Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Tale of Two Anthropologies

I've heard it before and thought before it was worth reflecting on: the claim of two radically different versions of Christianity. Not just different churches, with divergent doctrines and customs--we're drearily used to that--but actually different Christianities.

The latest comes from the pen of William Rivers Pitt, a compelling, passionate writer who produces regular pieces for Truthout, an online journal of progressive opinion, investigation and analysis.

In a recent article he declared himself a Christian. He did not do this so much in spiritual or theological terms as to situate himself personally against what he sees as distortion of traditional faith and practice.

He complained with typical fire about "...this hideous, necrotic 21st century version of know, the version that has little if anything to do with what You tried to tell us in those four friendly books at the beginning of the New Testament. Do Unto Others has been replaced with Do Others In The Throat..."

He later added, "It is brutally hard to be a Christian in America these days. Some of us Christians take that bit about doing unto the least of us deeply, deeply seriously. Some of us Christians think that it is wrong, sinful, and in fact a brazen form of Apartheid to deny certain Americans the rights enjoyed by other Americans based upon who they love. Mostly, some of us think Christianity in America has gone barking-mad insane."

I once heard Marcus Borg say he thought there really were two religions named Christianity, the one that Pitt is denouncing, and another, more critically disposed, gentler, kinder, more embracing.

I think a more useful and transforming way of describing the situation is not two religions but two anthropologies. If we make a distinction of religions we are at once on the ground of conflicting gods, of religious warfare in fact, which would be the very ground a nonviolent Christianity is trying to avoid. If we make it instead a matter of anthropology we can give a genetic explanation which in its way involves us all.

What Pitt describes acidly as the "necrotic 21st century version" is from an anthropological viewpoint the product of the breakdown of the violent sacred within traditional Christianity. When Christianity entered the world of paganism it eventually found itself cutting a deal with the old generative human culture of violence. The ancient root of culture that chooses its victim and builds a regime on the victim's exclusion if not outright killing, this is so deeply part of normal human business it was inevitable widespread territorial Christianity would meld with it. But progressively the Gospel has undermined its own cultural Christian foundations, leading to secularism on the one hand and a loss of strict boundary identities and falling church membership on the other. The truly creative work of the Gospel is the emergence of new face-to-face groups dependent on generative relationships of love rather than pre-set boundaries. I will return to this shortly.

Against a loss of Christian foundations a "natural" human reaction is to circle the wagons, raise the drawbridge, tip the boiling oil, that kind of thing. In other words to double down on the old cultural foundations in violence. Pitt is absolutely right. It is necrosis. But the crucial thing to recognize is that we're talking about anthropology--the-way-humans-do-business--not religion in its usual metaphysical sense. Still less are we talking about something coming from Gospel revelation.

The latter has itself provoked a human crisis, but it only has a relation to the crisis the way a virus relates to the immune system. The virus provokes the reaction but it is not itself the "cytokine storm" that will potentially prove fatal. (The storm is a phenomenon in which the body produces a feedback loop of immune cells so overwhelming it will block the airways and kill the patient outright. Necrotic, like the man said!)

The difficulty of being a Christian today is the difficulty of expressing the love of Christ when liberal secularism may seem to have a better grasp of it than Christian churches, and liberal churches lack the will and inspiration to express Christ's love in a thorough-going, evocative lifestyle. We have grown used to churches as big cruise ships where we can lounge about on the way to heaven with thousands and thousands along for the ride, giving us a sense of worldly power in addition to the heavenly docking rights.

But what if being Christian today is about a key relationship style that can only be expressed in a face-to-face community, within a small group that takes this thing totally seriously? What if Pitt's problem is that he expects the cruise ship when really he's already in his rowboat with a bunch of hairy disciples, and this, dear Pete, is it! What if it's precisely the success of the gospel which has destroyed the churches--via both secularism and the violent immune reaction we have described? And now what is required are small groups willing to live in the strange new space of a world deeply affected by the transforming love of Christ even while it violently resists it? What if the new "church" is being asked to show the world what that love looks like, just for the heck of it!

We really are talking about a different anthropology, the alternative to the old one which has failed both in humanity generally and in Christianity in particular.

Tony Bartlett TinR

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