Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Crippled Orthodoxy

Orthodoxy Traded for Marketability

Modern, popular Christianity (and christian politics) loves to deal in absolutes. You are either right or left, your liturgy is high or low, things (and people) are either good or evil. You go to heaven or you go to hell. You believe our creeds or you don't. We've spent decades and even centuries trying to dumb Jesus' words and nature down to the lowest common denominator. But in our efforts (especially within American, Evangelical Christianity) to distill the entire Gospel into a simple magical phrase somebody can say to get into heaven, I fear we might have crippled orthodox Christianity or even forsaken it all together. And somewhere along the line, in our search to make the Church more marketable to the masses, we decided that the ever-deep Gospel itself was the PR problem and so we've begun to carve away the more difficult pieces (Jn. 6:51, 1 Cor. 15:12-19) to give 'em a gospel that isn't quite food and isn't quite revolution, but it's just enough to get people within a few inches of an offering plate every sunday morning.

To be fair, that statement's quite a bit more cynical than maybe it should be. In our post-modern culture, there are many who sincerely desire Revolution in our culture, communities, selves and who desire a sense of spiritual direction. But what we too often give them is a message that's been stripped of its controversy and its insurrection. We tell them the conflict is strictly spiritual, so that they don't have to change their social or economic choices. We tell them the conflict is strictly individual, so that they never truly develop the communal love Jesus so adamantly pursued. And we tell them the conflict is strictly dualist, that every situation can be divided into black and white, good and evil so that their understanding of the Gospel often falls short of the demands of a conflicted world.

Orthodoxy as Communal and Individual Revolution

I should be clear here by what I mean when I say "orthodox". I don't mean our Eastern brothers and sisters who subscribe to a specific liturgy or style within Christianity. My definition of orthodox is anyone who throws themselves into the lifelong struggle to love God and humanity with all their hearts, who recklessly believe that the Incarnation, Sacrifice and Bodily Resurrection of God-Man serve as the living Revolution that restores the intimate bond of love and self-sacrifice that each individual was meant to share with Creation, with each other and with God. But this Revolution isn't just about the the individual. It is one that must be lived out communally.

So many of my friends have relegated their pursuit of truth to one that's totally intra-personal. I think this sometimes stems from a relativistic worldview that always pushes an "I believe..." philosophy over a "We believe..." one. But the fact is, the areas where humanity has fallen short aren't simply the sum of individual sins or shortcomings. They also are built out of systemic corruption that can be found at all levels of human relationships. The massive sex slave trade we see today (larger than the slave trade of any other age) isn't perpetrated by a few bad apples. It exists as part of the slimy underbelly of a society that prides itself in "freedom for all". Besides this, we also face the economic problem of poverty, wherein 80% of the world lives on less than $10 a day and many nations have been ground under the wheels of colonialism for the benefit of imperialist nations. Though these nations may have "evolved" and blessed the third world with its "independence", they still use Capitalism as their vehicle for imposing a neo-colonialist world dynamic where much of Africa, Asia and Latin (and Caribbean) America finds itself economically cheated and ecologically drained by MNC's (multinational corporations) seated in the US and Europe. In this system 40% of the world accounts for only 5% of global income, while the top 20% amass 75% of the world's income. I can hardly believe that the elite living in our richest, western cities work that much harder than kids forced to live and die in mines all over the planet.

And in the spirit of our passionate consumerism, we consume the very ecological life support system that keeps this planet running. Our mindless lust for unsustainable food and energy production threatens the very foundations of life itself.

Orthodoxy as Physical and Spiritual Revolution

The gospel we so often try to peddle to this corrupted, humanity-eating world (capitalism is the new cannibalism :-) is one which deals only with the "spiritual". In popular Christianity, one believes Christ died so that our spirits or ghosts or what-have-you can go to heaven forever. We ignore the fact that the New Testament over and over again speaks of Christ's physical death and Resurrection as prophetically ushering in our own physical resurrection. We don't simply go to heaven as disembodied spirits. In the Revelation of John, heaven is united with the physical creation. This means God isn't simply enacting a spiritual revolution in each individual. It means a revolution is taking place in the real, everyday lives of communities today (Lk. 17:20-21). It isn't just a far-off, spiritual reality. The Kingdom of God is already here. As soon as we give the message flesh and blood, its demands and promises become flesh and blood as well.

But this flesh-and-blood Gospel strikes at the very heart of the heresy much of popular Christianity propagates. Our belief that saying a magic formula will get your spirit to float peacefully to heaven is nothing less than a neo-docetism. We've dissolved the responsibilites, rewards and punishments of the spirit and the flesh so much, that the two realms no longer have anything to do with each other. For us, belief has become the realm of private, individual esoteric conviction. It isn't the dirty, knee scraping reality that Jesus lived and died. By making our beliefs into private decisions that shouldn't influence society as a whole, we've tried to remove our culpability for the sins of that society.

In this spirit of mind, at best Christians begin to withdraw from trying to take active stands and organize communally to solve social, economic and ecological problems (lest their "spiritual" lives interfere with the physical one). At worst, Christians begin to make the dangerous assumption of the disciples in Jn. 9:2-5 that all misfortune a person faces is completely the result of their individual choices and therefore is their own freakin' problem.

Honestly, I often doubt even the existence of the human spirit as an entity totally apart from the body. I'm not sure if this is my own over-reaction to the above heresy, but I don't see the need for the spirit. As far as I can tell, when Paul speaks of things of the Spirit, He either speaks of the restored human (which he fully acknowledges is a bodily reality) or the Spirit of God. I think what we mistake for a sentient, personal spirit as our "real" selves is nothing more than the mind which is created by the synaptic and chemical reactions in the brain. This makes the physical resurrection and the reunification of heaven and earth all the more real and necessary, as without it we simply rot in the earth, the breath of life having returned to God.

Orthodoxy Without Compromise

Along with the other threats to orthodoxy listed above, compromise may be the most damaging. We like to take Jesus' commands to be reckless in our love, gentle in our treatment of each other (especially the downtrodden) and to be fearless in our action, and we try to water 'em down, chop 'em up or cram them into shapes that are easiest to swallow. The fact is that Jesus' Gospel is nothing less than the total insurrection against human selfishness. But we love selfishness (it's kinda the whole point of being selfish, after all) and so we're easily led to compromise, never fully allowing to Gospel to take root while also never fully surplanting the ever present corruption we so desperately cling to. And that really is the struggle that true faith has to wrestle with everyday. Faith isn't just the magical declaration of a belief in specific principles, it's the struggle that realizes Revolution, and it's a struggle and a fight that we must face with every breath and effort to the very day that we die.

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