Monday, March 23, 2009
In the March 24 edition of The Christian Century, the Reverend Jeffery Johnson offers a personal essay on the late John Updike. I have already shared my thoughts about this great man of letters when he died (go here), but the Reverend Johnson’s words provoked some additional thought, especially a reference he made to an essay Updike offered in a 1999 New Yorker magazine. The essay is entitled, The Future of Faith: Confessions of a Churchgoer, and what with the Reverend Johnson's brief quotations and with the title of the essay, I was hooked. So, I went to the New Yorker site, found the article and purchased it.
First, let me say that the essay is a stark reminder of just what we lost with Updike's death. This writing is more evidence (if any is needed) that we're not likely to see another writer with his gifting. In fact, what seems to always drive his words -- and this essay is no exception -- is a relentless honesty about himself, and more to the point here, he is honest about the struggle to maintain faith -- for him a Christian faith -- within the frame of the modern/post-modern (obviously, my words, not his).
This means the essay carries with it the background music of a dirge. It is heavy with the scent of loss and of the idea-decay found in late, Western Christianity. In fact, one comes away from the reading with the distinct idea that Updike would like to have finally escaped the capture Christianity made of him as a youth, but he was unable to do so because he knew that the desire for most of us that there be, "something more" to the world evades all attempts at loosening ourselves from faith.
This reminds me of a comment I heard N.T. Wright make recently about why he thinks Dawkins and Hitchens and the like are writing militant anti-religious tomes. He believes it's because, to their disappointment, religion seems to be making a come back in the "secular" West.
Well, a comeback or no, the form of the faith found in Christendom will certainly not stage a revival. The world in which that faith grew to maturity is now lost and gone forever. Updike writes:
“Where many fathers, some of them described in late-Victorian novels, conveyed to their sons an oppressive faith that it was a joy to cast off, my father communicated to me, not with words but with his actions and mournful attitudes, a sense of the Christian religion as something weak and tenuous and in need of rescue.”
And later he confesses:
“...I maintain my own Christian connections, which have wound through three Protestant denominations but left little trace, I fear, in the spiritual lives of my children.”
All this, in turn, reminded me of a book title I saw one time: The Bold Alternative: Staying In The Church In The 21st Century. This idea of staying with the church indeed may be the most bold challenge facing us. The mainline churches are worst hit now with sagging attendance because they were the first hit within Christendom, but the carnage is far from over. Evangelical churches, and even mega-churches, once they finally cannibalize the weaker churches and those formerly Catholic, will likewise, finally, succumb as well. The tide is going out now, and nothing can stop it.
I would assert that the only hope for “the faith once delivered to the saints”, if it is to survive the next few generations in the West, and if it is still to be called "Christian", is to remind ourselves that what Jesus teaches us and most especially offers us is a new life and a new way to live. That is, we have been given the most precious gift of all in this life we have, and anything that undercuts this life, even and especially a form of Christianity, must be left behind.
Practically, this means that the calling of the church is not self-preservation or self-promotion. Instead, the calling of the church is life, the life of this world, the life of the person we know who does not have food or clothing or, well, life in abundance. We must love this world because we have no other. We must love this world because the calling to follow this first century carpenter includes the idea that all of life hinges on one life, and that community is comprised of bringing others to potential. Said another way, the politics of the moment -- whether republican or democrat -- pales in comparison to the the great gift we have been given of this world. Until we get this right, I see no reason for anyone to give us a second look.