Authentic Christian . . . spiritual practices are not just about getting in a zone or having an experience. They are about opening ourselves to God’s love flowing through us into the world.
-- 18thEpistle to the Nevadans
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
It goes without saying we live in a time of social disintegration. The Church seems pre-occupied with planning her own funeral while political extremists swirl into increasingly bizarre paranoid delusions and gun up. Democracy teeters on the brink. The left and the right both spin out increasingly fine-tuned rules to condemn each other in a Manichaean politics of mutual demonizing. That is the context in which we do – or do not do – our religion.
Looking to do my small part for civilization, I was recently at All Saints Church to be trained for a Get Out the Vote community walk. The IAF organizer built our training around a summary of Monsignor Philip Murnion’s Forming Parish Community.
Murnion’s book is like a bucket of cold water dumped on my benumbed consciousness. He says,
Authentic parish life must enable people to enter into
public life and must offset temptations to retreat into
a privatized, pietistic religion.
Murnion raises basic questions about our project, starting with: what is the 21st century religious/spiritual consumer looking for? What does the market demand?
We basically want to feel better. We want to relax and get happy. Secular life is often stressful, anxious, hostile, painful, and a whole array of feelings we’d obviously rather avoid. Alcohol, drugs, and diverting entertainment are our main ways of managing that unpleasantness. Religion is generally perceived as a competitor in the stress relief market. We are seen – and we see ourselves -- as a purveyor of spiritual opioids. Marx famously said, Religion is the opiate of the people, and we believed him.
One may, for example, learn to meditate in ways that calm the mind and lower the blood pressure. Or one may go to a charismatic religious weekend to sing happy songs and enjoy a psycho-socially manufactured high in which one is deliriously happy about something though it is not clear what that something is. It doesn’t matter. We feel better. Calmer mind. Lower blood pressure. Feeling happy. Those are not bad things. They are indisputably good as far as they go. It is the same with pain relief.
Many of us participate in regular church activity expecting a lower dose of the same opioid. The familiarity of ritual and music can help us escape the turmoil at work or home. But the crucial ingredient is harder to notice because it is colorless, odorless, and tasteless – church chit chat. There are unspoken, even unconscious, norms for our conversation at Church, things we routinely say, and other things we do not say. Church chit chat is crucial to the conspiracy against consciousness.Thou shalt not be aware.[i]
We are not aware of the unspeakable until someone speaks it. For example, there was recently an uproar about the government separating immigrant families at the border. It had happened under the administrations of both parties, though more aggressively under the current administration. Leaders of both political parties spoke out against it. Laura Bush condemned it. The President’s wife and daughter condemned it. The President reversed the policy. By this point, there really was no controversy.
After the issue had been basically resolved, one of our congregations had a Vacation Bible School. The following Sunday, a priest in the course of celebrating the successful VBS said seeing families brought closer together was a stark contrast to the separation of families that had gone on at the border. One member walked out in angry protest. Did he disagree with everyone about family separation? He did not say so.[ii]The priest’s offense was mentioning something morally painful. He did not come to Church to hear about such things. Church is a place where nothing painful or difficult is to be spoken of or even remembered. This is our happy place. Pass the scotch and a tab of ethylmorphine, please.
Let us be fair. Life is hard. The First Noble Truth really is suffering. I have my own anxiety disorder. I get it. I do not blame anyone for wanting some relief. That brings us to the second big question: Does Christianity have that to offer?
The answer is: yes but not in the way we expect. The whole Marx quote is: Religion is the opiate of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. Their real happiness.
Authentic Christianity is not the spiritual opioid churchianity that conspires against consciousness, artificially calms our minds, gets us happily hooked on a feeling, and makes sure no one says anything upsetting. Christianity is not escapist. If religion is as Marx described it – and churchianity is – then Christianity is ironically what Marx calls the abolition of religion. Remember what Monsignor Murnion said, Authentic parish life must . . . offset temptations to retreat into a privatized, pietistic religion. That privatized pietistic religion is what Marx called the opiate of the people.
I don’t like Bonhoeffer’s term religionless Christianity because it sounds like spiritual but not religious individualistic piety. But that’s the very opposite of what Bonhoeffer meant. If you put it together with his classic Life Together, in which he argues that the Church is the essential meeting ground of Christianity, there is no way he was espousing private piety and spiritual individualism. His Christianity was religionless because it wasn’t a quid pro quo deal for a happy afterlife. It wasn’t an investment or fire insurance. It was not private palliative piety. It was Christian because it was a disciplined life of prayer and committed action in the world, the kind of action that led him to die for opposing fascism. Bonhoeffer explicitly rejects the spiritual anesthesia project in favor of infinite compassion.
The human being is called upon to share in God’s suffering
at the hands of a godless world. Thus we must really live in that godless world and not try to cover up or transfigure its godlessness somehow with religion.[iii]
By religion he means the whole conspiracy against consciousness, the assurance it will all be alright and is already alright deep down.
Here’s the problem for Christianity. We are striving for union with God, striving to become Godly. But this is a God who chooses to become human, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us. Our journey to God loops back to the real world, to messy humanity, to where we started.
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And to know the place for the first time.[iv]
Paul invites us, have the same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus. That’s Christification right? How cool is that, to become like Jesus! But what is it like to have the same mind as Jesus who though he was in the form of God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being in human likeness?[v]Jesus invites us to follow him by taking up our cross.[vi]
How does that brand of religion appeal to people who have problems enough already and just want to feel better? Feel-good religion, be it charismatic, contemplative, or whatever, is what the people demand. It sells, doesn’t it? It sells because it is what Bonhoeffer called cheap grace. Cheap grace is what Marx called the illusion of happiness. Where’s the beef?
Human beings are built to be channels. God’s love flows through us into the world. When we allow that love to flow, it gets us into all manner of trouble, it entangles our lives with humanity in all its chaos, it leads us not away from this darkling plane[vii]but deeper into it.Now here’s the kicker. That is where true joy is to be found. It isn’t a shallow high. On the contrary, it breaks our hearts – open – to let the love in and out.
When a channel acts like a reservoir – as when we act like spiritual consumers instead of servants – all we get is a blockage. Love isn’t love until you give it away.[viii]
The irony in the spiritual life is that we all want to get our needs met, but we can never get our needs met until we forget about getting our needs met and lose ourselves in God – not God as an abstract idea or a reassuring fantasy – God in the fat lady in Franny and Zooey,[ix]God in the refugee, God in the hospital administrator, God in the street bum, God in the blackjack dealer, God not on a throne in heaven but commingled inextricably into our broken humanity. We may not want to go there. But that’s where the treasure is buried. And, guess what, we’re already there.
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And to know the place for the first time.[x]
[i]Alice Miller, Thou Shalt Not Be Aware
[ii]This walk out was not an isolated protest. Multiple preachers have told me that in the same time period they mentioned the separation of families at the border. Multiple laity walked out. None of them said they supported taking toddlers away from their parents. But they were quite angry the subject had been raised at all.
[iii]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters from Prison.
[iv]T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding
[vi]Matthew 16: 24
[vii]Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach
[x]T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding