Being a church in exile – what changes?

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 Now the most dominant perception of Christianity in the wider community is that it is old and outdated, something already proven to be false.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

27 thoughts on “Being a church in exile – what changes?

  1. Wow…..I am going to have to chew over this. I think ‘Sacrament’ as in a shared meal may become more significant; a resistance against the atomised self.

  2. As I see it, the fundamental spiritual hunger, in the West at least, is no longer about salvation but about self-realisation.

    Indeed. And I’m sure that’s why preachers who present Christ as a path to self-realisation are so popular, in America and increasingly in the UK. I am thinking of people like Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer. They are pilloried by conservatives for playing down traditional Christian central doctrines, although they don’t deny them. But they seem to be scratching where people are itching. Do you see this kind of teaching as an important way ahead for the church, or as fundamentally flawed?

    • Peter, the honest answer is ‘I don’t know’ – and it is scratching that itch for me that is driving these posts. I’ll get back to TBLA before too long…

  3. Actually, I do disagree about the “self-realisation” thing. I think the whole idea is to get rid of the false ego (i.e., the “self” – which in fact is actually mostly made up of what other people have wanted for us) that we all carry around – and to allow Christ to form us to true human nature. It seems clear we can’t get there on our own; we are all blocked by things we don’t even know about and thus can’t reach. And there’s the “mimetic” problem, too.

    That, I think, is “salvation”! We are thus rescued from a living death; the “self” is the very thing that must be dispensed with! (“Life after death” is, for me, a separate – but absolutely related – question.)

    I disagree, too, with the thing about Word and Sacrament. James Allison’s thought is that the Hebrew Bible describes us to ourselves; it tells us who we are. The Gospel is, for us, the way out of the mess. And Sacrament, I think, is more important than ever before!

    But, I do agree that everything needs to be thought through again, so that we can talk to people outside the system in a way that will make sense to them. The church, I think, has basically forgotten what it’s for – and that is to heal the rift between humanity and the sacred Trinity of Love. We are all so angry all the time….

    • BLS, I’m not sure who you are disagreeing with here. For me and for many if not all popular preachers in this area, self-realisation is precisely about getting rid of the false self-image which others have wanted for us and finding our true identity in Christ. This is indeed salvation, or at least the this-worldly aspect of it.

  4. In my opinion, you and the other preachers are completely mistaken about what “self-realization” actually entails.

    Here’s a defintion; “The basic premise of self-realization is that there exists an authentic self which has to be discovered by psychological or spiritual self-striving.”

    Here’s another: “fulfillment by oneself of the possibilities of one’s character or personality.”

    As I said above, “the self is the very thing that must be dispensed with”; that’s not at all what’s happening in “self-realization” under either of those definitions. The alleged “self” is just as much in control as before (if not moreso) – except that this time, it’s been romanticized as the “authentic self”! And that’s even worse, actually….

    • BLS, thank you for the clarification. By the way I am not a preacher.

      Now I see why you think there is a disagreement. But the issue now is exactly what is the authentic self which has to be discovered. We agree that it is not “the false ego (i.e., the “self” – which in fact is actually mostly made up of what other people have wanted for us)”. I think we can also agree that we should be aiming to have this replaced by our “true human nature” as found in Christ. I’m sure that at least in principle that is the authentic self promoted by Christian preachers of self-realisation. Of course there may be some differences in exactly what they would include in that authentic self, and for some it may be just as selfish as the false ego. But it seems to me that your main objection to the phrase “authentic self” is that you assume, wrongly, that it is always intended to be “just as much in control as before”.

      As for the “by psychological or spiritual self-striving” part of your definition, it seems to me that that is tendentious, even pejorative. I suspect these words, especially “self-striving”, were written into Wikipedia by a Calvinist critic of Christian self-realisation preachers (although I am surprised that there is no mention in the article of this emerging Christian movement). Sadly the Wikipedia editor involved is not theologically astute enough to pick this up, although (s)he has marked the section involved as inadequate. Now maybe some secular motivational speakers promote self-realisation by “self-striving”, although I don’t think this is an accurate description of the eastern mystical tradition of self-realisation. But good Christian preachers recognise that this is all by grace, and that one needs to put away striving and let God change one, taking away the false ego and bringing out the authentic self found in Christ. I hope we can agree on that.

  5. “the fundamental spiritual hunger, in the West at least, is no longer about salvation but about self-realisation”


    But when Jesus said “feed my sheep”, is that what he had in mind?

    It’s the same question that Christians have faced in every age — do we reflect the fulture of the times, or are we countercultural?

  6. I spend a lot of time around songwriters. Especially amongst young songwriters, the level of navel-gazing and self-absorption is almost at epidemic proportions. I’m inclined to think that a great deal of ‘self-realization’ and ‘self-actualization’ is thinly disguised idolatry.

    • Tim, that doesn’t surprise me, especially among songwriters who tend to have that kind of personality. I am not advocating navel-gazing. Nor are the preachers I have in mind. We are advocating going out and acting according to our true selves, not to meet others’ expectations.

  7. No, we don’t agree. Time spent obsessing with “self” – “authentic” or otherwise – is time completely wasted. In fact, obsession with “self” is already the default setting in our culture. I’m not sure why anybody would or should decide they need Christianity in order to continue obsessing about it.

    The fixation on “self” – whether the phony “given self” layered on top or the phony “authentic self” that’s allegedly hiding underneath – is the very thing that’s got to go; 2,000 years of Christian monastic spirituality is witness to this idea. Here’s what an Episcopal religious sister has to say about the religious life: “It is a way of life designed to help one transcend the ego, which does not willingly go. This path involved intense struggle. The religious life is itself a vehicle of radical transformation.” Nothing there at all about an “authentic self.”

    There’s no mention, either, in A.A. – a program meant to effect life-saving change in people who are bent on self-destruction – of an “authentic self.” The entire project is based on “ego deflation at depth” – and the goal is to turn utterly self-absorbed people outward, towards others and the rest of the world. Believe me, there’s not even the slightest hint of the concept of “discovering an authentic self.”

    Any “emerging Christian movement” based on this idea is, I’d say, robbing people of any chance they have at really living.

    BTW, the notion that the compilers and editors of either Wikipedia or the Merriam-Webster dictionary are “Calvinists” is, to me, bizarre. I doubt very much they are anything other than secularists, speaking about a secularist idea.

    • BLS, I never said that people should spend time in introspection, obsessing about self. Of course that is exactly what much of the western monastic movement and mystical tradition has encouraged, with its emphasis on finding sins to confess. Witness some of the great works of spirituality that have come out of this tradition. It seems to me that your Episcopal sister is doing exactly what the Wikipedia definition describes, seeking “an authentic self which has to be discovered by psychological or spiritual self-striving”, just using different language. It is precisely this kind of tradition which is rejected by preachers of self-realisation through going out and making a difference in the world.

      There are certainly contributors to Wikipedia who are not secularists. I know that for a fact because I am an occasional one. I am also sure that the many Wikipedia pages about Christian theology are at least in part written by believers, although they are supposed to meet Wikipedia’s quality standards which may indeed be based on secularist assumptions. I didn’t contribute to the article in question, but it is clear that some of those who did are not secularists, but Hindus promoting their religion.

      I don’t see much point in continuing this conversation if you persist in misunderstanding and contradicting almost anything I write.

    • Since anyone can edit any Wikipedia page, there are probably Calvinists among them, but various other kinds of -ists as well.

  8. Again, my last reply is to Peter Kirk; it seems I keep hitting the wrong “Reply” link….

  9. Hate to mention it, Peter Kirk, but neither you nor anybody else is any different from “songwriters” with “that kind of personality.”

    The actual point here is that all human beings are inveterate, tireless navel-gazers. It’s who we are Advocating more of the same – this time with a religious justification! – will just get you more of the same.

  10. I don’t see much point in continuing this conversation if you persist in misunderstanding and contradicting almost anything I write.

    That’s fine with me, Peter Kirk. I’m not going to agree with you simply because you want me to, sorry….

  11. (In fact, Rev. Sam, this might be the answer to a question you posed awhile ago here about “taking up one’s cross and denying oneself.” Perhaps “denying oneself” is actually meant to be taken 100% literally?

    I suppose, though, that the “Christian self-realization movement” will want to rewrite the passage! How about “‘If any man will come after me, let him seek out his ‘authentic self!'”

    Yeah, that’s the ticket….! 😉 )

  12. Actually, BLS, I think ‘taking up your cross and denying yourself’ was originally quite literal. To the original readers of Mark, ‘denying Jesus’ in front of Roman magistrates was a real temptation to save their own skin. To ‘deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus’ meant to be willing to pay with your life for your allegiance to Jesus. I think we spiritualize and psychologize that verse to our peril. It simply meant that when the magistrate asked ‘Are you a Christian?’ the reader said ‘Yes’, even if they knew they would be executed for it.

  13. In other words, Tim: the readers of Mark understood what Jesus had said in the light of their own situation.

    But their condition isn’t ours; in fact, it’s nothing like our own situation. So I don’t really understand why it would be “perilous” to do the same thing they did – to understand the statement in the light of our own situation.

    In any case, Jesus said those words, not Mark. What you’re talking about is a particular post-hoc interpretation; if the words of Jesus only fit a particular situation, what good can they ever be to anybody else?

  14. (I should add that the discussion Rev. Sam brought up before on this blog was about whether or not “denying yourself” meant to give up certain behaviors. I don’t know whether or not you saw that one, but I was referring specifically to that post.

    Anyway, even Augustine acknowledged that it’s normal for there to be multiple interpretations of Scripture! Sure, we can acknowledge that the early church understood this passage in a certain way – but surely understanding Scripture in a variety of ways makes the Christian life much richer and deeper?

    My point here was that it’s awfully hard to find any notion of “finding one’s authentic self” in the Bible; the weight is very strongly on the side of the idea that the death of “self” as the key to the spiritual life. Another excellent example I just finished reading is in Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” That’s some pretty heavy “spiritualizing and psychologizing,” as far as I can tell.)

  15. It’s a bizarre notion, to say the least, that some nefarious Calvinist has, in order to promote his worldview, stealthily altered a Wikipedia entry that contains no Christian references whatsoever….

    (I know I hit the “Reply” under Steve’s April 20 entry, but I’d better note that that’s who I’m responding to, since “Reply” doesn’t seem to work for me on this site!)

    • BLS, I now agree that that notion is bizarre, although not as bizarre as the one that every editor of Wikipedia is a secularist. What is also bizarre to me is that the entry that contains no Christian references whatsoever, when self-realisation in some sense is at the core of what so many Christian, or pseudo-Christian, teachers are preaching today. Maybe that is because these teachers tend to use slightly different vocabulary, such as self-actualisation (following Maslow), for a very similar concept.

Comments are closed.