This post is part 2 in a 7 part series of reflections as I turn 25 years old. I’m convinced that to be human is to struggle and to struggle with God. This series serves to honor the difficult questions. I don’t know if everyone has questions their mind continually turns over while they walk the dog, shower, drive to work, but these are mine. I’m hopeful that in 25 more years I’ll have more compelling, more faithful answers to them than I do now – or that I’ll have moved on to more interesting things altogether. Either way.
In a recent counseling course, we surveyed the approaches to therapy, from Frued to Jung to Yalom and so on. There have been thousands of studies published trying to figure out the best ways to do therapy. Do we try to alter behavior, do we analyse subconscious thoughts, do we try to change thought patterns, etc?
The conclusions are a bit of a somber tale: no theory or method is a clear winner at all. Healing seems to have less to do with what is being done in therapy and more to do with the fact that therapy is happening. I’ve come to think of church in similar terms. Thomas Merton had this to say about the necessity of communing together.
“The Desert Fathers who ran spiritually amok in the third and fourth centuries did not fail in asceticism. Their fasts and their penances were almost incredible…Where, then, did they fail? In humility and charity. This failure was expressed in a contempt for mankind in general, for the other hermits, a contempt for the common prayer life of the Church and a conviction that they could do without Mass and the Sacraments.” – Thomas Merton (Bread in the Wilderness)
I grew up in a conservative (ish) Mennonite tradition, and that’s where I first learned theology and a lot of other things.There is so much to celebrate about the tradition I grew up in. I experienced transcendance there; I communed with the holy. Growing up, the moments when I felt closest to God, the times things really fell into place for a moment of clarity – many of those instances where in church.
There was a really strong focus on sharing our lives with each other. There were monthly meals which our congregation ate together. All the time folks were making announcements about someone needing practical help (a roof, a fundraiser, a baby, a music night) and people flocking to pitch in. There was a deep sense of being a collective whole that seemed so natural. It’s really only when I was away I realized how unique it was. Growing up there, it seemed like the best way to live. Why wouldn’t everyone pitch in for a monthly meal?
In that tradition, we also did everything we possible could in house. Everything from running sound equiptment to leading worship to building maintencance to actually preaching was done by people in the congregation. No one was every brought in from the outside to perform an important church function. This meant that for me it was really easy to be involved. I wanted to help with music, so I allowed to help play worship and trained on the soundboard. And like we all do, I thought we had things pretty ironed out.
I remember driving to church one Sunday and feeling a deep and uneasy pity for man mowing his yard – a heathen working on the Sabbath. Whether that was my own idea or what was being preached isn’t really the point. This man fell outside the lines of our tradition, and it was clear to me he was wrong.
I think there’s a tendency to grow up thinking our parents and our pastor and our friends have it nailed down. Our people get it. And then you grow up and start to realize there are lots of other folks holding the same Bible in their hands, singing songs to the same God, and it’s looking a whole lot different. This seems to be going on at a much accelerated pace in the last years. Millenials and Gen Z seem to be deconstructing from the traditions we were raised in.
I’m convinced much of this is a good thing. And it’s not happening because we’re particularly brilliant or care more about God; no, I think it has a lot more to do with having exposure to other Christians and ideas through digital technology.
It’s almost funny to listen to us talk about church. So many of us say the same thing – well we’re going to a non-denominational church now. I sense a real break away from tradition, a need to get out from under what we’ve perceived to be wrong with church. I say we because I feel this so deeply. When I reflect on some of the things that passed for normal in church growing up, I almost wonder if memory is failing. But there is also a sort of unmooring that accompanies attending a church without a denominational background or long faith tradition, and this is where a lot of my generation find ourselves.
I have absolutely no qualms with the term deconstruction. There is so much ugliness which has been blended into American Evangelical Christianity – unbuilding is absolutely necessary. If you want to remodel your house, the walls with rot have got to come down. And this isn’t a new idea. Folks, like Rich Mullins, were saying these things in before 2000. The question is – where do we go from here? Once we’ve found the rot, what comes next?
A few months back I found myself in a church service where I just cringed for about an hour straight. I was there somewhat against my will, and what I heard was brutally distasteful and downright unchristian in the truest sense. Hearing God’s name plastered on blatantly false teaching made me physically sick to my stomach.
And then I looked over to my right and saw this young man having a deeply meaningful experience. I opened my eyes during the alter call, and there he was raising his hand in a sincere act of faith to recieve salvation. I was torn – clearly this service was garbage, and also clearly this other person had experienced something transcendent and apparently communed with God. Could both things be true at the same time? Can different people see the same thing and have very different experiences. It seems so.
I’ve had many conversations with friends, and I suppose I’ll have many more, about how to know if you should leave a church. There comes a time when you are uncomfortable because things are going wrong – whether that’s teaching or abuse of power or whatever. But I also know it to be true that the people who started the non-denominational churches all came from somewhere. I think “non-denominational” is attractive to many folks like me because it holds the promise of being free from the baggage we’re trying to get away from. But anytime you have people, those people came from somewhere, and doing something more than once births a tradition anyway.
Brian Zahnd recently Tweeted, “Without transcendence religion is just politics.” And I’ve been thinking about that ever since I read it.
How do we get out of “just politics?” A later post in this series aims to dig deeper here. But it’s clear to me there isn’t one way or one tradition. I’m also convinced that traditions, in their differences, are able to offer richness which is unique to them. Carl Jung thought the pysche operated based on balance and equilibrium. When one part was deficient, it’s opposite was stronger. If one part was shifted, it’s opposite was shifted to compensate. This strikes me as correct about church traditions.
There are ways in which the Catholic church, with its liturgical focus and proper vibe, is unable to provide the same fellowshipo as the Mennonite church I grew up in. And my Mennonite church, with its insistance on doing everything in house, created a culture where formal theological education was viewed with suspicion. The Southern Bapists have an incredible emphasis on spreading the gospel to other countries, and God help them, their denomination does some terrible things to native peoples in the name of Jesus. Just as there cannot be one “right” person on any subject or any one “perfect” player in any sport, there can’t be one right church tradition. Our strengths are also our weaknesses in some sense.
Moving Faithfully Past Positivism
The way forward is, to me, not clear. But I am certain in involves giving up our obsession with positivism – this is the obessession with grasping the objective truth. Thinking there must be one right answer, that only one way can be right, is what led many of those before us to think their tradition had it figured out and everyone else was stupid. We must go beyond that. Quite frankly, it means we stop using the Bible as a textbook of answers about things it wasn’t written to answer. The positivist temptation is certainty.
We must become aware of the values and dispositions of our own tradition, as well as the flaws, without just becoming disembodied, amorphous blobs. We have to belong to somewhere. But this should lead to an openness, a willingness to celebrate other traditions, a desire to integrate more fully. This would make many shudder who are adamant our goal is to remain as separate as possible.
Many of my generation and the ones after me are trying to figure out what it means to move faithfully out of dogmatism. Where do we go from here? I don’t think there is a clear answer, and I have so much to learn. I’m confident there is a whole lot that is good about where I came from. For me, there was enough reason to leave and look elsewhere for a church home.
I think that in church, like in counseling, most any “theory” can work, but not everything works for everyone, and not every place is conducive to healthy living. It has more to do with finding a place and a people where you can recieve the love of others and the love of Jesus and give it out too. And I for one and still figuring out what that means.