Thursday, January 28, 2016


This week one of our seminary professors shared a blog post by Chris Hedges on The Suicide of the Liberal Church.  I like Chris Hedge’s work. His book, War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, is an honest account of militarism as a religion. And there is much in his Suicide article that rings true, particularly that the Church is always at risk of selling out to the powers and principalities of the prevailing culture and market. Whether the Church has declined in institutional vitality because of such a sell-out is another question, one that that I am not sure is even helpful to ask. If we are to be faithful to our identity as the Body of Christ, which we recognize because “the Spirit of the Lord is upon (us) upon us because she has anointed (us) to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captive, recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free,” then we should not do those things because they are good for out bottom line, but because they are what God calls us to do. Our mission is not a marketing strategy. It’s who we are.

My real problem is not really with Hedges’ suggestion that “the liberal church,” by which he means mainline denominations, have committed suicide by being too conservative. I object to his underlying premise. It is that we are fatally flawed by the very fact that we are the Church. He cites Paul Tillich to the effect that all institutions, including the Church, are inherently demonic, and Reinhold Niebuhr who claimed that churches were inherently morally weak while individuals alone have the spine to be moral. Hedges thereby implies that the Church should commit suicide in order to set us each free to live the moral and meaningful lives we would live if we were solitary individuals on desert islands. If I read him wrong I apologize, but if that is not what he is saying, I assure you plenty of people in the Church are.

I have spent long stretches in solitude wrestling with my inner demons. I was quite disappointed to discover that I am every bit as spiritually muddled on my own as in a group. Christianity has known that for a long time. See, The Lives Of The Desert Fathers. The heroic individual I thought I was (because Tillich and Niebuhr told me I was) was invented by Soren Kierkegaard as a philosophical construct in the 19th Century before he died on a Copenhagen street refusing the sacraments of the Church he did not deem moral enough to comfort him. 20th Century thinkers from Tillich and Niebuhr to Neil Diamond extolled that solitary man.

The problem is: that solitary man does not exist. We do not give birth to ourselves, manufacture our own DNA, speak only to ourselves in our own language, drive on roads we have made, read books we have written. We live in the human milieu. Other people influence us as we influence them. Plato defined “being” as the power to influence others and the capacity to be influenced by them. To separate ourselves from community would in Plato’s’ terms be to destroy our very being. That would be suicide.

We make meaning in relationship. Ubuntu theology says so. See, Reconciliation: The Ubuntu Theology of Desmond Tutu. Object-relations psychoanalysis and systems psychology say so. Aristotle said so. "Man is a political animal." Politics. John Donne said so. "No man is an island." In Democracy In America, Alexis de Tocqueville said our social and political interactions were necessary in order for us to live well and grow into better people. The New Testament says so, particularly in Paul’s metaphor of The Body of Christ.

I confess (with some chagrin) part of what bothers me about the Suicide post is that I want the Church to be intellectually respectable and it embarrasses me when we are 20 years out of date. I want to ask some of our seminary professors and clergy if they have noticed that post-Christendom is passé. We are now living in the post-secular era. Professor Luke Betherton writes of this persuasively in Resurrecting Democracy. It’s time to get with the program of the 21st Century and move on.

I live in Las Vegas, the capital of American secularity, but even here, I see faith communities proclaiming good news to the poor, release to the captives, and letting the oppressed go free. We joined hands – Catholic, Protestant, Black Church, White Church, Latino Church, Muslim, Jew, and Unitarian – to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, defend the abused, to pass an omnibus anti-trafficking bill, to fund public education, and to extend home health care to double the number of disabled people who can live in their homes instead of institutions. When religion is profaned by violence, it is the faith communities – those “demonic” churches, mosques, and synagogues – who come together to affirm our brotherhood and commitment to peace. How is our bottom line doing? We have always lived on the edge and we are still on the edge – none of those endowments whose shrinking Hedges mourns – never had ‘em; but by and large I’d say we are doing just fine thank you, breathing in and breathing out, putting one foot in front of the other, and doing the work God has given us to do.

I hear too many seminary professors, bishops, and priests whose heads are still stuck in the outmoded individualism of the past, who are out of step with the current decade, who are downright eager to see the Church die. This disturbs me. If there is a suicidal tendency in the Church, it is this collective self-abasing urge to close the doors of our churches to let those heroic individuals each create their own religion and live it out on their own. But individuals create lousy religions to stoke their own egos. The real deal religion that calls us to carry the cross and speak the truth is hammered out in the real world where people – complex, messy, flawed people – join hands to work for the common good. Communion is the sacrament of our common life. Common prayer is pouring out of our common longing. What we long for is the Kingdom of God, which Jesus taught us to seek in the relational space between us. That is why Luke Betherton reminds us, “The cure of souls and the cure of politics are intertwined” and St. John of the Cross taught us that “God has so ordained that we are sanctified through the frail instrumentality of each other.”


Ann said... more on this subject

Drew Kadel said...

Bishop Dan,
In many ways I agree with you, especially about individualism vs. communion and common life, and that we follow Christ, not a political agenda, especially not an agenda derived from outside the Gospel. However, I do think that the fundamental critique that Hedges makes is really that the seminaries and the liberal church have abandoned their mission in a sort of flailing to preserve appearances and institutions. I think that the specifics of his description are aimed at other liberal protestant denominations, rather than specifically at the Episcopal Church, so the confrontation between your two arguments is a bit oblique. I do think that the Episcopal Church needs to be very aware of ways in which it seeks organizational comfort by looking for funding, etc. by adopting the values of the wealthy rather than living with and for the poor.

Bishop Dan said...

Yes I did begin by acknowledging the constant risk of collapsing the mission for those reasons. But the point of engagement is at his reliance on Tillich and Nirbuhr to say that the church is inherently corrupt and demonic as opposed to solitary individuals who are pure. His point about staying true to mission is what I mean at the beginning by saying there are valuable insights in the suiucide piece. I would say the oblique thing is the connection between that missional emphasis and the reliance on individualist theologies.

Martha said...

Hedges is ordained in the Presbyterian Church. I think he's more interested in contrasting the institutional/corporate establishment church with the little congregations people live in.

JCF said...

...and AS a Presbyterian, I think Hedges is a bit of a Neo-Puritan. He simply cannot grok the catholic way of Ora et Labora. Why waste time on the Eucharist, when we should be 24/7/365 for The Revolution? [One imagines him chastising the woman anointing Jesus's feet.]

I think there is much commendable about Hedge's faith (as a UTS alum, I am also DEEPLY disturbed by this "building skyscraper condos on the Quad" thing: it was walking around the Union Quad which kept me sane at Finals time!). But I need beauty and stillness (and I really LIKE smells&bells!). Call me crazy: I want The Revolution AND splendid sanctuaries ("sanctuary" in EVERY meaning of the term). I don't believe the Gospel demands we choose between them. It's Both/And.

Pace e Bene said...

The institutional church abandoned Christ's "Way" 1700-plus years ago when it made a pact with Satan's clever minion, the emperor of Rome, who remained a pagan until his deathbed. Constantinian Christianity usurped and bastardized the teachings of Jesus.Case closed.