Sunday, January 20, 2013

Turning The Aircraft Carrier

How long does it take to turn an aircraft carrier at sea?

The question is proverbial, for the time and difficulty involved in changing an institutional culture. One of those behemoths at sea, under full power, will take for ever to turn round.

The contemporary springtime in Christianity has to struggle mightily with the question. True, you could hardly say of mainline churches they are "under full power," but the point is precisely the institutional culture, not current morale and size of congregations.

A key part of that culture is the inherited theology, something which comes with the stones and the bells: as unquestionable as cake at a birthday party! And no theme perhaps has been more unquestionable than the necessary violence of an all-powerful and pure God dealing with human sin. An enormous part of institutional change today is the effective questioning of this thought. Gathering force over the latter part of the twentieth century, it has been applying the rudder surely and steadily to the mighty craft of Christianity.

But the ship has only shifted one or two degrees.

The reason is that institutional culture is at least as much anthropological as it is theological. That sounds complicated, but really it is the most practical and down-to-earth part of the issue. Changing Christianity is both a change in God and a change in human beings as believers. They go hand in hand, and you cannot have one without the other. If we change the character of God in people's minds, and at the same time God's followers are not visibly different, then we incur the runaway risk an average person will conclude there really is no point in 'church'. They will say, "We can be just as good outside a church as inside one, and God is cool with everyone anyway!"

So what may a different "anthropology" look like? There are two parts to the answer, looking in, and looking out.

On the inside, at the very least, Christians are challenged to believe they are on a transformative human pathway, and the path has an urgent character. In other words, change in the fundamental ways we relate to the world around us is actually more important than ensuring we "get to heaven when we die." "Nonviolence" may be a good shorthand term for this change, but it vital to realize this is not a new ethical code (although it may perhaps be given ethical expression.) The key is relationship, a living, journeying relationship which molds individuals one-with-another as they continue walking together in community. Very little of this can be accomplished in the idealized formal setting of Sunday worship, redolent with sixteen hundred years of vertical theology. There has to be a multiplying cell-system, of small groups committed to this common journey, knowing each other and changing each other through prayer, study, and some measure of service and common life.

On the outside, we must think about Christianity and the U.S. In the U.S. there is an extraordinary relationship between the state and religion. The first amendment says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..." Of the three basic options, a state religion, a state atheism, and the "separation of church and state," the third obviously seems preferable. But it should never be forgotten that the state never does anything disinterestedly. To legislate originally against the establishment of religion is also to legislate for religion. The Constitution gives religion its assigned place alongside the state and requires, reciprocally, that religion grants the state a place alongside itself. And as religion constitutes an organization speaking on behalf of God, granting the state its independent space amounts to a kind of permanent blessing on the state.

Christians in the U.S. have become used to this comfortable relationship and as a general rule have a dewy-eyed, sentimental attitude toward the state. The situation is complex at the practical political level, but there can be no doubt that an anthropologically renewed Christianity will also have a radically prophetic attitude toward the state as war-fighting machine. Indeed this is part of the argument for cellular Christianity. Not having tax-exempt conditions (plant, endowments etc.) small-group Christianity can stand experientially on a humanly-renewed ground, beyond any collusion and blessing on war.

Jesus is a new form of humanity, and the state is the old form. As Jesus said to Pilate, "You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above." Far from reading this as a generalized backing by God of the Roman Empire, it means that the Father permitted this apparent power in order to reveal one much greater: the power of nonviolent love.

It is the concrete anthropological enactment of this love--viz. single cell Christianity--which has the power to turn the wheel of a ship two-thousand years big, toward a new human horizon.

Note. In point of fact how long it takes to turn a modern aircraft carrier is a military secret. But rumors are they may be surprisingly nimble these days, due to all sorts of advanced technology. It's possible that the advanced crisis of our times, so part and parcel of the Christian message, may make the church equally nimble. Maybe in less than twenty five years it really will be pointed in another direction entirely!

Tony Bartlett

1 comment:

  1. A thought I keep mulling over is: the more weapons one has, the harder it is to believe in the Sermon on the Mount.