I had a really interesting conversation yesterday, with a friend who comes from a very conservative Christian background, from which she has escaped. I have a lot of friends like this, but she put the issue in a very striking way: What has Christianity got to do with the real world? Out there in the real world people aren’t unpacking Bible stories.
This is far too good a question to try to begin to answer over the 1000 or so words of a blog post. So I’m going to start with examining this idea of the “real world.” What is our current situation? What is our context? In future posts, I will try to write about some tentative ideas about what to do about it.
This is the key question that the church faces in Australia. When life was short and hard, and when people were more connected to their community and culture, otherwise known as Christendom, Christianity was not really confronted with it. Its relevance was assured, and demonstrated by its centrality to the culture – everything from the local vicar being the chaplain to the local Police station to the Queen’s speech and parliament opening with the Lord’s Prayer demonstrated this fact. The parish was the centre of the community: it hosted the tennis and cricket and football clubs, the dances for the young people, and so on and on. Even in Australia, not the most pious country in the world, parishes with rolls in the thousands were common before WWII.
The situation now seems very different: people are much more likely to proclaim their allegiance to Zen Buddhism to Christianity – not because there are more Buddhists than Christians in our society, but because Zen Buddhism is cool and spiritual and cultured, while Christianity is for fundies, the ignorant, the politically and social conservative: in short, very very uncool indeed. The church has lost a lot of its position at the centre of our culture. Yet, despite this, here we are, still clinging on, and still involved in the broader culture, generally not retreating into little holy huddles of the saved. The popularity of church schools, for instance, is notable, as is the prevalence of chaplains in all sorts of places – from hospitals (which is not surprising) to football clubs (which is.) And people do come along to Christmas and Easter services. There is still some sort of contact, but it is tenuous at best. The way church and culture and community all seemed wrapped up in each other is desperately frayed these days.
If that is indeed the situation, then it raises the strong question: what is to be done? First off, let me confess: I don’t know the answer. What worked fifty years ago seems to have lost its power. If people don’t feel guilty, then a saviour who promises to free us from the burden of sin and guilty doesn’t have much to offer. As John Douglas Hall argues in The Cross in Our Context, it obviously used to have enormous power, so much so that it does still resonate to some extent – after all, conservative churches which make that the cornerstone of their theology are doing pretty well (though even they are not successful enough to compensate for the general decline in churchgoing.) But in a society where people increasingly just don’t feel guilty, how is this supposed to work? We have enough Freud and Marx in our culture to say: it’s society’s fault, it’s my upbringing, it’s my genes. And what people do seem to feel guilty about, at least in my particular little social context, is more to do with Green issues than personal morality, traditionally understood. Can we really see Jesus as having died to free me from my Carbon Footprint?
So the question becomes this: What is the thing from which Christianity is supposed to save us? Hall, following Tillich, argues that there have been three great underlying anxieties in the church’s history:
The early church realized… that the great dilemma of its epoch was the one Tillich named “the anxiety of fate and death,” and therefore its soteriology was a theology of liberation from the power of fate and death. The medieval church certainly more deliberately discerned that human beings in the European Middle Ages suffered most conspicuously from “the anxiety of guilt and condemnation” (Tillich’s second anxiety category); accordingly, Anselm and others gave them a soteriology of forgiveness based on substitutionary sacrifice and accompanied by the rituals of a sacerdotal church. Christian liberalism in the nineteenth century began to sense that the human condition had to be interpreted now in terms of “the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness” – though unfortunately it only went a little way into this darkness before it brought forth its all too superficial light! J.D. Hall The Cross in Our Context pp.129-130 (2003, Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis)
So what evidence do we have to back up this claim that our society is dominated by “the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness”?
To be honest, I’m not sure that I could adduce really strong evidence for this. How on earth could you measure “meaninglessness”? But, to me, it feels right. We live increasingly atomised lives, in a world where we have no agreement about what life is really about. Things seem so arbitrary, humans seem so tiny in the terrifyingly huge scale of the universe. Terrible things keep happening, which sometimes jars us out of our complacency, but the government and media quickly soothe us, or distract us. Many of us do bullshit jobs (those of us lucky enough to have jobs – which only barely includes me), and we wonder whether it would really make any difference if we just didn’t bother. Most entertainment is pabulum at best. Pop music is, of course, vacuous. Serious art is no better. Public morality seems to be largely posturing. Three million Australians (out of 21 million or so) are depressed or anxious, and who can blame them?
Really, all you have to do is to watch daytime TV (which, as a semi-unemployed person, I am strongly trying to avoid), and what it promises people. Flat abs! Celebrity Gossip! It promises to give you escape from your mundane life: it doesn’t seem to think it is possible to change your way of living so that you can see glimpses of God even in the most mundane moment of folding the washing or waiting in a traffic jam.
By the way, I don’t want to this to be a complete Jeremiad – there are lots of great things which our culture offers – everything from antibiotics and childhood vaccination via Beethoven and the NGV to nice restaurants and a good bottle of shiraz, not to mention the amazing prosperity and freedom which allows me, of no particular family or influence to be able to blog about it. But it is all too easy to allow the good things our culture gives us to avoid the real issues which confont us.
So perhaps one thing Christianity does offer the “real” world is the truth that it is not in fact very “real” at all. You are never going to be as beautiful as the models in the magazines, because even they aren’t as beautiful as that until they are airbrushed into shape. You are never going to be as happy as that joyous man driving his shiny new car down an empty road – he isn’t happy, he’s just pretending. That’s what an actor does. Everyone carries their load of secret sorrow and struggle. We struggle to keep up the pretence, anesthetizing ourselves to our own reality, seduced by glamorous surfaces. Even if you were as beautiful as the airbrushed model, even if you were driving your new Audi down a mountain road, it wouldn’t change who you really are on the inside. It might be fun for a moment, but nothing serious would change. It would just begin all over again. That’s the hedonic treadmill.
Perhaps this is the sort of thing Jesus meant when he said that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God. When you are rich, it is easy to live on the surface, and you aren’t forced into the centre of things.
As Richard Rohr puts it:
We are a circumference people, with little access to the centre. We live on the boundaries of our own lives “in the widening gyre,” confusing edges with essence, too quickly claiming the superficial as substance. As Yeats predicted, things have fallen apart and the centre does not seem to be holding. Richard Rohr Everything Belongs p.13 (2003, Crossroad, Spring Valley)
- Why the church needs therapy
- The State of the Church In America: Hint: It’s Not Dying (christianitytoday.com)