Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Third Church

We can give three different meanings to the word “church,” the first two pretty ordinary, the third exciting, if perhaps perplexing. (But if the new were not perplexing it would not be new.)

The first in order is, as you would expect, the actual, historical churches. From the smallest store-front iglesia to the big multinational organization, these bodies are everywhere and are instantly recognizable and comprehended by that name. 

The second meaning is the ideal sense, the one which theologians and preachers use to invoke the new community God has gathered through Christ, the new Israel. It is usually employed to connote the actual church institution, but there is often a slightly fuzzy edge to it extending beyond denominational boundaries to all the other actual churches.

The third sense shares nothing with these first two, because the church in the third sense simply doesn’t exist. It doesn’t even have the ideal theological sense because that sense is so historically grafted into and merged with the actual churches the new sense resists also that naming. It is something toward which we are yearning, but without any desire to pre-define in any of the old categories.

Why? Because human existence itself is at a moment of profound crisis and one way or another the churches have participated in creating  that crisis. From the earth-denying ideal of a Greek heaven, through colonialism and oppression of native peoples, to present day materialist, prosperity and violent end-time gospels, the churches are intertwined with the toxic story of the West. Despite that the leaven and light of Jesus is as strong as ever--actually even stronger--so there is a growing demand from both within Christianity, and from the world itself, that something decisively new be born.

But may anything more be said about the “third church,” anything that is not simply a matter of mystical yearning? It would be strange in fact if that were not possible. The ferment of Jesus is strong enough and precise enough to give us a fairly clear idea of what the future will look like.

Without a long exposition we can say the third church will have these characteristics.

Frist, no hierarchy: there will be no elite class of negotiators between God and the rest, rather the mutual service of disciples in community. Second, no heaven: the goal will not be individual security in a heavenly afterworld, but transformation of the human space for the sake of the new earth promised by scripture.  Third, an anthropology and theology of nonviolence: nonviolence is not simply recommended by the Sermon on the Mount but is a holistic understanding of revelation itself and the human change it intends.  Fourth, a martyrological practice, in the sense of martyr as witness: nonviolence is not a theory, but a profound way of life which witnesses before a violent world.

So then, what possible relationship can we have to this thing which we are able to describe but which does not yet exist? The phenom of what is called “emerging church” speaks to the searching for something new.  But it is vague and undefined and still seems shaped more by social location and youthful sensibility than radical Jesus anthropology. So I don’t think it can claim to represent this thing still unborn. Yet at the same time I am sure that very many of the groups who identify under this umbrella, and others too, are actually part of the gestation process.  You could say the third church is busy being born among them.

Finally, it might seem arrogant, at best idiosyncratic, to claim a future coming of some nebulous third church, sidelining the massive institutions of Christendom and all the proud traditions of piety and polity. But does not God raise up children of Abraham, and a fortiori children of the Father, from the very stones?  From the very planet earth in its crazy third-millennium spinning in space, yearning for some believable God-given peace?
Tony Bartlett

Friday, April 26, 2013

Followup on Holy Week and Easter

I've posted several new entries on my blog since my last report on Easter so those of you using the Theology & Peace blog for notices have some catching up to do.

I added some more reflections on Christ's passions, tying it in with lynching (inspired by James Cone's book) with Postcards of the Cross. This will help prepare those going to the conference at Chapel Hill.

Beyond Oblivion also touches on Christ's Passion by commenting on the sufferings of the protagonist of the Gatekeepers Series by Anthony Horowitz, one of the more impressive YA fantasy sets.

Related to the Passion is my blogpost on the near-sacrifice of Isaac Abraham Out on Highway 61. As the title suggests, Bob Dylan joins the conversation along with Soren Kierkegaard and Wilfred Owen.

Rising to the Life of Christ offers another Easter meditation, imagining the risen life in the nonviolent God.

My article How Are We Saved? points the way toward an Atonement theology based on the risen life of Christ rather than the death of Christ, which tends to steer one to a punitive atonement.

You can also go to the full blog page of Imaginary Visions of True Peace to read through these entries.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

A New Sacred For The 21st Century?

Recently returned from Chapel Hill with Cathy Gibbons, preparing for the upcoming T&P conference. While we were there, for a little down-time, we paid a visit to the North Carolina Museum of Art. Not looking for anything in particular, but somehow a couple of the current exhibitions proved a revelation.
The first was "Object of Devotion," a collection of alabaster carvings from medieval England used as altar pieces in churches and private homes. The second was a very contemporary display, "0 to 60 Seconds, The Experience of Time...," a set of pieces which reflected the feeling of time in our modern world. From stop-motion cameras catching random images of you on a live screen as you walk by, to a panoramic photo of a Brooklyn cityscape made of superimposed shots over several days, the effect was always to empty out the thickness of the present moment. In its place was a fragmented emptiness in which the the flick of a digital counter seemed the only real information on offer.

In contrast the alabaster images were heavy with presence. The figure of the Crucified was the most often represented, flecked by blood and surrounded by various saints and ecclesiastics. Sometimes there was also God the Father, figured as an old man, almost cradling the tortured figure on his lap as he received the sacrifice of the victim and gestured a satisfied blessing. What made the carvings doubly interesting was the work of Protestant iconoclasts who in several places had chopped away faces and hands. The reformers saw the concrete representations as idolatrous and the heavy sense of presence a human corruption of biblical belief. The only true communication with Christ's atoning blood was via the semiotics of the word.

You could see immediately how the Reformation amounted to a first deconstruction of sacred presence, emptying out the world of the dense material of blood and sacrifice. In its place it put a much freer word-based presence, finding in the text of the New Testament the personal assurance of Christ's blood shed to make us righteous. This other, written presence also had its cultural day, filling millions and millions with a sacred glow. In the Protestant nations that meaning also stood firmly behind the whole of society giving it metaphysical weight and energy. But now for the artists and poets, the women and men who are sensitive to the quality of the times, all that has almost completely gone, crumbling into digital fracture and fragility. A world without the sacred. Why?
It is the deconstructive quality of the Passion itself which brought about the Protestant revolt. The iconoclasm would not have happened had not those images of bloodshed and torture already come into crisis for a significant group of Christians. There was an in-built dynamic in the gospel account which made the violence of the passion more and more an event of actual human violence, making the feeling of human guilt ever greater and more conflicted. So it was, within the framework of legal atonement which dominated the Middle Ages, the disclosure of violence simply demanded a more absolute or transcendent sacrifice. Thus, even as Luther and his successors transferred atonement to an inner written contract with God, they raised the sacrificial meaning of the passion to an ever-greater power, an unyielding penal substitution performed before a God of wrath. 

And yet, and yet. That could and would never stop the slow, steady erosion of sacrificial meaning brought about from within the gospels themselves, the collapse of sacrificial order which Rene' Girard has so convincingly demonstrated. And so, in turn, we get to the present moment, when the Protestant sacrificial scheme no longer stands behind culture, just as the Catholic scheme was lost for many societies back in the 16th century.

Of course both Catholic and Protestant cultures can double down on the past and its sacred presence. The fact that institutional Christianity seems always to reinvent that old presence, even as the world has lost it, is surely one of the reasons for overall declining churches, along with the declining formal language of Christianity. You can only repeat the old formula for so long, before the incongruity makes Christianity simply a museum entertainment.

Where, then, is the new sacred for our age, one that might fill those empty digital spaces with meaning? Is there anything that can speak at the heart of contemporary time, which might even produce a new type of art?

The answer must surely be yes! If we agree that the loss of sacred presence is an effect of the gospel itself then the transformation of time must be part of that loss: only that secular inspiration can only see as far as the emptying out. It does not see the deep nonviolence and compassion which is driving the process. Perhaps that is because most Christians themselves don't see it. They don't see or feel future Christ-time leaning deep into present time, a gentle, forgiving future which, in a nutshell, is the new sacred. So they are lost betwixt and between, between a disappearing archaic sacred and a heavenly world where transformation is supposed to happen, but does so with less and less conviction in a modern world.

Time is relationship. Much more than the earth's orbits of the sun, time is profoundly a human event where we are stretched through the fabric of our own life and bodies, remembering where we have been, those we have been with, and anticipating to whom will we go as bodily creatures. It is the bodily relationship of time which makes it much, much more than the sequence of clock days. Our bodies spread out behind and before us invisibly, but nevertheless in a very real and concrete way, yearning for the world of love which can complete them. So it is our human time is now supercharged with the future of the gospel, bending us toward the infinite wound of compassion opened by Christ in history: what might be called the "black hole" of a new creation formed purely by love. 

The art that recognizes this is perhaps not fully born. But, then again, perhaps it is partially present in an exhibition like "0 to 60", with hints of compassion scattered among the fragments of time. One particular exhibit was a replica house made of see-through gauze, with table, chairs, sink, toilet etc. It was not hard to imagine a gaze of compassion dissolving those opaque walls, opening them up to an inconceivable future.

Tony Bartlett, T&P Contributing Theologian