Saturday, December 06, 2003

One of the defining characteristics of evangelical Protestant theology has been certainty, and at that a certainty that extends to the most specific, seemingly trivial of matters. I ask plainly, have we sacrificed mystery for certainty? Or I should say, mysticism. Have we doctrinally parsed every page of the Bible so that it doesn't scare us anymore? And I don't mean that fleeing in terror sort of scared. I mean worship-inducing, awe-inspiring sort of scared. What sort of doctrinal assumptions do you make as you approach the Bible that might suck all the mystery (or all the correction) right out of it? Is your theology too comfortable? Can it, and start over. Well, what do you think? I would turn the comments on, but I don't know how. Very well, if you wish to comment, send all of them to: No spam.
I had some thoughts about theology. Some people see theology as a barrier to Christians and their walk with the Lord. True, some discussion is pointless infighting, with the sins of anger and arrogance at the forefront. But far too many Christians mistake "simply Christian" for easy, and an abscence of conflict. We should learn as much about the mysteries of God as we can. Furthermore, we should learn to speak the language of theology so we can explore these mysteries together. Sure, it will be somewhat jargon-filled, but we already have a jargon as Christians. Even the most basic of Christian doctrine seems fresh to any mind willing to dive into the mystery. We must at all costs avoid sin if we feel the need to dispute each other in matters of doctrine. Even to see some weaknesses in our own beliefs, or that of our particular traditions, the theological journey has merit. In any case, theology is another good place to see God's love for us in Christ if we look for it.

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

This is my religious autobiography, intermingled with an analysis of Robert Wuthnow's After Heaven: Spirituality in America since the 1950s. Enjoy.

A Spirituality of Dwelling in the Incarnation

Spirituality in the United States has undergone profound change. The spirituality of dwelling that allegedly prevailed in the 1950s depended on unimpeded transmission and repetition of religious practices, and community orientation. Wuthnow rightly asserts that such spirituality is unlikely to survive the rapid change that this nation has seen. That shift from dwelling to seeking is quite apparent, yet the solution of a “practice-oriented spirituality” is little more than platitudes, speaking to a need that is not filled with generalities. God, ever-present as the Father, the Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, reminds us in the Scriptures and by his very presence that this culture is not so much faster, more materialistic, or any more lost than the one to which he spoke in biblical times. As we have learned from seeking, the certainty of faith and of God’s presence cannot be manufactured; it must be hard-won in spiritual battle. That battle is with ourselves, and with the culture in which we live. That Wuthnow uses such familiar terms to Christianity shows the empty victory of our return to “discipline” in the evangelical culture of the 1980s. My suggestion is an incarnational dwelling in Christ, with an implicit assumption there is such a thing as “mere Christianity.” It may involve the outright repudiation of “foundational theology”—that is, doctrine built upon a series of if-then statements, the result of which was firm denominational boundaries and open conflict. My own story will illuminate how this might be accomplished, and to affirm the general trend in American culture noticed by Wuthnow, (going from dwelling to seeking, and now stuck in the middle). Though I assert that this incarnational trend is more than just a digging in of the heels, and a culture war will be to no avail. The language of Christian faith ceased to be offensive, in the parable sort of way, because the wider culture diluted the meaning of the words by mistaking the universality of Christian concepts for a lack of specificity. In light of this, evangelicals have turned to smaller more fluid groups to rebuild their institutions, and more specific messages and means to carry them.
I was born on January 30, 1980, in a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. My father was a restaurant manager, and my mother is an account executive for a large company. My father’s family was nominally Catholic, and he left the Catholic Church at the age of ten, vowing never to return, stating that “They’re all a bunch of hypocrites.” Interestingly, my father’s apostasy prevented my baptism as an infant. My mother’s family has been notably irreligious. Her father was an atheist for 36 years. That has changed radically since my mother’s childhood. Our home, however, was entirely secular at the beginning. In 1986, my mother joined Alcoholics Anonymous, so the dynamics of our home changed slightly at that point, in that we acknowledged as a family that God now existed, though I nor my brother felt any need to call on God. My parents got divorced in 1982, and my mother had lost a companion to a swimming accident involving alcohol in 1986, prompting the change. After another broken marriage, my mother became a Christian in the spring of 2000. After feeling the effects of that marriage (which gave me a sister) I knew that God was watching, and hated injustice, and had been merciful to me and my family. It could have been far worse. Having encountered several Christians during my childhood at what always seemed the perfect time, I was finally lured into the Christian fold in 1997 by an FCA meeting prior to the school day, specifically by the public reading of Scripture. I do not know why I came to those meetings to this very day. These events may explain my quick embrace of a Calvinistic soteriology in college in 1999. It made perfect sense to me, and it still does.
We should place these things in the context of Wuthnow’s analysis now by noting the informal nature of the organizations that led to the conversion of my mother and me. AA is exactly the kind of seeker-friendly place that Wuthnow puts forth as the norm, while FCA’s nondenominational structure can bring it to places that a church cannot go. Yet it is also notable that these served as “stepping stones” to evangelical church settings. I believe that the Catholic Church is the epitome of dwelling-oriented spirituality, and the limitations noted by Wuthnow have been directly experienced by members of my family. However, we have seen spirited defenses of traditional Catholic doctrine in television and in print, as well as the internet by James Aiken, and by the Eternal Word Television Network, among others. The latter most especially has taken Roman Catholicism from a praxis-oriented faith to more of a unity in faith and practice, similar to Protestantism. I think that this will lead to stronger alliances between evangelicals on both sides the family, so to speak. Wuthnow has been correct to say that divisions run through denominations, not between them. But he underestimates the value of clubs and support groups, as well as the media, to be devices for networking for some to subvert the denominational structures altogether. Thus, they may not be the result of seeker-oriented spirituality, but rather shock-troops in a new Christian renewal. Many of these organizations find themselves populated by large numbers of young people. Organizations like FCA and many others have seen significant growth post 1990, well after the “decade of discipline.” Rather than getting resources from institutions, these groups are providing resources in the form of members, and their structure may be softening the doctrinal divisions between denominations once these people join established churches. Since the formation of some of these organizations has been in the aftermath of a culture war that has been lost, it has been quiet and unnoticed. There is nothing confused about this particular message. It’s going to be awhile before we see the effects of decentralization. It benefits these groups to lower their profile; it keeps the culture wars out of the work of churches. The cultural malaise is distressing, they might say, but also beneficial. No one is paying any attention. It is not cultural disengagement, but impacting culture in smaller doses. It makes sense for Wuthnow to highlight the fluidity of “buffet” spirituality; they’re the only ones talking. Churches have not all resorted to a “lifestyle witness” approach, either. Wuthnow goes to great lengths to show a Christian evangelical message as one among many, that some would simply market their faith as the best option, with utilitarian motives. But in addition to choosing cultural battles more carefully, evangelical leaders are beginning to realize “the medium is the message.” Inclusive, non-offensive messages calling for a return home from the 60s netted leaders with what they would describe as false converts, committed only to the most general of spiritual principles. The liturgical movement that is still growing among some evangelicals serves to redefine boundaries, placing the emphasis back on doctrine and confession, and away from market-driven strategies that drew people looking for a crutch. These messages have become more overt, yet less visible.
To conclude, the dwelling spirituality that prevailed in the perceived rise of evangelicalism in the 1980s lacked substance because it was utilitarian. Wuthnow traces an important pattern in the death of generational spirituality. But he is not demonstrating the inadequacy of a spirituality of dwelling; rather a kind of seeking masquerading as dwelling. In response, he proposes spiritual practice as an alternative to seeking and this new pseudo-dwelling. But without the particulars being named, answering “In whom do you trust?” every spiritual practice will be either flatly utilitarian, or transient. My Christianity does not merely help me cope with life. It is not a self-help program with a Christian label. It is the truth, and nothing more. The changing winds of popular spirituality are of no concern to me. We should have anticipated what Wuthnow is showing us: the decline of influence for churches in American culture. But I do not think that the loss of influence in wider society means that they have been fundamentally altered by the culture. We have learned quickly from our market-driven mistakes. The medium is indeed the message, and what was sown now has been reaped. Yet this dwelling in the Incarnation is the best answer. Dwelling as defined by Wuthnow was another form of seeking, (which is utilitarian) both before the cultural revolution, and in the return to discipline. He makes his lone error by supposing that the call for discipline was what remains of dwelling.

The construction of the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church originates from many angles. Philip Jenkins’ work, Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis, attempts to distill all the pressures for reform into the most pertinent elements, organized around a central theme: All the pressure points for reform had the effect of pushing the Catholic Church from a “sect” to a “church”. The three most compelling aspects of Jenkins’ argument are litigation, the media, and internal division. Once placing these factors within the argument, we can then critically evaluate Jenkins’ overall argument.
Litigation is potentially the most dangerous aspect of the scandal for the Roman Catholic Church. Damage awards have the ability to cripple the church, and at a speed not rivaled by bad media coverage. In addition, the possibility of high damages encourages false accusations, and true accusers who might have otherwise elected not to sue (125). Another interesting point deals with the litigation turning the church and victims (and their families) into enemies. The church could not reasonably be expected to preemptively help victims with medical costs, or even express sympathy, as this might be an admission of guilt. Two things make the case for Jenkins: First, the presence of litigation and openness to civil authorities shows a lessening of tension between the sect and wider culture. Second, the threat of successful litigation means the ability to extract concessions in doctrine and practice. Litigation also attracted one of the other agents for change, the media.
The media’s main function, according to Jenkins, was as a weapon against the hierarchy in the hands of the Catholic laity. The media gave reform groups within Catholicism a platform to express their grievances. Unwittingly, they gave the most credence to groups suggesting a change in the authority structure itself. For Jenkins, this fits with the media’s tendency to favor American democratic institutions. For them, it was a patriotic impulse Jenkins notes, with the authoritarian Roman Catholic Europe trying to drag its American branch backward toward traditional values and practices, and liberalizing trends within, nurtured by the media. The governance of the church has long been an issue with anti-Catholic and anticlerical groups. If the church looks like it is governed like an American representative democracy, this is an accommodation to the society at large, and is huge evidence of the transition from sect to church.
The internal division of the Catholic Church is a major factor in the pressure for change, according to Jenkins. Whether feminists pushing for the ordination of women, gay advocates, or their conservative traditionalist counterparts, the political factions in the Catholic Church have all seemingly had one target, according to Jenkins—the hierarchy. As we have discussed, the media has a preference for decentralized, democratic institutions. Groups on the left and the right took this into account, skillfully making political use out of doctrinal clarification stressing the equality of clergy and laity to draw firm distinctions between themselves and church leadership. The mere existence of this distinction demonstrates the culture’s intrusion into matters of faith—a politicizing of spiritual matters that betrays previous portraits of religious communities of unified bodies that impacted culture, but were not impacted by it. What makes these conflicts so important is that the threat to leave the church is real. The power of the threat is the realization by liberalizing groups that the image of unanimity is more important that doctrinal or spiritual purity. The nature of Catholicism (and some Protestant communities with episcopalian governance) is that strong authority and the appearance of harmony is desirable for leadership. The thrust of Jenkins’ argument is that leadership can concede points of doctrine and practice, reducing overall tension between Catholicism and the wider American culture, or decentralize power, minimizing itself as a target. In either case, Catholicism in the US will have become a church because the cultural pressures are too strong to maintain it as a sprawling, influential sect. Protestantism as a whole made the choice centuries ago that unity which leads to widespread accommodation to culture wasn’t worth it. To that end, decentralization and fracture was a regrettable side effect of preservation. Smaller communities with marginal impacts individually can afford to live in tension with culture; big ones cannot.
Three specific factors are instrumental in making Philip Jenkins’ argument that the American Catholic Church is in transition from a sect to a church. Specifically, these are litigation, the media, and church politics. Other factors were less compelling for that case. Psychology and the rise of therapeutic culture were mentioned as important catalysts, but the backlash within a receptive and reform-friendly media seems in the end to make the impact of psychologists and experts a wash. Media quickness to correct perceived excess, and in essence, to roll back successes and influence of groups that stood to benefit from abuse claims makes their ultimate influence unclear.
Also, that skepticism in the realm of therapy is linked to the cyclical nature of attitudes on child sexual abuse. I do not think a credible linkage can be made here because the skepticism about therapy (especially memory recovery) was created by actual cases of manipulation and error, not simply that the public had grown weary of the issue. Secondly, Jenkins merely asserts that attitudes on sexual abuse have been cyclical; he does not prove it. The repeal of sex psychopath laws in the 1960s does not prove that society had become more tolerant of abuse. In fact, Jenkins lumps behaviors together when talking about loosening sexual mores in the 1960s, but makes distinctions to prove the new “outrage” in the 1980s (77-79). What about cases originating entirely in the “age of sensitivity” from the mid-80s to the present? He claims that they were operating in a new cultural context when the abuse was discovered than when it occurred. But the Church of the 80s and 1990s should be well aware of the new context by now, and yet they rightly suffer criticism for inaction and favoring rehabilitation to removal.
In addition, Jenkins argues that the Protestant Reformation was a telling transition point for Protestant transition from a sect to a church in that the democratic nature of it was an accommodation to prevailing culture. As noted above, American Catholicism faces a similar decision point. However, it could be argued that the Reformation was a refusal to assimilate, in that the Church had become so political that it was indistinguishable from the surrounding culture. Perhaps the split was due to the noticeable lack of tension with culture, not a boiling over.
In sum, Philip Jenkins persuasively argues that the American Catholic Church is becoming a church as opposed to a sect in the sociological sense. Litigation, the media, and Church politics show the intermingling of cultural trends consistent with a religious body no longer in significant tension with the surrounding society. Points concerning therapy and changing attitudes about sexual abuse are less convincing for lack of evidence. Still, Pedophiles and Priests is very useful in mapping possible directions for Catholicism in America.
Well, I had to entirely rewrite the submission on Philip Jenkins' book, Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis. Therefore, I'll post the resumbmission for you here.
Too long not to post. Great Thanksgiving. We traversed all of Missouri, Kansas, and half of Colorado before arriving at our vacation destination in Colorado City. Thanks to Kevin Kettinger for driving 13 hours each way so I could celebrate. Seriously though, brother, there's only so much introspective acoustic guitar music I can take (John Mayer, Jack Johnson, Dave Matthews). Good times.