Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Rethinking It All: Part Two

One other figure in the Bible that sojourned in Arabia was Elijah. Like Paul, he went there to seek God, asking similar questions: how can these things be? In his case, it was about the idolatry of Israel and the impending destruction at the hands of those idols. For Paul, it was how the God of Israel's righteousness could be revealed in the death of the Messiah. My own escape has clarified, at least a little bit, the historical crises that confront us today (all history is crisis, a golden age has never been).

One of the most alarming trends that I have been a witness to is the prevalent defection from the faith: one strong Christians hanging their hats elsewhere or nowhere at all. At the start of my Arabian adventure, I was there as well -- I have almost left the faith a number of times in the last decade (rethinking, after all, does not come without its perils). By the grace of God, by which I mean the resurrection of Jesus, I have not left -- but I have not been left unscathed.

People change allegiances for a variety of reasons: I am not here to comment on any individual reasons for doing so. If you have left the faith, you know them and you know whether or not they are good reasons. My place, and I would argue most everyone else's, is not to judge your reasons, but instead to try and figure out what exactly it is that is creating and nurturing the environment for those reasons to exist in.

One of the most obvious to me, for I keep running headlong into it, is the dissolution of the old certitudes. Any superficial student of history knows that it is ridiculous to call Christianity a religion of peace: early on it was coopted for the purposes of violence and power, and it has been comfortable in that position. The railing of many "Christians" in our day and age about politics sounds oddly familiar to the railings of elder Christians who argued for the establishment of denominations: the State "defends" the Church with the sword against all enemies, whether heretics or homosexuals or infidels or (insert whatever your church tradition is against). Digging a little deeper into history (ever repeating) it is also easy to see that the Church is in no position to separate itself from this history, since its very theology since the 4th century has been concerned with nurturing and furthering the relationship between Christ and Caesar. I do think Christianity is a religion of peace, but only once it is separated from its dependence on power to assert and maintain its claims.

But this is only one of the old certitudes that have been shattered. The rise of modernism with the Enlightenment was seen by many as a deathblow to Christianity ("God is dead and we have killed him" for example). Christianity adapted and adopted adeptly and became thoroughly modernist, even those branches (American Reformed churches, for one) that clung to an older, "purer" fundamentalism: instead of decimating the division between doctrine and experience (or facts/values, faith/science, whatever dualism you want) the church solidified it in its actions, but denied it in its words. So now we have Christians quite content to say their prayers as a private action, believe in their own salvation (in opposition, of course, to everyone else), but yet not be noticibly different from those who adhere to none of the teachings of the Messiah. Postmodernism, in many ways, has shown that form of Christianity to be a sham: it is all about power, about sex, about money, about the tenets of Nietzsche, Freud, or Smith instead of Jesus. But, as any student of pomo knows, no story replaces the shattered myths, leaving us without a sacred canopy to give direction and meaning.

Now we live in a storied world, as before (even though we denied it), but it is not a coherent or cohesive story: it is many stories, almost all in opposition, vying for credibility, for power, for the 'means of production', for cultural change. Which story to follow, which 'ism' to grasp onto, is the question of the day, even if it is unconscious or implicit. I have seen many students crash upon the waves of consumerism, of 'hard-headed realism', of various forms of theodicy, and not come out the other side. If we believe that God exists to make us happy, or wealthy, or comfortable, or understanding, or anything other than a fellow crucified disciple of Jesus, then our worldview will shatter upon the rocks of the fallen world. Many students have written in papers recently that their main goal in life is to 'be happy', in a sort of morbid (and moribund) christian Utilitarianism. Mill and the Pleasure Principle coopt Christ and the Crucifixion. In a world of competing stories, how can we say what is right or wrong for anyone else (always a good question) or for ourselves? The restrictions, the boundaries, the limitations of the covenant are forgotten because we have no story to bind us to them: our Exodus has been so overly spiritualized that it means absolutely nothing. If our ultimate goal is to attain individualism in heaven, then it makes sense to seek it pre-emptively on earth.

In the midst of this, I feel somewhat like Habbakuk: how is this better? The violent Babylonians of Modernism and Postmodernism cannot really be the scourge that will eschatologically cleanse the people of God! But like Habbakuk, I must realize that my eyes do not see clearly, that the violent -- whether Christian or pagan -- do not ultimately triumph, but the meek shall inherit the earth.


Barry Leicher said...

I believe the term you are searching for has been summed up quite nicely by Smith and Denton in their book, "Soul Searching." They classify the primary theology of most teens (and I would argue most Americans) as Moralistic Theraputic Deism" (i.e. there is a God who lives far far away who wants me to be good...and be happy).

Jenny Elaine said...

"I do think Christianity is a religion of peace, but only once it is separated from its dependence on power to assert and maintain its claims."

This sentence struck me in particular. I would even go so far to say there is no religion of peace, since religion is an inadequate means of reaching what we are truly seeking, and it will always be corrupted by humans' fallen nature (one of violence, thirst for power, sex, money etc.). The only way to separate Christianity from its tainted history and horribly corrupt present, is to focus on the Way, the Truth and the Life, Christ himself, who is a person, and not a religion. A perfect person at that, God Himself.

I also resonate with depressing idea of the currently popular god - happiness. I heard the most wonderful sermon once on happiness, as juxtaposed with true joy, which, of course, comes only through saving faith in Jesus, not in getting what we think will please us (and not through religion either!).