Friday, October 17, 2008

Swirling Thoughts

This week has been incredibly busy. Trying to get caught up on some reading, working on a mid-term, trying to get my paper work lined up for our church's charge conference, and preparing a service for this week's laity sunday. There's been a definite need to purposefully slow down and focus. Luckily I've been able to make it to morning prayer twice this week. In and amongst all the scholarship and church stuff, I count those 30 minutes as a blessing. The other time I count as a blessing is when I'm driving back and forth to St. John's. This week has been a little distracting since the fall colors have been phenomenal. Otherwise it's a wonderful hour of reflection time.

One of the thoughts I've been working through, or at least attempting to (this is a "draft thought" if you will), is how much ownership should protestants take in the current state of our economy and the overall materialism that shapes our culture. I see a direct correlation to the self-interest and greed the has gripped society and the existentialism and self-based salvation that the likes of Bultmann and others have thrust into Protestant Theology. Before I go any further, I should note that I don't think Catholics can be let off the hook either. They've become what Stanely Hauerwas calls Super Americans, basically kicking their faith to the curb so they'd fit into society as well. Admittedly, that somewhat weakens my arguement for a direct correlation, but my response is that Catholics were merely falling in step with Protestants to fit into the culture. That isn't cause and effect. I also think that this existentialism is one of the main causes of the decline in mainline Protestantism. People have been preached about developing an individual relationship with God so much that the next step is to find and develop that relationship on their own. Who needs a church for that? That's exactly why new age shamans like Eckhart Tolle are so successful. Obviously, one can argue that the mega-churches and some evangelical modes have been quite successful using the existentialist thought and the personal relationship with God and Jesus. However, I'd counter argue that success if based on poor theology and false promises that manifest themselves in things like the prosperity gospel and weak or non-existent ritual and liturgy. In essence the success if based largely on super-sized existentialism and a capitalized Christianity.
I see mainline Protestantism struggling to overcome something of their own doing. The push to individualism has cost them community. Now, I'm certain people are reading this (all 5 of you) saying "but wait, I've got a vibrant church community". I'm equally certain you do. But I think we need to ask why we consider 30 to 40 percent of church membership on any given Sunday a good week. Why is the number of "unchurched" in our community becoming larger than those that do belong to a church? Do we offer them that sense of community? Even more, do we expect them to actively participate in that community?
In answering my initial question, I believe we need to take at least partial ownership in what's going on on Wall Street and even more on "Main Street". We're at least partially do blame for setting people down the path of individualism that has led to greed and materialism. I also believe it is our responsibility to bring them back.
One a more individual plane (don't think I can't see the irony here) I'm struggling on where I fit into this landscape of Christianity right now. Just another swirling thought that comes into my mind traveling down I-94 I guess.

1 comment:

David said...


First of all, great sermon posted more recently. I would have loved to hear it. I have been sitting on this response for a few days, and have decided to send it. Here goes:

I appreciate your deep reflections, your theological reflections on some of the current predicaments confronting American society and the world. I think you are on to something in trying to discover the theological-religious roots of some of the problems we face. The dominant culture in the United States remains a product of Protestantism, even as we become a more religiously diverse nation. We need to be engaged in self-critical reflection of our religious tradition.

In thinking about the religious roots of capitalism, you may want to consider the work of Max Weber –The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. He argues that Reformed theology shaped the spirit of capitalism – that Christians shaped by certain elements of reformed theology sought to evidence their saved status in successful economic lives.

I would quibble with your lumping of “existentialism” and “self-based salvation.” Individualism is one root of our current social crisis, an attitude that I will get mine, that “salvation” is completely a matter of the heart, of “me-and-Jesus.” While existentialism certainly emphasized the individual in its thinking, it did not do so exclusively. Nor would most existentialist theologians and thinkers I have read equate material well-being with authentic existence – and a more authentic existence is what existentialism was focused on, at least in my reading of it.

"I have my destiny with which I alone have to come to terms in joy and sorrow, in gratitude and terror. I live in my decisions in which I myself am at stake, either to win myself or to lose myself…. Man stands in a historical world in which he is bound together with concrete human beings…. Through these concrete bonds there arise the possibilities that give to my life its richness, or else destroy it. For in this existence with others there is either trust and love or mistrust and hate…. For if in receiving forgiving grace, I receive my selfhood as a being from God, then I must at the same time understand and realize it as a being for God, i.e., as a life in love that I have to fulfill in my personal relations with others." (Rudolph Bultmann, Existence and Faith, 214, 221) I think Bultmann does a nice job here linking authentic individual faith with social relationships, though there are richer understandings of the social nature of existence than I find in existentialism.

In this passage, Bultmann offers cautionary words about technology, thus he is hardly a cheerleader for unbridled capitalism. "But who permits technology to become a demonic power? And what is the reason more generally that men can, so to speak, be possessed by the things that they think they are able to dispose of, the things that they themselves cause and create? Why is it that men become possessed by the business of work, which is so necessary in order to maintain life, their own as well as that of the community? Why is it that the forces that are released in carrying on such work can become powers that keep the man who is possessed by them from doing what he really wants to do and – as can sometimes terrifyingly come home to him for a moment – also deprive him of his authentic life?" (Existence and Faith, 280)

I confess that I am not a Bultmann scholar. If I want to defend “existentialism” it is probably because it has been an important positive influence in my own life along the way, as have theologians influenced by such thinkers. The process theologian Schubert Ogden, with whom I studied, was deeply influenced by Bultmann and had studied with Paul Tillich. I am currently reading Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death, a work also influenced by existentialist thinkers. There I read these words about “automatic cultural man” – "Man as confined by culture, a slave to it, who imagines that he has an identity if he pays his insurance premium, that he has control of his life if he guns his sports car or works his electric toothbrush. Today the inauthentic or immediate men are familiar types, after decades of Marxist and existentialist analysis of man’s slavery to his social system…. For Kierkegaard “philistinism” was triviality, man lulled by the daily routines of his society, content with the satisfactions that if offers him: in today’s world the car, the shopping center, the two-week summer vacation" (74).

Existentialism protests against the loss of the individual in an overarching social system. It emphasizes the individual in the on-going individual-social dialectic. Its dangers are related to an overemphasis on individualism, but I would be hard-pressed to derive a narrow materialistic individualism from most existentialism. To the extent that existential theology filtered through Protestantism is responsible for our current social crisis, I think it is a bastardized existentialism.
One of the things I value in writing is the depth of response it evokes in me. Thanks for your post.