Thursday, February 16, 2012

Christianity After Religion - Part I - Trying to Understand and Manage the Decline of the Church

Diana Butler Bass is a popular writer on religion, congregations, and culture. I happened to watch her live on a webcast from All Saints Episcopal in Pasadena CA last Sunday. She was speaking of what she has written in her newest book, Christianity After Religion. The title caught me because I had read a book by Don Cupitt in the ‘90's called After God. Don also sees a symbiosis of religion and culture, and has commented on a new reformation taking place in churches as well as in his and our minds. There are other books with similar titles such as After Christianity and After Christendom. This conversation began a long time ago, even pre-enlightenment. I have dated it to Lucretius in an earlier blog post.

This post discusses only the context of what Diana and others today are saying.

From within the churches, the notion that something was very, very wrong began for many of us with John A.T. Robinson and his 1963 book, Honest to God, which brought Bonhoeffer and Nietzsche into our awareness. Diana’s thoughts sent me to another book that in 1966 was formative: The Secular City by Harvey Cox. That book is now seen as somehow wrong, even by its author. People did not flee religion for secular humanism, as many thought the book suggested.  I see that I need to review that prescient and misunderstood book here soon. Add to these The Social Construction of Reality by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman (1967).

Inside the churches, I and other administrative staff collected degrees in organizational development and the sociology of religion in the ‘70's and ‘80's.  (The church is like a womb; when I worked for the PCUSA I understood that I was in “the belly of the beast.” There we do not see the larger context of what we are saying and doing. We do not see the harm we do, and yet there we were in a nursery of transformative thinking.) We began to talk of Thomas Kuhn and “paradigm shifts” in the ‘80's. In 1991 Loren Mead’s book, The Once and Future Church, had such clarity about our problems that we invaded the churches with it for study by congregational leaders and members. We saw that the church was changing, that it had changed more than we had realized, and that the change was outrunning our ability to understand it and cope with it.

My friend John Shuck ( has raised some questions about scripture that he will deal with in four sermons and blogs. We are friends from Westar, and both Presbyterians. John may be the most progressive pastor in the PCUSA. He wonders about the authority of scripture. Leaders of congregations leaving the PCUSA cite the reason for their leaving as the presence of “variant views of the authority of Scripture” in the denomination. John asks: What is the authority of scripture? Why and how does it have authority? What is our authority for speaking of God?

The old paradigm was that we gathered around the (written) Word of God which was given by God. God had chosen the pastor or priest who told us what it meant. God held the power of life and death, even eternal life or torment. Therefore, if we didn’t listen up and make some effort to obey, we were subject to everlasting damnation. This model was strengthened by the matching relations and arrangements in government, work, and family. The King was like God. The Boss was like God. The Papa was like God.

The concert band in which I play is working on the dances from Fiddler on the Roof. It occurred to me recently that the greatest irony in the song “Tradition” is that persecution of the Jews was the “tradition” of the Russian Orthodox and Royalty. There has always been a dark side to tradition, and a paradox built into the reverencing of tradition. I think one way to describe the current problems of the churches is to say that we don't know what to do with our traditions.

Without a written “Word of God” and without a patriarchial monarchical slavedriving judgmental and punishing God, what is left? What is the authority of a “church” that has moved away from or abandoned the old view of God?

There is a special problem for Presbyterians: We think that we must say what we believe and believe what we say. That is why we fight over words. We seek precision of language. Another problem: Our Form of Government until last year began with “Christ is the head of the Church.” (Now in faithful obedience to Leslie Newbigin, it begins with God’s “mission,” the new way of speaking of God’s “will.”)  This very convenient fiction of giving the leadership of the church to Christ removed the problem of tyranical popes, bishops, and priests. No person is in charge. In the PCUSA authority on earth is given to the people (represented by equal numbers of clergy and ordained elders). In the US the equivalent is giving authority to the rule of law with a constitution that can be amended only with great difficulty. Fighting within the body of Christ was unseemly in this system, but it was possible of course based on revelation from God in the Bible.

Preaching for Episcopalians in 2001, I learned that the Anglicans speak of Worship “Formulary,” meaning that what is said in the liturgy need not be “believed.” Presbyterians couldn't live with that! And of course my theology prof, Tom Parker, had said that the most difficult of the words in the Apostles’ Creed were the first two: “I believe.” (I spoke of faith as "vision" or "worldview" here a few weeks ago.)

More about “Christiainity without religion,” Diana Butler Bass, John Shuck, and congregations tomorrow.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Religion is boring.