A modest proposal for church reform. A follow-up on “When Will Christ Return?”
In his last book, The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky presents “The Grand Inquisitor” as a story that Ivan, the atheist Karamazow brother, has composed; Ivan calls it a ‘poem in prose’ and recounts it to his younger brother Alyosha, the aspiring priest. In it, Jesus returns to the earth during the Spanish Inquisition. Ivan says: “ It is fifteen centuries since man has ceased to see signs from heaven.” And now the deity appears “once more among the people in that human shape in which he walked among them for three years.” A blind man sees, a dead child rises. Everyone recognizes him. But the old cardinal, in charge of the Inquisition, seizes Jesus and takes him to prison, where he tells him that: “You have no right to add anything to what you have said…. Why have you come to hinder us?” Ivan explains that this is a fundamental feature of the Church, that God cannot ‘meddle’ now because “all has been given by you to the Pope. The Church is the authority now.”
The Grand Inquisitor then tells Jesus that he erred when he resisted the devil’s three temptations in the wilderness, where the devil offered him miracle, mystery and authority. Then the old cardinal reveals that the Church accepted these conditions, ruling the masses precisely by miracle, mystery and authority. Jesus, however, wanted them to have freedom of choice. But, says the clergyman, freedom is too difficult and frightful for the masses and so the Church has taken the three awesome gifts for them. The Inquisitor concludes : “We are not working with you, but with the devil– that is our mystery.”
Jesus, still not speaking, simply kisses the cardinal on his lips. “That was all his answer.” The Grand Inquisitor opens the cell door and says, “Go and come no more… come not at all, never, never.” So Jesus leaves.
It reminds me of a meeting I had with two – then- young Christian Reformed clergymen over lunch many decades ago. I forget now what I proposed, but I do remember that the answer of one of the ministers was something like: “That is something my congregation cannot properly digest, even though what you say is correct.” In other words, don’t bring up anything even remotely controversial from the pulpit.
Of course I relate this story for a purpose. I am not suggesting that the church is in league with the devil as Dostoevsky perhaps implies. That the church would have great difficulty if Jesus were to be in its midst, is probably true. I do believe that Jesus will return, perhaps soon, as I have suggested. Our mandate is now, more than ever, as Peter told us, “to live holy and godly lives as we look forward to that Day.”
In the Christian religion consistency is all. When we confess in Psalm 115 that ‘The Heavens belong to God, but the earth he has given to us,’ then that places us in a very delicate position. We read in Genesis that God created this world and called it good seven times after each phase, and very good when it was finished. This means that a consistent attitude on our part demands that we do whatever we can to preserve and enhance God’s creation, even at the sacrifice of our material welfare. Consistency demands that we keep creation in that very good state and live simple and holy lives reflecting those commitments. We all know that Jesus would be absolutely consistent in demanding not to tolerate a global and economic system that enables us, the world’s elite, to prosper at the expense of the majority.
Looking back thousands of years, it is striking that every five – six hundred years or so a major religion seems to be born. Moses and the Hebrew religion belong to the Twelfth century before Christ; Zarathustra, Confucius, Buddha, the Babylon exile, so important for the Old Testament, all saw their births between 600-500 years B.C. In the first century the Christian religion conquered the world. Mohammed was born in the year 570. After a bit of a lapse the Christian Church began to stir in the 13-15th century, culminating in the Reformation of 1517.
Let’s be honest. Basically our way of delivering the Message nor its contents have changed for 500 years, yet times now are full of creation-anguish. Jesus’ courageous followers set the scene for a fundamental change in its course, even changing the day of worship from Saturday to Sunday, abolishing circumcision, instituting Communion. Many now tell us that we are finally on our own. Professor Anthony Giddens of the London School of Economics, in the 1999 Reith Lectures, has said: “We live in Post – Natural and Post-Tradition Times.” And I believe he is correct. The result of this development is both an age of insecurity, moral ambiguity and spiritual lack, but it also has a positive side: we are coming into our own as Children of God, as heirs and co-heirs with Christ. On the one hand we see a return from cosmos to chaos, of which Hosea 4: 2-3 speaks:
“There is only cursing, lying and murder,
stealing and adultery;
they break all bounds,
and bloodshed follows bloodshed.
Because of this the land mourns,
and all who live in it waste away;
the beasts of the field and
the birds of the air and
the fish of the sea are dying.”
On the other hand we have people like Professor Herman E. Daly, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Affairs, and formerly of the World Bank, who has written Beyond Growth, the Economics of Sustainable Development, in which he writes on its very last page:
““We must face the failures of the growth idolatry. We must stop crying out to the growing economy, ‘deliver me, for thou art my god!’ Instead we must have the courage to ask with Isaiah, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?”
If my premise that Jesus’ return is imminent, what does this mean this for us? Business as usual? In a time where there are obvious signs of permanent disappearance: coral islands, once the temperature exceeds 27 degrees Celsius, collapsing, now a frequent occurrence, fish, many animal and plant species being wiped out or in danger, all definitely signs of the last days, should we keep on going as if nothing is the matter?
No. Of course not. The problem is that the challenges seem too big, too overwhelming. But can we, as Christians, just let this happen and plead ignorance or inability?
I believe that what we can do is both significant and limited. The most significant part is to ask forgiveness, to admit our guilt in the matters that affect the globe: the wide disparity between us and the third world, the responsibility we have for climate change and world-wide pollution, for refusing to help the less fortunate, the wall we have created to safeguard our privileged position. I believe that to be an alarmist is much less dangerous than the witless complacency so rampant today.
I call ‘forgiveness’ a significant part, yet it does not help us in rectifying the state of affairs in this world. In that sense our contribution is limited. However nothing can be done until we see the folly of our ways.
I like to go back to an ancient document, “The Belgic Confession,” written by Guido de Bres, who died a martyr in 1567.
In Article 2: The Means by which we know God, he writes: “We know him by two means:
“First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, since that universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God: his eternal power and his divinity as the apostle Paul says in Romans 1:20. ‘All these things are enough to convict men and to leave them without excuse.’”
May I add that, if non-Christians have no excuse, then we certainly cannot plead ignorance.
“Second, he makes himself known to us more openly by his holy and divine Word, as much as we need in this life, for his glory and for the salvation of his own.”
Please note that Bible Revelation is secondary here. The Church has promoted this as primary, and so missed the greater significance of the ‘means by which to know God.’
So let me present a critical look at the church as we know it.
My first question is “Why is the church not fully engaged in creation-saving, even though believers claim God to be ‘ the maker of heaven and earth’? Why does the church show little inclination to honor the earth or to protect it from those who would dishonor it?”
The general feeling in the church was, to quote Sir Francis Bacon, “ to place nature on a rack, enslaved, bound into service, and forced out of her natural state and molded.” His writings, dating from the year 1600, were filled with imagery of the mental conquest of nature, drawn from the witch trials of his time. René Descartes, in his Discourse on Method (1637) sealed the intellectual separation from nature and mind from natural processes, with his ‘Cogito, ergo sum,’ I think therefore I am. The human destiny was to be “masters and possessors of nature.”
Not much has changed since, and, even though the Church formally has rejected these statements, its ‘body’ language still expresses agreement with these gentlemen.
The 700- page Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity (1990) includes less than one page on environmental issues. In a chapter called “The Future of Christianity,” it notes that problems of population growth and resource decline lie ahead, but we are reassured that “it seems likely that new discoveries may provide the means for averting the cumulative threats of population explosions and diminishing food or resources.”
There is no sense of urgency, but unconditional hope for a technological fix. The universe and the earth are abandoned and left to the uses of science and technology at the hand of humans.
In general religion acts that while humans are made in God’s image, nature is different, a supporting cast for the human drama. Nature is no more than the sum of its parts, and can be reduced to those parts for human use. We, humans, are the measure of all things; nature’s role or destiny is to be ‘developed’ for economic purposes.
As a whole, organized religion has ignored the plight of the earth for many centuries. Now that, as I have pointed out, Christ is about to return, what is needed is a complete reversal of the way we think and act in creation, if we sincerely want to be part of the New creation.
I am reminded of Genesis, where God planted the trees and describes them as ‘ beautiful to look at and good to eat from.’ Note the order of priority: The aesthetic aspect comes before the economic one. When human trust in God was put to the test, Adam and Eve saw the tree in a different light ( Genesis 3:6) where the order is reversed: the economic – the apple – is placed before the recognition of the artful element. Nothing has changed since then.
So are there any answers? Can I point to some points of light?
Of course. The Bible is full of examples. Job’s sin was the arrogant belief that the earth and the universe were designed for human benefit and control. The essence of the Book of Job is that he was converted from being ego-centred to becoming eco- centred. As Stephen Mitchell has pointed out, Job’s ultimate surrender is not the sort of mindless obedience wished by some clerical authorities. It is the kind of surrender that is “the whole-hearted giving up of one-self,” a giving surrender to the universe, arising from humility that leads to wisdom instead of anthropocentric pride.
The Hebrew prophets were keenly aware of environmental pollution caused by humans. Isaiah 24 comes to mind: “The world languishes and withers…the earth lies polluted.. for they have broken the everlasting covenant.”
In Isaiah the earth is not merely lifeless matter, but rather alive with feelings of pain and sufferings, also evident in Romans 8, of course, because its inhabitants have violated environmental precepts and reneged the Covenant.
More recently, Anthony Duncan in his The Elements of Celtic Christianity, gives a partial answer. In his short book he writes that Celtic Christianity does not see a gap between heaven and earth. On the contrary, the two are regarded as inseparably intertwined. The author recommends that we move from the ‘lone ranger approach in the church, where the minister is the all and in all, to partnership forms of ministry, where the lay -people do an important part of the service. This, he hopes, will lead to neo-monastic church communities, where there is a greater interaction among people and a closer relationship with creation.
He concludes: “The Christian Faith, the faith of the Celt, teaches us all over again our stewardship – our priesthood – of the good earth and of our brothers and sisters, its creatures. The Celtic Christian tradition can, if we allow it to do so, rescue us from a vision grown too narrow, a God, interpreted in our own image, who is far too small and a cramped, bickering ecclesiasticism masquerading as the entire Kingdom of God”.
These are new times. We see every day what the Roman Christianity – continued in the Luther and Calvin Reformation – has brought destruction and pollution. The real question today is whether instituted Christianity can reform itself from within.
Consider the following: I believe that my observation is correct when I see that organized Christianity, in general, has made peace with the economy by divorcing itself from economic issues. Again the matter of consistency emerges. Somehow, in the condition of the world as the world now is, organization can force upon an institution as the church is, a character that is alien or even diametrically opposed to its original purpose. As an organization the church not only has the tendency, but the inclination, even the compulsion to think of itself and even identify itself to the world, not as an entity synonymous with its truth and its membership, but as an amalgam of funds, properties, projects, offices, all urgently requiring economic support, and with inflexible confessions and church orders, codex, books of forms. Thus we see that the organized church makes peace with the destructive economy and divorces itself from economic issues because it is economically compelled to do so. Like any other public institution, the organized church and Christian Education are dependent on the ‘economy’; they cannot survive apart from these economic practices that their confessions forbid and that their calling is to correct. If it comes to a choice between the depletion of the fish in the oceans, of the birds that fly in the air, or of the lilies in the field and the building fund or the teachers’ salaries, organized christianity will elect- as it already has before – to side against God’s creation. The irony is that saving the building fund is only a matter of money. The preservation of God’s creatures, however, goes to the heart of religion: the practice of a proper love and respect for them as creatures of God.
From the Bible we know that the Universal Church will prevail. There always will be a body of believers, not necessarily to be identified with Sunday Worship. As one Jewish sage reminded me, affirmed by Thomas Aquinas, that the Sabbath was instituted for the purpose of contemplating the greatness of God’s creation, so that, during the entire week we can implement this ‘creation-centred’ life, and come to a fuller understanding of our place within it.
Jesus never taught his disciples how to preach – only how to pray. Perhaps that’s why there is a shortage of ministers. Perhaps the Lord is telling is that we should do away with ministers altogether and let the lay-people run the church on their own. As it was in the beginning when Paul established churches everywhere. This would mean that we have come full circle, not only in the church, but in the world as well.
To understand why we have gone full circle, a bit of retracing is necessary, all the way back to Cain. When Cain fled from the face of God, after killing his brother Abel, God went after him, patted him on the shoulder and promised him a free hand to develop God’s world in Cain’s direction. Why did God do this? I believe that God wanted to speed up the development of creation, wanted a faster pace of progress in the world, so that his coming and coming again might happen sooner. Cain, driven from his fields, uprooted from a slow-moving agricultural life, received carte-blanche to mold creation into the image of humanity. Cain shattered that great stability, the affinity between the human race and God’s creation, obliterating the lingering legacy of Paradise. He introduced insecurity, the taste for blood, the desire for revenge. With Cain Satan took effective control over the earth. Paradoxically Cain, who defied God and denied him, is promised protection by God. So where does Cain go? He turns his eye and his desire on Eden, toward the Lost Paradise, which, incidentally, is also the perpetual quest for humanity.
The search for a home, the search for “Paradise Lost,” is nothing else than the human desire for God’s presence, the God Cain, and humanity in general, rejects. Cain, haunted by fear, in order to feel secure, builds a City.
It is now nigh impossible to imagine life without the City. People even in the smallest communities depend on the City. Our pension cheques, our TV programs, our tax notices, they all come from the City. Human progress and the City are intimately intertwined. The City, the place of human progress, is the direct consequence of Cain’s murderous act and of his refusal to accept God’s protection. For God’s open paradise, Eden, Cain substitutes his enclosed fort, which he calls Enoch, which means ‘ A new Beginning.’ Cain is going to make the world over again, but now in his image. God’s creation is seen as nothing. Cain, with everything he does, digs a little deeper the abyss between himself and God. Each solution becomes also a new problem. Each invention also a new offense. Cain molds creation according to his plan. It is no longer God’s world, it is Cain’s creation and also increasingly Satan’s.
The City. What is it? It is a place of contrasts, of rich and poor, of cathedrals and sweatshops, of concert halls and street gangs, of theaters and peepshows. Many people of God live in the cities. Yet basically the City appears to be the place where the human desire to exclude God from creation is the prime motive, where people display a remarkable unity in being separated from God. Perhaps 50 years ago there still was the country distinct from the City. Now there is little difference. Food production, with monstrous tractors, has become just as heavily dependent on non-renewable energy, as the City, all paralyzed by the slightest power failure or fuel shortage. Today we all have become extensions of the City.
Yet the City, Cain’s answer to Eden, to Paradise really, is God’s way of preparing God’s people for the New Jerusalem, the City of God. The City is now the place through which Christians must pass. It is the world today. The world is the City. Afghanistan, Iraq, the valleys of Nepal, even the Sahara deserts, the satellite filled expanse above us, every square inch of the universe has been annexed by the City. Yet God uses the momentum of human progress and the advance of our knowledge not only to bring about the downfall of those who willfully pollute creation but miraculously God also blesses human progress for the benefit of the building of God’s City. The contemporary designers and builders of the City have no God-creator factor in their blueprints, yet they cannot manage to exclude God from the City. When the full truth is revealed it will become plain that God used the sinful efforts of humanity to bring about God’s plan, the New Jerusalem.
The present City is Babel all over again, but now the confusion is not caused by God but is self-generated. The essential Word is no longer understood by almost all theologians and so the church is deprived of a language that can be conveyed to the people. The political message is mistrusted and discarded as self-serving. All the world’s religions have lost “the Gospel of the Earth.” Some foresee a “clash of civilizations” ( Samuel Huntington). Others (Irving Kristol) say: “Multiculturalism is as much a ‘war against the west’ as Nazism and Stalinism ever was.” Still others maintain that all may be well if only Muslims modernize and ‘convert to Western values,’ whatever they are. We have gone full circle again: from first God sowing confusion at the building site of the Tower of Babel, to today the human race, in spite of an universal language, totally at odds everywhere. God has been true to his promise not to destroy the world again, as he did in Noah’s time. Now it is the human race that almost has accomplished this feat. There too we almost have completed the circle. Can Jesus’ return be far behind?
Amidst this confusion, what can we do, apart from asking forgiveness? Forgiveness is always a two-step affair: confession, the easy part, and rectification, a much more difficult phase. We need to know our sins in order to ask forgiveness. As Herman Daly has observed in his book, Beyond Growth, “Our ability and inclination to enrich the present at the expense of the future, and of other species, is as real and as sinful as our tendency to further enrich the wealthy at the expense of the poor. To hand back to God the gift of Creation in a degraded state capable of supporting less life, less abundantly, and for a shorter future, is surely a sin. If it is a sin to kill and to steal, then surely it is a sin to destroy carrying capacity – the capacity of the earth to support life now and in the future.”
After pleading to pardon our ‘sins against creation,’, we next have to make amends, have to ‘sin no more,’ try to live ‘holy (holistic) and godly (honoring God in creation) lives. That is impossible in a society where we depend entirely on non-renewable, pollution-spewing fuel. We cannot eliminate our ‘pollution’ sin, just as we cannot live ’without sin.’ We know that only in the New Creation this is possible. But if this life is a proving ground for the ‘world to come,’ – and I believe this to be the case – then all our efforts should be directed to minimize the bad effects and try to visualize and as much as possible live the “new creation” life.
E.F. Schumacher, in his Small is Beautiful, writes that “we must thoroughly understand the problem and begin to see the possibility of evolving a new life-style, with new methods of production and new patterns of consumption: a life style designed for permanence.”
That is ‘ new creation language.’ He continues later: “From an economic point of view, the central concept of wisdom is permanence…. Wisdom demands a new orientation of science and technology towards the organic, the gentle, the non-violent, the elegant and beautiful…. There is wisdom in smallness if only on account of the smallness and patchiness of human knowledge…It is the sin of greed that has delivered us over into the power of the machine.” Paul’s words: ‘The lust for money is the root of all evil,’ come to mind.
Father and Son William H. McNeill and J.R.McNeill, both professors of history at prestigious U.S. universities, in The Human Web, A bird’s Eye view of World History, see as the only hope for humanity the formation of differently structured primary communities – by which I understand them to mean self-supporting, in a sense somewhat isolated settlements, more or less monasteries for married people. They write: “Failure to achieve that goal might lead to collapse of the existing web which would bring radical impoverishment and catastrophic die-off.”
They continue: ”Either the gap between cities and villages will somehow be bridged by renegotiating the terms of symbiosis, and/or differently constructed primary communities will arise to counteract the tangled anonymity of urban life. Religious sects and congregations are the principal candidates for this role. (Emphasis added). But communities of belief must somehow insulate themselves from unbelievers, and that introduces friction, or active hostilities, into the cosmopolitan web.”
So there is an attempt to an answer: the formation of religious communities. I believe that if these two well-recognized historians make such a proposal, we must take it seriously especially when confirmed by second source. Another advocate for closer communities can be found in The Celtic Way of Evangelism. There George G. Hunter III also recommends that we must create ‘neo-monastic church communities’ as places of formation for modern Christians. The Celtic model reflects the catchword that, for most people, “Christianity is more caught than taught.” I know that this is difficult in our subdivided world, where each is on his/her own in our own dwelling. Monastic means communal living, as in a convent or monastery, but then for families. It is something that needs to be explored and, who knows, the future may impose this sort of living on us.
It is significant that historians, in particular, are so pessimistic in their outlook. This stems from their knowledge of history that teach them that humans never learn. Greed, self-centredness, shortsightedness, devoid of concern for the future, living in the here and now, is the norm.
So far we have muddled through because the earth’s bounties were sufficient to allow us to squander resources. This luxury is now coming to an end. We have come full circle there too. Exponential growth, thanks to Cain, has taken us in a surprisingly short time from a relatively empty world to a word full of people and their furniture, full of our things, but empty of what had been there before. I believe that we have come to a crucial juncture in history. We, as Westerners, are flinching from reality. A characteristic of insanity is to refuse to face the facts of life. The slow progress of environmental and societal degradation is giving us a false sense of security, making us think that matters can be resolved over time, and so we do nothing, because we are afraid and suppress our guilt.
All indications are that churches no longer can be a catalyst for good. They simply refuse to be aware of the problem, and are now more a hindrance than a help. The majority of the religious institutions have heaven as their goal and deny a major stake in the earth.
Our first step is to acknowledge our true situation. Failure to do so, failure to consciously accept our part in this global situation, will lead to a poisoned state of illusion that will affect our very humanity.
My point is that we are facing a very new and frightening world, so frightening that, if time had not been shortened, for the sake of the saints, nobody would have survived. Cain’s city has run its course. The End of Oil also means the End of Food.
How then shall we live? Frances Schaefer asked this question decades ago. I believe that we have to look at God’s creation, suffer with it and try, in community or in small groups ( where two or three are together in my name – that is honoring God’s signature on rock and tree and sky and sea – there I will be also) make a faltering attempt to prepare the people of God for the New World to come. Acts 2 all over again. Then too people formed religious communities, convinced that Christ’s return was imminent. Now this may be reality. The Bible still should be our guide: A lamp for our feet and a light for our path ( in creation). It could quite well be that we have come to that point in history of which Revelation 18:4 speaks “Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any of her plagues.” The impossibility of ‘human- induced’ reform finds a possible parallel in Jeremiah 51: 9:
“We would have healed Babylon,
but she cannot be healed;
Let us leave her and each go to his own land,
for her judgment reaches to the skies,
it rises as high as the clouds.”
Jesus will return to earth. Will he find us prepared for him to start, under his leadership, the refashioning of a new ‘economy’ where the laws (nomoi) that Jesus has embedded in creation (eco) are obeyed? We must make an effort so that “ Blessed are they who wash their robes. The Tree of Life is theirs for good and they will walk through the gates to the City.”
Bert Hielema Tweed, Ont. July 2004