Monday, July 09, 2012

Living The Tension

When I wrote yesterday that I would very much like to see us rid ourselves of religion, this is what I was talking about:
FOR THE CHRISTIAN FAITH, the happiest thing to happen in
America for a long time is the recession in religion. For the
churches in the United States, the healthiest fact at the
present time is the decline of religion. . . .
[T]he post-war religious revival represented an outburst of allegiance to
and acclaim for what are deeply imbedded notions about
religion in the American mentality. And more specifically,
one suspects that the religious revival was a response to and
exploitation of the self-confidence, sense of destiny, and
realization of power that marked post-war America, a re-
sponse nourished by an idea of religion which American
Protestantism, at least, had harbored for generations. It is
not so much, in other words, that Christians might be or
should be offended or disturbed by the religious views as-
serted within the context of the religious revival -- though
that is a serious consideration -- but that the religious under-
standing embodied in the revival, for all its variety -- from
Norman Peale to Billy Graham to Oral Roberts, has been
latent both in doctrine and practice in American Protestantism
all along but erupted notoriously and commercially and in
popularized fashion only during the post-war years.
These words are from William Stringfellow's A Public and Private Faith.  Stringfellow was an Episcopal layperson, an attorney, who lived a quietly out life at a time when doing so was actually illegal.  His persistent, sustained Gospel critique of American religious sensibilities so warmed Karl Barth on the Swiss theologian's one trip to America that they spent some time chatting together.  Barth insisted that we Americans "listen to this man."

Of course, we all envision ourselves as part of the faithful remnant, don't we?  Regardless of the claims and labels placed upon us by others, we all want to see ourselves as those who adhere not to some inculturated religious ideology but those who count themselves among those faithful few who continue to heed the call of Christ in their lives.  Further heightening the tension is the reality that we cannot escape the reality of religious institutions, religious ideology, and the incompleteness of our understanding and sinfulness even within our confession of faith.  Submitting to the Gospel, if it means anything at all, means recognizing how partial that submission always is.

I think if we are honest enough with ourselves and one another, we should all admit we would much rather be the hero of some new revival of the original Gospel faith than just another religious functionary existing within the all too human thing we call "Church".  Except, alas, we are.  Clergy or lay, we cannot escape the reality that we are, indeed, dependent upon and beholden to the institutional church for so much of our "religious" or "Christian" identity.  Even the kind of critique offered by Stringfellow is only possible in a context in which the tensions among the individual and society, the prevailing religious ideology and the claims of the Gospel faith, and that same Gospel faith and the larger social and ideological forces exist alongside one another.

We cannot escape these realities.  Neither can we rest easily upon one side or another without falling in to the equal yet opposite traps of fideistic sectarianism on the one hand or apologists for whatever passing religious ideology suits the moment.

The most difficult thing is to acknowledge these realities, and refuse to give in to the claims of either one.  The Gospel is, indeed, a real thing, a call from God in Christ through the Spirit to live out the love God has for all creation.  The Church, too, is a real thing that brings us together, holds us together, manages resources and creativity and holds our communal memory as well as the very real legacy of the Spiritual apostolic succession, the means of grace, and the maintenance of Holy order in our life together.  Each side holds the enthusiasms of the other in check.

Virtual Tin Cup

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