If we are living ‘post-Christendom’ then we are, in effect, living in Exile. Where once the institutions of society and state paid their respects in Christian terms, now the church is told to ‘get with the programme’ and fit in with the secular imperatives. That which the church once took for granted is now not only taken away from us but forbidden to us.
What I am wondering about is how we in the church will change to accommodate this new spiritual reality. Yes, there are lots of echoes of the early church environment but at that point everything was new. Now the most dominant perception of Christianity in the wider community is that it is old and outdated, something already proven to be false. Instead of a simple proclamation of the gospel in conventional terms, evangelism depends upon being rather more sly – at least, it does if it has integrity, and isn’t simply aping the cultural forms that are temporarily dominant.
When the Jews were in Babylon, their entire understanding of faith shifted. The Temple was no more, so all of the worship that had been centred upon the Temple simply ceased to exist – and the spiritual needs that had been met that way were then sublimated and turned to a different direction. Most especially, this was the time when the Jewish community began to emphasise the text, and the meetings that gathered around the text, ie the synagogue. The Text replaced the Temple.
I am simply wondering what Christians are called to do in a parallel context. One option is simply to repeat the inherited truths more loudly – this is what I see many churches doing, both evangelical and Radical Orthodox. Another option is assimilation into the wider culture; another option is simply a resigned despair, the acceptance that we will go down with the ship and let God look after what comes next.
What are the equivalents of the Temple in Jerusalem for Christians today? In a phrase: Word and Sacrament. I believe that what the Spirit is leading us to is an abandonment of both Word and Sacrament as those things have been dominantly understood in Christendom. I do not believe that it is possible to have the same attitude to a text – any text – as has historically been common for understanding the Bible. Similarly, I am starting to believe that it is impossible to have the same understanding of the sacraments in a world that has become thoroughly disenchanted and secularised. Of course, it is possible to come to an appreciation of both Word and Sacrament as a result of deep training – I would describe my own understanding as a fruit of such a process – but I see no way in which that can become an effective means for transmitting the gospel. In a society which treated words as sacred, or that treated objects as always potentially significant, sharing the gospel and the bread and wine is not inherently problematic. It is as if the playing field itself has shifted. Christianity as against the Greek gods or other Christianities can make all sorts of sense – for some of the most significant things are retained in common. The challenge is simply to show that Christianity gives the best answers to the questions.
Yet our situation is one where the questions have changed. If you understand questions of sin and redemption to be significant, that is a context in which the proclamation of the gospel can make sense. Yet what if such questions are seen as inherently neurotic? In other words, it is not that you are seeking an answer to these questions, you simply want to stop those questions being asked in the first place? (Yes, Mr Wittgenstein is hovering behind this thought).
In other words, the fundamental spiritual hunger has shifted. Such things have happened before – the time of Exile was one such, and Christ’s own ministry cannot be understood without understanding all the implications that exile had upon Jewish life (see Margaret Barker for more on this).
As I see it, the fundamental spiritual hunger, in the West at least, is no longer about salvation but about self-realisation. It is as if the metaphysics has been ‘bracketed out’ or ‘cancelled out’ – like with an algebraic equation. That is, all the issues about the after life, the salvation of souls, heaven and hell – these simply no longer have any purchase. That which was described in such terms, the use to which that language was put, such things are still real – but that language is no longer fit for purpose.
The language of a victorious YHWH made no sense in the evnironment of Babylon – and the response was the language of the suffering servant. It seems to me that we are in a situation where the language of the suffering servant makes no more sense and we are having to explore something different once again. The real question is whether the resources of Christianity are deep enough to enable that something new to retain continuity with the old, or whether the Spirit simply wants a break with what has gone before.
Such things I shall continue to ponder. It may simply be, of course, that I am simply wanting to find a form of church that would enable me to become more truly myself…
This is a train of thought inspired by reading Graham’s post