I took the subway down to the Village so I could walk all the way up Fifth Avenue to the zoo. It’s one of those things a person has to do; sometimes a person has to go a very long distance out of his way to come back a short distance correctly.
(Jerry in Edward Albee’s play, The Zoo Story)
For the churches of the United States, the times are changing. Indeed, the times have been changing since the mid 1960’s, but it can take a while for long-established institutions to acknowledge change. In Europe, Christendom has long been fading toward oblivion. Here in America no church may be officially, politically established as the state religion, but the traditional Protestant churches were culturally established to such an extent and the evangelical churches grew so much that many if not most Americans believed what was never officially or properly true – that America was a Christian nation. The realization that the vestiges of even cultural Christian establishment are withering here is slower in dawning but can be denied only through withdrawal into tighter and tighter Christian isolation from the rest of our society.
For its first three centuries of life, Christianity was a minority movement, without much of power or prestige. Then came Emperor Constantine followed by Emperor Theodosius (each called “the Great”) who transfigured a servant faith into an imperial religion. No longer was it dangerous to become known as a Christian; rather, it was beneficial for almost anyone and mandatory for men of ambition. Yes, men. Of course women became Christians too, along with their husbands or fathers, and soon everyone or nearly everyone was born and promptly baptized into Christianity (there were still those Jews and in southern Europe especially those Muslims as well). Whole nations became Christian because their kings did so, and from then on, their babies were born into the faith, whatever their parents and grandparents might still believe or what rituals they might continue to practice.
Much about the Christian faith changed with its establishment as the religion of the empire and then, as the Roman Empire crumbled, further established as the heart and political soul of a religious empire called Christendom – the kingdom of Christ on earth which was actually the realm and rule of the church as it sought to manage the power of kings and nobles. Nothing about Jesus of Nazareth fit the faith’s new imperial status. He was everything the Caesars were not, and they were everything he refused to be and warned his disciples never to become, not even (maybe especially not even) when the emperors were doing good. In the Gospel According to Luke, Jesus tells his disciples right after sharing with them the bread and wine of the supper reinterpreted in relation to his suffering which was to begin that night, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.” (Luke 22:25b-26, NRSV).
In the Greco-Roman world, the benefactor was the great man who enhanced his prestige by giving charity to the poor and common folk who were expected to be deeply grateful and laud him for his goodness. Jesus would have none of that philanthropic stuff. He announced a reign of God in which the first would be made last and the last made first, where the poor would be lifted up and the mighty cast down.
Here is not the place to attempt even a cursory overview of the changes brought about by Christianity’s establishment under Constantine and Theodosius and in the centuries of Christendom that followed. The question is, “Where are we now, and what path are we summoned to walk in faith, and what sort of faith can that be?” Now that Christianity is neither in charge nor well regarded by people outside the church (nor, perhaps, by many within the churches, either), what is our task? Surely, our task is what it has been all along: to be drawn into solidarity with Jesus the Christ and led by the Spirit in living Jesus’ own mission of representing God before the world and, at the same time, representing the world before God. But what does that mean here and now? How are we to stand with him and walk with him in representing God to the world and the world to God? How can we relearn our faith?
And I have known the eyes already, known them all –
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?
(T. S. Eliot, from his poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”)
As the churches of Jesus Christ and as believers born into Christianity or, especially in America, enraptured into it by religious conversion experience, we certainly have been fixed into formulated phrases. I believe it is high time to spit them out, let ourselves be unpinned from the wall, and relearn Christian faith. This faith we need to relearn is not a set of correct answers to properly stated questions (like a catechism); neither is it an intellectual exercise; it is something that lays claim to us, body, mind, will, purpose, and life. But this faith is not anti-intellectual, either. It was Augustine of Hippo (St. Augustine to Catholics) who insisted that faith seeks understanding.
Jesus’ first followers were his students, which is pretty much what the word disciples means. From him, they were relearning life on new terms, and their relearning did not mean merely studying it but learning to live it and share it. They had plenty of questions and much with which to struggle.
God has not given up on the world, God’s deeply loved creation. God will not abandon the world now that the old orders of Christianity are fading. But to walk with Jesus Christ in representing God to that deeply loved but horribly conflicted and corrupted world, even while loving that world ourselves enough to represent it in all its messiness and turbulence before God, we must, I believe, be re-discipled. We must relearn Christian faith.
Especially at this time of year, we see many examples of that “benefactor” mentality – giving to those in need, not solely from the heart but with an expectation of glowing appreciation from the recipient.