It’s true; my head was full of images, remorse and confusion about my work in the church these past three decades. Have I been the instrument of destruction instead of something more healing and holy?
Did you ever doubt yourself like that? I don’t mean in the moment but existentially? What a horrid sensation – I almost called it a “feeling” but it was more of a total body possession.
One of my recent critics (an academic) enjoyed ticking off a list of theologians, historians, and scholars I find helpful in my teaching and preaching – people like Elaine Pagels, John Dominic Crossan, Walter Brueggemann, Marcus Borg, Gustavo Gutierrez – and he tried to discredit their work by critiquing their personal faith. Since I have no idea what their personal faith actually was or is, any more than he truly did, his efforts to diminish me in this way had little impact. The recipe for faith he was using is a version of institutional orthodoxy, and he was essentially arguing that if someone does not believe what is contained in that particular jar of faith then they are not Christian. I have never believed in the contents of that jar of faith, not even in childhood as far as can remember.
But somehow this morning, and more likely in the dark night of my dreams, I was surrounded by the weeping and grieving of that orthodoxy. I felt the weight of sorrow the institutional church has hanging around its neck as it sinks into the sea of secular capitalist culture. Like your whole life passing before you in an instant, all my memories of church as it used to be and still tries to be in so many places, passed before me in the moment that I awoke. All the sadness and grief of that passing filled the moment as well. I suddenly felt culpable, as if I have been to blame.
I do not know what irritant worm of ego unleashed that instant of torment, but I do know the grief and sorrow are for real.
There was so much that was wonderful about the institutional church of my childhood and youth in the same way the social and economic cohesion of the 1950’s and 1960’s was wonderful for so many white middle-class people. It causes me to realize that nostalgia for the institutional church of yesterday is also akin to the bitter, rueful resentments of white people’s nostalgia for what we remember or imagine we have lost. Like white economic and social supremacy of the past, the supremacy of institutional orthodoxy may have been great for those inside but disempowering for those outside, and also discrediting to the value of what was offered inside.
The slow and painful passing of institutional orthodoxy and emergence of a widespread and chaotic heterodoxy within Christianity is grievous to anyone with fond memories of how church used to be when it was also a pillar of the economic and social establishment. It is an understandable grief and sorrow, even I feel it and I have been one of the iconoclasts surfing the waves of its destruction.
There is more here than grief. (This is a personal witness so if I can get an “Amen” from out there, it would help to know it is not just personal).
While my faith in the institutional church has shriveled even more than, and ahead of, the rest of the culture I have experienced a corresponding deepening of commitment to Christian spiritual practice and gospel wisdom. It is just the opposite of that academic’s insinuation: my faith in Jesus as my spiritual guide and teacher is more powerful and vibrant now that institutional religion has been brought down to its appropriate and much diminished dimensions.
White privilege, even for those white people that see the subversion of it as a good thing, will have some attendant grief about what gets lost. Power, privilege, and status obviously have advantages that will be missed. The same is true for the lost privilege of institutional religion and Christian orthodoxy; it had some really pleasant and much cherished elements that will be missed. Grieve on.