Thursday, March 05, 2009

What is the Church?

I've been having a difficult conversation with a friend and I mentioned the inconsistencies of the Church, his response was that the Church isn't inconsistent but the people who represent the Church are. That got me thinking. What is it that we think the Church is?

First off there is really no Church (Catholic/Universal/Transcendent) but there are traditions, lots of traditions. And each of them has distinctives that set it apart as well as ideas rooted in a consistent whole. There is some degree of similarity in doctrines, practices, values and structures. However, it would be hard to say that any of that is consistent. And this extends even within the tradition itself. Even traditions that hold a romantic notion of historical preservation cannot square that with the historical reality. But really that isn't the argument.

The argument is that the Church is something transcendent, immutable and unchangeable. In modern terms this is an assertion that the Church is an Ideal. But how does that stack with reality?

Part of the problem is that Church has an institutional reality. We could simply say that the Church is the people, period. And while our answer must never separate the notion of Church from the lived reality a Ecclesia, or the people called together, to miss the structural reality of Church as institution is to deny an aspect that is also a lived reality. Where we can challenge this idea is how we understand the institutional character of Church.

One common way that the Church is over Idealized (in its institutional form) is by conflating it with the Kingdom of God. If we say the Church is the Kingdom then we cannot permit anything but that it is a perfect institution - albeit imperfectly realized. But there is no real scriptural basis for such an assertion. A Kingdom implies the expressed reign of a monarch. The Church, as institution, hardly appeals, with any consistency, to the King in matters of structure. Rather the Church as institution has modeled governance on existing patterns in other, often dominant, communities. To the point where most modern churches value a democratic approach to governance. This is hardly consistent structurally, even within a single tradition. There is definitely a relationship between the Kingdom of God and the Church, but it is that the Church is called into existence by and for the Kingdom of God. In this sense the Church is the servant of the Kingdom, which allows us to acknowledge the human aspect of Church.

A larger issue with conflation is that if the Church becomes the transcendent ideal of the Christian hope - where does that leave the King? Much as many Protestants have made the Bible their idol, elevating it as the ideal, other Christians have made the Church their idol, elevating it as ideal. If the Church itself is untouchable and already perfect then why do we need anything else? This was the problem Jesus faced with the Jewish authorities - they had structures that gave them confidence and so had missed the heart of their religion - they no longer needed God. I think we should be wary of any assertion that salvation is secured through anything other than the work of Christ through Jesus' death and resurrection. If we learn anything from the First Testament it is that we love the surity of idols.

Does this mean though that the Church is necessarily inconsistent? I wouldn't assert that it is by necessity inconsistent, but that in reality it is inconsistent, and in every way we can imagine that word. But that shouldn't disrupt our faith and confidence in the Church as a profound work of God in and for the world. I would draw our attention to the idea of unity. If there is a consistent longing in Jesus' instructions for the Church it is unity.

Unity is not the same thing as uniformity. Uniformity is actually a form of oppression. Unity, on the other hand, is a form of community with diversity. Even if you have peaceful uniformity you cut off modes of expression. You impoverish the whole. And you do not have real community. Unity never requires consistency, nor does community for that matter. What is required is a desire to be something together that is great than is ever possible when we are alone. This is worth thinking through because it is counter-intuitive to the structures of society - many of which, as we already mentioned, are translated into the structure of the Church.

Unity also doesn't imply a soft-relativism. Unity requires the difficult task of working through difference to a better understanding. Unity only functions when we respect a high ideal of authenticity but reject the notion that we can ever escape our context and that context, those things that we respond uniquely and authentically too, can and should be challenged. Tradition, including structures can and should be challenged. And doing so is how we move towards a better vision of society and community. This must include such dominant structures as the Church. If we somehow exempt the Church from this, then our hopes for real unity will always be dashed.

I say this because as a theologian who has had influence in my denomination on structure - this is the serious consideration to be taken. When we build structures and traditions, we need to recognize that it is, and has always been, us who have created them. We do so to honour God. And we believe that God helps us in creating structures that touch the world in the contexts we build them. But the institution is always a human creation. And so we can always do it better.

That doesn't mean we ditch tradition, nor do we shatter the institutions. These are the historical building blocks of a true future. But when we rest on these structures, we run the risk of becoming captive to our ideals instead of letting ideals grow to meet the challenges of the future.

10 comments:

DMofKor said...

Be careful here Frank
"First off there is really no Church (Catholic/Universal/Transcendent) but there are traditions, lots of traditions. "

By that statement you are rejecting the Apostle's Creed (or Nicaean Creed if you prefer) which is the foundation of the Christian faith. Do we just to believe only parts of that creed, that would certainly be dangerous grounds.

On the topic of unity. If a child gets mad and decides that he doesn't want to live by his parent's rules and moves out. Who has to change for the child to move back into his parent's house. If the parent did something to offend the child, then yes, they should apologize and promise not to do that anymore, but the parent's rules would always remain and the child would have to come to terms with those rules or continue to live outside of the home.

Now when you are an offspring of a child that has been living out of the parent's home, it is hard to reconcile all of this....

I hope this little illustration makes sense

DMofKor said...

When the term Church is used in the creed, it encompasses all believers.
In my previous conversations, I have used the Church to represent the Catholic Church. Which since the beginning has spoken on behalf of the whole Church.

One of Freedom said...

I'm hardly rejecting the creed, I'm just not buying the same assumption that you are bringing to "one holy and universal Church".

But your analogy only works if we are talking about the true parent. To identify the schisms with one side getting mad and leaving - which side left? All traditions make an appeal to history and all of them, including the Roman Church, have good grounds for their claims. My Protestant response would be that the Roman Catholic church had long since ditched its historical roots and so the Protestant Church emerged as the real parent (to follow your analogy). But the historian in me says both sides are right and both sides are wrong. There are things the Roman Church has preserved well and innovations they've made to screw things up. The same should be emphatically said for the Protestant Traditions. I'd also say the same thing about the Eastern Traditions.

There is one Holy and Catholic Church - but it isn't any of the manifestations we see - it is the high ideal towards which we long, pray and work towards.

One of Freedom said...

Steve I am also careful to distinguish between the Catholic Church and the Roman Catholic Church. They are not the same historically.

DMofKor said...

So in that case you are right. There is no possible unity. Not when every time there is a schism in the protestant church it moves further away from it's roots and further away from what Luther envisioned. I doubt that he wanted to create the free for all that we now see.

One of Freedom said...

Actually the primary reason we schism is this effort to try and retrieve something about the primitive and biblical Church in conversation with the culture. The tragedy is that this has to lead to schism. And in post-enlightenment liberal democracy that actually kinda makes some sense. Fortunately, many in the Church (all of us) are recognizing that continual schism is not the best thing. That is a pre-condition for unity to happen. I see a lot more unity than when I started pastoral work a mere 20 years ago.

Most of the Church is finally used to talking openly about liturgical renewal. In fact the Roman Church has been a wonderful example in this. But it does have to extend to structural renewal to open up more possibilities of unity. Otherwise we have reached an impasse. Benedict has underscored that many times and it is sad he seems less willing than his recent predecessors to do anything about it.

DMofKor said...

The biggest question that arises now, is this: What makes your interpretation of the Church more right than mine, the next guy or what the Church has held onto for millenias.
I do not mean to be offensive, but your position is boastful. You are assuming that you arrived to some short of revelation that has eluded others. I don't buy it.

I hope that I am not offending you. :-)

One of Freedom said...

Not at all.

If you assume that I am arguing based on opinion or private revelation then you will effectively shut down dialogue. We do that a lot in our society. It becomes your word against mine and we can never get to an answer. So let's examine your claims.

First am I boasting? Is it boastful for you to write code? Is it boastful for you to recommend better programming options for our clients? I think it can be, but it would be what you are trained for and have expertise in. There is definitely experience in your ability to make good recommendations. I've spent the last decade of my life studying this in an academic environment where your opinions and experiences mean jack squat. So when I spout theological I know enough to know that I'm speaking out of my training but also in a way to advance a conversation that I freely admit I don't have all the answers for. But I am applying the tools I have gained to the situation. So I'm not arguing arrogantly from some revelation that seems to have eluded other people - I'm thinking this through using the resources I have worked hard to gain. Albeit a blog is stream of consciousness writing, and the ideas formative. I could poke a lot of holes in what I'm saying here - but the essence of it I definitely stand by.

Is this my opinion. Not really I'm drawing on the historical tradition of the Church - as I interpret it. That is exactly what all of us do. Or are you claiming unmediated access to divine revelation? If you are there is no need to argue anymore. But I don't think that is the case. What is happening is that you are responding out of a presupposition that I freely admit is not compatible with my conclusions. The assumption that the Roman Church is teaching something directly correlative with what the whole Church (or if you prefer true Church) has taught all along. Just read the history of of liturgical renewal and you will see that the Roman Church has made some quite drastic changes and for some shady reasons (the power grab of Ultramontanism and infallibility come to mind).

DMofKor said...

I hope that you understand that I don't mean any disrespect.
I'm might have used a wrong terminalogy
But to go back to your illustration. What is happening with your statements, is equivalent to me as a developer telling another developer that his code is bad. That I have a better grasp of the problem and can offer a much better solution. If I did that then I would be boastful, but to an employer who is asking me to provide a solution, then it is my duty to recommend the best solution that I am able to produce.

Not to worry, when it comes to theology, I know out right that I am outclassed if I am to debate you.
You are far more learned than I ever care to be. But the reality is that you are tainted by your experiences, as I am, I will not deny that.

In truth, we are beating a dead horse here. I have come to accept certain things that you have not embraced and vice-versa. I don't mind not being on the same page... It's cool really :-)

Peace Bro.. All in Love

One of Freedom said...

There is a difference in my wording - I said recommend. But at the same time if you were aware that what the other programmer was doing was going to get him (and others) into trouble then do you have an ethical obligation to find some way to communicate that to her?

But I'm more interested in your other statement. I do agree that it is ok for us to be on different pages - otherwise my whole argument for unity would be nullified. But when you say that you have come to accept things that I just haven't it implies that somehow you are in possession of some special knowledge that I don't have. Isn't that what you are telling me I'm doing?

If you really believe that then I'd gently prod you with this. How do you know that you are accepting a truth that gives you a different insight into the meaning of Church? What is that grounded in? And if you don't want to touch that, why? Is it that tentative?