Category Archives: Church Tradition and Culture

Is “god” Dead–Yet? Now? Still?

William Hamilton died last week, aged 87.  While he was a tenured professor of church history–my father’s calling and profession–William Hamilton, who taught at Colgate Rochester Divinity School in the early 1960s, wrote a book with Thomas Altizer called Radical Theology and the Death of God.  Its publication in 1966 generated a Time Magazine review, and according to the NYTimes obituary, roused no great interest.  (Note: links to all articles and books mentioned in this essay are found at the end)  So Time went all-out and in the 8 April 1966 edition, published the single most famous cover of its history,  with a very long article inside that didn’t come to the main point until readers had gotten well lost inside an extensive church and religious history lesson.

The article was, I suppose, meant to offer an adequate context for the shocking question on the cover.  Even reading the article now, notwithstanding all the pictures Time included, I am as bored as I was then.   At the time I was both informed about and interested in church history up to the 19th century, but Time’s writers didn’t have the courage to make the point that church history underlined the theology of the cover’s question.  I needed then–and now–much more direct thought about the contemporary social and religious contexts for the questions Hamilton and his fellow theologians had been asking, ten years before the article was published.

Time Magazine fudged the real question being asked, in favor of sales and in favor of the status quo that the magazine’s right wing editors were constantly defending.  The writers weren’t up to framing a serious argument around the death of the gods who were male, anti-Semitic, anti-feminist, racist, dominating, violent, exclusively Roman Catholic or exclusively Protestant, and so on.  The right wing influence at Time Magazine wasn’t ready, even in 1966, to question Christian theology in light of current American society and the growing secularism in the nation’s heart and spirit.

Who is an intentional Christian now, and of the youth fellowship age then, who does not recall something about the impact that article had on religious communities at the time?  One of the theologians quoted in the New York Times obituary for William Hamilton,  Ellen T. Charry of Princeton Theological Seminary, asserted that “the call to action inherent in ‘Death of God’ ideas stirred an interest in social justice among liberal Christians and influenced the liberation theology movement of the 1960s and ’70s.”   She might well have added that we owe our 21st Century advances in feminist theology and gay and lesbian ordination, to Hamilton’s work.

But I think Professor Charry barely touches the hot topic of religion in a secular society.  That shouldn’t be a seminary professor’s job anyway–that articulation should be the work of any thinking believer in any religous setting today.  We Christians are too willing to respect that fact that we have beliefs; we aren’t willing to ask ourselves the hard and obvious questions that non-believers ask.  We rightly stand accused of fearing the answers, and no amount of doing good deeds for righteousness’ sake will help us erase that cowardice.  For instance, we don’t reckon the consequences of ducking the tough thinking about truths we can’t deny.  Instead, churches are willing to hang by the fingernails on crumbling walls and old, dry ivy vines of dogma and doctrine, hoping to survive by means of praise bands or interior decoration like big screens in sanctuaries.  In this case, we’ve all checked our brains at the door, as it is said, no matter what denomination the doors open into.

The Christian church in America anyway, whether Roman or Protestant, had pretty much been domesticated by American culture by the 19th century, and as a result, 2oth century Christianity in general offered a social setting very much out of step with society. In some cases, the Christian setting was deliberately against society, but by the 1960s, fewer and fewer families could boast that all their children were church members and attended regularly.

Listen to the lyrics of Billy Joel songs, or of most popular songs about the 50s and 60s written in the 1980s, and you hear the clash of church culture with American culture at large–the secular culture–in line after line.   Comedians and playwrights, sitcom writers and novelists, essayists and journalists all flocked into the very large, open, public spaces with their mocking, dismissive, critical voices knocking down Christian and Jewish religious culture from the privileged places of respect occupied for a thousand years without fear of secular opposition (even through the Enlightenment and the industrial and scientific revolutions of the 19th century).

Time Magazine missed its chance to be on the cutting edge of the end of the 20th century, because the writers and editors all thought they knew the answer to their question.  Of course not, they thought.  Even if I don’t believe in God the way my grandparents did, of course God isn’t dead.  Now, half a century on, if anybody self-aware enough to recognize the false shelter of personal defensiveness is still inclined to such cardboard theology, an hour watching Bill Maher or Ricky Gervase ought to shoot that paper tiger to hell and gone.

I began to follow Hamilton–unintentionally and unaware–in the spring of 1985.    Not from a doubt of God but from a conviction that the Holocaust demanded attention, I challenged myself to watch the Claude Lanzmann documentary Shoah.  It changed the ground on which I based my life.  In the cruel and bleak light of that film, the God of reconciliation and love in my theology and experience showed up as too small and insignificant and made of too much assumption, to encompass or defeat the evil exposed by the interviews of Holocaust survivors in that film.  A lifetime of listening to sermons had given me nothing at all with which to cope when that darkness came over me.

From then on, no answer of knowledge could be enough to meet the question “why, God?” and my following question, “where was God?” I began letting go of the certainties about God that were staples of my Presbyterian church and worshiping community at the time.  In fact, these certainties about God were leading the clergy of the denomination to argue violently with each other about abortion and ordination of gays or lesbians.  Nothing about sin or redemption could reach the horror of truth that went on showing itself–and has continued to this day–as total violence dominating so completely, and so reverently worshipped.  By the end of 1985, I was done with the God of certainty.  That god had long since died and I could see the idol standing in its place.  Was I really alone in this?  It seemed so.  All that arguing about proof of God’s existence in one social challenge after another turned on the pivot of the survival of churches, and rarely did I sense a struggle over true Christian integrity at issue.

I worked at the time for a parish with a sanctuary ceiling covered in dark blue paint and decorated with bright golden stars spangled about in no particular order–not even a constellation in view.  My metaphor for being Christian inside the church became that sanctuary–and I decided that I’d rather see the real sky and risk being blown to outer space and left to move alone in reality, than accept the ignorant and clergy-benefitting conventions of church life.  I wouldn’t leave the Christian community completely, but I would stay on the porch of any institution where I found myself–pitching a tent if necessary.

The adult who handed me (and my companions in the youth group) the April 8, 1966 issue of Time Magazine, was mostly interested in the way we all would react.  I regret that he was not more interested in the maturing of our thought.  William Hamilton wrote many decades later that he never talked about that April 8 Time cover without putting air quotes around the word ‘God’.  I think with regret of all the years I spent in intellectual cowardice because I didn’t know from the start that in the question’s intent, the word God was not an absolute.  I was not frightened or shaken in conviction when I thought about the death of the ‘god’ of the Reformers who killed each other over words indicating or denying transubstantiation, or the death of the ‘god’ that Tomas de Torquemada held supreme as he pursued heretics in the Inquisition.

Not until I came upon Thomas Merton’s tough little book, No Man Is an Island did I begin to move forward on my own.  While the clergy and staff of my congregation were occupying themselves with discussing butterflies as symbols for the Resurrection and the benefits of attracting legacies to the newly established endowment fund, I began reading Walter Wink’s life changing sinewy series, Naming the Powers, UnMasking the Powers, Engaging the Powers and The Powers that Be.    Walter Wink shot me into space from my safe space on the porch of the church.  Thomas Merton gently reeled me back in with his books on living in search of nothingness as Christianly as possible in whatever shape or size of community I found myself.

Why didn’t I just pack it in and depart, shaking the dust from my feet?  My brothers had done this.  Many of my companions from high school had done so.  I stayed among Christians because outside and beyond their communities, nobody I knew was curious about the questions that William Hamilton asked all his life long.  Instead of being bored by them, I wanted to work on those questions.  And I stayed, too, because something about the experience of the Eucharist didn’t yield to dismissal by intelligence.  Because I stayed, I was blessed by the gift of Walter Brueggemann’s work on scriptural texts of the Old Testament.  Many of the questions that William Hamilton asked seem posed in a Biblically textless world of society’s secular illnesses and technological highs.  Bruggemann puts the ancient texts into current settings that include the questions Hamilton asks.  So does Rosemart Ruether and Phyllis Trible and a host of women theologians raised up in the 2oth century.

What I notice here is that all the people whose work I was reading are theologians who were writing for seminarians.  The work is like fresh organic food found in farmer’s markets.  By contrast, parish clergy and churches are recycling canned goods, passing off bullet peas and tinned asparagus for the real thing.  And it’s only fair to point out that timorous but vocal parish members will rise up and point weaponry at any pastor or preacher who offers red meat or fresh vegetables in place of the fast food and preserved ingredients long past prime, that most people in churches are used to.

The reward is not in getting answers to questions like Is ‘God’ dead?  The reward is in asking questions like that and increasing the room for more and harder questions, bringing ever more challenging sources of understanding into play.  The reward for Christians is in being as fully intelligent as full maturity requires.

The clergy in our churches are not as courageous as they should be, in opening windows for air and doors for exit and entrance without dogmatic objections.  There is much that we in our worshiping communities would reveal to each other and to the clergy in place, that might well lead to a renewal of relevant Christian practice in today’s circumstances.   But if that is to happen, the clergy must let go of their exclusive control of practicing Christianity.  Christians meekly wander on in the illusion that the real Christians are the ordained clergy.  The concept of ‘lay’ people in the church remains in the way of any change in the church.  A lot needs to be done at that thick, gnarled and deeply buried point before any substantial effect of being Christian will be felt in history again.

I hope interest in William Hamilton’s work will be revived in the general Christian population.  Below is a link to an article about his ideas, written by Lloyd Steffan, then chaplain at Lehigh University, and published in the Christian Century in 1989.  Links to all sources cited in the essay follow.

http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=892

www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,835309,00.html

http://www.amazon.com/No-Man-Island-Thomas-Merton/dp/0156027739

http://www.walterwink.com/books.html

http://www.amazon.com/Radical-Theology-Death-Thomas-Altizer/dp/B0006BO810

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/us/william-hamilton-known-for-death-of-god-idea-dies-at-87.html?pagewanted=all

http://www.bestwebbuys.com/Walter_Brueggemann-mcid_2165972.html?isrc=b-authorsearch

http://www.allbookstores.com/Phyllis-Trible/author

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Invitation to a Holy Lent

“An Invitation to the Observance of a Holy Lent,” is the rubric in the liturgy for Lent that catches me, a third of the way into the service, every year.  The words don’t seem to fit together comfortably.  This year, I’m slower as we pass by this point in the service, and in the next few minutes I realize I’ve got the feel of an extra perspective. It’s not a particularly comfortable sensation.

One gets used to feeling like an individual in church accompanying other individuals, all of whom agree (or are polite enough) to say “we” all together.  “We confess”  “we praise” “we pray”  “we thank”—we all engage in rather an amazing act of imagination and intellect at least once a week, forming a union of spirit and body leading to the wholeness of sharing the Eucharist.

And now we are invited in—so here’s a discovery:  Lent isn’t so much a personal obligation as a communal opportunity.   And we are asked to observe—to pay moments of conscious awareness, to be careful and purposeful about what we see and do.  And ‘holy Lent’—those last two words don’t yield easy meaning.  A holy Lent, I think.  What does that really mean?

Holy: healthy; whole; connected; dedicated.  Lent:  the word is rooted in Old English, Old Slavic and Sanskrit as langa tinaz, the way people more than a thousand years ago wrote and said, ‘longer days’:  the longer days of spring.  Other European languages use the word ‘lent’ but only in English does the word have liturgical meaning:  the long 40 days’ observance in spring.

We tend to be more focused on our shared faith in these long forty days ahead.  Lent has shaping power to make us all aware that we are a whole body connected by our worship, dedicated together in the Baptismal Covenant.  I think about church leaders at this time of year.  Most churches have just dedicated, ordained or commissioned their new leadership groups.  As Lent begins, they are just taking up the long holy work of strengthening, discerning and serving the good of the Body of Christ in the community of believers they will serve in the coming year.  Surely they hope to walk all year more closely in step with the members of their congregations than they may have been in the year just past.  This invitation to a Holy Lent is to them as a group, as well as to us as the larger community around them.

When all of us leave a given worship service, we are simultaneously the whole community while we are becoming our individual selves again.  Leaders form this mysterious being of community and personality on the strength of worship experienced the Sunday before Ash Wednesday.

Leaders may look like they’re just sitting around in a big square shuffling papers, but their real task is to stop thinking of their particular parish as a personal extension of their own interests, their new opportunities to be recognized, their values and concerns.   Then, their task is to stretch into knowing their particular church as a living community with a particular character, particular gifts, a particular call from God to answer, and with work we all have to be doing.

Church leaders find themselves looking at specific decisions with the sense of many eyes and ears simultaneously absorbing impressions at 360 o.  They find themselves with heart and mind stretched well beyond their own personal concerns, and this will probably be uncomfortable for most of them, most of the time they are serving.  Besides, they find themselves with lessening time that constantly fills up with communal To Do lists and To Pray For lists.

At all times, when we talk with our own church leaders, we are talking together about who we are and where we are as God’s holy, called people.  This kind of conversation about being church isn’t somebody else’s responsibility—it’s yours and theirs and ours.  I hope you will sense the gift of community we have in each other as a part of observing a holy Lent.   As we go through the long days of spring, and as church leaders work through 2012, I hope the blessing of health and whole heartedess will come to us more connected in service, more alive in stewardship and more alight in witness to God.

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Whose Tradition is The Best?

Recently I’ve heard people in church leadership saying things like, “What makes our tradition the best?”   Or “This is why I think OUR tradition is the best.”  In all cases, people are talking about tradition (“We have such great hymns,” and “We don’t judge people who come to worship with us,” and “We have such a wonderful burial liturgy,” and “The thing I like about being Episcopalian/Presbyterian/Lutheran etc. etc. etc. is that we use language so much better than the others!”).   They are also talking about culture–ritual, vestments, candles, all the rest of it. 

Culture and tradition are not faith.  It is a great mistake to confuse either of the two with the value and efficacy of faith. 

We are all inclined to admire ourselves.  We are all inclined to rest there in front of the mirror, oozing satisfaction in our identities and our heritage.  We all do this, and we do it with such satisfaction that we are less than one step from implying that we have the true faith because our traditions are better than others’.  Some people, of course, take that last step and stand firmly on the seemingly solid ground of opinion.  “My tradition is the ONLY one by which you will be truly saved–”  whether that means that you alone know how the Holy Spirit works, or you alone are privileged with God’s view of the goats and sheep in advance of the Last Day.

You can’t convince me.

It’s not just that being judgmental and exclusionary is not Christian in the least.  The great trap and betrayal lying in wait here is that inability leaders have to see in proportion.  Leaders and ordinary Christians MUST be able to distinguish between practice and preference, and stop acting largely on the latter.

Leaders in the church have to grow past the American cultural ideal of success and accomplishment (professional or personal).  When they have learned to really distinguish the self-taught, self-reinforcing blindness of self-deception, they will stop seeing others as valuable only inasmuch as they reflect their own values.  This behavior, not Christian at all, ends in worship of tradition, worship of one’s own cultural expressions of being human.  “Come here, we do it better than anyone else does; you’ll have a better experience of salvation with us.” 

Christians for centuries have been rightly accused and justly condemned for this behavior.  There’s no difference in the effect if is a declaration of superiority or a condemnation of a difference.  The claims of appreciative inquiry are bosh.  The claim of being super-right is equally ridiculous.  There’s no supportive need in the church’s early development or justification in the canon of Jesus’ example, (before the emperors claimed Jesus and the church weapons of their own).  If you carry on as though your own tradition is better than anyone else’s, you are clear about your tradition, and the rest of us are just lucky if we get to see Jesus in it.  People who claim their tradition and culture promote Christianity better than anyone else’s, are either converts or have never left home.   The core values of Christian faith have a larger platform of common ground.

It’s hard enough to put up with nations fighting each other to declare supremacy of values (since we no longer tolerate claiming each other’s real estate).  Let the leaders of churches and their professional helpers refrain from doing the same.

“As many of you were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

So–there’s only a modest point in being Episcopalian, or Presbyterian, Methodist or Baptist, Moravian or United Church of Christ, Copt or Orthodox. 

One’s best traditions are like good or beautiful choreography for some who are drawn to that way of dancing.  Or, traditions are like rooms full of decor that appeal to one person’s tastes and not another’s.    One can rejoice in the pleasant lines and heritage one has received, without claiming to have the best of anything.  If one is to boast, one should try to remember that the only valid boast is in Jesus Christ.

The text in Galatians quoted above does not conclude, “and if you belong to the Episcopal/Methodist/Southern Baptist/Anglican/Presbyterian… Church, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”

Jesus’ words in John, quoting Isaiah, run thusly:  “This people knows me with their lips,  but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” These are words to wrestle with when we feel particularly satisfied with our own ways.  We rarely recognize it when we’ve become smug.    But we can look after ourselves (and our traditions) without prizing ourselves.  That way is the way of humility.  That way is the most winsome and Christlike.  Not easy, but plain; a low way and quiet, worthy of tradition.

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