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Archive for the ‘Faith’ Category

The modern person experiences a buffer between themselves and the world out there—including transcendent ideas and truths. The constant distraction of our culture shields us from the kind of deep, honest reflection needed to ask why we exist and what is true. The value of individual choice and the multiplication of micronarratives shield us from committing to a consistent and coherent worldview. This allows the modern person to debate religion and politics freely, without any anxiety about what is at stake—because very little is at stake. Between the buzz of our lives and the fluidity of our narratives, there’s no reason any truth should ever threaten our understanding of the world or ourselves. Perhaps as a result, Christianity and atheism have never been as debated as they have in the last decade. But because of our buffered selves, what is at stake in such debates is a sense of superiority or social accolades, not whether we must sell everything we have, give to the poor, and follow Jesus.

— Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness

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Not without the other

Surely we don’t ‘believe in’ the Church in the sense that we believe in God or in Christ? It’s a fair point; and in fact it’s already there in the original Greek of the Nicene Creed, which says literally that we believe the Church. The Church is indeed not another reality on the same level as the Father, the Son and the Spirit. But it is a community we can trust. Just as we can trust God because he has no agenda that is not for our good, so we can trust the Church because it is the sort of community it is, a community of active peacemaking and peacekeeping where no one exists in isolation or grows up in isolation or suffers in isolation. The slogan of the Church’s life is ‘not without the other’; no I without a you, no I without a we. Yet that doesn’t mean that the identity of the Church is a ‘herd’ identity, with everyone’s individuality submerged in the collective. The difference between I and you remains real difference—otherwise there would be no challenge about it. You may have noticed that few churches are characterized by drab sameness; when people try to create a herd mentality in the Church, whether in a local congregation or in a wider institution, it tends to break down dramatically, sooner or later.

So believing in the Church is really believing in the unique gift of the other that God has given you to live with. The New Testament sees the Church as a community in which each person has a gift that only they can give into the common life.

— Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust

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But as the “product-to-consumer” model of the secular corporations became normative, the now corporate church followed suit—with a wrenching twist: It went from selling salvation to the heathen to selling religion to its own clientele. That this was a step onto a slippery slope should be obvious. Given the time it would take for the mid-twentieth century to arrive, “the church” (the markeetor) would be redefined as “the clergy,” and “the consumers” (the marketees) would go from being the “lost” out there to the “found” in the pews. The church, having once been an obligational society (however imperfectly defined), would now degenerate into a consumer-driven marketing operation dedicated to the servicing of existing accounts.

This downhill slide had relatively little effect on the national denominational churches because they were already so committed to the corporation model that they were far down the slope of corporate futility. But what it did to the local units of those churches was devastating. Under the medieval version of the Christendom model, a parish church in a given place was simply the church of all the citizens in that place, just as the church at large was the church of all the citizens of Europe. And it was “catholic,” at least in one sense, because everybody available (provided you didn’t count too carefully) was in it. If the local churches of the Middle Ages fell somewhat short of the best definition of catholicity, they were still such random grab-bags of high and low, rich and poor, wise and foolish that they looked like a fair approximation of universality. And for a while, the state churches of the Reformation managed to keep up that same, everybody-belongs appearance. But as the splintering of the church progressed—and, in particular, as it progressed to the New World—the pretense of catholicity became harder and harder to maintain. The churches were by then competing versions of the Christian religion: a given town could have several such churches; a given city, dozens.

However, as the nineteenth century wore on into the twentieth (and the corporate model became increasingly consumer-driven), the local churches became little more than franchises of brand-name businesses vying for market share. Membership statistics and financial viability were made the measure of every unit’s success or failure. And when you add to that the tendency of American demographics to change more and more with each passing year, you get the whole passel of undesirable results in which we now find ourselves. For one thing, denominational “brand loyalty” has given way to church-shopping. Born-and-bred Methodists who move to Phoenix, for example, may try a Methodist church there; but if they take exception to the cut of the minister’s jib, or the quality of the choir, or the dowdiness of their child’s Sunday School teacher, they may hie themselves to the Episcopal church—until, of course, they move to Tulsa, where the search for the right religious shop begins all over again.

— Robert Farrar Capon, The Astonished Heart

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Jemar Tisby in an interview about his new book The Color of Compromise:

Christianity has the doctrine called original sin. We recognize that every part of ourselves and anything we touch as human beings is subject to corruption of sin. Christians, of all people, should be able to look in the mirror and say, “I’m guilty. I have been part of systems that have oppressed and marginalized other people.” That’s the thrust of the book. I think one of the big criticisms people will eventually come out with is that the book is not balanced. That’s for two reasons. First, the history itself is not balanced. The story of race in the church involves recognizing that there were people who were actively racist or complicit with racism. That group outnumbered the people who actively fought against racism. The analogy I use is of a football game. The referee isn’t fair if he or she calls an equal amount of penalties on both teams. The referee is responsible for calling the penalties against the team that deserved them, even if one team has many more penalties than another.

The other reason why the book may seem imbalanced is because we’ve told and celebrated the story of Christians fighting racism. We’ve done this to a detrimental degree because we take the exception—the minority of racism-conscious people—and we claim them as our own without recognizing the church’s broad complicity in racism. I wanted to make sure that we took a long, hard look at the way a majority of the American church for the majority of American history has helped to propagate and perpetuate a racial caste system.

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Simplicity is a positive virtue. It’s not just the lack of stuff. It’s embracing the right things with our time, the right things in our life. In that sense, it is like humility. Humility is not just the absence of pride, it is the virtue, even the habit, of viewing oneself rightly and correctly; it’s  appropriate self-knowledge. I do think that, in some sense, we approach simplicity not just by trying to get rid of stuff, but trying to pursue things like silence, things like solitude, things like generosity, which will inevitably require simplicity. Things like rest and Sabbath. These kinds of practices all result in a simpler lifestyle, but they’re a positive vision instead of just a negative vision of ridding ourselves of materialistic things. There is absolutely room for the message that we need to get rid of stuff, but at the end of the day, practicing simplicity is not primarily about “emptying out,” in and of itself. That cannot be the telos. It has to be filling up with the right and proper things that will help us to flourish, and so it’s really both. We need a negative and positive vision of simplicity.

Tish Harrison Warren, “Liturgies of Less and More”

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When you see a great performer, a singer or instrumentalist, at work realizing a piece of music, you are looking at one human being at the limit of their skill and concentration. All their strength, their freedom, and you could even say their love is focused on bringing to life the work and vision of another person. Think of Jacqueline du Pré’s legendary playing of Elgar’s Cello Concerto — memorably captured on film — and you may see what I mean. But you see it any time you go to a concert, classical or popular, when you go to a cathedral service with choristers, when you watch a singer close up on the big screen. Here is Someone who is completely themselves, free and independent, and yet for this time the whole of their being, their life, their freedom, their skill, is taken up with this mysterious, different thing that is the work to be brought to life. The vision and imagination of another person, the composer, has to come through — not displacing the human particularity of the performer but ‘saturating’ that performer’s being for the time of the performance.

Now, could we imagine what it might be like for a whole lifetime to be given up to ‘performance’ in that way? Because that, surely, is what we’re trying to say about Jesus as a human being. He is performing God’s love, God’s purpose, without a break, without a false note, without a stumble; yet he is never other than himself, with all that makes him distinctly human taken up with this creative work. If we look at great musicians, we see both the intensity of the struggle and the strength of the joy that goes with it. Whatever is happening, these performers are not becoming less human, less distinctive. In the fullness of their skill and their joy, another is made present. So with Jesus; this is a human life and a human will whose power and joy is the performance of who God is and what God wants, the performance of the Word of God.

— Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust

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We live in a world where God’s active presence is both invisible and inscrutable on the one and, on the other, almost unbearably close wherever we are and whatever is happening. The poet William Blake, who had a Vision of trees full of angels at Peckham Rye, is a safer guide than William Paley to a world that may not be secure but is pulsing with something unmanageable, terrible and wonderful just below its surface.

— Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust

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