I have little time this morning for a blog post, but the thoughts are there and preoccupy my mind. I expressed my concern about ‘conservative’ Christianity, and a comment came from one of our regular commenters, an independent priest. A major problem is in the underlying Augustinian theology of predestination, original sin and the legal / commercial analogies used in soteriology (theology of salvation, redemption, atonement, etc.). When you think of it, certain versions of this kind of theology would lead to anti-Semitism, ethnic cleansing, persecution of dissent – and would even to some extent inspire the evil ideologies of the twentieth century that killed millions in that mindset that considered some human beings as intrinsically better or more worthy of life than others. The Orthodox notion of deification seems so much healthier, involving sanctification in this life in anticipation of heaven – but the Orthodox Churches have their own problems.
Near-death experiences and communications by mediums with the dead show a very different view of the afterlife, and how little it depends on belonging to the right Church and believing the right doctrines. It seems to be about cause and effect, the consequences of how we lived this life – as simple as that. If our Christianity is about avoiding hell, that’s probably where we will go!
The Sabbath is for man and not man for the Sabbath. Christianity is the way of life taught by Jesus, the discovery of God’s Kingdom which is already amongst us – if we want it. It is not merely an emotional or even a spiritual uplift, but a commitment to this world.
It seems to me that there is a fundamental choice, one of deciding whether it is all about following powerful personalities and rules, or a compassionate response to the situations of life we encounter. Perhaps both to some extent, but many of us become tired with balancing one thing against another. Conservative Christianity clings to biblical / doctrinal / canonical literalism, religious exclusivity and a heavenly afterlife as the goal of the Christian life. There is another vision, not one of believing now to “get saved” later (when we die) and setting a guard over the gate through which that happens. Another view sees Christian life as one of relationships and transformation in this present life, and being unconcerned for what happens after death.
It would be a mistake to say that one vision is wrong and the other right, but I notice that the idea of the Church being some kind of clearing house to decide which people go to heaven or wherever after they die is becoming decreasingly convincing with our contemporaries.
Conservative Christian, whether Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox tends to encourage the worst in human nature along with, occasionally, the best. Most spiritually-inclined people are unable to be literalists or exclusivists. It is just not in them. Accusing them of being ‘cafeteria’ Christians alienates them even further. Let them go away and slide away into paganism or atheism, leaving a smaller and purer church! I suppose that is a little less obvious than telling them – as Isabella the Catholic said to Spain’s Jewish people – they have less than a week to leave their homes unless they convert to the truth. This new form of Jansenism deeply shocks me and so many others.
There are many things about so-called liberal religion that are deeply shocking, particularly the power struggles of groups with an agenda, which would simply move the levers of power from one place to another. One kind of intolerance is replaced by another, and encouraged by institutions and institutionalism.
The greatest challenge will be to find beauty and freedom in Christian life, beauty in culture, contemplation and liturgy – yet with kindness, tolerance, inclusiveness and empathy for others. These are the marks and characteristics of no institutional Church, though they may be found in members of all churches and those who are outside churches. Could it be that the Church is mostly outside the Church, and that we have to ask serious questions?
Bonhoeffer was deeply shocked at the extent to which Christian churches went along with the most evil political regimes and ideologies like Nazism. His witness for the way of Jesus was to resist Hitler and sacrifice his life. Is the dwindling Church in Europe God’s way of teaching us that there is another way? Too many religious people lack spirituality, and many spiritually-minded people are alienated from churches. That way would be seeking the highest form of our faith and desire for the life mapped out by the Gospel.
We find ourselves living in countries full of empty and redundant church buildings and symbols. The prophetic voice is there but it has to be heard. Faith has to survive without clergy, rites, holy things, beliefs and teachings. We are left with prayer and righteous action for humanity and the planet on which we live. Prayer needs to give us empathy and solidarity with others, and create good ‘vibrations’. Intercessory prayer needs to ask for empowerment to do God’s work, bringing about good ourselves with our own energy and determination.
We need to return to the teaching of Jesus, the contrast between the Sermon on the Mount and the pride and hypocrisy of the Pharisees, whose behaviour is seen in too many “church” Christians.
As in the dark days of the Nazi terror and Soviet Communism closer to our own time, Christianity will be silent and hidden, yet inspiring empathy and goodness in every walk of life. If Christians are complicit in evil and the ancient sins of murder, power and money, the Church can only lose its prophetic voice and become an empty shell.
Could it be that we are simply being invited to follow Jesus in our call to serve our suffering world and bring about good at great cost to ourselves? Perhaps when we learn that, we may be allowed to recover beauty and consolation which are symbols of love.