A Humane Reform II: Surmounting the Obstacles

About the Author
David Wagschal

Last post I raised the question: how do we enact reform in a way that is kind, that is respectful, that is humane?

The prospect of deep structural and even theological reform is very intimidating. I identified three obstacles in particular:

  1. Identity (reform threatens our personal and corporate identities, particularly those of church professionals);
  2. Money (reform threatens our livelihoods);
  3. Few things are totally bad (reform threatens things we genuinely cherish).

Can we surmount these obstacles to move forward with real reform?

Here are my thoughts.

1) Identity is a doozy. I increasingly think that one of the most insidious elements of the old Great Church or imperial synthesis has been its readiness to co-opt every element of human identity. To become Christian has meant “Christianizing” the whole person and all of society: looks, behaviours, manners, social structures, art, literature, laws, ethnic self-definition, government, etc. The goal has been to make Christianity a defining and indispensable part of the entire socio-cultural fabric. Even the most basic participation in society and culture has required interaction with Christianity.

Historically this strategy has had considerable success. Witness, for example, how ethnic identities have become inextricably melded with Christianity. It is not difficult to encounter sentiments such as “to be Danish is to be Lutheran”, “to be Serbian is to be Orthodox”, or “to be European is to be Christian”. It can get a little bizzare. Ever met, say, an Italian agnostic who nevertheless avows they will “always be Catholic”? Exactly.

There is, naturally, something alluring about this embedding of Christianity into our identities. We need identity, and we like the idea of belonging to a (the?) divine society, a (the?) divine culture – having a (the?) divine identity. We also, understandably, wish Christianity to have a concrete and profound impact on our whole reality. And, of course, we can’t help but notice that the ability of Christianity to infuse itself into socio-cultural forms has helped its global spread. Co-opting whole cultures facilitates dissemination.

As a result, most of us today would not see this identity-embedding as a problem. On the contrary, we look favourably on the many theologies of transformation that underpin and promote it. These come in many flavours: puritanism, deification, grace perfecting nature, liberation, the “inscribing” of culture into Scripture, etc.

But these theologies can backfire terribly.

They almost certainly lie at the root of Christianity’s big problem with control. When Christianity takes on concrete socio-cultural shapes, the temptation to compel conformity becomes almost overwhelming. Suddenly everyone’s salvation becomes contingent upon their fulfilling a huge range of specific social and cultural requirements. Compliance can, and must, be policed, “for our own good”.

These theologies also easily foment schism: what happens when two (differently) “transformed” Christian cultures collide? Who is right?

These theologies can hinder as well as help mission: what happens when someone wants Christianity, but not the socio-cultural (and usually imperialistic) baggage that it is embedded in?

They can make generational transmission difficult: what happens when the Gospel becomes deeply and exclusively embedded in specific cultural structures that no longer have relevance or meaning to younger generations (or are even perceived as coercive or oppressive)?

Above all, though, they can make real change and self-reflection almost impossible. When theology becomes melded with our personal and corporate identities, we suddenly have to upend our entire socio-cultural and personal realities to even consider that our theological presuppositions might be wrong. To question our theology means to question our whole sense of self and our culture. This does not exactly promote critical theological reflection. Identity starts to control theology. Not a good place to be.

But that is where most of us are.

Try taking this mini-test.

Does the prospect of changing your mind theologically…

  • threaten your sense of self-worth?
  • threaten your sense of ethnic identity?
  • threaten your professional and/or social persona?
  • threaten to devalue your life experience?
  • threaten your social status and relationships?
  • threaten to result in a real existential and personal loss to you?

If so, there’s a problem. Your theology and identity have become so intertwined that the former is now bound by the latter. Alarm bells!

What to do?

Today, to move forward with real reform, we need to start to extract theology from identity; we need to start (finally) putting a question mark next to the theologies of transformation that underlie identity-embedding. Theologies of transformation aren’t all bad, but on some level the Gospel must be able to easily critique any socio-cultural version of Christianity. It must constantly shake up and question any current Christian identity. This means we need to affirm that becoming Christian does not require conformity to any specific historical Christian identity. Jesus cares deeply about you whether or not, and to whatever degree, you happen to identify with any of the traditional expressions of Christianity. Ultimately, these do not matter. The Gospel is always above and beyond any specific “Christianity”.

This does not require us to abandon Christian identities altogether (that would be impossible). It is okay to identify deeply with any of the rich cultural, ethnic, and social Christian heritages. But it means that we must abandon the coercive habits of the old synthesis. As Christians, we can only truly appreciate and profit from any Christian identities when we recall that we are ultimately free from them. Jesus has set us free, and the Gospel releases us from being coerced or coercing others into any particular identity. This is a sine qua non of orthodox theology. A new reformed theology must constantly assert this.

2) Money. Traditionally, reform has been easily stymied by those who control finances and livelihoods. As a result, reform has required the upsetting of huge socio-economic infrastructures. This has made reform very hard.

Today, however, as churches creak and groan on their foundations, they are losing the ability to provide much financial security for their clergy – and therefore losing the ability to exercise much control. As things get really bad, even still-solvent institutions are feeling the need to tolerate much more risk and internal challenge than they once did (notice the recent change in Rome?). For the moment institutions may retain a fair bit of material control over reform – but this is fading, and fast.

Reflecting on those in my generation who are, in one way or another, in leadership roles in a church, I suddenly realize that very few are (directly) on the payroll of a church anymore.  And is it just me, or, are many who are still in the pay of the church at least quietly pondering a plan B?

So this is not the obstacle it once was.

3) Few things are completely bad.  Many people resist reform not because of its core ideals – which they may well agree with – but because they are afraid that elements of the old synthesis to which they are deeply and existentially attached will be dispensed with, deprived of importance, or mocked. They feel that those elements of the old synthesis that had great meaning and power for them will be destroyed. These elements may be rituals, aesthetic experiences, forms of community, moral norms, etc. They also fear that they will be humiliated for getting things wrong.

Such fears are real enough. Past reforms have certainly thrown out babies with the bathwater – and often cruelly.

So how do we address this fear?

First, we need to start to promote an ideal of reform that is genuinely heterogeneous. Past reforms – the Gregorian, Hesychast, Lutheran, Calvinist, counter-Reformation, etc. – all tended towards uniformity and homogeneity (even if the reality turned out otherwise). Today our horizons must expand. We have to try to imagine a church that can truly tolerate externally very different forms of Christian expression: from Chinese to Chilean, Catholic to Charismatic, North to South, East to West. Here we do need to take a cue from Luther: reform is ultimately about getting the Gospel core right.  Beyond that, we must make room for different people experiencing the Gospel in very different ways. This is going to be tough. None of us are very good at this.

Second, we need to remember that the elements of the old synthesis that need to go are not so much individual practices or traditions as much as attitudes towards those practices and traditions. In particular, it is the absolutizing of traditions, and the desire to coerce others into obeying these traditions, that must be abandoned.

Third, we need to be very clear about the criteria for reform. The chief criterion is simple: does a given practice or tradition or doctrine inculcate the Gospel or not (Was treibt Christum?)? If not, then is it possible for it to be adapted to serve this purpose? And if this is impossible, is it really such a bad thing for it to fade?

Finally, we need to cultivate a new ethos of Christian behavior that is not so deathly afraid of being wrong. This fear is a great evil of the ancient world. But a reformed church, of any variety, whether Lutheran, Catholic, Orthodox or Pentecostal, will know that it is always wrong. Perhaps this will allow us to be a little less fearful for our traditions? Perhaps we will be able to cultivate a humbler sense of our institutions than has hitherto been the case?

Comments 1

  1. I’m having trouble understanding the “theology of transformation.” What exactly is a “transformed Christian culture?” I can’t identify with these terms. Thanks.

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