Anxiety In The Church: Up Or Out

If the church fails to remind the new convert that the pattern of the Christian life is one of falling down and getting up again, he will fall yet deeper into the trap of longing for the Quick Fix. The more the church cultivates “spiritual success”, the greater the demoralisation of those who are conscious only of failure; and the more the new convert is confronted with individuals who claim to have wholly Arrived, the more he will feel that he himself has not even managed to depart yet. His thinking may thus come to be dominated by hero-worship and envy: hero-worship of those who are built up, or who build themselves up, as totally Committed and really One with the Lord; and also a restless rattling of all the keys on the panacea ring.

The Catholic Church prefers that its assorted masochists, idealists, spiritual yuppies and eccentrics join Orders fitted to their particular calling, rather than cause havoc among the sheep. By definition, not all men can be mendicant friars – from whom would they then beg? It thereby becomes possible for the unambitious Catholic to let superstars be superstars and to “lie low and say nuffink”.

Now, Protestantism abolished the distinction between “religious” and “secular” clergy and indeed to some extent between clergy and laity also. This has a shadowside; the fervour once thought to be reserved for the monk or nun could now be demanded from all members of the church. The concomitants of the ideal monastic life, such as dialogue in prayer, great spiritual experiences and direct awareness of God, once reserved to monks and nuns, became obligatory for all, but without provision of the special enabling environment of economic support, isolation, quietness, a community all doing the same thing, and kindly direction permanently on tap across the cloister.

It is also one of the more overlooked aspects of the Bible that the Apostles were not calling everybody to special missions but writing to settled communities and instructing them in simple clean and charitable living wherever they happened to be. Indeed, St. Paul makes quite a big thing about the difficult virtue of Minding Your Own Business. This raises the question whether we are supposed to be imitating St. Paul or his audience, these anonymous Christian tanners and shopkeepers of Thessalonica. Being disciples in the sense of apprentices or students is not necessarily the same thing as everybody being one in the same way as the original Apostles. Some evangelical subcultures absolutely insist that all Christians must don the mantle of the Twelve, and themselves preach the Gospel. Not merely in their shopkeeperish lives, giving honest weight and alms, but also in the soap-box sense.

The charismatic movement has seen the violence done to human differences by this approach and instead chosen to emphasise St. Paul’s doctrine of the Ministries. It must have been a relief to many to discover that they were allowed to “specialise” in giving, hospitality or comforting. Regarding public preaching as a call and a (licensed) ministry for the few is also more in accordance with the oldest traditions of the church. The same surely applies to other apostolic characteristics like not owning anything. After all, the Twelve were merely the inner ring of the Seventy; and what about rich men like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathaea? Obliteration of these distinctions paves the way for guilt-mongering on a massive scale. At the crudest level, the itinerant preacher permits himself to make the mortgaged householder feel thoroughly inferior, because he has not “left all to follow Him”. Such people should be asked where St. Peter got the boat he was fishing from after the Ascension.

Imposition of some personal standard of ascetic renunciation on all and sundry, not as a call but as a, or the, criterion of salvation, has bedevilled the Church since its earliest days; many of the heretic movements, for instance, specialised in prohibition of marriage. The early desert ascetics had an Olympic-Games approach to austerities; you fasted forty days, I’ve fasted forty-one, neener neener! Our version of this is when a group of leaders burn each other out and destroy their marriages through competitive multiplication of meetings, blocking all escape with a hardball game of “Where Is Your Commitment, Brother?”

Even when these obvious abuses are cleared out of the way, there can still remain a sense that every Christian is pursued by a rising standard nipping at his heels, an assumption that, as in the Army and American companies, one goes “Up or Out”. Here, “Up” means dramatic and visible growth in the outward accomplishments by which “Going On With the Lord” is often measured. The greatest harm done by “Up or Out” is the implication that not swinging up to the next branch is tantamount to apostasy. Lack of “progress” – as defined (or left worryingly undefined) by other people – can be taken as evidence of deficient “Commitment”. And that, as we have seen, reflects back on the quality of one’s conversion. Clearly Jesus is not, after all, the Lord of Your Life. If you funk a ladder, you slide all the way down the longest Snake. In short, the Catholics award Second, Third and Pass degrees; but the evangelicals only award a Congratulatory First or a Fail.

Posted on January 9, 2010 at 10:47 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: THE LONGEST CON, The Soulbusters

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