I am reading Diana Butler Bass at the moment, “Christianity After Religion.” Tucked away in the midsection of the book is some profound statements that I believe are spot-on in describing why traditional Christianity badly misses the mark when it comes to making a connection with the concerns and needs of modern Western society. Both traditional Protestantism, especially Evangelicalism, and Catholicism start with a concept of man’s sinfulness, that we are somehow “bad” in our core, and need to rid ourselves of that core to be forgiven. Usually unspoken but inferred, is that we should feel badly about ourselves and repent of that “sinful nature.” Sin, then, is basically pride in ourselves and the refusal to admit that we are “sinful.”
I understand how the church arrived at that conclusion, based on the gospel narratives involving John the Baptist, and of course, Jesus’ calls for repentance. But the church, in its zeal to be true to scripture, has failed to understand or acknowledge that, while “the field may be ripe for harvest,” the disease affecting the crop has changed. Hubris is no longer the issue. There is a different kind of “lostness” that affects Western culture, and the church exacerbates the problem by preaching against the sin of pride.
What was shocking about both Jesus’ and John’s message is how it attacked the notion that the Jews were automatically “saved” because of their birthright: being Jewish. They had a leg-up over the Gentiles. They had superior knowledge that their enemies, the Romans, didn’t have. It was this hubris that John the Baptist, Jesus and, especially Paul riled against. It insulted those in power: the religious leadership of the first century. It attacked the very foundation of religiosity: that believing the right things made you superior to those that didn’t believe the right things.
It is why Jesus chose a Samaritan, who didn’t believe the right things, to illustrate what a loving neighbor looks like. Imagine how that hurt the Pharisees’ pride! Fast forward to the 21st century and some things have changed, some things haven’t. We still have religious Pharisees, those who “believe the right things,” who call others to repent of their pride, not realizing that it is they who are prideful. But, I will let Diana Butler Bass speak for herself:
“ As Western society has been overtaken by faceless consumerism and seemingly uncontrolled technologies, do men still feel like gods? I doubt it.
Instead, in the last fifty years, most Europeans and North Americans—male, female, gay, straight, transgender, black, white, brown—have most likely succumbed to the sins of ‘triviality, distractibility, and diffuseness,’ having lost any real sense of self in a world of broken memories, entertaining technologies, and frenzied materialism. Indeed, philosophers and popular observers alike have noted that many people are now reconstructing their sense of self through nostalgia or consumerism. Saiving’s description* of female sinfulness has come to represent much of the human condition. Thus, ‘Who am I?’ may well be the driving theological question of the day and the starting point for reflection on spirituality—that lived experience of God longed for by so many people in the once Christian West.
If sin was once seen as a twisted, self-centered quest to become God, then salvation was deliverance from self in order to become other-centered. If the self is a problem, then the church’s job was to help people diminish the self and make room for God. Thus, salvation was freedom from ourselves, our humanity, and our ambitions. The church taught that anything self-driven was evil and shaped communal prayer, ritual, worship, and penance around stamping out our humanness and striving instead for divine ideals of goodness. In the West, Catholics and Protestants took different routes to the same end—Catholics emphasized confession, penance, and sacraments as a way out of the human dilemma; Protestants (depending on the sort of Protestant) emphasized right belief, reordered hearts, and moral action as the paths away from sin. Fundamentally, however, the outcome of salvation was the same: pushing back, replacing or burying our human nature in favor of submitting to a transcendent—and often distant—God.
This, I suspect, is the root of many people’s anxiety about church—that religion is the purveyor of a sort of salvation that does not address their lived struggles. So those who once ‘believed’ in this sort of salvation migrate away from the church, seeking instead something they call spirituality.
Pride and hubris do not particularly seem to be humanity’s problem at the moment—they began to erode when the first atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima.
…Salvation is not being saved from ourselves, escaping some dreadful fate of judgement, damnation, and hellfire at the hands of a wrathful God; rather it is being saved to ourselves, finding what was lost and the joy of discovery in the hands of a loving Creator. Although the word ‘salvation’ has come to mean ‘eternal life’ in most religious circles, it is helpful to return to the word’s Latin root salvus, meaning ‘whole,’ ‘sound,’ ‘healed,’ ‘safe,’ ‘well,’ or ‘unharmed,’ as a way to understand the spirituality of salvation.”**
Understanding this, that as humans we have lost connection with ourselves, and each other, that there is an aching aloneness that pervades much of Western culture, the church would find connecting to the real needs of humanity and society much simpler. A simple illustration of this pertains to parenting. Is it effective to belittle a child with low self-esteem or is it wiser to to build them up, show them how much they are valued and loved?
Ironically, the sin of hubris, while not a problem typical of Western society as a whole, does have a hold on the church. The danger inherent to any exclusionary social construct is that the included can feel “above” the excluded. Coupled with the belief that the church gets it right while everyone not in one’s particular religious click gets it wrong, only strengthens that conviction. Furthering the disconnect is the fact that people see beyond the facade, that those outside the church see that Christians are really no better than themselves, and the air of religious superiority is merely self-righteousness. The church would do well to understand that the gospel message of repentance and conviction of sin was largely leveled at the traditional religion of the first century. The message Jesus preached was, in large part, a deconstruction of status quo religiosity. The failure to see Jesus’ call of repentance as applicable to the institutional church is due, in large part, to the modern Western influence of “individualism,” the Western “sawdust trail.”
It is this over-emphasis on individual sinfulness that has blinded the church to its corporate sinfulness, explaining why it has been so hard for the church to see its own culpability in racism and sexual exploitation. Institutional religion is very difficult to reform from within. As we have seen in the SBC over the last few years, and more recently in the UMC denomination, reform meets great resistance from those who rely on the “perks” their religion gives them, almost always at the expense of others. When individuals within the church see that it is all a power play, they leave, and those outside the church find their worst suspicions validated. Once seen for what it is, it cannot be unseen.
But the church cannot offer solutions to society until itself has repented. This is a core issue. Next, the church needs to understand what people need…what they are looking for. What they are lacking. Can the church meet that need? That people are broken is a given, but what is the fix? Simply quoting cherry-picked Bible verses about salvation no longer works. The way out of the situation is simple. Live Christ, be Christ, show Christ. I will further elaborate in a future post.
*Theologian Valerie Saiving, “The Human Situation: A Feminine View.”
**Bass, pp. 181-183.