Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Failure of Radicalism in the Church

I don't know about you, but I think that the effort of the primitive church to recreate Old Testament religion is nothing short of monumental. To read some of the New Testament, especially the Gospels and -- what I am starting to think of as part of the Gospels because it's from them that Jesus' Messiahship receives validity -- the Messianic prophecies, you might get the view that everything was now changed. The Spirit was to be our guide because the Laws of God were to be written on our hearts, we were all to be equal, the temple worship was to be subsumed into our new communion with the Father through the resurrected Christ, and the works of Jesus would be a commonplace (though revered) occurrence among us, because Christ's "not of this world" kingdom is breaking into our present reality. But their legacy is quite different.

For any number of reasons we now inherit the following: a new Torah and Talmud -- the Canon, Patristic writings and Canon Law, -- a hierarchy of priests, temples and ceremony and a varying experience of the miraculous, where either in their lifetime or after, those who experience the miraculous are considered more meritorious -- to the point of sainthood-- than the unwashed masses or written off as frauds, depending on your tradition. The pinnacle of this recreation of the Old Testament world was of course the unexpected success in the political arena. This not-of-this-world kingdom now could bask in the patronage of, exult in the new ability to influence, and languish under the equal and opposite force of control of the most powerful administration on earth. I'm sure they found it addicting.

The whole process looks very much like a slow motion sell-out, which is of course, not quite fair. The big picture that I am gleaning from the New Testament, especially from the Gospels, just wasn't at the fingertips of those who were doing the original work of spreading the word. Much of the material just hadn't been written yet and after it was, it took some time to disseminate. The hierarchical models of Church polity were what they had at hand. It was culturally relevant. Who can fault them for starting that way? But their successors should maybe have pondered Jesus' words in Matthew 23 which shout 'Equality!' or those so ready to excommunicate based on doctrine might have spent some time with John 14 where Jesus us gives the idea that "in" or "out" is dependent rather on obedience. Already ingrained practices could have been reworked. Instead, the practices remained and the words of Jesus ignored or explained away.

And the emphasis seems to have been on regimentation and control. After all, the government was now involved. Issues might have headlined like "Who's in and who's out,"  "Cornering the market on Grace,"  "Creating a new Torah" -- which was done mostly out of letters addressed by one us to specific groups of us suddenly pressed into service as letters by God to all of us. And the New Testament was highly important as doctrine and heresy increasingly came into the centre stage. If tenets of belief determine in and out, we must have a document to base the correct tenets of belief. So the church congratulated itself on the excision of the Nestorians and the Arians etc. And as time progressed, this church of "all brothers with only one Father" transformed into a hierarchy centered around increasingly arcane and intricate ceremonies which now could only be performed by clergy (those higher up in in the higher-archy) in beautiful temples. Nobody asked what had happened to the simple meal it was based on.

By the time of the Reformation, some were crying foul. The simplicity of Jesus' teachings had so obviously been traded for intricacy and convolution. Some kind of radical rework was necessary. And so the reformed church and the free church were born. Results varied, but the intent was the same, that being an attempted return to what the church once was or ought to have been.

Fast-forward to today. There is now a movement to return to the church that the reformers left, or if not that church, the eastern version of the same, all in the name of coming home to the true inheritors of the primitive church. It's an ongoing event that continues to trouble me. After all, the reasons we left haven't gone away. Worship and polity in these churches are still entirely unlike and largely impossible to derive from anything in Jesus' teachings or practice and what does correspond seems hopelessly embellished. (The same charge could be levelled against us that what we do is not very like Jesus' ministry. The only difference is that we don't view our ceremony as vital to salvation itself.) But the underlying reason for this re-exodus must be that the radicalism of the reformation has failed. Five hundred years or so later, we are in essentials the same as that which we left -- we're just a poor imitation. We kept the new Torah and built up our own Talmud around it. We've replaced images and symbols and icons with well, actually, more images and symbols and icons and... preaching, lots of preaching. Eventually one wants something different. And the claim of the 'ancient' churches to being the original, true, version of the church is hard for some to refute.

So where did we go wrong? I think it's a failure to recognize that keeping the new Torah as that which all truth must be built upon was a mistake. No, I'm not throwing out the New Testament. I'm just wanting us to recognize a few things about it. Firstly, it was written not by those somehow above us, but our equals (see Matthew 23). Secondly, there's no doubt about its inspiration (read it!) but this is the Church. Inspiration ideally abounds among us. To look back and say this is the only inspired writing is surely an offence against the promise of the Spirit's presence. It's akin to other cessationist positions, exalting the past over the present in despair, ignoring the picture of the ever more victorious church that Jesus paints with his allusion to 'greater works.' I would like to reform the Bible to include in the New Testament an index of ALL Christian writings that follow -- as a way of recognizing that the Spirit has not stopped communicating and that all Christians are part of the conversation. Thirdly, we need to have the simple right to disagree or at least take a grain of salt with some of what we read as we already do with other teachers and leaders today. The male chauvinism of some passages for example, is ingrained in the culture of the writer, and we need not spend the monumental effort some have spent to explain it away in the name of preserving the "inerrant Word of God." We have to realize that what is today, is more of the same of what used to be. The early apostles were not qualitatively different than we are. We sometimes make inspired statements which have a certain slant and so did they. Therefore, to forever use their words as the only starting point of our theology is a mistake. I think only Jesus' own words have that place.

I also think that we erred in carrying on the practise of judging "in" or "out" based on theology. An atheist sacrificing to do right by those for whom he is responsible might be closer to God than an idler whose theology is impeccable because the atheist is actually doing. According to Jesus, actions, not theory, are central. But for us, theology is the in or out determinator. Those leaving for the 'ancient' churches have been conditioned to put themselves in and others out by dint of their choice of theology. And now some cannot even take communion with brothers and sisters with whom they have previously laboured side by side in the kingdom of God. We can't blame them for such foolishness. It was taught them by the churches they are leaving. But is there not room for many different takes on the Christ event? And I mean takes that need not use the Epistles as a lens for the Gospels, but that look at the Gospels themselves first. Can we not take our equal place along side the apostle Paul, who, just like us, wasn't there to travel with Jesus on the roads of Palestine and see him die? Can we not, like him, gaze on the event and inspiredly speak of its meaning? And still not deprecate and denigrate other brothers and sisters who see other meanings..?

And where ought our radicalism have taken us? Well actually, our birthright is being where John the apostle spent the Last Supper. As close to Jesus as we can get. Intricate ceremony is to celebrate that which is distant. Formula, symbols and symbolism are of that which is barely accessible. Contemplation is about that which is not here. And the need for interaction with other mediators, such as priests and saints emphasizes how far we have strayed. But Jesus said he is with us always, and that we his sheep, hear his voice. What could be simpler, until our perception is that he's not and we don't? That's when it gets complicated. That's when you resort to ceremony.

The mistake that we of the reformation churches make is that we are free from all that. We're not. The church outside of revival must always eventually fall back into formula, until we "humble ourselves and pray" and he "hears from heaven." But now our formulae are tainted with the commercialism of the worship music industry and the book tables of the conference circuit. Can you blame someone for making the mistake of searching out other formulae? (I say "mistake" because really, it should be obvious that a change in formulae cannot possibly be the answer.) Especially when they offer such apparent authenticity and what they've come from is now so lame?

If I had to think of a way out of this mess I'd say it's got to have something to do with simplicity. I think the most important theological statement anyone can espouse is found in that famous Hindi gospel song (and yes it was written in Hindi first!) "I have decided to follow Jesus... No turning back." And somewhere in the mix, revival must come. A sudden increase of God's presence would bring a clarity that we are missing just now. One can only hope...