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Tuesday, August 10, 2010  

The Salt and the Salt Mine

Rod Dreher is depressed about the future of American Christianity (via One Eternal Day):

We are assured that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church, but if I were a betting man, I'd put my money on the church in the Global South and even in China doing better this century than believers in America. Why so glum, chum? Three words: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism...The MTD god is a likeable guy who is far removed from our everyday lives, and is to be called on only when we want help. He wants us to be good, which is to say nice. The main thing in life is to be happy and feel good about yourself. That's it. There is no real doctrine, or understanding for why doctrine matters.

And G. Jeffrey MacDonald has a theory about why American clergy are so depressed, drunk, and overweight:

The pastoral vocation is to help people grow spiritually, resist their lowest impulses and adopt higher, more compassionate ways. But churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them. It’s apparent in the theater-style seating and giant projection screens in churches and in mission trips that involve more sightseeing than listening to the local people.
...
In this transformation, clergy have seen their job descriptions rewritten. They’re no longer expected to offer moral counsel in pastoral care sessions or to deliver sermons that make the comfortable uneasy. Church leaders who continue such ministerial traditions pay dearly.
...
Clergy need parishioners who understand that the church exists, as it always has, to save souls by elevating people’s values and desires. They need churchgoers to ask for personal challenges, in areas like daily devotions and outreach ministries.

When such an ethic takes root, as it has in generations past, then pastors will cease to feel like the spiritual equivalents of concierges. They’ll again know joy in ministering among people who share their sense of purpose.


American Christianity sure is an odious little thing, isn't it? It's all about golf jokes and hooking up nowadays, not about radical discipleship and a proper understanding of the filioque. Deploring the condition of American Christianity is the ancient and enduring pastime of American Christians. Too conventional, too out of touch, too stodgy, too progressive, too accommodated to culture, too estranged from it, too moralistic, too kerygmatic, too scholarly, too demotic--there are balancing criticisms for every age and temperament. And all of them have had and continue to have some truth to them. Dreher is not wrong to be dismayed at the cultural hegemony of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, and MacDonald is not wrong to see trouble for our vocation in the desire of the faithful to be entertained rather than edified.

Yet I find these arguments--and they are made by people all over the theological spectrum, over and over again each day--exhausting and depressing quite apart from the trends they describe. For one thing, they are simply fruitless. We only have--or ever have had, or will have--the American culture we have. Pundits and pastors can't fire all the Christians and find new ones more eager to be lectured about driving big cars and masturbating. In other words, maybe we should all just stop complaining about how uncongenial our circumstances are and do our best to preach and teach at the margin between the Word and the world that runs through all of our parishes and all of our lives, pressing the boundaries outward as God gives us the ability rather than absorbing ourselves into the culture or pridefully spurning those of diluted or wayward or attenuated faith.

More to the point, there are unstated, perhaps unconscious, and problematic assumptions behind these arguments. One of these assumptions is Constantinism: the idea that Christianity is the semi-official religion of the United States and that it constitutes a sort of endogenous norm by which we are judged. Everybody, on this account, ought to be a Christian (unless they're Jews, which is OK now), and insofar as people aren't Christians, there's something wrong with our society and our church. Thoughtful and realistic proponents of Christendom are usually content with a minimal definition of a Christian society. People will believe and act as they please, so long as they do their part to maintain public respect and piety for the religion that underlies and sustains the society. Dreher, MacDonald, and others making these arguments are not satisfied with this conventional Christianity but require their brothers and sisters to be the right kind of Christians. Once this essential similarity is grasped, it matters little that Dreher and MacDonald are likely touting different moralisms.

Such a desire, for a Christendom that is not only formally unified but doctrinally and behaviorally orthodox, only escapes absurdity because both Dreher and MacDonald rely on another assumption, or myth: Platonism. Once the American church dwelt in the presence of the Truth but we have fallen away from it. Only through the application of discipline and right understanding will we have any chance to return to this unity with the One. MacDonald pins his hopes for this reunion on the cultivation of an altruistic ethic evident "in generations past" and Dreher finds it in the global South and in China, where a person totally ignorant of those Christianities might imagine a purer version of the faith surviving. However one imagines this primal unity with God, it ends in a worldview bereft of grace and eventually of any room for divine agency, for the power of a God who gathers and scatters in his own time and for his own purposes.

Obviously I don't buy this. American churches were never full of people who liked being scolded for their lifestyles or indoctrinated on the finer points of Chalcedonian Christology. In the olden times, Dreher insists, Christians cared about theological disputes and believed they mattered. This is a common belief and a common lament, but I have never seen any evidence for its truth. That is, we have the record of these disputes, but if we have been educated in this record we have only small glimpses of how they trickled down. No one can outdo Martin Luther in pessimism over the state of the evangelical churches, and he took doctrinal disputes as seriously as any Christian ever has:

Mercy! Good God! what manifold misery I beheld! The common people, especially in the villages, have no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine, and, alas! many pastors are altogether incapable and incompetent to teach [so much so, that one is ashamed to speak of it]. Nevertheless, all maintain that they are Christians, have been baptized and receive the [common] holy Sacraments. Yet they [do not understand and] cannot [even] recite either the Lord's Prayer, or the Creed, or the Ten Commandments; they live like dumb brutes and irrational hogs; and yet, now that the Gospel has come, they have nicely learned to abuse all liberty like experts.

Luther's response to this state of affairs, however adequate or inadequate, was at least useful. He drew up the Small and Large Catechisms to provide a simple introduction to the faith for pastors and parents to use in giving instruction. He didn't muse about the evolution of a better sort of Christian, nor did he cast his hopes on some other place where an unadulterated faith might live on.

This can be cheerless work, but it is better and more easily undertaken once we jettison all this meta-Christian hand-wringing. First, we Christian intellectuals are not the guardians of an American Christian culture. We are not chaplains to an unruly civilization, we are preachers and teachers for the Church. Second, there was no heroic age of the Church from which we have declined into our present squalor. Not the mid-century American church, not Luther's or Augustine's church, not even St. Paul's church. What is to be wondered at is not that pearls are so often cast before swine, that so many houses are built on sand, that the Word is so often spoken and so little heeded, but rather that we are here staggering along as the Church at all after so many centuries.

Consider Jesus's fragile depiction of the Church in the Sermon on the Mount. Blesssed are the meek, the poor, the mourners. Blessed are you when you are reviled and persecuted (and, as Luke's account has it, woe to you people speak well of you, for that is what they did to the false prophets). You, Jesus says to his disciples, are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

I can't say for sure, but I don't think Jesus had in mind a world consisting entirely of meek, poor, weeping people, all of them reviled and persecuted (by whom?). He calls us to be salt of the earth, not, as Krister Stendahl said, to turn the earth into a salt mine. Similarly the call at the end of Matthew's Gospel to make disciples of all nations does not imply a project of baptizing every last person, but rather of establishing a presence among every people everywhere on the face of God's earth, that the world may be lit, as it were, from within by the life of faith, forgiveness of sins, and works of charity. You might call this a "remnant ecclesiology" if you wanted to get technical, but it is not aimed at a remnant in any bitter, hostile, or sectarian sense. The salt does not hate nor spurn the earth, the light does not reject what it illuminates, the leaven does not seek to separate itself from the lump of dough. Rather the salt exists for the earth, the light for the room, the leaven for the lump. The Word and the world exist in a continual opposition, as Christ makes clear over and over again, but it is an opposition without hostility on our part. Indeed, the world and church coexist and always bleed into each other.

This morning on the Metra I sat in front of two young people talking about the stuff young people talk about. The woman mentioned having her Bible with her, and the man said he was relying on his smart phone edition. They talked about relationships, ex-boy and girlfriends, church shopping at home and college. One cited a verse from 2 Timothy to help illuminate the difficulty and duty of remaining friends with an ex. That is to say, they were a walking, talking blog post on the decline and fall of American Christianity, if one were to look at it that way (and in fact I was a little irritated at having to overhear their conversation as I was trying to focus on Augustine; as I mentioned, Christianity would be a lot more satisfying without all the Christians). But of course the reverse is also true: they were a little testament to the endurance of a faith through all manner of changes and upheavals not anticipated by Paul or Augustine or Luther. Not for them, or for me, is any anxiety over what the Church will look like at the end of another century. The morrow will take thought for the things of itself. It is for them, and for me, to keep the lamps lit wherever we go, however few of us there be and however feeble our own understanding.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 9:24 AM
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