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Tilling the soil of our hearts and world for faith
Dying to our precious memories
Those among us from “traditional” Christian backgrounds are dying to our precious memories of “church” in order to bring the gospel into the present with great flexibility.
This is one of my favorite proverbs in Circle of Hope, and not just because it offers a sort of dig at my Evangelical upbringing, but because it acknowledges that the soil that we plant the seeds of the Gospel in is changing. Christianity has been planted in a variety of soils across time and across the world, and the fact that it is has showcases that the faith itself both adapts to and also interrogates the cultures that it is in. It is hard to see how it does so in an immediate context in the same way that it might be hard for a fish to imagine that it’s in water. We need some distance to consider what impact our faith has on us, on our culture, and how it settles into the soil.
Perhaps the pandemic then is a good time to think about what it looks like to be a good-news-teller in this time and place. We do have some figurative and social distance, after all. The questions that I want to answer are: How tilled is the soil for our faith? How does it need to adapt? How does it need to interrogate culture? If we adapt too much, what do we lose? If we don’t assimilate at all, will we ever advance the Gospel?
An old voice offers new hope
This all came to mind to me as I read Athanasius’ On In The Incarnation, a wonderful treatise that answers why we needed God to incarnate, and also argues for the need for the death and resurrection, as well as refutes Greek and Jewish arguments against incarnation. We have Daily Prayer posts that summarize and pray through some of the text.
What impressed me about Athanasius was his ability to sow the seeds of the faith into the culture soil, both using the vernacular and philosophy of his time (countering Stoics, Gnostics, and Epicureans), as well as challenging direct polemics against the faith. His ability to discern how to plant the Gospel is so profound that it has had a lasting impact. In fact, people use his work as a blueprint for a defense of the Incarnation and the Crucifixion. He plants the seeds for atonement theologies from Anselm who wrote Cur Deus Homo, Aulen who is responsible for Christus Victor, and Abelard who wrote the moral example of atonement.
Anselm, Aulen, and Abelard were influenced by Athanasius to write their own theologies for their times and places. They, to use our proverb, brought “the gospel into the present with great flexibility.” I fear that we may see their great achievements, and merely try to duplicate them in our current time, instead of learning how they adapted them to theirs, though.
There is no Athanasius-shaped hole in any postmodern person’s mind and so applying him as if there were misses his greater point. And it’s not just Athanasius. Paul, the Apostle, as well as the Gospel Writers, all write to specific audiences with specific purposes. Too often their ideas have been exported as if they are universal, as not an expression of Paul’s teaching, “I have become all things to all people, so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”
Imperial Christianity meets its limits
In fact, instead of adapting and interrogating the cultural landscape to allow the Gospel to subvert it as it spread as if it were a mustard seed, Christians eventually dominated the land. Constantine, as many Anabaptists have critiqued, took a faith that was a threat to his Roman Empire and made his own, and as a result he forcibly changed the soil of the empire to receive the seed of faith. And even though Christendom flourished in Europe for nearly 1,000 years, essentially for that millennium it both laid the soil, tilled it, and planted the seeds. Faith in Jesus, let alone God alone, was a forgone conclusion. Missionary work and evangelism is a much different activity in an era and empire where Christianity is a forgone conclusion, in fact, it makes way for things like the Crusades and the Inquisition; it makes way, ultimately, for things like colonialist missionary work. But unfortunately, when it relies on the status quo and the transfer of it into other contexts, when that status quo changes, Christianity can drastically change.
With the advent of the Enlightenment, it was reason and materialism (as well as democracy and liberalism) that ultimately grounded the philosophy in Europe, and so the result of that was a much more “reason-based” faith. This did damage to how we read the Bible, how we worship, and even how we live. In some cases, Christianity would try, and fail, to “act scientific” (and so the account of Creation in Genesis 1 either needed to be literally true or hogwash); and in other cases, it would become fused in a new sort of civil religion, until it was discarded as no longer useful to the true ends of liberty, pluralism, and prosperity.
What’s the soil like in the United States?
I believe that is where we are right now, essentially, with Christian faith only being valuable insofar as it achieves the nation’s goals. The goals of the United States are not necessarily at odds with Christianity, but it is easy to get involved in a culture war, whether we think that the nation’s philosophical trajectory is a threat to our faith’s traditions, or if it’s a limitation to our faith’s prophecy. That sort of hostility toward the state results in alliances with nonreligious groups that can be good or bad. People that think the civil religion is a threat to tradition may align themselves with people that think the nation’s progress toward pluralism is a threat to them. I think this is why we see alliances between Christians and white nationalists, creating a sort of Christian white nationalist faction. But we also see alliances between justice-oriented Christians with secular progressive groups. I have to admit that my reading of the Gospel and my work in Circle of Hope aligns me more with the latter group. I think Jesus is too. You can see more of my thinking on that here where I elaborate on prophecy, racism, liberation, and the important moment in time we’re in as a church to engage in that work.
But it’s not enough for imminent progress to be our rule of faith. I think in advocating for social justice, we are allowing the presence of Jesus in the world, through us, to offer a material benefit to the world. Where Christians are, justice follows. That is a good goal in and of itself, and it also tills the soil to our seeds of faith. I think that working for justice and for the liberation of the oppressed is a wonderful end in and of itself. Athanasius actually refers to Christian justice and peacemaking as evidence for the resurrection, that good work we do, and are known for doing, to proclaim that God is alive. Christians doing good work is great for Christianity because it expresses Jesus in the world, whose mission was manifestly oriented toward the poor and oppressed. (Unfortunately, the opposite is true when we ally ourselves with heinous causes, like white nationalism or white supremacy.)
Spiritual disciplines can help till the soil
But even if Christians free the captives, I’m unsure that that immanent consequence of the Gospel is enough to till the soil for seeds of faith, both in the way that Paul and Athanasius did, to use my two examples. They are good, but I hope they make way for deeper awareness and transformation. The Gospel has immediate consequences, that is both biblical and expressed throughout the history of Christianity. The Gospel is also metaphysical. It is magical, in a sense. It is transcendent. It has cosmic consequences that need to be expressed as much as its immediate, material consequences.
In Christendom, that sort of transcendent expression was assumed. In the new age, it isn’t, and so now we have to imagine new ways and new possibilities. People aren’t looking for faith in a higher power (even if they express faith in a higher power through the political ideologies), necessarily, and so if all we offer them is material benefit, I’m not sure they develop that longing. But I think it’s clear that people want something more than the immediate—in fact, I just supervised my children participating in an online yoga class. I know folks that are doing tarot. It may be why a personality tool like the Enneagram, which has almost no empirical evidence that it works, is so popular. And sometimes people are engaged in something far more conspiratorial.
Maybe these things till the soil, but I think they probably point to the fact that the soil can be tilled and we aren’t beyond hope. Maybe this work, I think, begins with practicing disciplines, and developing our own interior life. Things like prayer, liturgy, mass, fasting removes us from our physical self into something more metaphysical, supernatural, and transcendent. But maybe there are other paths to it too. What if we thought of relationships as metaphysical in their own right? Isn't a human connection (especially during this time) a miracle? What if we saw sex that way? What if we didn't reduce all of our material function as physical, but saw the Spirit in them?
My go-to practice during this pandemic has been journaling, spiritual direction, and contemplative prayer. That helps me see the metaphysical in the physical, the transcendent in immanent. All of these things seem to lack the immediate utility that keeps me in the mentality that it’s only material things that matter. And plus, they nourish me for the hard work of peace and justice, which can be draining.
Are there rocks we need to remove from the soil?
In my next post, I hope to address obstacles to tilling the soil. If the Jesus of Empire dominates, and the Jesus of the Enlightenment was merely reasonable, what obstacles does the Jesus of the postmodern age represent? Can Jesus be Lord in an era where we are our own Lords, or when our salvation looks like independence?