(Continued from last post)
The disconnect between the central themes of the Church – it’s worship, liturgies, law and gospel, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, sin, salvation, etc. – and the daily experience of people has consequences. One of the more obvious of which is a shifting of the focus of the Church away from these, and the challenging communication problems they represent, to popular religion.
One popular alternative is moralism. Preachers of moralism are often greeted at the door with responses like, “Thank you for making clear what I am supposed to do to be a good Christian.” Talk about behavior is something everybody understands. There may not be any real intention to act on the preacher’s prescription but at least they heard something that is understandable. A cartoon in a magazine years ago depicted a woman coming out of church and saying to the pastor, “You make it sound so real.” The cartoon was not meant to be funny.
Another aspect of the moralism approach is to focus on practical advice for daily living. This is especially popular today and accounts, at least in part, for the success of the mega-church phenomenon. The entrepreneurs of popular religion have found a formula that works. Downplay the traditional language and forms of the faith and use the Bible as a book on how to do or be anything. Preaching concerns itself with financial advice, personal psychology, family therapy and a host of other topics that “make it sound so real.” One should not be too hard on those who preach such stuff. For in most cases it is the people that demand it and drive them to it. After all, if preachers don’t give me something practical, what good are they?
This leads to my second point, religion as private experience. What matters is what religion means to me. And it doesn’t matter too much what it is.This has great appeal to our egalitarian sense as Americans. And the beauty of it is that no one can argue with you. Your private religion can mean anything you want it to mean. The flip side of this of this privatization of religion, of course, is that it is very difficult to relate your meaning to someone else. If no one can refute it, neither can they share it. The content of the private experience of religion can be very close to orthodox Christian faith. At the same time it can be an expression of these other factors as well.
A third area in which we can see the disconnect between the language of the Church and daily life is in the tendency to speak of God only in relation to things that cannot be otherwise explained by reason. Two people are in car accident. One dies, the other lives. Two people go into the hospital with cancer. One dies, one goes home cancer-free. The survivors claim it was a miracle. Wherever the human factor can be excluded we have room for God language. Or, if religion is not for us, we may want to talk about ghosts, aliens or bigfoot.
The point is that religious language today is not required or necessary for an interpretation of our life or our culture. For many it is an option, even a very important option, but it is still an option. Religion occupies a place in life almost like a hobby. It is the kind of thing one drops if reduced to the essentials or if there is something better to do.
All of this is reflective of that secular self-understanding that was yesterday’s topic. And this secular-self understanding is in the guts of the modern world. We all share in its’ axioms to one degree or another. The challenge facing the orthodox Christian and the orthodox Christian community is to avoid the traps of reducing the Christian message to moralism, religious privatization and the relegation of our language to cover only that which is beyond explanation, while allowing the great themes of the faith to speak of God in Christ in ways that confront, challenge and illumine the actual world in which we find ourselves. That’s what we’ll take up in tomorrow’s blog.
“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”