Thursday, April 30, 2009

private religion, communal religion

I've begun reviewing Warren Carter's John and Empire: Initial Explorations (T&T Clark, 2008; see also here). I'm only on p. 7, so my comments here aren't directed at the book so much as they are motived by them.

Carter begins by critiquing what he identifies as the two dominant approaches to reading John's gospel, (i) a privatized, spiritual reading, and (ii) a sectarian, communal reading. The first reading strategy is much more applicable to my own experience, especially in the churches of which I've been a part (and perhaps even of my current faith community). This isn't so much simply about how we read John but more about how we conceptualize what Christianity is—what it means to believe in Jesus, what eternal life refers to, what it was that Jesus rescued from God's wrath when he was crucified on a Roman cross and raised to life by the power of God.

In my fellowship of churches, these things are individual, private affairs, and very often only spiritual ones at that. I believe that Jesus is the Christ, meaning that my mind has given some cognitive assent to that as a proposition. And I have eternal life, meaning that some center of my consciousness—whatever or wherever that may be—will continue on forever "with God." Typically, that center of consciousness is expressly not a material entity; my soul or my spirit will go to be "with God" "in heaven."

Carter takes aim at this as a legitimate way of reading John. This way of thinking—this worldview, even—misses more of John than it gets, and so it hopelessly misunderstands the gospel. And my church, similarly, takes aim at this as a legitimate way of being a Christian. Multiple times our minister has explained it this way: There are [at least] three components of the gospel: (i) an aspect of incarnation, in which God, in Jesus, enters into and identifies with the human condition rather than peering at it from above, (ii) an aspect of atonement, in which Jesus address an ontological human problem and not simply a socio-cultural one, and (iii) an aspect of restoration, in which God's concern is for all of creation, material as well as spiritual, human as well as nonhuman. In what is inevitably a simplification of complex phenomena (but still, perhaps, helpful for understanding some things), more mainline expressions of Christianity have tended to emphasize (i) and (iii), focusing on the so-called social gospel, while more fundamentalist and/or evangelical expressions have emphasized (ii).

But as I was reading Carter from my socio-religious perspective (briefly outlined above), I began thinking about a problem many people like me experience, in which our children, as they enter the struggle to forge and fit into their own identity, find themselves unable to identify with our faith. How is it that so many genuine, passionate Christians cannot communicate their faith in compelling, convincing ways, even to their own children?!

Could this provide part of the answer? Carter says,
The Greco-Roman world's constituting of religion as an integral part of the political and societal landscape that among other things functioned to bind people together with each other and with their gods suggests that any attempt to understand John's "good news" cannot allow our contemporary restricted notions of privatized and spiritualized religion to limit and distort the inquiry. John's inclusion of signs of material transformation and of the narrative of Jesus' crucifixion by Pilate, the Roman governor, for example, attests the Gospel's participation in the material, the physical, the somatic, the societal, and the political: John does not regard these spheres as irrelevant. (Carter 2008: 7; my emphasis)

The phrase bind[s] people together is what caught my eye. Even in our highly individualized, postmodern world we long for and go to great lengths to find bonds with other people and social (and theological) structures that transcend ourselves. In John's world, Carter argues, religion played an important function here. But in our own world, we have denied religion any place at this particular table, trying instead to find professional, social, and now especially virtual connections with others in lieu of religious ones.

It strikes me, then, that as we become whoever we become—that is, as we fight to make our own connections with other people and institutions—religion seems wholly irrelevant. Two things result. First, religion appears to have nothing to offer us as we pursue our primary needs, now not only food, shelter, and the like but rather significance, meaning, and relationship. Second, religion appears dispensable to human relationships. I can reject my parents' spirituality, or yours, without rejecting them (or you). Many people explicitly make the effort to think like this, though I would think just as many people genuinely find themselves either hurt by their children's apostasy or surprised that their parents have overreacted so strongly.

I'm not sure where this leads me, except of course to emphasize that the individual, private, spiritualized view of religion, and especially Christianity, fails more than it succeeds and probably won't do my family the good that I want for us. Conservative Christians—fundamentalist, evangelical, or whatever—can rail against scholarship as impious or irreverent if it wants, but here (viz., Carter) I think critical scholarship has something important to offer those of us who take the Bible and its claims over our lives seriously. That is, if we continue to think of Christianity primarily in terms of me and God, if we continue to shut our eyes to those [central] aspects of the gospel that bind us with one another, with creation itself, and with the Creator God who cares for every aspect of this world—spiritual, material, social, etc.—our faith will only ever by myopic, anemic, and for those people we love, irrelevant.

1 comment:

metalepsis said...


I think you are on to something here, and I think that this is what some of the more progressive emergent/emerging groups are striving after. The problem is that many of them came from conservative traditional backgrounds from which they are emerging from. Which can be the cause of great pain and thus overreaction from the 'parent' and the 'child'. The question becomes how do we take the insights of the kind Warren and others give and make them meaningful in our world today. I think it is akin to post colonialism in a way, now that we have unmasked many of the horrors of colonialism, what are we to do, can those who were colonized ever forget the colonists and the changes that were made to their society? Surely they can't just go back to the way things were before?

Anyway thanks for something to chew on...

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