12 May 2009

The Sordid Boon, part 3

** This is the final post of a three-part review of Craig Gay's Way of the (Modern) World; or, Why It's Tempting to Live As If God Doesn't Exist.

In the second part of this review, I outlined Gay's approach to four American institutions that have been given a platform in the church. Many Christians, Gay argues, take these institutions for granted everyday; as such, they've been allowed the luxury of moving freely within the community of Christ (much to the detriment of the body).

I've also mentioned that this isn't a book of prescriptions; some readers might not like that—pointing out several problems without offering several solutions. But to do so would be improper anyway, for his project itself would potentially fall into the same trap he derides throughout—programmatic applications, which stifle creative responses to the various challenges we face by offering too many abstract prescriptions and, potentiallly, subsequent proscriptions (i.e., not thinking "outside the box"). He can (and does), however, provide tools with which we, the church, ought to use to combat the practical atheism among us. I alluded to one tool particularly in the first part of the review, namely, a theology of personhood. That is, to approach all of our relationships (with the world, people, and most importantly, God) in terms of “I–Thou” (as opposed to “I–it”). And, again, the only way there (Gay argues), is through the recapturing and reapplying of historic Trinitarian orthodoxy (see pp. 284–296).

So, what follows is an attempt to apply this theology of personhood, just for fun. I reiterate, this is my attempt. Disagree at your leisure.

If there is one thing that lends itself to promoting practical, or “functional,” atheism in our churches today, it is running a church like a business—with its (the administration’s) maintaining control the ultimate objective. This fails to treat people as real individuals, instead of members whose everyday needs are secondary to the status quo of the organization. This has the unintended consequence of relegating the living God to an afterthought, thus breeding a dead faith that shares no identity, no union with the person of Christ, and no reliance upon the empowering, and sometimes spontaneous, work of the Holy Spirit. Maybe this happens among classical Protestants because we have warped the doctrine of common grace so much so that it has become disassociated from the active, loving hand of God, and turned it into a wholly transcendent winding of the clock. When a church assumes control of its mission, and attempts to define itself in worldly terms (to get the ‘seekers’ there or whatever), it effectively eradicates the radical immanence of the Creator’s touch.

How can a church reverse or resist this plague? Churches need to revitalize the parish mentality, and that has ramifications as to how large it can become. If a good number of parishioners travel from the same area to a church many miles away, why not plant a fledgling congregation in their own neighborhood? Churches must recapture their confessions. It allows them to play within the grand playground of Christian orthodoxy, and confess as the bride of Christ that he is her head and that she serves him first in all things—and that means (among other things) loving neighbors unconditionally and actively outside of our cultic gatherings. Churches need to boldly proclaim the exclusivity of the gospel. Today, the self is worshiped coram Deo. But there is no other god before the Almighty. A much-needed re-assessment of natural human capabilities escapes the pulpit. Far too much trust is placed in our own work week after week in self-centered sermons. 

Toward the end of the book Gay provides four suggestions that provide a good starting point in resisting worldliness within the community (pp. 260ff): First, when the gospel falls on deaf ears, do not presumptuously think that the method of delivery should change. Rather, expect the challenge, since the modern world has become inoculated by the immanentization of Christian truth. Gay makes the important point that today does not parallel classical antiquity, and so we should not expect (or necessarily want!) to re-duplicate the church’s transformation of that particular culture (i.e., the holy Roman Empire). Second, we cannot and should not expect to resist the inherent atheism of modernity and culture through mere withdrawal. Third, our protests against modernity should be leveled against therapeutic sensibilities and the modern will-to-self definition (i.e., understood as Nietzsche's "will-to-power" in the worst sense). Fourth, our criticism and resistance to (post)modernity must be genuinely theological, quite possibly by returning again, as in those times throughout history when certain churchmen and women were set on reforming, to the careful study and respectful following of the central tradition of classical (Patristic) Christian exegesis. That is, we must make use of explicit Trinitarian theology.

For example, as I wrote in the comments section of the previous post, as Christians, we contemplate the biblical theology—not philosophy—of the Trinity and how the Three interact socially as the One and are informed, nay, enjoined to live a certain way on this earth—no matter what the personal cost. This reconciliatory way of life is itself a direct outflow of the reconciliation that God in Christ through his Spirit has affected for the entire cosmos—and we sinners who confess Jesus as the resurrected Lord along with it.

At the root of these suggestions comes a remedy that only arrives by the grace of God, the ultimate resistance fighter against functional atheism. In Gay’s own words, we “need a fundamentally new disposition of heart, a disposition able to direct our otherwise ‘natural’ abilities toward the works of love and holiness” (p. 270). But we cannot manage this renewal all by ourselves. “We must begin by confessing that we [are called] into a personal relation with each other and with God by God himself, and that our response to this call—which is itself a gift of grace—must be to surrender ourselves to God and to our neighbor in love” (p. 303). We further need to constantly remind ourselves that we need not look for more effective techniques, better education (though in some circles this might be an improvement), more information, or better theoretical constructions (p. 269). And finally, we must admit “that we are simply not able to work this change within our own hearts. …For our cultural prognosis to be truly Christian, then, top priority must always be given to the conversion of souls. There is simply no other way of overcoming our natural inabilities and of arriving at a true assessment of our situation before God” (p. 270). We have lost heart, no longer really believing that “God is willing, and perhaps even that he is able, to deliver us” (p. 313). Until we get our hearts back after thoughtlessly giving them away to the world, Christian hope is but an empty aspiration leaning on a lifeless arm.


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