Thursday, October 02, 2014

The Next Reformation?

I swear I started this yesterday before the news came out. I was in the middle of writing this post when I learned the Nazarene Publishing House was firing all its employees, effective December 1st (and none of our denominational leaders saw fit to show up for the announcement, even though most of them were across town at a preaching conference). For those outside our closed Nazarene loop, this is just another in a long series of tragic happenings, resulting from the gross mismanagement of the denomination by leaders in a position of trust.

Whatever systems and structures we have in place to govern us are either insufficient or have been sufficiently eroded to the point of ridiculous chaos. There are a lot of people for whom this is the last straw. So many of my young friends are running swiftly from denominations. I am part of a generation with no trust in institutions; those younger than me, even more so. It's difficult enough to get young people to understand how long it takes to affect change in big organizations, let alone when they're lead poorly.

I was, and often am, considered one of those impatient young people.* Although I've been following the administrative and legislative workings of this denomination since 1993 and at best things have stayed the same.

In thinking about this generational - philosophical - social - cultural shift, I have to wonder if this isn't one of the hallmarks of the next Reformation.

As I said, I was thinking about this anyway - yesterday's mind-blowing screw up (and I use the word "screw" there, to be as gracious and conciliatory as I can right now) was simply an unfortunately timely example.

There's this narrative about the development of Western thought - that just about every 500 years, something big changes the way we live and process information. Starting with the birth of Christ, there follows the Fall of the Roman Empire around 500, the emergence of more-or-less modern nations under Charlemagne around 1000, and finally the Enlightenment around 1500. There have been corresponding religious upheavals at the same time as response to such epochal changes.

So, we're due for the next one. Surely this is the transition from modern to post-modern eras. That is a given, even as we're not entirely sure what it means. Thus, there is a similar shift occurring in Christianity as these changes filter into western religious life.

One of the basic elements of the Protestant Reformation was the challenging of mediated religion. For many centuries the Church told people they needed a priest to go between them and God. Martin Luther (and others) rejected this mediated religion and thus ushered in the modern age of individualism (for better or worse).

Certainly this is not an all-encompassing claim, but I suspect that one of the notable elements of this next transition will be a parallel rejection of mediation by religion.

I've written before about religion, and the ways in which we all have religion (which is really just the things we do based on our beliefs about the world). In this post, I refer primarily to organized religion, an organized system of belief and practice designed to create boundaries between membership and non-membership.

Lately I've been wondering if perhaps the mediation of Christianity itself detracts from the universal nature claimed by Christian narrative and theology, that our attempts to define and distinguish orthodoxy is, in fact, limiting the scope and effectiveness of God's work in the world.

Ultimately, the earliest Christian creed was, "Jesus Christ is Lord," everything else is simply interpretation. From that point, we've splintered and broken off into our own little groups based on how we define what that means, largely in the context of right and wrong. What's resulted is essentially an extra layer of mediation - we have a group, theology, denomination, etc through which we view and participate in Christianity (or, more broadly, interact with God).

Perhaps the next phase of religious development is the removal or rejection of those mediating lenses?

This is not a new concept, to be sure. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about "religionless Christianity," although he was martyred before he could really flesh out his idea in practice. I've seen other thinkers in recent years (most notably, to my perspective, Peter Rollins) who have attempted to continue exploring Bonhoeffer's vision.

The ultimate question each person asks is "how do I live rightly in the world?" Our answers come from all over the place, with varying degrees of respectability. For Christians, the answers to this question come filtered through not only a specific narrative, but a specific interpretation of that narrative. It's very easy to be bound by the narrative or the interpretation and miss the question entirely. It's also easy to defend the narrative rather than address the question.

More specifically: I am part of the Church of the Nazarene, which has a very specific set of standards and practices in an attempt to unify those everywhere who call themselves Nazarene. I, however, and I suspect, most Nazarenes, have unique perspectives on even the interpretations of our interpretations of what it means to have Jesus Christ as Lord. In other words, we don't all agree on the things upon which we claim to agree. It devolves into semantic games pretty quickly.

The typical response - and certainly the modern response - is to double down on debate. We fight over what is really right and true and enforce that orthodoxy on all who carry the name.

That sort of thing, though, just doesn't fly so well in the emerging post-modern context. People are leery of calling anything true or right or wrong, because we understand the bias of perspective. Instead of debate, which implies a winner and a loser, we must have discussion - which implies the freedom of each party to learn, grow, change, or not, based on information and ideas presented.

This can sound an awful lot like relativism - we can't know anything for sure, therefore anything goes; I'm ok and you're ok - and it can certainly become that (although, I think the I'm ok, you're ok message was pretty similar to what Jesus told sinners, but that is a discussion for another day). What I am hoping to arrive at is the importance of relationship to this process.

When we cannot be sure of the principles or ideas, the articles of faith or the systems of belief, we can rely only on the relationship we have with people. I can only trust you because I trust you. We can't have real agreement or cooperation with people we don't know. You simply have to have some overarching authority for that to occur.

This is why I wonder about the mediation by religion. Organized religion is really an attempt at power - bringing enough people to one position by which to exert influence on others and thus gain more power. This was the sort of religious competition inherent in 1st century Palestine that Jesus spoke so vociferously against.

I've long believed that Jesus didn't come to found a religion, but to free people from religion (after all, that is what Paul is talking about in the war between law and grace, isn't it?). I'm not sure what that means going forward or how exactly faithful Christian life will adapt and evolve, but I certainly see it moving along these lines.

That doesn't mean we won't have denominations and movements and large groups of people loosely affiliated together, but it does means those affinity groups (for lack of a better term) will not be part of the mediation process, but likely ancillary elements to foster local relationship and life together.

Just something to be thinking about, I guess, as we ponder the future.

*It's a sad statement on the Church when "young leaders" applies to people who are 49, let alone 33 - I have peers who serve as General Managers of professional sports teams and CEOs of major companies, for crying out loud!

Also, a heart congratulations to anyone who made it through the whole post. This has got to be one of the most dense and confusing things I've ever written; even I don't know if it really makes any sense. I do believe it, though, and I'll continue to process it further (and hopefully with more clarity) in the future. Cheerio, and good day!

1 comment:

Todd Erickson said...

I brought house churches up to my dad once, and his immediate response was that there wasn't anybody to hold those groups to a specific theological standard, so any heresy was okay.

This of course insists that churches don't wade in heresy themselves. But we all have our illusions.

I think that if there's a movement away from buildings and structures into movements and practices (see also: Occupied, New Monasticism, etc.) that this is a practical outlay. Though it will also help if Christians can be away from "turn and burn" and much more into "because I want to build the Kingdom".