Thursday, November 3, 2011

Civility? Unity? Um, good luck...

It's kind of a legendary thing.  You hear it pretty soon after you start telling people you're going to seminary.  You get warned about it in your preparation to go to seminary.  You may hear it from (in the case of my denomination) the presbytery's Committee on Preparation for Ministry, from folks at the school you choose to attend, from sources you might not even guess.

The Crisis of Faith.

It almost comes off as this inevitable Dark Night of the Soul, when some statement or study or reading shatters the foundations of a fragile faith, and the nascent seminarian finds the whole facade crumbling, and ends up wondering whether he or she is still even a Christian, much less fit for any kind of pastoral vocation.

Though it is early, I am happy to report that this particular kind of crisis has not yet set in on me.  No matter how much Marcus Borg might get thrown at me, I'm not yet showing any signs of slipping into the theological abyss.  I can get cranky about some things in class, but mostly when some readings don't live up to what I'd consider good scholarly standards (the ol' professor in me reacting as if to a particularly rancid paper submission).

New Testament I hasn't done it.  I've always got N.T. Wright to stand with.  Theology I hasn't done it.  Calvin and Schleiermacher might say some loopy things on occasion, and process theology looks promising for some theological weirdness, but no, no crisis there.  And no, Seminary Choir has not provoked a crisis of faith, just the occasional bad falsetto when a gospel number comes out (which might cause a crisis of faith in others, I suppose).

You know what does shake me a bit?  History of Christianity I, that's what.

Taught by the esteemed Rebecca Weaver, retiring as of the end of this academic year, History of Christianity I has so far covered topics including (these are right out of the syllabus and lecture notes, folks) martyrdom, orthodoxy and heresy, the Gnostic controversy, the Trinitarian Controversy, the Christological Controversy, the Donatist Controversy, the Pelagian Controversy, the Semi-Pelagian Controversy, the Crusades, the Great Schism, and (tomorrow) the Iconoclastic Controversy.  Do you sense a theme here?  And the Reformation is still a few weeks off.

If one came to seminary harboring some fantasy of the early church as some blissful harmonious commune living all sweetness and light, some Golden Age we moderns struggle vainly to recapture, ... well, you've had a sledgehammer taken to that fantasy by now.  Considering that the some of the Gospels leave a rather distinct impression of the disciples as a bunch of seriously dim bulbs constantly not getting what Jesus is telling them, one is hard-pressed to find a period in the history of the church that comes off as harmonious or peaceful to any meaningful degree.

The Church fights.  It fights over big issues, it fights over rather smaller points of doctrine.  It fights over who is to be let in and who is to be kept out.  It fights over music, it fights over imagery, it fights over who owns what.  Whether this should be so is hardly relevant; the church has a long and bitter history of controversy and schism.  Reviling schism hasn't helped; even elevating it up there with blasphemy as Most Major Offenses didn't stop early Christian groups from splitting and reforming, excommunicating one another left and right.  Poor Athanasius was excommunicated, reinstated, excommunicated again...or was that Nestorius?  It seems like such a long list.

Now if your considered destination is some kind of pastoral role in the church of today, such a long trail of division is hardly encouraging.  When the denomination in which you reside is already fraying and unsteady, the history lesson becomes downright ominous.  My denomination has its own encroaching fissure in the works as one group, having at last lost the fight over ordination to Those People, is now trying to figure out how to leave without actually getting blamed for splitting the denomination (or without losing buildings and pensions, for that matter).  One proposal out there calls for non-geographical presbyteries--governing entities which would allow the good, pure Presbyterians to avoid being soiled by actually having to live and work and cooperate with Those People.  (For the record, "Those People" would include me.)  The urge to purify the church has a long and ugly history, as any number of the above controversies might show, and it shows no signs of going away.

These fights get nasty, and lots of ugly invective and vicious denunciation gets tossed around rather freely.  The age of internet anonymity doesn't really help with this, to be sure.  But for all the gloriousness of something like City of God, Augustine could be downright brutal when denouncing Pelagius, not to mention rather tedious.

So for those who expect a civil discussion of those things which divide one church group or another, or those who somehow hold that the only thing that matters in such a fight is to preserve the unity of said group, know that history is against you.  We are not that much advanced from our brothers and sisters of decades or centuries or millenia ago, in too many ways.  You can't enforce civility.  It doesn't work, not even in the church.  And you won't find me in the crowd calling for unity at all costs, because unity is not, in the end, the end-all and be-all of a church.  Being as christlike as possible is the end-all and be-all of a church, and if some members of that body are going to hold others hostage with all sorts of unchristlike threats and behaviors and demands, well, then, the christlike thing to do might well be to wish them well and tell them not to let the door hit them in the butt on their way out. That might be better at least than having them come back with a denominational takeover plan and a mission to purge Those People out of their denomination.  It has happened before.  I know.  I saw it.

All that from church history.  But then, history has always been a thing of mine, I guess.  Even when it's frankly depressing.  But in the end, if you see all that it feels rather like a miracle that the church is still standing.  It also makes it crystal clear that the church does not rise or fall on the wisdom or righteousness of its human leaders.  I find that highly reassuring.  The church of Jesus Christ is just that--not my church or yours or anyone else's, and Christ alone is the One Who will sustain it through whatever challenges may yet come.  God will accomplish God's purposes whether PC(USA) remains intact or splits into seventeen different denominations.

Even I can't screw that up.

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