Sorry for the light posting today. I’ve been distracted by some personal business, but was able today to have a wonderful lunch with an old friend and her kids, passing through town on their way back to Texas from their vacation. We spoke briefly over lunch about the role of the church in the world. She is an Evangelical, and expressed her frustration that so many of the people in her world separate church from life. She said that they live as if thinking about the pastor’s sermons was the point of church, versus transforming every aspect of our lives through our relationship with God.
We have different words to express this phenomenon, I think, but it’s something that should be familiar to all contemporary Christians. I was talking not long ago to a frustrated Evangelical friend who told me he is thinking about becoming a Catholic because he envies the sense of community Catholics have. I warned him that of all the reasons to become Catholic, this is the weakest, because in my experience, Catholic parishes are not the place to go to find community. For one, it is often a shock to Evangelicals who only know about the Catholic church through reading things the pope says, and books, to come inside the Roman church and realize that in most parishes, it’s basically Mainline Protestantism. Me, I was often startled as a Catholic to visit Evangelical churches and observe how strong the sense of community was. One big reason for this is that everybody more or less agreed on what the community believed, and stood for. This isn’t at all the case in Catholicism.
On the other hand, Catholicism has strengths that Evangelicalism doesn’t have, and Orthodoxy has both strengths and weaknesses. There is no perfect church, so don’t read me as saying there is. All of us, or nearly all of us, struggle with being deeply enmeshed in modernity, and this compromises the way we order our own lives.
A reader sends this post from the Orthodox priest Stephen Freeman, speaking to this point. Fr. Freeman begins with this parable, told by the late Orthodox priest and theologian Alexander Schmemann:
There was a wicked kingdom in which there lived a large number of slaves. The kingdom fought wars, built cities and was extremely successful in growing its economy. Its achievements were the envy of all the other kingdoms. The slaves did well, too. They were not given low jobs or manual labor. Instead, they were “helping” slaves. Their task was to help the people of the Kingdom get by. If life in the kingdom became empty and meaningless, the slaves would cheer the people up and help them continue with their lives. When people began to doubt that the kingdom served a good purpose, the slaves would reassure them that together, they would make the kingdom better. One day, a terrible calamity occurred and the kingdom perished. Very few people survived. “What was it all for?” the survivors asked. “Nothing,” the slaves replied. And in that day, the slaves became free.
Read the entire Freeman blog post to see what he makes of it. Incidentally, he quotes theologian Stanley Hauerwas, whose book Resident Aliens is in my satchel as I type this. My frequent gloom about the state of our culture is changing somewhat now, because of the sort of thing Fr. Stephen Freeman is talking about here, which parallels closely what the Southern Baptist pastor Russell Moore has been talking about. Yes, the culture is in rather decadent shape, from an orthodox Christian point of view, but we should consider this as a blessing in one specific sense: because it allows us to discern more clearly the difference between being faithful Christians, and “getting by” as conformist middle-class Americans.
It’s like this: were the men in the photo above living “their best life now”? The witness of the historic Christian church says yes, they were. Because they were willing to die as martyrs, they had the means to “live to their full potential” (another Osteen phrase) as Christian men, though we have no idea whether or not they did so in life. The point is, a therapeutic faith that makes it easier for us to live as the helping slaves of Schmemann’s parable is not the same thing as Christianity. Hauerwas, in the excerpt cited by Freeman, writes that “…the political task of Christians is to be the church rather than to transform the world. One reason why it is not enough to say that our first task is to make the world better is that we Christians have no other means of accurately understanding the world and rightly interpreting the world except by way of the church.”
This is what Robert Louis Wilken is getting at when he says:
Nothing is more needful today than the survival of Christian culture, because in recent generations this culture has become dangerously thin. At this moment in the Church’s history in this country (and in the West more generally) it is less urgent to convince the alternative culture in which we live of the truth of Christ than it is for the Church to tell itself its own story and to nurture its own life, the culture of the city of God, the Christian republic. This is not going to happen without a rebirth of moral and spiritual discipline and a resolute effort on the part of Christians to comprehend and to defend the remnants of Christian culture. The unhappy fact is that the society in which we live is no longer neutral about Christianity. The United States would be a much less hospitable environment for the practice of the faith if all the marks of Christian culture were stripped from our public life and Christian behavior were tolerated only in restricted situations.
Forgive me for not being more specific and prescriptive in this post. I’m simply sharing with you what I’m reading, what I’m hearing from others, and what I’m thinking about as I work out (among other things) the best response for us small-o orthodox Christians to the times.
I am listening closely to Evangelicals, especially former fundamentalists, who testify powerfully to the dead end that is fundamentalism and total cultural withdrawal. (A friend today quoted Erick Erickson’s line, “You will be made to care”). But I also know that we cannot continue like we have been doing, only redoubling our efforts, in the mistaken belief that things will change if we just believe more fervently and work more actively.
Somebody said in my presence the other day that we must recognize that after Jesus would teach the people, he would retire to be alone to pray. There is a dynamic between contemplation and action within the Church. Prayer and work together, or, as a wise man once said, “Ora et labora.” Not “prayer or work,” but prayer and work.
By the way, I encourage you to watch the panel discussion at last week’s Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty meeting in Nashville, on the Gospel and politics. All of the videos are here; the one involving Russell Moore, Erick Erickson, Michael Gerson, Ross Douthat, and Your Working Boy is embedded below: