I wrote this for myself. It may not speak to you because it may not be where you are. We're all on our own journeys after all. It is, however, where I am: sometimes struggling to know how to be authentic in my faith in the midst of a culture that is mostly ambivalent to Christian traditions and values, and also often hostile to them. I wondered whether to even post it at all, as its audience will not be large. But on the off chance that one or two of you will find what follows useful, here it is:
I've just finished a very interesting book:
“Strangers and Pilgrims Once More”
Being Disciples of Jesus in a Post-Christendom World
Addison Hodges Hart
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
The ideas presented in the book have been churning around in my head ever since, and I'm a bit excited by some of them.
I've written a response below. It's part paraphrase of the author's words, and part rewriting in my own words, but it is not in any way my aim to misrepresent his ideas as my own original thinking. My rewording and paraphrasing has been done to help me process what he is saying. Maybe it will help you too.
To cut to the chase, the author (Hart) recognises that the influence of Christian churches has nearly vanished from western culture and is now only marginal. The long period of 'Christendom' is over. But, he says, rather than whine and feel sorry for ourselves, Christians need to realise this might not be such a bad thing.
The challenge for contemporary Christians is to be true to their faith in the midst of an agressively secular culture. The upside is that Christians no longer need to feel compromised by their church's being bound to institutions of the state.
For almost two thousand years the church has enjoyed the priviledges of power and influence provided by its close association with governments, royalty, and the courts etc. This connection has now mostly disappeared, with only vestiges remaining. The current manouvering around the 'Same Sex' marriage issue is a case in point. Any influence the church might once have had on political decision making is now very much reduced, and quite often receives openly hostile responses. The sexual abuse scandals of the past decade have exacerbated this, but they are just the latest factor in a long process of decline. So, it is what it is, as much as some of us might wish otherwise.
Christians might feel sad to see the church pushed further and further away from the halls of power, but this is not at all necessarily a bad thing as the former cosy relationship has often seen the Gospel message compromised. As Hart writes:
“the national, serviceable, civil version of Christianity bears almost no discernible relation, beyond misapplied quotations, to the actual teachings of Jesus.”
Why is this so?
The church's 1700 year old cosy association with power and privilege has made life easier for generations of christians, but it has also had the effect of compromising and distorting some of the church's teachings. The church, in effect, has sold part of its soul in accepting secular power and its privileges.
A Christian church separated from the trappings of power is a Christian church that is freed to be true to itself. This can't help but be a stimulus for soul searching and a return to core beliefs and values. But what about Christians themselves?
They are freed to be genuinely who they are. They do not need to feel torn between the pragmatism of a politically compromised church on the one hand and the Gospel on the other. That doesn't mean Christians need or should be anti-government or maybe join the Occupy movement. It does mean they are freed to be authentic followers of Christ. They do not need to be followers of the secular state, nor slaves to secular trends. Hart puts it so well I will reproduce his words here:
“Modestly put, if we seek to follow Jesus, we must be passers-by of many things around us: we should keep alert, we should discern where we are, we ought at times to avoid and not touch; we shouldn’t condemn, but neither should we be duped or gullible or willing to buy the latest cultural dope on offer; we should just move along, behaving circumspectly and speaking up when necessary boldly, charitably, humbly and hope that our dissimilarity from many societal norms will testify to others that there exists a better, more peaceable, more loving way to live.”
In other words, we are free (and, in fact, we are obliged) to be discrimating consumers of our culture. We need not to be mindless twits, drifting with the current of popular fads. We know who we are and we know what we believe. We choose to involve ourselves, or to stand back from the popular mood accordingly. We don't do this to draw attention to ourselves, but because we know what matters. (I love that thought.)
There is another implication for Christians. We are free to think about the meaning and worth of our denominational affiliations:
“as Christendom wanes, we are under no national, doctrinal, or divine obligation to adhere exclusively to any one institutional expression of the church. . . . being a Christian is vital; being an Anglican is not.”
Adherence to traditions and practices of any one formal denomination will become weaker along with the decline of traditional church power structures. Hart sees this as a (potentially) good thing as at least some of the doctrinal and other differences that have dogged the church and pitted christian against christian have had more to do with churches' concern for power and influence than with being followers of Christ. Interesting thought, certainly in tune with the spirit of the age, but more importantly perhaps it will become more important for christians to work together and support each other in a world where they no longer have the ear of the powerful. In such circumstances perhaps a humble admission that none of us has a monopoly on correct understanding of God's nature will be of more use than a stubborn clinging to fine points of doctrinal difference? (I love that thought too!)
But it's not only the church's loss of influence in the political sphere that contemporary Christians need to deal with. Militant secularists are on the attack, many arguing against any Christian presence at all in public life. They deny the legitimacy of religious experience, dismissing it as 'fairy tales' and in other less complimentary terms. They champion science as the sole arbiter of truth and the only legitimate source of knowledge. Every other way of knowing, especially religion, they claim, is irrational and therefore false.
This is, of course, a massive overreach. We are free to treat such thinking with the contempt it deserves.
Hart is disturbed by the trend to elevate science to god-like status (as I am). Sorry for the longish quote but it sums up pretty well his strong objection to the secular pretension to possess ultimate knowledge of anything:
“Since, in the imagination of advocates of scientism, all questions of meaning and purpose have already been answered by evolutionary science, neuroscience, etcetera, and rendered meaningless and purposeless by the hard philosophy of materialism, then man is finally free to reinvent man. Of course, in reality, they (militant secularists) have answered no question. Materialism is only a paltry and arid philosophy, and scientism like any other form of totalitarian thinking is at best delusional and at worst potentially horrific.
We human beings are really only bits of a “system” we did not create, do not govern, and except to the most infinitesimal and negligible degree imaginable can never hope to manipulate or genuinely influence.
The notion that we could ever formulate a “unified theory of everything” is an absurdity almost childish in its naïveté.”
Hart does not, however, believe that the old science versus religion arguments, or the “is God real?” debates have much, if any value. Certainly he thinks they are a waste of time for christians to engage in. Not because our arguments are weak, but because such contests prove little and we do not dignify ourselves by entering arguments conducted on our opponents' playing field.
“When it comes to hot debates, apologetics, and polemics with despisers of faith, we should be none too eager to involve ourselves.
. . . any debate with unbelievers is something that should be at the very least handled with great care, exhibiting no arrogance and much humility. . . . a reasoned response is not to present “evidence” of one’s doctrinal theories, but to give a “gentle and reverent” rationale for why Christians do what they do and live as they live.
The contemptuous should receive stony silence and a turned back from us, not explanation or recrimination or a sign of undignified weakness. Simply silence, a drawn curtain, and a refusal to argue. If they alter their behavior and show genuine interest, we continue the discussion. Otherwise, we drop it.
Polemicism is always a sign of spiritual immaturity and insecurity, not a sign of authentic spiritual depth and worth.
Our deepest communal and personal spiritual beliefs we should share among ourselves. They are not cheap or common items, and they do not belong to the public at large.”
As one who from time to time becomes irritated with the tone of debate when secularists and religionists engage in battle I think Hart is on to something here. Rarely are such debates a genuine attempt to seek understanding. Most often, in my experience, they are an exercise in trying to score points. The debaters do not listen to each other. They talk past each other. I believe, as does Hart, that it can be a mistake to engage in discussions that turn into arguments. They do little to encourage mutual understanding:
“(arguments) with atheists and others achieve very little, and usually nothing at all. What “speaks” to them are our proclamation of God’s self- emptying compassion and our good deeds that indicate the truth of that proclamation.”
Hart is surely right on this. No one is interested in what we believe. They are interested in what we do.
On the subject of how christians interact with others, Hart draws a distinction between secular non- believers and people of non-christian religions. He thinks the way we interact with people of faith from other religions should be different from the way we interact with secular non-believers. We have more in common with followers of other religions than we do with those who deny the supernatural. People from other religions understand our worldviews intuitively in ways secularists cannot even begin to. He says we would do well to welcome them as brothers and sisters on the journey, even if their understandings are not the same as ours. I find myself coming around to this proposition the more I think about it. I should emphasise that I don't think Hart is advocating ignoring secularists or ostracising them. Not at all. Rather he thinks christians do not need to waste energy arguing pointlessly and endlessly with people who do not share the same starting assumptions. We do not need to accept their views of reality just as they do not need to accept ours. Very sensible advice I think.
“. . . pragmatically speaking, we should stand together with religious believers of every kind in today’s Western world, with its many ideologically anti-religious voices. Religious faith itself is under pressure, not just any one religion. We need each other’s support if we are to face the falsehoods, ugliness, and evils of a secularized, materialistic, scientistic, and anti-religious world.”
In those times we do talk about our faith with non-believers, Hart thinks, it is best to be humble and to keep things simple. Well, amen to that. I have always recoiled from people who I thought were trying to sell me on an issue by being overbearing and in my face! People who quote scripture verses and use them as self evident proof of their point make me especially nervous and uncomfortable. There! I said it.
“Quoting scripture should be sparing. We are not “preaching the Bible” but inviting persons to experience the mystery of God. We must never forget that there is a deep, profoundly mystical element of our faith, a discipline and a practice to which we point. We are inviting people to discipleship, not church attendance.”
Amen to that too. I am and always have been very uncomfortable with “Bible-bashing”. My spirituality is of a very different type. The beauty and wonder of my faith is something I am happy to share with anybody, but only ever humbly, respectfully, and gently.
Hart ends by summarising his thoughts in five recommendations for christians dealing with the change from 'Christendom' with its predictability, its traditions, and its effortless (if nominal) discipleship. They make clear sense to me. They put a spring in my step, and joy in my heart:
“So, what of those things we still possess from Christendom here and now? Some of them we can discard. They’re useless. Some of them we can hold on to with gratitude. And some things require re-evaluation and renewal:
Yes to dogma and creed and orthodoxy and a firm doctrinal tradition for our foundation; but no to dogmatism that divides, confuses, complicates, and has no pragmatic purpose.
Yes to our holy Bible, with its grand story of evolving knowledge of the self- disclosing God, and its New Testament of apostolic testimony; but no to flat, fundamentalist, anti- intellectual, and spiritually deadening biblicism.
Yes to sacramental unity, with baptism as our ontological union with the body of Christ . . . ; but no to institutional and hierarchical abuse of the sacraments and their meaning abuse that places barriers between believers with artificial excuses for doing so, and thus makes the sacraments signs of division instead of union.
Yes to proclaiming the good news that the Word was made flesh in Jesus Christ, and that he has brought new life to a fallen world; but no to polemics that would turn these glad tidings into arguments and controversy, dishonoring Christ and his way in the process.
Yes, above all, to Jesus Christ and the kingdom he proclaimed and the way of life he taught.”
So, after reading Hart's book I am feeling a lot more at ease with the world and my place in it. If you are in a similar place with your faith, maybe it is worth a read (available on amazon kindle).