This weekend I attended a conference on political justice and the church. I was a bit surprised by three aspects of it.
An Antiquarian Justice Paradigm
The first aspect was how the justice paradigm in the church has really not changed much in forty years. While appeals to moving away from the left-right, conservative-liberal divide were appealed to, I found the political perspective quite narrow, biased and antiquated. A left-leaning Democrat would have loved the message while a right-leaning Republican would have found little to cheer. As an Independent, former Democrat, I found this disappointing. I expected more than simply a forty year old religious/political paradigm dressed up with contemporary issues.
The Missing Context
I was also surprised that the focus of change was totally on the individual. There was no consideration for the context that all of us live in. The impression left is that if you change your lifestyle, the world will change. The reality is that institutional structures and social systems determine to a large extent the choices that we make. The rejection of capitalist institutions doesn't change the world for the better. The naive epigram of Margaret Mead - Never doubt that a small, group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. - plays into this notion that all change is basically individual change. The reality is that while nothing happens apart from individual initiative, it isn't simply individual or small group initiative that matters.
The problem is a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature and society. We are social beings and we group according to our values. Those values get institutionalized in organizations, and those organizations determine the values of society. If you want to change society, you must change the institutions. You don't change them by destroying them. We can complain about consumerism and greed, but it does nothing to address the social context that has been institutionalized in society. This is why, in my opinion, that people who desire change gravitate toward political office. They see government as the seat of power, and through wielding power they can change society. As a result, gaining and holding power becomes the focus of political office.
If Christians want change in the world, then they must address the institutional nature of global organizations. Lasting change comes from within. Revolutions rarely last and rarely benefit those who are supposed to be the beneficiaries. It is a false and deceiving promise to say otherwise. If you want change, become a part of an organization, and take on the responsibilities of leadership. Do not sit back and complain from a self-satisfied position of thinking that individual or personal change is all that matters.
Christ: Abstract Construct or Real Presence
The third issue that surprised me is more complicated. It is a deeper issue of spirituality and the Western intellectual tradition. I'll try to be clear and succinct.
The Western intellectual tradition has flourished on the ability of people to think abstractly. In order to do this, we objectify, or separate ourselves from the reality of the focus of our thought. This ability to abstract reality is the strength of the scientific tradition. The fly in the ointment of this strength is that we find it easily to think in such a detached manner than we are personally disconnected from reality. Truth, knowledge and personal responsibility get severed into different intellectual areas. In the church, the Neo-Platonic tradition characterizes issues in idealistic, dualistic terms. As a result, we simplify the complex in order to manage it. We exclude or reject that which doesn't fit in our idealistic paradigms. This is a condition of both the left and the right. It is a basic human intellectual function. In an attempt to find meaning and order in a chaotic world, we compartmentalize into simple, idealistic, often dualistic categories so that we know who we are and where we stand. When the parts don't cohere, we become intellectually schizophrenic and either retreat into harden categories or we seek to find coherence by looking connect diverse threads of thought into a whole picture.
This idealistic tradition of abstraction ends in classifying people in various typologies. We have rich-poor, liberal-conservative, Reformed-congregational, traditional-progressive, and on-and-on. One of the effects is that we treat people as abstract constructs that must fit into our idealistic paradigm. We end up denying their individuality because they are characterized by their gender, race, political affiliation, or national origin. We don't really deal with them as real people, just these intellectual constructs that allow us not to deal with the messy reality of true difference. We think that because we have come to a logical, coherent understanding of the issue that we have changed. Just because I understand racism, doesn't mean I'm not a racist. Just because I can give you a biblical argument against consumerism, doesn't mean that I'm not a greedy, selfish consumerist. The power to abstract is the power to deceive, to lie, to spin and to tell stories that remove us from obligation to live with integrity. The question of whether that is the result is a question of character and spirituality.
This is part of what I was thinking as I sat through the conference over the past two days. What provoked this line of thought however was more an emotional reaction to what I was hearing. I felt cold and despairing. I felt no love for the people in poverty or under oppression. All I felt was despair and personal guilt. I was afflicted with how much I must change, and yet without any real hope that those changes ultimately make a difference. In other words, the hope we claim in Christ just becomes another abstract construct that we have derived from our abstract reading of Scripture. I don't see this primarily as a failure of our intellectual tradition, but more of our spiritual tradition in the West.
I am now old enough to have come to a better understanding of the complex relationship between our emotions and our intellect. From my own experience as an obsessive devourer of intellectual content, I have come to understand that what lies behind much of that obsession is the desire to control, to master my life and surroundings, to never to be found incompetent or lacking in strength. That drive still exists in me, and has never been satisfied, but is now leading me to desire greater humility and a greater sense of Christ's presence.
Lurking in the back of my mind was a question about God's real presence (no eucharistic allusion intended). Is the Christian faith simply an idealistic intellectual construct, or is it a spiritual reality that is just out of reach of our minds, and that can only be discovered on some emotional level? I'm raising a question for which I don't have a final, definitive answer. As I have thought about this in the grand tradition of Western intellectual abstraction, I've reached the conclusion that God is not one whom we can contain intellectually. We see in part, and know in part, and only are given a glimpse of the whole picture through the lens of experience. As a result, humility combined with conviction is essential.
This fits within the broader discussion of the relationship between Christian community and the institution of the church. In this sense, one is more an experience of the real presence of Christ, while the other is a more abstract, idealistic formal conceptualization of that community in institutional form. The conversation that is taking place about this relationship is healthy.
For me though, what underlies this conversation is the human tendency, mastered in the West, to abstract out reality so that it may be controlled. We talk about community as this thing that is better than the institution of the church, but from my perspective, what I read and hear of community just seems to be a looser form of the institutional church we've always known. As one "seeker" pastor told me years ago about his more casual, community-focused church, "We are church for people burned out on church."
Where I'm taking this discussion is to the question of what is the true nature of spirituality and the real presence of Christ in our world. All I can tell you from my experience is that it is not abstract, not idealistic, not dualistic, not controllable, very emotional, very liberating, very expansive, very real, very personal, very relational, very clear, and full of peace, joy, confidence and daily purpose. The result has been greater opportunities to serve and make a difference. I'd be lying if I said that I have a formula and a plan, and did it purposefully. All I can say is that I allowed it to happen to me.
It is out of this experience that I find that what our idealistic, dualistic, abstract life as the church is simply another example of how we try to control all aspects of life. It is self-deceiving, condescending, patronizing, and destructive of our real connection to one another and to the real presence of Christ in our world. If we want to care for people in need, it won't come in any sustainable way by focusing on our guilt and our need to change. It will come by trusting God and responding to the opportunities to serve that are presented to us every day.
At the end of the conference yesterday, we were asked to frame a word that described our response to the message. As I thought about this, I realized that it was "available." Available to God to be present with whomever is before me. They are real people, living real lives. They aren't simply rich or poor, liberal or conservative, one race or another. He or she is simply a person who has his or her own individual life to live with all its complexity. We enter into the relationship through our stories and established our relationship with common values that unite us in a real community.
As we slog through this political season, the abstractions of politicians and their comrades in the church lead us to the impression that our only hope is in these brilliant men and women who are greater than you and me. Already, I'm fatigued by their unreality, their lack of real presence and the constant message of panic and demise. I don't really want to know their promises or their past opinions. What I want to know is how they have suffered, come through it, and built something that is lasting and sustainable. I want to see tangible representations of their humility and clear sense of a noble calling to public service. As politicians, their lives are lived in the abstractions of words and concepts. I want to know about their concrete achievements in life
I am convinced that our hope is not in abstraction but in concrete action of personal engagement with the people that God brings into our path. We can't abstract our own release of control. We can only learn to practice listening and focusing on the person who is right there, right now, trusting that God is present in that encounter. Through that practice of real presence, Christ's presence intrudes and widens our perspective and lengthens the horizons that are before us. It touches us in ways that we can't control and comes at us in ways when we least expected it. From my experience, this is where change really begins.