Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The irrelevance of modern American Christian Faith
Are we simply continuing tried, true (and maybe tired) rhetoric about God
instead of actually engaging our world today for and through God?

Blatant Disclaimer: (I am in no way criticizing any specific person in this post, rather seeking to reflect on an experience and articulate some questions.)

I'm taking a class at the GTU on Systematic Theology. We gather on Monday afternoons. This week we were to read a book by Victor Anderson entitled Creative Exchange: A Constructive Theology of African-American Religious Experience. [article] In the book Anderson argues for a constructive pragmatist approach to faith. He is saying that we should talk first from human life & spiritual experience as that's what we live. He advances that maybe we should talk about God as World instead of as the God-head (Father, Son & Holy Spirit). He's asserting that faith and encounter with the divine should be first and foremost relational. God is relational by nature and foundation and experience. Rather than continuing the nearly 2,000 year-old western way of thinking about God as essence....what is he made of? Is he a he? What is the trinity? How much is God like us (since we're created in God's image)? - we should talk about God in terms of relational experiences: between us and other people, in communities of faith, in the exchanges, encounters and creative moments of life. It might sound far out there and heretical, yet I think it's actually what most of us in 21st century urban areas searching to know Jesus and experience God and practice that faith in community - are leaning towards, or emerging into.

I read this book and then went to a funeral yesterday for a woman shot in her sleep by her husband who then killed himself with the same gun [Tribune article] She was a remarkable woman. For 30 minutes people testified to her encouraging spirit, consititent positiveness, insatiable laughter, ability to bring out and point to the best in all people, all circumstances and all problems. She was African-American. Most of those attending were as well. From the music, the call-back responses and dress you could catch the strong influence of "black church culture" on the gathered community. Anderson comes from the community as well, and advances in the book that the tradition in the "black church" insists upon the suffering of God in Christ, who suffering with us, like us, alongside us. Whereas often times in the "white church" (for lack of a better word, maybe it's more Western bourgeois, male-highly-educated influenced) we focus on the soverignity of God - that God is all powerful, all present, all loving and unknowable. God is so removed - above and beyond - from our existence, you have to wonder what kind of relationship you could have with a God so distant.

The funeral service ended with a eulogy based upon Philippians 1:21 "For me to live is Christ [His life in me], and to die is gain [the gain of the glory of eternity]." The eulogy consisted in 4 points, each reitterated 2-3 times.

1. She gained a better body, a glorified, immortalized, resurrected body.
2. She gained a better home.
3. She gained a better inheritance.
4. She gained a better fellowship.

Never once in the eulogy, or in the sermon, was it mentioned what this woman had sufffered through. Her death was spoken of as a "graduation day" when she finally obtained what she always wanted. She who was always a blessing to others, who seemed to have been an "instrument of God" in all she did - seemed in her tragic, horrifying death to be abandoned by God.

What kind of God, divine being, would allow that? What kind of life do we lead if we merely want to escape it, to get to a better one that's not here but removed from the world in an ethereal, transcendantal other-world?

I found myself wondering as I experienced in this service what Anderson talks about in his book. Maybe our understanding of God as a "person" three-in-one is too old and tired. I'm not advocating that we reject and through it away, but I wonder if it actually takes our life experience seriously. We seem to have reduced the unknowable God who makes himself known by entering into a life of suffering (in Christ) to a super-hero cheerleader who is on the sidelines (safely removed to distant heaven) cheering us on towards our death when we finally we get all the good stuff we're promised in and through faith. I think that metaphor for God is irrelevant to our life today.

While we fight in our churches (at least the denomination I call home) about the reasons for our church decline: conservatives blaming liberals, liberals blaming liberals, many blaming the drive to ordain homosexuals, or the categorical embrace of the Republican party as "Christian" - we aren't asking ourselves if maybe church attendance is declining because what we are saying is completely irrelevant. I left the service yesterday speechless. After 30-45 minutes of testimonies about how she accompanied other people in their suffering, we heard about a God who reduced her suffering in a tragic death to something of a sorority-rush event, a death to go through in order to get the prize of eternal life. I think that sort of language (even if I would affirm at the base level the redemption doctrine that our lives are immeasurabley worthy to God and that life is more than just the here and now) is irrelevant to our cultural syntax today, it continues a stereotype that falls not on deaf ears, but on ears that can't understand it.

Maybe we do need new ways for talking about God? Maybe we need to seek new ways of being relevant through the articulation or affirmation of Christian tenants in language that dates not from the European Enlightment, the Ancient Greek patristic era (300-500) but rather emerges from our postmodern and multicultural context of today. If we really belive that the God experienced in the story of Jesus of Nazareth is first and foremost relational, than why don't we affirm that and articulate it in ways that are understandable in our cultural context, post-critical scientific worldview, and globalizing economy?

1 comment:

Sarah said...