Cynic’s Howl: a skeptical glance at redemption history
From Martin Luther to the Post-Modern Churches
In the middle of the millennium, a crude, foul-mouth and tendentious German Augustinian monk took a hammer and nailed a parchment on the wooden door of his seminary. Scribbled on the parchment were 95 grievances, mainly his dyspepsia concerning the church’s sale of indulgences (They were certificates purchased by naïve believers to reduce the temporal purgatory punishments of their deceased loved ones.) Martin Luther’s initial intent was to engage a theological debate with the church doctors about the questionable practices of the church. Little did he anticipate that his grievances had unleashed a voracious rebellion that would eventually split the church, again.
Printing was invented in China a thousand years ago, but Europe did not catch on until the decades that preceded the Protestant Reformation. It was the time of the Renaissance that gave rise of the middle class, common education, literacy and individualism. The convergences of these epochs provided a cultural and social fecundity for the church’s reforms. Printed literatures, including the reformers’ writings, were available to the masses for the first time in history. Common folks who could read for the first time, read the Bible for the first time and discovered the Word of God for the first time. Although the “protest” was led by learned men, its driving impulse was ordinary men and women of the pews. Because it was of a commonage, the rebellion was not always civil, nor noble. At times it was senseless, vitriolic and bloody. Good and bad people died egregiously.
The Protestant Reformation was sporadic and sufferance. The reformers themselves at times were not civil nor noble toward one another. They could not agree to be disagreeable. Each fed by a diverse temperament, temerity and theological slant pouted, bickered, threatened the others and protruded his own brand of being church. Their obstinacy unleashed an unheard-of phenomenon – individual and exclusive church confessions. Each confession claimed to be Biblical. The hot hostility of who was the apostate church burnt beyond a longer century. In the name of that same gospel truth, the national churches, venal in many ways, sonorously condoned Europe’ many evils, colonization of the new world, slavery and slave trades, anti-Semitism and the inquisitions, ethnocentricity and the crusades, and xenophobia. In the new world, as diverse the American churches were, they were symbiotic in condoning similar evils. Churches exculpated a systemic genocide of the continent’s indigenous peoples, a government sanctioned slave trade, a legalization of segregation of African-Americans, exclusion of Chinese immigrants, internment of Japanese-Americans. Some of these egregious legislations were not repealed until the mid-20th century
When the smoldering amber slowly became cold ashes, the churches’ individual confessions evolved into denominations and splintered denominations within denominations. There were as many liturgical confessions as there were congregations, as many personal faiths as there were individuals. This ecclesiastical individualism was never more glaring in the New World. Without a central ecclesiastical controlling authority, every denomination, every congregation, every congregant, every cleric did what was right in its own eyes.
Post-modernity’s contagion of nationalism, tribalism and individualism surreptitiously subterfuges a fractured church. And its divisions seldom view the others with the love of Christ. Once upon a time, the church was the centrality of normality in Europe. At the threshold of a new millennium, that cannot be said without a smirk. When the European Union crafted its constitution, as ludicrous as it sounds, it intentionally omitted the significance of Christianity in its history. Perhaps the union was reacting to current reality. On a typical Sunday, a single digit percentage of Europeans attend church.
In North America, Catholic, Protestant and independent churches are waning in similar pathos as Europe’s invisible and innocuous churches. Evangelicalism is a theological and social conservative movement. It is of diverse worship liturgies that adheres to many nuances of its basic theological tenets that includes a “born-again” experience in Christ Jesus, an adherence to the Bible as the revelation of God, a personal missional effort to share the gospel with others. Most self-professing “evangelical” confess these tenets, more or less. But studies show that there is marginal difference between the lifestyles of professing Christians and non-Christians. In “Almost Christian,” the author concludes that while many American teenagers described themselves as Christian, they espouse a Christianity that is informed by a “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” worldview.
Almost Christians (a phrase coined by 18th century preachers.) go through the (e)motions of religiosity without a real commitment to Christ. That is, a post-modern “Christian” believes that God created the world; that God wants us to be good, nice, and fair to one another; that our goal in life is to find happiness and feel good about ourselves; that God is not involved in our daily lives; that all good people go to heaven when they die. Their American version of Christianity is moralistic, therapeutic and deistic. A thoughtful friend sees this at his church, and frets, “We profess a faith, but we don’t practice what we believe.” He and his wife want to leave his local parish for a better place. “. . . but where would we go,” he laments.
This is an amalgam of my experience in several marriage groups. For years, several married couples gathered habitually to nurture our relationships, feed our faith with Bible studies and enjoy an evening with friends, over food in fellowship. We enjoyed one another’s pleasantries and benefited from our conversations; we affirmed what was true, honorable, pure, lovely and godly of being Christian in our marriages. All was good. Then the afterglow of our years together disclosed that much of what we verbalized were unctuous. In came to light, that while as a group, a wife was in an illicit affair with her neighbor’s husband. Soon after two couples filed for divorce. One husband confined, “my marriage is dead.” Another husband wondered out loud, “what was the point of meeting in a group to build our marriages with the words of God. It was all a charade.” Our children are “almost Christian” because their parents in matters of faith and practice are “almost Christian.”
In recent decades, my declining denomination talks of a “spiritual lethargy” – a kind of malaise that slouched towards collective passivity and personal impiety. Some measurable vital signs of a vibrant church life are in serious decline: baptism (new members), consistent church attendance, participation in group life, and financial giving. Beyond my faith community, this precipice seems evident in the larger Christian fellowship. Research shows that of about one third of Americans of any confessions attend church, but not on a regular basis. While a spiritual lethargy seems to pervade many churches, a political effusion enters American Christianity. To be sure, the liberal denominations have already entered the political arena with their “social gospel” since the turn of the 20th century. Now in a new millennium, it is the conservative denominations who have entered the political fray with their version of the “social gospel.”
Since its genesis, Evangelicals agree that the business of the church is ‘to make disciples of all peoples, by baptizing them into the faith community and teaching them the life-changing and life-directing truths of the gospel.” Historically, Evangelicalism implicitly resisted any forms of the religious left’s “social gospel.” That resistance is no longer apparent. In recent decades, church pulpits rail against political policies concerning birth contraceptive, school prayer, sanctity of life and homosexual marriage as religious persecution. When religious survival is at stake, the conservative churches have aligned themselves as a political force. Strangely, in the last election, they have helped elect an American president who neither adheres to their faith nor their protestant values.
Another irony. While the Evangelical leadership speaks the truth of the gospel to political power, its followers, for the most part, have assimilated into society’s anti-gospel lifestyles. Of this incredulous bathos, a conservative religious magazine concludes that Evangelicalism’s moral integrity has been severely tarnished. Because of the disparity between its political stance and spiritual life in the public square, Evangelicals are laughable jokes to many and hypocrites to others. Their disparaged contradictions are a kind of confession – that the gospel has minimum spiritual power, moral authority or cultural influence in American society. The gospel has become impotent because the lives of ordinary Christians are impotent in demonstrating a transformed life. In this, the second redemptive experiment has failed as well.
Four millenniums ago, God called Abraham out of his spiritual darkness into God’s marvelous light. Yet today the Jewish people are not what was promised as Abraham had imagined it. It is not a great nation, nor its presence in the world a divine blessing to all the nations. Israel did not become a nation again until 1948, when the political-powers-to-be carved out a narrow strip of real estate in Palestine and called it “Israel.” The notion of the Jews as the chosen people is neither “great” nor a “blessing” to the gentile world. In fact, the perpetual bloody conflicts of the Middle East have adversely touched the whole world.
The notion of being Jewish is redefined by many definitions. A quaint term “cultural Jew” enters our modern lexicon. It defines a modern person who is racially, culturally and historically Jewish, but s/he does not adhere to the traditional Abrahamic faith. Many do not attend places of prayers and worship. Some are professing atheists. Some Jewish thinkers lament that the Jewish people as we know it will assimilate into the greater gentile world and will be no more as a people.
Two millenniums ago, the risen Jesus called the church into being. It was also a grand experiment that was full of potentials. Now at the threshold of a new millennium, that incredible, incredulous calling is like the other roadside debris of church history. The best demographics reveals Christianity as a notable minority. Of the seven billion earthlings, in the broadest of definitions, Christians are 30 percent. With few exceptional remnant churches in Africa, the South Americas, and few Asian places, a senescent Christianity is barely luminal in the world.
In this new millennium, an overwhelming majority of the Jewish people do not believe in the Jesus of Nazareth as their promised Messiah. Likewise, the grand mandate that defines the church seemingly has lost its “way.” If the Holy Spirit has entered the church and its congregants with a transforming force, as promised at the dawn the church age, there is little evidence to show for it. This pessimistic worldview is in no way negates the many individual disciples of Jesus who have sacrificed much, including their lives, to walk The Way. Throughout history, they began and sustained glorious movements that reformed the world for the good. And there are many more ordinary women and men who have led godly lives in ordinary circumstances. And their world is a better place because they have lived there. There is no doubt that many of faith have exemplified what it means to be disciples. But that is just it. Exceptional individuals make not the church. Indeed, they are exceptions and not the norm. The church, whether Evangelical or mainstream Protestant, conservative or liberal Catholic, Orthodox or fringe groups, has meagerly witnessed the spiritual power of the gospel.
The church’s long history of turpitude, including its recent bathos in American politics, leaves me dismayed and diffidence. These unfinished, unrefined thoughts are nothing more than a lone wolf’s howls (etymological meaning of cynic) in the dark. They are but phatic noises that spit into the rarified air. Concerning the church in need of reforms, Martin Luther’s stubborn stance before the Imperial Worm seeps into my troubled soul. His certitude inspires confidence and provokes a sufferance. In rare moments of clarity, my faith’s beliefs, convictions and assumptions, as tenuous as they become, are all I possess. In other moments when clarity escapes me, I am emptied of redolence and full of doubts. No matter how I stumble through them, history’s redemptive narratives fail to confirm the narratives of Biblical faith. The facts of contemporary religious life simply cannot validate the tenets of my informed faith. The promises in the Abrahamic covenant and in Jesus’ church mandate have failed in their fulfillment.
If indeed redemption history’s numinous transitions follow a 500-year cycle in the past four millenniums, then perhaps the church is at the next crest of a spiritual renewal. On this quincentenary of the Protestant Reformation, I dare look up to the heavens in guarded hope. Like Simeon and Anna at the temple, I dare pray for the church’s reformation, if not transformation, in earnest anticipation. All the same, this cynic howls, even in prayerful hope.