Thursday, September 29, 2011

End of the Beginning or Beginning of the End?

Crusty Old Dean has been busy this week. This has been a blessing, because it has distracted me from the epic collapse of my beloved Boston Red Sox -- and I mean epic. Crusty Old Dean is a big fan of Nate Silver from the NYTimes blog, and the master of statistics calculated the Sox' collapse as a 1 in 278,000,000 possibility.

C.O.D. (Crusty Old Dean tires of typing Crusty Old Dean, being self-referential is wearying, except, it seems, for Rickey Henderson) has been busy with the seminary's annual alumni gathering this week. As part of this, noted scholar of religion Diana Butler Bass is on campus. She's giving endowed lectures at our partner school, Trinity Lutheran Seminary, on September 29. On September 28, we had scheduled some time for her with our Bexley hall alumni and students. C.O.D. and the planners were scratching our heads at how to structure this time: we didn't want her to rehash the lectures she would be giving the other day, so what to do?

In the end the organizers decided to have a conversation between COD (who is now going English style and leaving out periods in abbreviations) and DBB (since typing Diana Butler Bass will also be increasingly wearying since it will appear with increasing frequency as this post goes on). COD confesses to feeling a bit like James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio: it was just COD and DBB on the platform, no table, sitting in two chairs, talking back and forth the first 45 minutes.

COD find himself pondering one of DBB's comments, which is in turn one of the main foci of her forthcoming book, "Christianity after Religion: The End of the Church and the birth of a New Spiritual Awakening." As its subtitle indicates, in this work DBB seriously explores the possibility that the church, as it currently exists, will eventually cease to be.
And COD found himself strangely untroubled by that. A couple of reasons, I guess.

--I think that the Church of of Christendom needs to die. For 1500 years Christianity in various ways, shapes, and forms was seen to be coterminous with western culture. At times, this was as a state-sponsored religion, in a variety of places to a variety of forms. At other times, by attempting to assert a kind of moral or cultural hegemony in place of formal establishment (for example the United States). In COD's opinion, this has been a perversion of the gospel, an idolatrous lust for power and hegemony, and I am glad to see it die.

--Christendom has also warped the entire sense of what it means to be a Christian. While we lament the lack of spiritual vitality and authenticity in many of the churches, the reality is that a good portion of Western Christianity has reduced the clergy to being chaplains to the small group of people who venture through the doors of a church. We have turned our call to transform the world into a Ponzi scheme for getting people to serve on committees. We have made the life of faith into paying a weekly premium on one's divine insurance policy. So many of our institutions, from the parish church to the concept of what clergy should do to our denominations themselves are in need of a thorough re-imagining, or they will simply eventually cease to exist because they no longer have any reason to be.

At one point during Q&A yesterday DBB talked about how at times she felt she knew what it was like living in the last days of the Roman Empire, given the gloom pervading many political and religious systems at this time. COD replied, "The Roman Empire falling was the best thing that happened to it. The Empire was unsustainable, had been for hundreds of years, and the collapse allowed the best things about the empire to continue while jettisoning that which was draining and unsustainable."

--COD was untroubled by the concept of "the end of the church" because it won't happen. The church has been through cataclysmic catastrophe and re-ordering: in the first decades following Jesus' death, pummeled in various places by Muslim invasions, Mongol invasions, Communist persecution (the Orthodox Church was persecuted to the brink of extinction by Stalin; Christianity was nearly expunged by Mao; both places are seeing phenomenal revivals in Christianity); devastated by the near collapse of society in the 14th century in the West. Drawing the circle more narrowly, the Episcopal Church in the 1780s and 1790s came very close to either a) not existing, or b) existing in a form that would be nearly unrecognizable. It won't happen because there will be a remnant of the church which will change and adapt to the new circumstances.

That's the good news: the church won't die. The bad news: there's a good chance about 80-90 percent of it will die, just not all of it.

Collapse, Christendom! May your corrupt and rotten hull sink beneath the waves.


  1. Great stuff, COD! Funny how we cling to the Whiggish/Darwin view of history that all will get better and better, not even turning back to the golden age now that New Testament scholarship has disproved all that romance. I think Christendom collapsed at the Enlightenment after being wounded by the Reformation. I think Christianity is so much larger than "the Church" whatever you mean by that, and any good historian knows as you point out that we have had many forms of community and practice, some of which are marginal and then mainstream in a generation or two. I am still not prepared to say I am better than my ancestors, but I am ready for the new shape of Christian practice.

  2. I believe what you're trying to say is....Matthew 8:22?

  3. It works on so many levels, doesn't it?

  4. I think I understand. The Church is kind of like the Red Sox. Even with a payroll of $170m you can still blow a 9 game lead in September to Tampa Bay. You'll lose David Ortiz but you might get some new guy and win when you dont expect it. In Red Soxese, "theres always next year..."


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