An Underground Church

This recording of an interview between Damian Thompson and Dr Gavin Ashenden has struck me profoundly at the same time as my reading the book Alan Watts wrote way back in 1947, Behold the Spirit: A Study in the Necessity of Mystical Religion. I quote a paragraph from his introduction:

The present low ebb of Church religion consists in the fact that rarely, even for Church people, does it give the soul any knowledge of union with the reality that underlies the universe. To put it in another way, modern Church religion is little concerned with giving any consciousness of union with God. It is not mystical religion, and for that reason it is not fully and essentially religion.

See Is it time for Christianity to go underground? and listen to the audio recording. It is worth the time.

The conversation in this light is extremely enlightening, contrasting the collaboration between institutional churches and secular regimes, a new form of Erastianism. One idea that emerges is the “health and safety” culture. How does a Christian community separate itself from the bureaucratic and toxic bishops and diocesan structures? The example given is the present pandemic crisis and how far should we go with prescribed precautions.

The problem is not one caused by events in the western churches over the past fifty years, but go back much further. I was struck by the fact that Watts was writing just after World War II, a period we can imagine to be a high point of recent church history. This is not a place to discuss all the implications of his thought as it colludes to some extent with that of Bonhöffer in the face of Nazi evil. Everything seems to come together from such diverse sources.

The question is the future of the institutional Church, the liturgy, bishops and priests, dedicated church buildings. I dread the idea that there will be a wasteland and Christianity will go into hiding and perhaps end up like the cults of Mithra and Isis & Osiris. My thoughts and feelings about western civilisation are deeply inspired by thinkers like Berdyaev: the night is at its darkest just before the daybreak.

New cultures do not emerge from vacuums ex nihilo. Two candidates seem to be in the breech to replace what we have known in the west: Chinese Communism on the way to re-assimilating Confucianism – and Islam. It is easy to extrapolate with paranoid speculations, but I have read some very articles about China in the light of its way of coping with the present crisis and creating a collectivist culture. If that is the new secular “normal”, then we face the need to go underground.

What would that mean? Worship services in private homes? Perhaps, but the Promised Land is within each of us, where no Thought Police could ever reach. The Lord will provide for a future which is not ours.

Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: Whom resist stedfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world. But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you. To him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.

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2 Responses to An Underground Church

  1. Denis Jackson says:

    I found the conversation far too churchy with not enough spiritual depth .
    If we want union with God then surely we have to listen to podcasts like ‘Turning to the Mystics with James Finley .

    • I agree with you. I see this discussion as a beginning – only a beginning – to a criticism of the malaise of church religion essentially going back to the 17th century and further. Alan Watts went so far as to relinquish his Anglican (American Episcopal) ministry to re-embrace Zen Buddhism. I believe that mystical Christianity is what is needed for us in our culture, or what’s left of it. If we want union with God, then we have to make our personal pilgrimages and ways of asceticism.

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