazine labeled America’s “best theologian.” (Hauerwas famously responded that “best” is not a theological term.) Hauerwas, of course, is renowned for emphasizing the constitutive nature of the church for Christianity. He has even been criticized for putting the church in the place of God. For him, there can be no such thing as churchless Christianity; the church is the gospel (when it is being the church).

Cover Photo Inside Newsweek
As I was walking through the Dallas-Fort Worth airport the other day (just a day before the “fierce fingers of God” raked through the metroplex) my eyes fell on the April 9 issue of Newsweek magazine. The cover story is “Forget the Church: Follow Jesus” by Andrew Sullivan. Now, the actual title of the article inside the magazine is “The Forgotten Jesus,” but the marketers who design covers translated that into “Forget the Church:…” The cover shows a young Jesus dressed in 21st century hip clothes standing on a busy city street.

Andrew Sullivan’s article doesn’t quite live up to the cover title. Or the cover title doesn’t quite live up to the article. The subtitle reveals the author’s thesis: “Christianity has been destroyed by politics, priests, and get-rich evangelists. Ignore them…embrace him [Jesus].” Sullivan doesn’t actually recommend abandoning church altogether; what he recommends, to save Christianity, is for Christians to follow the examples of Thomas Jefferson and Francis of Assisi and abandon power (except the power of love, of course).

It’s a strange combination—Jefferson and Francis. I wonder what they would say to each other? (Ah! An idea for another imaginary conversation!) What Sullivan likes about Jefferson is not his denials of traditional Christian doctrines but his emphasis on Christian practices—especially the teachings of Jesus he approved of. (Sullivan seems to approve of the same ones.) What Sullivan likes about Francis is not his tree-hugging naturism but his self-sacrificing lifestyle of love including abjuring of worldly power.

The villains of Sullivan’s rather jaundiced view of Christianity today are politicians who use Jesus and Christianity to promote political agendas—both right and left. Also, religious figures who use power politics to promote their religious agendas—both liberal and conservative. True Christianity, he asserts, is “the religion of unachievement.” His prophecy? That “one day soon, when politics and doctrine and pride recede, it [true Christianity] will rise again.”

Okay, we’ve heard much of this before—many times. There’s much here to agree with and much with which one must disagree if one is any kind of traditional Christian. The main point is the implicit one—that authentic Christianity is individualistic. There is no mention here of the church; the church seems to be the problem. (Sullivan only mentions church leaders critically.)

Back to Hauerwas. What would Stanley say? I don’t know, but I’ll venture an educated guess.

I think Hauerwas would agree with Sullivan’s diagnosis of the crisis facing Christianity. Only Hauerwas calls it Constantinianism or Christendom—the idea that the thinking and active Christian’s task is to translate the gospel to make it intelligible to its cultured despisers and to interpret the gospel so that it can be useful for secular politics. I think Hauerwas would disagree with Sullivan’s solution which seems to be another way of making Christianity palatable—to those who despise the many corruptions of true Christianity which are all they seem to see.

I suspect the sanctifying of Jefferson would irk Hauerwas as would the secularizing of Francis. Oh, Sullivan pays lip service to Francis’ love for the sacraments and obedience to the church, but his overall portrait of Francis is of one who has basically abandoned the [official] church [of his day] to set up his own little roving band of homeless helpers.

My own response is that Sullivan is mostly right in what he decries and mostly wrong in what he suggests. Contemporary American Christianity is largely held captive to consumerism and power. (Sullivan overlooks the many alternative forms of Christianity that have not succumbed to cultural accommodation.) Christianity is not about supporting American values—whether they be right-wing or left-wing. But I think Sullivan is mostly wrong in what he promotes which seems to be rejection of doctrine and organized Christianity—the church.

The church in America needs reform, not abandonment. The church is just as much a part of the gospel as is individual “humility, service and sanctity.” In fact, you can get those (depending on what is meant by “sanctity”) without the gospel. The gospel includes the new community of God’s people living and worshiping and serving together in obedience to the Lord who lives in their midst through the Holy Spirit.

Sullivan’s article seems like another version of “spirituality without religion,” only the “without religion” part seems to mean “without the church.” The cover title isn’t totally wrong; it captures the thundering silence of the article about God’s people, the church, born on the Day of Pentecost and constantly in need of reform while continuing to be the presence of Christ in the world.

However, my cognitive dissonance becomes acute when I ask myself this question: What does a Christian do when he or she finds himself or herself in a society without any true church? That is, what to do in a society where virtually all “churches” are subverted by culture? It has happened. Luther found himself in that situation and started his own churches (by converting Catholic churches into Protestant ones). However, Luther [ironically] turned right around and accommodated his new churches movement to the feudal system, calling on the nobility of the German nation to violently suppress the revolt of the peasants.

Kierkegaard found himself in that situation in early 19th century Denmark. Bonhoeffer found himself in that situation in mid-20th century Nazi Germany. (The Confessing Church which he helped found was too timid for his taste.)

Hauerwas and Sullivan seem to agree on one thing: the American churches are almost totally subverted by American culture. Of course, both no doubt see points of light here and there, but, by-and-large, both take a very dim view of the situation of Christianity in America. I see Sullivan’s solution—abandon the church and create your own Christianity guided by Jesus and Francis and Jefferson. What is Hauerwas’ solution? That’s not as clear to me. When he extols the church as constitutive of the gospel, which “church” is he talking about? Is it some ideal church that doesn’t exist materially and empirically? I don’t think that’s his intention. But what, then?

Here is my cognitive dissonance problem: I largely agree with Sullivan’s and Hauerwas’ diagnosis of American Christianity (although I’m not quite as pessimistic as they seem to be). On the other hand, I disagree with their solutions while seeing SOME value in both. Hauerwas’ solution seems to be some kind of traditionalism (as Jeffrey Stout calls it in Democracy and Tradition). My question is: Whose tradition? If you really want tradition, I say, go join the Eastern Orthodox churches. Hauerwas attends an Episcopal church. To me, that’s the very epitome of Constantinianism. How can he attend a church whose Chief Governor is a monarch? Yet, some return to tradition is needed in the face of invented Christianities all over the place.

Sullivan’s solution of individualism is anathema to me. There is no such thing as churchless Christianity. On the other hand, to the extent that all the churches are culturally accommodated, “going it alone” and waiting for authentic Christianity to return would seem to be the only path. I know good Christian people who live in cities where, after visiting numerous churches for many years, they have concluded that non-culturally subverted churches are not present. But “going it alone” is not ideal.

Again, both Sullivan and Hauerwas challenge me and American Christianity. And prophetic criticism is needed. I just wish they had more viable solutions.

The Full Series:

Thinking About a New Kind of Christianity.
One that is Postmodern.
Part 1/3
One that is Postmodern.
Part 2/3
One that is Postmodern.
Part 3/3

Related Articles:

What Wikipedia Has to Say About the Emerging/Emergent Church.
An Introduction.
Part 1/2

What Wikipedia Has to Say About the Emerging/Emergent Church.
My Personal Observations.
Part 2/2

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