II: Ecclesia Crucis: The Theologic of Christian “Awkwardness”
In the first address I proposed that Christians ought to provide positive guidance for the process of deconstantinianization in which, willy nilly, the formerly ‘established’ forms of the church are presently immersed. Now I would like to elaborate the larger rationale for such an exhortation. From a vantage point within the faith, disestablishing the church cannot be justified as an end in itself; it can only be a means, a strategy, a mode of transition to some better end. Therefore, I intend to discuss the end in relation to which cultural disestablishment is a means–in my view, a necessary means. Let me begin, without much subtlety, simply by stating the thesis that I want to demonstrate here. I would like to show that intentional disengagement from the dominant culture with which, in the past, the older Protestant denominations of this continent have been bound up is the necessary precondition for a meaningful engagement of that same dominant culture.
The demonstration of this thesis involves three steps. First, I must clarify what is entailed in an intentional disengagement from the dominant culture. Second, I must explain in a general way how such a disengagement could facilitate meaningful re-engagement of that same culture. And third, I must provide enough concrete examples of such a process to give it contextual credibility. There are probably many other things that I should have to do to persuade everyone here of the viability of this hypothesis, but I will have to leave the rest to heaven!
I. DISENGAGEMENT AS WORK OF THEOLOGY
What, then, is entailed in an intentional disengagement from the dominant culture? It is one thing to respond to such a question in societies such as most European societies have been, where Christian establishments are of the legal variety. It is something else to do so in our North American context, where what pertains is a cultural establishment. Just because ours is an establishment more of content than of form; just because our close ties with our dominant culture have existed at the level of fundamental beliefs, lifestyles, and rudimentary moral assumptions; any effective extrication of ourselves from this severely limiting relationship has to occur at that more subtle level: the level of original thought. To put it quite clearly, for North American Christians who are serious about re-forming the church so that it may become a more faithful bearer of divine judgement and mercy in our social context, there is no alternative to a disciplined, prolonged and above all critical work of theology! I do not mean merely academic theology, but that passionate reflection Luther had in mind when he wrote, “Vivendo, immo moriendo et damnando fit theologus, non intelligende, legendo aut speculando.” [“It is by living–no rather, by dying and being damned that a theologian is made, not by understanding, reading or speculating.”]
We must learn how to distinguish the Christian message from the operative assumptions, values, and pursuits of our host society, and more particularly those segments of our society with which, as so-called ‘mainstream’ churches, we have been identified. And, since most of the denominations in question are bound up with middle-class, caucasian, ‘liberal’ element of our society, what we shall have to learn is that the Christian gospel is not a stained-glass version of the world view of that same social stratum.
Of course this is easily said. It is also–in these days–said rather frequently. But I am not at all convinced that it has been grasped, except by a few. Moreover, the minorities in our midst who have taken seriously the need for Protestants in North America to distance ourselves from the world view of our conventional socio-economic constituency seem to me to err, often, in two fundamental ways:
First of all, some of these voices convey the impression that such distancing is the very goal for which we should strive, and not a means to our more authentic re-engagement of this same society. They give many indications of disliking this social stratum and everything that it stands for. They often seem to assume that First World, white, middle-class societies are by definition irredeemable; that they are driven by an irreversible logic of oppression and injustice. They tell us, in one way or another, that our only salvation as Christians is to cut ourselves off from our WASPish past and to align ourselves instead with those whom we oppress. One may understand the peculiar vehemence of such persons, especially those amongst them who know profoundly the plight of the victims of our society. Yet the abandonment of the oppressor is not a likely way of effecting change. As Professor Wendy Farley of Emory University has aptly written,
….sensitivity to injustice and suffering often becomes a new dualism that categorizes human beings according to membership in the group of the oppressed or the oppressor….
I am not convinced that this objectification of humanity into victim and executioner does justice to the complexity of the human individual or to the dynamic of evil….The web that unites victim and tyrant in the same person is more complex than the white hat/black hat caricature that seems banal even in its natural habitat, the ‘grade B’ movie.
The second questionable way in which minorities in the once mainline churches try to re-form the churches is by identifying true Christianity with the adoption of what are perceived as radical positions on various contemporary issues of personal and social ethics. They insist that Christianity means advocating economic reforms aimed at greater global justice, or full scale disarmament, or the preservation of species, or gender equality, or racial integration, etc. Those who know my writings, will realize that I am entirely in agreement with such ethical conclusions. But they are conclusions. I do not think that one starts there. Perhaps the presentation of a radical ethic of economic justice, for example, might be a catalyst for genuine Christian evangelism. But on the whole, profoundly altered moral attitudes and specific ethical decisions are consequences of the gospel. When we present such consequences of grace and faith as if they were immediately accessible to everyone we are confusing gospel and law.
In that connection, one of the important insights of the recent publication, A Social and Cultural History of Christianity, is that some of “The difficulties of the older Protestant denominations may stem from their willingness to embrace ideas and trends as defined by the nation’s media and educational elites, elites that are remarkably unrepresentative of the religion, politics, and values of the nation’s population. It seems to me an incontrovertible truth that the Christian gospel erases all distinctions of worth and status between races and sexes. But it is the gospel that achieves this levelling. If, instead of gospel, what is proclaimed in the churches is nothing more than the kinds of ‘musts’ and ‘shoulds’ and ‘ought to’s’ that one can hear from many other quarters–along with the ubiquitous language of ‘rights’–then we cannot expect church people to be any more receptive to such exhortations than are their counter parts in society at large.
The point is, the great changes that need to be effected in our churches are not first of all changes of behavior but changes of understanding and will. If the thinking of the churches–including congregations of middle class whites!–is altered, then we may expect changes in the realm of deeds as well. If, on the other hand, being Christian continues to mean little more than being predictable middle-class liberals with a tinge of something called spirituality, then the few exceptional things that congregations occasionally manage to perform ethically will lack any foundation in repentance and faith. They will show up (as they do now, for the most part) as exceptions: ad hoc ethical non sequiturs kept going by the enthusiasm of the few and the guilt of a somewhat larger cross-section of churchgoers.
By criticizing these two positions I am seeking to establish that, insofar as we are committed to genuine renewal in the churches that we represent, there are no short-cuts; we must begin with basics. We now have two or three generations of people in and around the churches who are not only unfamiliar with the fundamental teachings of the Christian tradition, but largely ignorant even of the scriptures. I realize that some denominations have been more diligent than others in the area of Christian education, but from what I can see–even where candidates for ministry are concerned–it is rather ludicrous for contemporary Protestants to boast that we insist upon an educated laity and uphold the principle, sola scriptura. We even have to ask ourselves whether we have a well-educated professional ministry, or at least a ministry whose basic theological education is continuously renewed, supplemented, and then incorporated into preaching and congregational leadership.
Gabriel and Dorothy Fackre have recently conducted an extensive survey on “The State of Theology in Churches,” and in their Newsletter No. 30, dated Advent, 1991, they report: “The vast majority of respondents judged the state of theology in the churches to be ‘abysmal,’ ‘dismal,’ ‘confused,’ ‘mushy,’ ‘sparse,’ ‘inarticulate,’ ‘deplorable’…”  Such surveys, especially when they are conducted by working theologians, are of course susceptible to the charge of professional bias. But even if the adjectives gleaned from the responses to the Fackre survey do not represent every church, they are too descriptive of the overall situation to be ignored by any of us. If there is so little understanding of Christian foundations in our congregations, how can we expect ordinary churchgoers to distinguish what is Christian from the usual amalgam of religious sentimentalism and what Ernst Käsemann called bourgeois transcendence? Until a far greater percentage of churchgoing Americans and Canadians have become more articulate about the faith, it is absurd to imagine that North American church folk could stand back from their sociological moorings far enough to detach what Christians profess from the mish-mash of modernism, secularism, pietism, and free-enterprise democracy with which Christianity in our context is so fantastically interwoven.
But that such a ‘right dividing of the word of truth’ is precisely what we have aim for is borne out by recent sociological studies as well as theological-ecclesiastical investigations like Fackre’s. In their 1987 study, American Mainline Religion: Its Changing Shape and Future, Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney write–
If a revived public church is indeed on the horizon, moderate Protestantism will play a key role in bringing it into being. This will require forms and qualities of leadership that have seldom been forthcoming from the Protestant middle; a revitalized ecumenicity and new, bold theological affirmations are critical… , especially a theology that resonates with and gives meaning to the experience of middle Americans.
Disengagement from our status of cultural establishment is primarily, then, a work of theology. (And whoever thinks that theology is a remote, abstract undertaking has not yet been grasped by the Word of the Cross!)
II. AN ANCIENT DIALECTIC: ‘NOT OF’, YET ‘IN’
My thesis (to remind you) is that intentional disengagement from the dominant culture is the necessary prerequisite to Christian engagement of that same culture. My first point is that the work of detachment is a theological work. The second step towards demonstrating the viability of this thesis involves asking how disengagement can facilitate authentic engagement. Is that doubletalk?
I think not. The idea of disengaging-in-order-to-engage is by no means either contradictory or novel. Indeed, every meaningful relationship involves something like it, not as a once-for-all movement but as a continuous process. If you are part of something, simply part of it, you cannot engage it. With what, on what basis, would you do so?
Interestingly, the converse is also true: if you are altogether distinct from a given entity–completely different, of another order altogether–you cannot engage it. You lack the necessary connections, involvement, reciprocity. Genuine engagement of anything, anyone, presupposes a dynamic of difference and sameness, distinction and participation, a dialectic of transcendence and mutuality. Surely just such a relation is what the newer Testament has in mind when on the one hand it calls the disciple community to distinguish itself from ‘the world,’ and on the other sends it decisively into the world–and expects it to be all the more intensively in the world just because it is not (simply!) of the world.
The same dialectic of separation and solidarity may be applied to the situation in which, as North American churches of the classical Protestant traditions, we find ourselves at this juncture in our historical pilgrimage. George Lindbeck, in his seminal little book, The Nature of Doctrine, has expressed our present ecclesiastical situation vis-`a-vis our society in the clearest possible way: we are, he says, “in the awkwardly intermediate stage of having once been culturally established but. . . not yet clearly disestablished.” In terms of the dialectic in question, the North American churches are both part of our culture and yet distinct–outside of it, or on the periphery.
Given the almost unequivocal accord between Protestantism and middle-Americanism that has characterized our past, the present duplicity of this relationship is indeed an ‘awkward’ position for the churches to occupy; and therefore it is not surprising that our first inclination is to overcome it as soon as possible! Accordingly, Professor Lindbeck recognizes two ways, quite opposed to each other, in which Christians try to surpass their present ambiguous estate, socially and religiously.
One is the basically ‘liberal’ theological inclination to attempt, in whatever ways one can, to present the Christian message in “currently intelligible forms.” That is, to bridge the gap between gospel and situation, engaging in an apologetic that will reinforce the ties of trust and co-operation between the church and the sociological segments with which, traditionally, we have made our bed. Here, in other words, the ‘awkwardness’ is overcome by accentuating the dimension of participation and involvement: We are part of this dominant culture and we intend by hook or by crook to keep our standing with it! To that end, we will sacrifice many things dear to the tradition.
The other way of getting beyond the current ‘awkward’ stage in the relations between “Christ and Culture” (to use H. Richard Niebuhr’s convenient nomenclature) is to accentuate the dimension of distance, difference, discontinuity vis`a vis the two. Lindbeck calls this the postliberal approach, though he explains that he intends that term to include such concepts as ‘postmodern,’ ‘postrevisionist,’ and ‘post-neoorthodox.’ The posture of this postliberal stance is kerygmatic rather than apologetic. According to this position (and I quote Lindbeck), “Theology should. . . resist the clamor of the religiously interested public for what is currently fashionable and immediately intelligible. It should instead prepare for a future when continuing dechristianization will make greater Christian authenticity communally possible.”
By that definition, it will be obvious to you that there is an element of ‘postliberalism’ in what I have been saying to you: ‘Disestablish yourselves!’ For the churches will have nothing to say to our ethos if we simply take our cue from our society and fill its ever-changing but always similar demands from the great supplyhouse of our traditions, loosely interpreted. We must stand off from the ‘liberal’ culture with which we have been so consistently identified, rediscover our own distinctive theological foundations, and allow ourselves to become, if necessary, aliens in our own country. In this, I am with Barth, with the late Bill Stringfellow, and perhaps (though I hardly know how to read the man!) with Stanley Hauerwas.
And yet. . . . And yet I am also not with these people, for I am stuck with the belief that the gospel was made for humanity–not just for some future humanity, to be addressed by some purer form of the church, but for human beings, sinners, here and now. And because I cannot find myself at home in either the liberal or the postliberal camp, I question whether these are the only alternatives that we have–indeed, whether we should even admit the legitimacy of these alternatives!
If it is true that we are in the position Lindbeck describes as “awkward” (and I think that we are!), then instead of trying to escape from that position by resolving it one way or another, why should we not seek the positive and beneficial implications of just such a position? Awkwardness may be an embarrassment to the urbane ecclesiastical mentality that wishes always to seem cool, but perhaps it is also part of being fools for Christ!
Could we not make the awkward relationship between the church and the dominant culture serve the Christian evangel? Is it not–could it not become, in fact–a highly provocative situation in which we find ourselves: being at the same time ‘in’ but no longer quite ‘of’ our world of primary discourse? Such a situation could serve the mission of the crucified one only insofar as we sufficiently disengage ourselves from that world–intentionally, and not as pawns of an impersonal fate! If we are faithful and imaginative enough to disentangle our authentic tradition of belief from its cultural wrapping, we shall have something to bring to our world that it does not have: a perspective on itself, a judgement of its pretentions and injustices, an offer of renewal and hope. Only as a community that does not find its source of identity and vocation within its cultural milieu can the church acquire any intimations of ‘good news’ for its cultural milieu.
But while this ‘postliberal’ sense of discontinuity with the liberal cultures of the United States and Canada is a necessary stage on the way to church renewal, it is only a stage. The end in relation to which it is means is a new and existentially vital engagement of the same society from which it has to distinguish itself. And here, I think, the liberal insight is right. Because, as ‘liberal” churches, we have known this particular segment of our society, we have both a responsibility towards it and a genuine potentiality for re-engaging it. Our ‘belonging’ to that so-called ‘dominant culture'(if it is still dominant) constitutes the dimension of reciprocity and continuity without which it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve a re-engagement. Because most of us are also, in some continuing way, ‘of’ that white, middle-class, Protestant milieu, we know (from the inside) its questions, its anxieties, its frustrations, as well as its answers, consolations, and dreams. Thus, our former ‘establishment,’ which in the foreseeable future will still affect most of us at least at the personal, psychic level, is not a complete loss. Rather than something to be regretted and shunned, our former ‘establishment’ is a long and deep historical experience from which, if we are sufficiently wise, we may gain much insight for the representation of the divine Word to that same world of expectation and experience. Indeed, if we did not have knowledge and memory of our ‘establishment,’ we would not be able to engage our ‘world’, no matter how stunning might be the message that we have for it!
III. FOUR WORLDLY QUESTS–AND CHRISTIAN WITNESS
My third and final task is to attempt to illustrate the principle of disengagement and engagement, discontinuity and continuity, which I have just described. I shall single out four human quests that are, at least in my perception, strongly present in the dominant culture of our two countries today. In each case, I want to show, first, how our society longs for something that its performance denies and its operative values frustrate; and second, how, as those who themselves participate in that longing, Christians may engage their society from the perspective of faith and hope. The four quests to which I will devote a little (but only, by necessity, a little) space are: (1) the quest for moral authenticity; (2) the quest for meaningful community; (3) the quest for transcendence and mystery; (4) the quest for meaning.
1. The Quest for Moral Authenticity: The emphasis here should be placed on the word “authenticity.” I think that there is quest for authentic morality strongly present in our society today. The reason for this is bound up with the failure of both the old and the so-called ‘new’ moralities. People know now, better than they did in the 1960’s and 1970’s, that the permissiveness of the new morality leads to moral chaos, indeed to life-threatening danger. AIDS has dramatized this, but it is visible everywhere–to those who have reason to care.
Christopher Lash in The True and Only Heaven, considers the world from the perspective of a caring parent:
To see the modern world from the point of view of a parent is to see it in the worst possible light. This perspective unmistakably reveals the unwholesomeness, not to put it more strongly, of our way of life: our obsession with sex, violence, and the pornography of ‘making it;’ our addictive dependence on drugs, ‘entertainment,’ and the evening news; our impatience with anything that limits our sovereign freedom of choice, especially with the constraints of marital and familial ties; our preference for ‘nonbinding commitments;’ our third-rate educational system; our third-rate morality; our refusal to draw a distinction between right and wrong, lest we ‘impose’ their morality on us; our reluctance to judge or be judged; our indifference to the needs of future generations, as evidence by our willingness to saddle them with a huge national debt, an overgrown arsenal of destruction, and a deteriorating environment; our unsated assumption, which underlies so much of the propaganda for unlimited abortion, that only those children born for success ought to be allowed to be born at all.
The failure of ‘the new morality’ sends some of our contemporaries scurrying back into various and mostly desperate attempts to revive ‘the old morality.’ Yet while old moral codes may serve the private interests of some, they are impotent in the face of great public moral questions. Those who, like the parents Lash describes, know that private and public morality are inextricably connected find little comfort in the ethical absolutes of the past.
Most of us who are members of the once-mainline churches, whether lay or clerical, are well-acquainted with this dilemma personally. We ourselves, as parents or teachers or simply citizens, know from the inside how difficult it is to experience anything approaching moral authenticity today. We hardly dare to examine our own lives, for we sense both their moral contradictions and their deep but largely unfulfilled longing for authenticity.
Surely this is an integral aspect of our real participation in the ‘world’ that, as Christians, we are called to engage. We know the moral confusion of this world because it is also our confusion. What we have not yet fully grasped is that this very fact–our own participation in the anguished quest for moral authenticity–constitutes the apologetic necessity without which we could not begin to reach out to others. Instead of retreating into theological and ethical systems which only insulate us from the moral dilemmas of our contemporaries, we Christians must learn how to go to our scriptures and traditions as bearers and representatives of those existential dilemmas. How does ‘gospel’ address those who, in our time and place, “hunger and thirst for righteousness”–for moral integrity? How would Jesus speak to affluent young parents, caught between yuppidom and genuine concern for their children’s future, and asking how to be “good”? If we can identify with those parents (and we can!) then perhaps we shall also begin to hear what our Lord would say to them. I suspect that what we would hear would be something quite different from what is proffered by the television sitcoms.
2. The Quest for Meaningful Community: The quest for meaningful community, like the quest for authentic morality with which it is closely related, is also conspicuous today because of a double failure: the failure of individualism, and the failure of most forms of community.
The pursuit of individual freedom and personal aggrandizement has been the ideological backbone of new world liberal society.
It grew out of ancient constricting and oppressive forms of human communality. It was never all bad, but we North Americans drove it to its absolute limits; it takes little wisdom to recognize that this cannot continue to be the cornerstone of society. There have always been inherent contradictions here, and the contradictions have caught up with us. There is no significant problem of either private or public life that can be answered responsibly today by liberal individualism. At the same time, we have witnessed the failure of most familiar forms of communality–dramatically so in Eastern Europe, but also in our own society, where a deep cynicism informs all public life and institutions.
In the churches that we represent, we are (to say the least!) not unfamiliar with all this. Most of us, as members and ministers of churches, know about this double failure. Our very congregations, which are supposed to be the Christian answer to the human quest for genuine community, are for many (if not most) church goers ingenuine–not to say artificial. And they even accentuate the failure of human community for those who do not ‘fit’ the economic, educational, racial or sexual mold that the churches still project.
We participate, then, as middle-class Christians, in this quest, and in its terrible frustrations. But instead of allowing the specifics of both the quest and its frustrations to challenge and inform our understanding and profession of the faith, we retreat into well-rehearsed, rhetorical ‘answers’. Because we do not permit the quest and the questions a significant place in our consciousness, we also fail to discern responses which, from the side of the tradition of Jerusalem, might indeed engage those who ask, including ourselves.
What would it mean to go to the scriptures–for example, to the Pauline metaphor of the body and its members–with such contemporary experiences and questions fully present and articulated? Not the familiar questions of generations of theological classrooms, but concrete questions posed by the lives we know, and honed into graphic forms by the best of our novelists, film-makers, and social commentators. Would a congregation whose life and work were informed by such an meeting of text and context be satisfied with the kind of community gathered for worship on Sunday mornings in towns and cities throughout North America, or at coffee hours after the worship?
3. The Quest for Transcendence and Mystery: Several important theological books in the 1960’s celebrated the secular city: at last we could see the world for what it was, without investing it with all sorts of semi-pantheistic holiness! But secularism too has failed. Technology, its most precocious offspring, now appears to ordinary people as the mixed blessing that some wise ones of the Western world recognized much earlier. Scientist-theologian C.F. von Weizsacker wrote in the final paragraph of his 1949 book, The History of Nature, “The scientific and technical world of modern man is the result of his daring enterprise, knowledge without love.” During the past ten or so years–primarily, I think, in the wake of environmental awareness–Western peoples have become newly conscious of the devastations humanity is capable of when it thinks itself accountable to nothing beyond itself.
This realization, perhaps combined with the aboriginal human “restlessness” of which Augustine spoke in the first paragraph of the Confessions, has engendered in many a new and (even when it is packaged in tinsel) entirely earnest search for some sense of transcendence and mystery. Many can now understand such judgements as that of Loren Eiseley, who did not speak of human difference from other creatures in the glowing terms of the Enlightenment: how we are “rational,” capable of “free will”, and so on. Rather, he spoke about how this “different” creature, homo sapiens, “without the sense of the holy, without compassion,” possesses a brain which can “become a gray stalking horror–the deviser of Belsen.”
Yet the quest for transcendence and mystery is constantly inhibited by the haunting awareness of our one-dimensionality. The ‘death of God’ (or was it the death of Humanity–capital H) still dogs our footsteps. We try very hard to create depth, to see ourselves against the backdrop of an eternity in which time is enfolded. Steven Spielberg and others give us ersatz heavens, in which we find ourselves loved by strange beings from outer space. Everyone has learned the word ‘spirituality,’ yet it is not so easy to overcome the rationalist impact of two centuries of Science: Knowledge without love!
Those of us in the churches also know these inhibitions. Try as we may, our services of worship bear about them the aura of the theatre (mostly, I fear, a very amateur theatre!), as though God were really dead and all that remains are our ritual performances for one another. Too often, I confess, these attempts at divine service put me in mind of King Claudius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet:
My words fly up, my thoughts remain below;
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
Insofar as we allow ourselves as Christians to know, in all honesty, the longing and the dissatisfactions of this contemporary quest for transcendence and mystery, we are also in a position to respond to it out of the riches of the JudeoChristian tradition, newly revisited. Here and there Christians are discovering how to discern the transcendent within the imminent, to see creation itself as mystery. But such discoveries depend upon a greater exposure to the bankruptcy of old familiar forms of ‘spirituality’ than we have managed in our safe and sedate churches. We have been conditioned to look for God in ‘the beyond;’ we are unaccustomed to looking for ‘the beyond in the midst of life’ (to use Bonhoeffer’s memorable expression). Perhaps if we were to rethink our own tradition, bearing with us the terrible thirst for transcendence and mystery as it manifests itself in the soul of humanity post mortem Dei, we would more consistently discover the means for engaging it from the side of the gospel.
(4) The QuestforMeaning: Paul Tillich insisted that the basic anxiety by which modern Western humanity is afflicted is the anxiety of meaninglessness and despair. For a time, I think, the euphoria of secular humanism temporarily blunted the edge of this anxiety. If, as the existentialists affirmed, we could not count on being heirs to a teleological universe, then we would create our own purpose, our own essence. Indeed many found that they could laugh at the old-fashioned search for “the meaning of life.”
But a dimension of the alleged ‘paradigm shift’ through which we are passing has to do precisely with the failure of that kind of anthropocentric bravado. All over the Western world there are covert and overt attempts to discover purpose–not a purpose we ourselves invent, but an horizon of meaning towards which we may turn. As Kurt Vonnegut says one way or another in all of his strange and wonderful novels (perhaps cynically or perhaps seriously): purposeless things are abhorent to the human species; and if the human species suspects that it is itself purposeless, it becomes conspicuously suicidal. Under the now-more-conscious threat of non-being, humankind asks openly for the meaning of being. Religion is again interesting. The Faculty of Religious Studies in McGill University (my large, secular university) is the fastest growing faculty of all. And this phenomenon is duplicated all over the Western world.
Yet purpose is not easily found after the breakdown of the modern system of meaning. And certainly it is not easily found in traditional religions. The increase in curiosity about religion is accompanied by a marked decrease in those very churches that were formerly the cultic bulwarks of our culture. In those same churches, we who remain also know how hard it is to discover meaning for our lives, individually and corporately. We participate both in the quest for meaning and in its limitations and defeats.
And therefore–therefore!–we may be in a position to rethink the basic things of our tradition in such a way as to discover that through which we may address our age with fresh insight and conviction. But this will only be possible if we expose ourselves less guardedly to the cold winds of the late 20th century and are ready to carry its spiritual emptiness and yearning, with all the particularity thereto pertaining, into the presence of the Holy One. The gospel may again speak to us, and make of us ambassadors for Christ, if we appear before that One with empty hands, with the questions of those whom we represent (which are also our questions) and wait for answers….or rather, for the Answerer.
To conclude: I began by asserting–no doubt presumptuously–that the most urgent message of the divine Spirit to the churches in North America today is that they should disestablish themselves. For until they have learned to distinguish the gospel of the crucified one from the rhetorical values, pretentions, and pursuits of this society, our churches will fail to detect, beneath the rhetoric of official optimism, the actual humanity that it is our Christian vocation to engage. In the service of the crucified, who is as present in the largely hidden oppressions of First World peoples as he is in the more conspicuous sufferings of the wretched of the earth, North American Christians must liberate themselves from the conventions of cultural religion.
Christian disengagement from the dominant culture is not to be confused, however, with the abandonment of that society. The end that we are to seek is redemption of our world, a world that is truly ours and of which we ourselves are part. Ours is the ‘First’ world which, despite its continuing bravado, has been given intimations of the judgement that the first may turn out to be last. Our role as Christians, as the people of the cross within that world, is precisely what Jesus said it was: to be salt, to be yeast, to be light! Our Lord’s metaphors for his community of witness were all modest: a little salt, a little yeast, a little light. But Christendom tried to be great, large, magnificent. It thought itself the object of God’s expansive grace, rather than the beloved world. Today we are constrained by the divine Spirit to rediscover the possibilities of littleness. We are to decrease, that the Christ may increase. We cannot enter this new phase without pain, for truly we have been glorious, at least in this world’s own terms. It seems to us a humiliation that we are made to reconsider our destiny as “little flocks”: salt, yeast, light. Can such a calling, we ask, be worthy of the servants of the Sovereign of the Universe?
Yet, if that Sovereign is the One who reigns from the cross, could any other calling be thought legitimate?