I had an interesting conversation the other day. It started innocently enough. He was interested in and knowledgeable about a lot of things, including, as it turned out, modern American religious life. I mentioned the frequent trips to the Middle East sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, and that I had personal knowledge of the Diocese. This set him off irresistibly. The recent evolution of the Episcopal Church, he said, like that of mainstream denominations in general, is a “tragedy”; it used to be a bulwark of society, an enclave of the elite, and now has lost all character. There is not even a distinct worldview; Episcopalians are unable to tell you why you should believe as they do.
In such cases I like to draw people out, to understand their viewpoint. I mentioned an interview I heard about with one of our new Bishops, where she was asked, “People say that the Episcopal Church is becoming more and more inclusive for fewer and fewer people.” The Bishop’s response was to the effect that we are not called to be popular, but to live out a commission from Jesus. His reaction was immediate: “Of course, but that’s just a sophistry.”
I was taken aback. Somehow I assumed that the Bishop’s response was quite the opposite of a sophistry. I had taken it as a refreshing dash of truth. I also appreciated it as a good “shut-up” line, a way of closing off unproductive discussion; if the Episcopal Church has in fact traded its elite status for a lonelier prophetic role, one might as well be clear about it and keep things straightforward.
In this case, my interlocutor saw it only as a shut-up line (what he apparently meant by “sophistry”), whose purpose was not to focus on a positive concept of church mission, but to conceal the utter dereliction of “Christian” duty. In that sense, his reaction proved wonderfully revealing. The key came in his references to a book he was currently reading (in German, which he knew well), Deutschland schafft sich ab, Germany Does Away with Itself, by Thilo Sarrazin. This book, very popular and controversial in Germany, argues for the danger posed by a growing Muslim population, unproductive (except of children), reliant on social welfare, and resistant to assimilation. It is, to all appearances (I have not read it), a version of the Muslim-Christian “culture clash” argument, with a nod to the stereotype of idle, dark-skinned parasites.
So, for this guy, the Episcopal Church and other “mainline” denominations had the duty of maintaining and enforcing a social and cultural cohesion with “Christianity” as the symbolic heading, but for which the teachings of Jesus are at best irrelevant and at worst a positive hindrance. In a larger historical perspective, which is what he got from the Sarrazin book, the loss of this social/cultural function is part of a pervasive decadence leaving western, “Christian” society vulnerable to an aggressive, unreformed global Islam. In that sense, it is indeed a “tragedy” for the larger civilization.
The teachings of Jesus—non-resistance to evil, self-sacrifice, love for the other, foreigner, and pariah—are the opposite of what our situation requires. If you must find “meaning” in Christianity at all, make it the strictest, most militant moral conventionalism; take a lesson from the fundamentalists of all times and places: make of Christianity a powerful, blunt instrument, an opiate of conscience, critical thought, and compassion. No matter that Jesus never speaks about homosexuality, and that the Bible in general says less about homosexuality than practically anything; make it your great cause, the crisis of “Christian” society and of our nation’s destiny. On this rock you shall build your edifice of division and “spiritual war.” Sketch out an array of enemies; locate the agon of Christian belief firmly within the world, between them and us, rather than between our souls and the world. In that way, Christianity can be made a tool of war rather than a way of peace.
Even if it is not possible to reconcile the teachings of Jesus, in which the blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, the peacemakers, with Ayn Rand’s objectivist and capitalist individualism, at least make them share the same stage, feign ignorance of their contradictions, preach “Jesus,” as much as possible, in the combative worldly spirit of capitalism.
It is remarkable to what extent modern cultural Christianity has learned the lesson of radical Islam: note how aspiring politicians keep counsel with their informal cabinets of “pastors,” much like the caste of Mullahs in revolutionary Iran.
None of this is new. It has always been the historical trajectory of Christianity that its essential teachings are obscured for the sake of political expediency. The interesting thing is that the process never quite comes to term; somehow there is always a sporadic return of the personality and ethos of Jesus, which come back again and again with the force of a completely original discovery. The reason, I believe, is that this ethos really cannot be derived from the world, from observation or experience. It is not a “cognitive” or scientific truth, according to the Marxist model, for example, but radicalism of a different order; nor can it be recast as “worldly” wisdom, leading to blessedness in this life, pace the Prayer of Jabez and its related nonsense. It requires something that has been described as a leap of faith, what might also be called a breakthrough of the imagination, and which in any case requires us to take the spirit as something real, to recognize a “hard science” of the inner life.
The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard elaborated an understanding of Christian belief by which the very absence of a cognitive basis, the folly itself of Christianity, stood as a gage of its non-worldly truth. He might well be called the godfather of a “hard” phenomenology.
A week from today is September 10, the eve of the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Los Angeles will hold a “One Light” gathering at City Hall, with representatives of many religious groups, to promote the unity of peoples and beliefs. The Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, Jon Bruno, sent a letter to be read in all parishes of the Diocese, calling members to attend. I don’t remember the last time there was a letter from the Bishop to all parishes about anything. Like a good Episcopal dittohead, I will be there, with my lantern or whatever it is they will be giving out. Jonathan Freund, of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, describes it this way: “In keeping with the prophetic teaching to be a light for all nations, the One Light gathering joins together all faiths, all traditions and all people, in our common search for shalom, for peace and wholeness. Wherever there is darkness, let us bring light.” Also in the list of sponsors: Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, Western Diocese of the Armenian Church, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, United Methodist Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America Southwest California Synod, and a string of others.
I can feel the anger of those marginalized by this love-fest of inclusivity: those for whom Islam is the enemy at the gates, single-minded, ruthless, manipulative in its keen grasp of western liberal sensibilities. These include good friends and relatives. I can hear the exasperated reactions: this is the enemy, they have shown their hand, can’t you see that this is the opposite of everything we value in our lives and in our history. Through this haze of emotion appears the master image of a world at war, inevitably and permanently at war, for which the zero-sum game is the ultimate reality: one wins, the other loses. “One thing I know, that the stronger side is right.” This indeed is the wisdom of the world, the lesson of hard experience. That is one paradigm. Opposite to it stands Jesus’ paradigm of the free gift of the self.