Tuesday, 28 August 2007


"WHAT is bothering me is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today." So wrote the young Lutheran Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer from his Berlin prison cell in April 1944, one year before he was executed by the SS for complicity in the plots against Hitler's life. It is a question that today — for more complicated reasons — concerns countless thousands of churchgoers, who see about them a Christianity in the midst of change, confusion and disarray.
For Roman Catholics, the religious revolution set loose by the Second Vatican Council has changed many traditional patterns of worship and thought, and seemingly unleashed a legion of priests, nuns and laymen who feel free to cast doubt on every article of defined dogma. Protestants too have been stunned by the spectacle of an Episcopal bishop openly denying the Trinity and the Virgin Birth, and ordained ministers teaching in seminaries proclaiming the news that God is dead. On the theological right, evangelical preachers summon believers back to a strict Biblical orthodoxy; on the left, angry young activists insist that to be a Christian is to be a revolutionary, and propose to substitute picket lines for prayer.
It is not really surprising that the churches should be sounding uncertain trumpets, or that Christians should be insecure as to the meaning and direction of their spiritual commitment. Undeniably, one of the most telling events of modern history has been a revolution in the relationship of religion to Western civilization. The churchgoer could once take comfort in the fact that he belonged to what was essentially a Christian society, in which the existence of an omnipotent God was the focus of ultimate meaning. No such security exists today, in a secular-minded culture that suggests the eclipse rather than the presence of God.
Science and technology have long since made it unnecessary to posit a creative Deity as a hypothesis to explain anything in the universe. From Marxists, existentialists and assorted humanists has come the persistent message that the idea of God is an intellectual bogy that prevents man from claiming his mature heritage of freedom. In the U.S., which probably has a higher percentage of regular Sunday churchgoers than any other nation on earth, the impact of organized Christianity appears to be on the wane. One problem for the future of the churches is the indifference and even hostility toward them on the part of the young. Even those drawn to the person of Christ chafe against outmoded rules, irrelevant sermons, dogmas that apparently have no personal meaning to a generation struggling to understand themselves, to grapple with such concrete issues as sex and social injustice.
Also a Man
Undeniably, one major task of theology today is to define what it means to be a Christian in a secular society. For millions, of course, there is no real problem. Baptism and church membership are the external criteria of faith, and a true follower of Jesus is one who keeps his beliefs free from heresy and tries to live a decent, upright, moral life. Yet to the most thoughtful spokesmen of modern Christianity, these criteria are not only minimal, they are secondary and even somewhat irrelevant. Instead, they argue that faith is not an intellectual assent to a series of dogmatic propositions but a commitment of one's entire being; ethical concern is directed not primarily toward one's own life but toward one's neighbor and the world. The mortal sins, in this new morality, are not those of the flesh but those of society; more important than the evil man does to himself is the evil he does to his fellow man. "The Christian's role is to bear witness to God in man," says Jesuit Clinical Psychologist Carlo Weber. "Jesus Christ is the wedding of the divine and the human. Being a Christian for me means bearing witness to the wedding of divinity and humanity, to love God and man—to be involved, therefore, in human affairs."
Although the churches have always taught that Christ was both God and man, Christians have hardly ever seemed to accept his humanity. Historically, preaching has emphasized the Risen Christ, who sits at the right hand of God, and will come in glory to the Last Judgment. This is a basic premise of faith, but it is equally true that Jesus was emphatically a man — a lowly carpenter who walked the earth of Palestine at a specific moment in human history, and whose death fulfilled Isaiah's prophesy of the Suffering Servant. Jesus, as Bonhoeffer memorably put it, was "the man for others."
Summing up his message to man, Jesus asked his followers to love God, and "thy neighbor as thyself." For centuries, Christians have seemed to emphasize the first of those commands—and all too frequently, when there was a conflict between the two, it was love of man that went by the boards. But Biblical scholars point out that the New Testament is a very secular book, and there is an unmistakable social concern in Jesus' moral teachings. In Matthew 23, for example, Jesus condemns as hypocrites the scribes and Pharisees who ostentatiously tithe their possessions but neglect "the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith."
Christian & Atheist
There is nothing fundamentally new about the insight that Christian ethics are corporate rather than individualistic. The medieval monasteries, for example, were dedicated to serving their communities as well as to praising God in communal prayer; the Mennonites and Quakers have always emphasized brotherly love and peace rather than dogma. The difference is that theologians now take it for granted that Christian love is something that cannot be confined to the church but is directed toward all the world. The commitment of a man who follows Jesus is not to an institution, but to life itself.
Within the churches, there is considerably less agreement on how this commitment should be exercised. Christian radicals — such as the young firebrands who dominated the National Council of Churches' Conference on Church and Society in Detroit last fall — argue that the true follower of Jesus is the revolutionary, siding with forces and events that seek to overthrow established disorder. On the other hand, Protestant Theologian Hans-Joachim Margull of Hamburg University points out that it is not always so easy to identify the secular causes that Christians have a clear moral duty to support.
It is easy enough to argue that Christians have a God-given duty to work for racial equality, or for the eradication of hunger and disease in the world. The strategies to be followed in achieving these goals do not so easily acquire universal assent. For that reason, Dean Jerald Brauer of the University of Chicago Divinity School argues that churches should not necessarily be engaged in trying to hand down specific solutions to social and political problems from the pulpit. Christian creativity in trying to solve these questions, he says, "won't be a case of the churches poking their noses into areas where they have no right to be. Churches may have no special answers, although they certainly have a responsibility to sensitize their people to the questions. But the answers will have to be worked out by the body politic."
What this means, in essence, is that a commitment to love in worldly life cannot be separated from faith in Christ, who demanded that commitment. One argument against trying to build Christianity on moral action alone is that Jesus' teachings, unlike those of, say, Confucius, make sense only when understood as counsels of perfection in obedience to God rather than as workable guidelines of behavior. The Rev. David H. C. Read, pastor of Manhattan's Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, points out that in facing many problems of life the behavior of the Christian and the humanist might well be identical. Bertrand Russell and the Archbishop of Canterbury, for example, could equably serve on the same committee to improve housing. "The distinction is not in their action," Read argues. "It is in their motivation and ultimate conviction on the meaning of life." This suggests that the committed Christian who is immersed in the secular world will also be to some extent an anonymous Christian; his light will still shine before the world, but it will not be so easily identified.
Since faith is the reason for commitment, most churchmen regard the idea of a "Christian atheist" or a "Christian agnostic" as something of a contradiction in terms. "I can't see how it is possible to be a Christian atheist," says Episcopal Bishop James A. Pike, who has been accused of being just that by some of his fellow clerics. "You cannot attack the idea of an ultimate and at the same time accept Jesus as an ultimate." Swiss Catholic Theologian Hans Kiing points out that "Jesus had no sense of himself without God. He made it clear that his radical commitment to men presupposed a radical commitment to God."
Nonetheless, theologians also acknowledge that only God is the final judge of who can rightly be considered a Christian. Austrian Jesuit Theologian Karl Rahner, for example, suggests that there is today "an invisible Christianity which does indeed possess the justification of sanctifying grace from God. A man belonging to this invisible Christianity may deny his Christianity or maintain that he does not know whether he is a Christian or not. Yet God may have chosen him in grace." Similarly, the late Protestant theologian Paul Tillich contrasted the "manifest church" of confessed believers with what he called the "latent church," whose membership included all men engaged with the ultimate realities of life.
The Decline of Dogma
Since faith is primarily a way of life rather than a creed to be so proclaimed, it is not something that can be reduced to an articulated set of principles. In an age of ecumenical breakthrough and doctrinal pluralism, sectarian particularities of belief seem largely irrelevant and even a little quaint. What is important is not the doctrine of predestination, for example, but the mystery of man's relationship to God that lies behind it. A Christian must accept the Incarnation — but there is room for differing interpretations of Jesus' unique relationship to God. The Resurrection is, as the Apostle Paul insisted, the cornerstone of faith; but how one defines this unique defiance of death is of less moment.
Even in the Roman Catholic Church, which has traditionally upheld the immutability of dogma, there is widespread recognition by theologians that all formulas of faith are man's frail and imperfect vessels for carrying God's truth, and are forever in need of reformulation. In the light of Christianity's need to respond to the human needs of the earth, many of these ancient formulas hardly seem worth rethinking. "The central axis of religious concern," notes Langdon Gilkey of the University of Chicago Divinity School, "has shifted from matters of ultimate 'salvation,' and of heaven or hell, to questions of the meaning, necessity, or usefulness of religion for this life." In other words, the theological task is to justify Christianity in this world — and let God take care of the next.
The faith commitment of the Christian also implies the need for allegiance to a church — or at least to some kind of community of faith. Theoretically, it may be possible for a Christian to survive without any institutional identity — but the majority of modern theologians would agree that to be "a man for others" there must be others to be with, and that faith is sustained by communal structure. Churchmen would also argue that there is nothing obsolete about the basic necessity for worship and prayer. "Liturgy must be an expression of something that is happening in the community," says the Rev. David Kirk, a Melchite Catholic priest who is founder of a unique interfaith center in Manhattan called Emmaus House. "Without worship, the community is a piece of rubbish." On the other hand, there is little doubt that the churches are in desperate need of new, this worldly liturgies that reflect present needs rather than past glories.
A Band of Soul Brothers
While a church — in the sense of a community — may be necessary for a viable Christian life, institutional or denominational churches are not. Today it would be hard to find an atheist whose criticism of religion is any more vociferous than the attack on the irrelevance, stagnation and non utility of organized christendom offered by its adherents. "Christianity is like a trip," muses Episcopal Bishop Edward Crowther, a Fellow of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Santa Barbara, Calif. "The church is like a travel agent with a lot of pictures in her office describing what it's like. But either she's never been there, or was there so long ago that she doesn't remember what it was all about."
Methodist Theologian Van Harvey suggests that the church should not be "a place where men come to be more pious. The church is a place of edification, where one comes to learn to be an honest-to-God person living in dialogue with others." Despite all the yearning for spirituality that may exist in the average Modern church, it is questionable how many churchgoers can and do live up to this ideal. The stratified irrelevance of the established parish, whether Catholic or Protestant, is a major reason for the growth of what Episcopal Chaplain Malcolm Boyd has dubbed "the underground church"—informal, ad hoc gatherings of Christians who cross over and above denominational lines to celebrate improvised Eucharists in each other's homes, and study Scripture or theology together.
To some theologians, the emergence of this underground church is a sign of spiritual health, a harbinger of renewal. To be sure, there is the possibility that these unstructured groups might coalesce into a new kind of gnostic sect — an elect that considers itself set apart from the erring mass of nominal believers. On the other hand, there is the far greater danger that institutional Christianity, without an extraordinary amount of reform, will end up as a monumental irrelevancy. Faced with a choice between the church in its present form and the underground cell, it is likely that a majority of Christian thinkers would opt for the small, unstructured community as a likely model for the future. Jesus never explicitly said that all men would be converted to believe in his word. Far more meaningful is his image of his followers as the "salt of the earth" and "the light of the world" — similes suggesting that the status of Christianity, until God's final reckoning, is properly that of a band of soul brothers rather than a numberless army.
Despite the visible health and prosperity of existing denominations, there is a considerable number of future oriented theologians who feel that the church, in large parts of the world, is entering a stage of Diaspora when, like Judaism, it will survive in the form of a scattered few, the hidden remnant. Strangely enough, there are any number of Christians who rejoice at this prospect rather than fear it. This is not because they want to see the fainthearted and the half convinced drift away into unbelief. Rather, they prefer that the choice of being Christian once again become openly, as Kierkegaard puts it, a leap of faith, an adult decision to serve as one of God's pilgrims on the road of life.
It is conceivable that Christianity is heading toward an era in which its status will be akin to that of the despised minority who proclaimed faith in the one God against the idolatry of the Roman Empire. To be sure, the Christian burden in the future will be different from that of the past: less to proclaim Jesus by word than to follow him in deed and loving service. It may prove a perilous course, but the opportunity is great: the courage and zeal of that first despised minority changed the history of the world.