April 27, 2008 Commentary:
If pietism emphasized the importance of deeds over creeds, liberalism dispensed with the latter altogether. J. Gresham Machen, who (like Karl Barth) had been awakened from the spell of their teacher, Wilhelm Herrmann, speaks of a "pragmatist skepticism, this optimistic religion of a self-sufficient humanity," which has taken the place in Protestantism of "the redemptive religion hitherto known as Christianity." He added, "These questions take us into the very heart of the situation; the growth of ignorance in the Church, the growth of indifference with regard to the simple facts recorded in the Bible, all goes back to a great spiritual movement, really skeptical in its tendency, which has been going forward during the last one hundred years-a movement which appears not only in philosophers and theologians such as Kant and Schleiermacher and Ritschl, but also in a widespread attitude of plain men and women throughout the world. The depreciation of the intellect, with the exaltation of the feelings or of the will, is, we think, a basic fact now in modern life, which is rapidly leading to a condition in which people know neither anything nor care anything about the doctrinal content of the Christian religion, and in which there is in general a lamentable intellectual decline."
Americans, as we have already seen throughout this series, have a fairly pronounced anti-intellectual streak. We are all doers, more than believers; pragmatists, more than thinkers. Impatient with tedious study and reflection, we would rather be overcoming obstacles, conquering nature and putting it to use more than understanding and enjoying it.
But moralism-self-help salvation-is our default setting, we need to be regularly preached and taught out of it. Baptism, Communion, and preaching all call us out of ourselves and our self-trust, to cling to Christ in faith and to serve our neighbors in love. Machen pointed out that "the Christian movement at its inception was not just a way of life in the modern sense, but a way of life founded upon a message. It was based, not on a program of work, but upon an account of facts. In other words, it was based upon doctrine." A lot of people say that is intellectual, but of course faith requires knowledge and ascent as well as trust. How can we trust in something we don't know anything about.
When we examine the ecumenical creeds and the confessions and catechisms of the Reformation traditions, one thing is clear: Christ is central, the Alpha and Omega of faith and practice. However, teaching the faith to each generation through such standards has become increasingly suspect of "formalism" and "intellectualism." Apparently we would prefer that our children don't know anything at all, than that they know anything in any kind of formal way. Ann Douglas observes, "Nothing could show better the late nineteenth-century Protestant Church's altered identity as an eager participant in the emerging consumer society than its obsession with popularity and its increasing disregard of intellectual issues." Across our entire landscape, the only law left seems to be, "Keep it light."
I think of that marvelous scene in Babette's Feast, when the bleak huddle of pietist villagers is treated to a meal that was beyond their wildest dreams. At first fearful of indulging, they became delighted and grateful companions in an exchange of joy. If the world does not know how to mourn or dance properly, our only truly loving course of action is to perform in front of it, to preach and practice what it means to be sinners who are justified. We and our churches need to recover the fundamental presupposition that God cares for us too much to leave us to our lazy selves, to affirm us in our ignorance, lies, spin, and casual acceptance of the world's interpretation of reality. As C. S. Lewis put it memorably, "We are like children making mudpies in the slums because we cannot imagine a holiday at the sea."
April 20, 2008 Commentary:
The Gospel of Personal Relationship
"Your Own Personal Jesus" that was the song that Depeche Mode came out with years ago and it seems like that pretty much describes the religion of a lot of American popular Christianity today. In our last program we talked about the heresy of Gnosticism and the extent to which this approach pervades American religion. In an article in Harper's, Curtis White describes our situation pretty well, writing from the perspective of a non-Christian himself. "When we assert this is my belief" says White, "we are invoking our right to have our own private conviction no matter how ridiculous not only tolerated politically, but respected by others." In this kind of culture, "Yahweh and Baal, my God and yours, stroll arm-in-arm, as if to do so were the model of virtue itself. What we require of belief" he says, "is not that it makes sense, but that it be sincere."
"Combining this view of personal truth with free-market beliefs, even our religious views can become commodities, content, just as books are now 'sales units'" says White. "Our religious content becomes indistinguishable from our financial content and our entertainment content and our sports content. Just as the sections of your local newspaper attest. In short, belief becomes a culture commodity; we shop among competing options for our belief. Once reduced to the status of a commodity, our anything-goes, do-it-yourself spirituality cannot have very much to say about the more directly nihilistic conviction that we should all be able to do whatever we like as well. Each of us pursuing our right to our own isolated happiness." He concludes, "Belief of every kind, and cult, self-indulgence, and self aggrandizement of every degree all flourish and yet God is abandoned."
That comes from a secular periodical describing the situation in American religion today. We are going to taking up this subject of "Your Own Personal Jesus" on this edition of the White Horse Inn.
April 13, 2008 Commentary:
The Gospel According to Barnes & Noble (Part 2)
We are continuing in our series "Christless Christianity" and in the last program we looked at Gnosticism head-on as a major revival of neo-pagan spirituality in our time and place. The ancient heresy of Gnosticism was faithfully combated by Christians in the second century, but it keeps creeping up again and again as an attempt to make Christianity conformable to our pagan, especially Greek, culture. We are seeing the enormous success of this resurgence of Gnosticism in the academy and also in popular literature: all the way from Harvard Divinity School seminars to Oprah Winfrey. In this program we are going to look at how some of the "fluffy" versions of what we are calling "Gnosticism Light" make their way into Barnes & Noble as we continue the second part of this two part series of "The Gospel According to Barnes & Noble".
In its numberless variations and intriguing permutations, "The Glory Story" is the religion of the fallen heart - of human beings turned in on themselves seeking an Archimedean point in the self, an innocent inner spark of divinity buried in the corruption of all external things. Paganism in all of its forms offers enlightenment rather than redemption.; self-awareness rather than salvation. Nothing could be further from this basically pagan view of reality than the Christian faith. And the contrast we are drawing between Christianity and Gnosticism, that is, the attempt of Gnosticism to make Christianity less offensive to Greek ears is exactly what Paul had in mind when he wrote to the Corinthians, "For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart. For since in the wisdom of God the world did not know God through wisdom (inner enlightenment) it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. Where Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified. A stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified."
Now when you turn on the TV today and watch Joyce Meyer, or Creflo Dollar, or T.D. Jakes, or Joel Osteen; that's the kind of person Paul had in mind - he called them the super-apostles who were contesting his ministry and trying to draw people away. Paul said, "I know I don't come with superior oratory, with great speaking skills of those who come with their, as he called it in Romans, smooth-talk and flattery, but I determine to know nothing among you but Christ and him crucified. Is that what we hear in popular Christianity in America, not to mention the "New Age" aisle at Barnes & Noble, but even under the Christianity section "Christ and him crucified", is that the basic message that we hear today? Here are some examples what people will find on the spirituality aisle at Barnes & Noble.
This one is from Neale Donald Walsch, Conversations with God. After telling Neal that leaders, ministers, books and the Bible itself aren't authoritative sources, Neal asks God, "then what is?" (Presumably his book.) God supposedly answers (and you have never heard this in American Spirituality before), "Listen to your feelings, listen to your Highest Thoughts. Listen to your experience. Whenever any one of these differ from what you have been told by your teachers, or read in your books, forget the words. Words are the least reliable purveyor of Truth."
April 6, 2008 Commentary:
The Gospel According to Barnes & Noble
Contemporary descriptions in news periodicals and polling data consistently reveal that the ever popular search for the sacred in American culture shares a lot of similarities with ancient Gnosticism. Of course in the most popular versions there may be no explicit awareness of this connection or any direct dependence on such sources, there is an explicit revival of Gnosticism in our day in both the academy and popular culture, from Harvard Divinity School seminars to Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. The Gnosticism aisle in the average book store chain next to religion and spirituality is evidence in renewed interest in pagan spiritualities. But from a Christian perspective, perhaps the greatest motivation for such widespread interest is that Gnosticism deflects accountability for sin and evil to the Creator rather to the creature allowing us to suppress the truth in unrighteousness and looking within ourselves to create out of our own imaginations an idol that we can manipulate and control. One who like Israel's Golden Calf will no longer terrify with disturbing words.
Many Christian thinkers down through the ages have observed that Gnosticism, that is salvation by inner enlightenment, and Pelagianism, that is salvation by self-help, are our natural religion. We don't have to be taught these heresies. We are born with them. The kind of Christless Christianity that we are talking about here is rampant in American Religion today as anyone can tell by visiting a local secular bookstore chain. Like Paul in Athens, we can say to our contemporaries, "I perceive that you are very religious, for while I was touring your city (or bookstore) IU noticed that you even have an altar to an unknown God." And hopefully we will be ready to follow Paul's example and say, "Now this unknown God I'm going to proclaim to you today."
"The Gospel according to Barnes and Noble" is our topic in this edition of the White Horse Inn.