Monday, May 23, 2011

GOD Is Hip, But You Are Not: Church In The Pluralization Fast Lane

"A spiritual conversation is going on, but the church isn’t invited."
-- Sally Morgenthaler

The social location of the church in the West may be correctly characterized, theologically, as exile.

Walter Brueggemann has observed that,

“...the Old Testament experience of and reflection upon exile is a helpful metaphor for understanding our current faith situation the U.S. church and a model for pondering new forms of ecclesiology,” by which Brueggemann believes that a deep sense of “displacement touches all of us -- liberal and conservative -- in personal and public ways.” [emphasis his]

I would say there have been four primary responses to this metaphorical exile, or this cultural shift from cultural hegemony to cultural surrender:

hell no we won’t go -- fundamentalist types

the end is near, hang-on & hold-out -- evangelical & mainline types

appearance is reality:  manage change but secretly keep things the same -- entrepreneurial types

cut the ties and take the leap -- emergent types

However, to drill down deeper in order to discover what is actually occurring, it is most helpful to move away from the theological descriptions of exile, with their weighted images, and to think in terms of the sociology of religion. Specifically, I have in mind the challenge of pluralization, and how this process of modernity affects all institutions, including religious institutions.

Peter Berger defines pluralism as,

“the coexistence in the society of different worldviews and value systems under conditions of civic peace and under conditions where people interact with each other. Pluralism and the multiplication of choices, the necessity to choose, don’t have to lead to secular choices. They can lead to religious choices—the rise of fundamentalism in various forms, for example—but they change the character of how religion is both maintained institutionally and in human consciousness.” (go here)

Notice especially, pluralism as the multiplication of choices and the necessity to choose.

Let me attempt to illustrate what is at stake in this by sharing something I recently watched on C-Span’s Book TV. Anand Giridharadas was at the Gaithersburg, Maryland Book Festival and was being introduced by Cathy Drzygula for a talk about his new book, India Calling.

Ms. Drzygula, in describing the primary focus of the book, said:
“But the biggest change that has taken place [in modern India] is that now people have to think about how they choose to live their lives -- whether they celebrate the changes that continue to affect business and family or reject them -- they no longer simply carry-on.” 

That is, they no longer simply carry-on within a world given to them. Instead, with modernity they must chose their world, their world-view and their values.

Strangely, this same challenge also now faces the post-modern (or hyer-modern) Christian believer. Of course, modernity is hardly new. For a long, long time modernity has been the characteristic of our culture, for the carriers of modernization are strongest here, but the church is really only now feeling the heavy pressure-squeeze that is the vise of modernity, as pluralization (and privatization) force choice and change.

Said another way, Christians are being forced to chose their ecclesiology within a social structure which believes GOD is hip but church is not. To repeat the pithy quote from Sally Morgenthaler says, "A spiritual conversation is going on, but the church isn’t invited."

Or, think about this change in terms of Grace Davie’s characterization -- believing without belonging, or the movement from an ethic of obligation to an ethic of consumption.

As Berger says,
“When people say—and you get this in Europe as much as in the U.S.— ‘I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual,’ what do they mean? I think they mean two quite different things. One is New Age-ist type stuff: ‘I want to be in harmony with the cosmos. I want to discover my inner child.’ But sometimes it’s much simpler; it means, ‘yes, I’m interested in the questions of religion, but I don’t feel at home in any church, in any organized religion,’ and that doesn’t have to have a New Age flavor.

So where to we go from here? What do we do as the march of pluralization rolls over us? Much, of course, could be said. I would offer a warning and an approach.

First the warning. This is to the new emergent, church-next types. You have important things to say to the church, thoughts that others may not want to hear. Say them anyway. Follow your leadings, show us the way, but be careful that, as you see only too clearly through pablum of the past ecclesiology, you do not become a Christian Hipster.

You know the type, that synthesized individual with a certain bohemian life-view that is elitist, possessing certain attitudes that allows you to walk among church folk selling your wares, but shunning us otherwise as unenlightened conformists.

How can the rest of us respond to the power of pluralization? Before I answer, I want to emphasize that I am not speaking theologically in these thoughts. What I mean to describe is an attitude or a mindset.

Much thought must given here to unpack this in detail, but I suspect that the answer begins with the attitude of the expatriate. An expatriate is one who has given up residence in one's homeland, or one sent into exile, or one who removes oneself from residence in one's native land.

This sense of not belonging by choice offers us the reality that we know instinctively to be true, that our world-view, our understanding of the world, is increasingly the minority understanding.

There is something freeing about this choice of the expatriate. Since we no longer are the leading cultural indicator, we chose to be free to move under the radar, to live within the alleys and small, quaint inlets of the culture. With this choice we are free to hang-out, to be quiet, to listen, to learn, to acquire an openness of one set apart as alien, as the other.

With this expatriate choice perhaps, eventually, we will hear, maybe for the first time, the genuine angst of the culture of nihilism at work. Then, hopefully, we will be able to share in the cries of a weary world at war with itself.  This hope reminds me of the final lines of the film Sophies Choice:

I let go the rage and sorrow for Sophie and Nathan...
and for the many others who were but a few...
of the butchered and betrayed
and martyred children of the Earth.

When I could finally see again...
I saw the first rays of daylight reflected in the murky river.
This was not judgment day.
Only morning.
Morning: excellent and fair.