Saturday, August 29, 2009

The True Standard Religious Game

I kept looking out my window at the buildings instead of watching the cars in front of me. A new town. I had never heard of it until I was asked to come out there for my interview. Driving through High Point, I searched for landmarks, tools to help me make a quick exit. I was also looking for landmarks to confirm that I was in a conservative, southern town. It's a habit I picked up somewhere, even though I grew up in a small, conservative southern town. Or especially because I grew up there: condescension proves I have grown beyond it.

It wasn't a navigational landmark, but I became quite fascinated by a small brick building with a couple of small windows, the True Standard Holiness Church. I started my mental attack immediately. True Standard? Am I going to find the old church, the Standard Holiness Church down the road? Is it redundant to qualify the "standard" with "true"? How have they determined what the true standard is? How do they know they embody it? Why do we Christians keep trying to justify ourselves as embodying the "true" standard? Do we need to split churches every time we think we possess the true standard?

The barrage of questions didn't last long. Suddenly, I found myself in a kind of religious crisis. Like my church? The AMIA. "Orthodox" anglicans. Turning to tradition (a claim to possess the true standard!). Those sinful Episcopalians. Not to mention the debates within AMIA. Are we anglo-Catholic? How high of a liturgy? What can we alter in it? Should the sermons follow the lectionary? What does it mean to be "anglican"?

Oh no, I thought, I'm one of them. I'm part of the "true standard" church. And there is no way out! Not that I'm trapped in AMIA. But that I'm trapped in a "true standard" church. It's not just them, it's me. It's my Christianity that is frail; it's my Christianity that amounts to nothing more than contradiction and sin. My Christianity! My faith--petty! Insignificant! A display of sinful arrogance and self-justification!

"Christianity twisted like a snake in the hands of those who sought to us it: millenarian prophets, authoritarian and radical missionaries alike, British abolitionists, Khoekhoe preachers, and racist settlers all sought to control its language in a climate of intense power struggles, but none was able to establish final ownership" (Elizabeth Elbourne, "Prelude" to __Blood Ground__, p. 5).

A whole book investigating the complexities of Christian language, the way it is used in our world, or, for this book, in the world of colonial South Africa. It's disturbing. Where do I fit in the scheme? More importantly, where is God? What does Jesus think about this dizzying array of options? About our complex motives, the factors beyond our control, the forces that make us the specific sinful humans we are? Is Christianity just like any other language, a tool to be used within power struggles? Is it nothing but another game of violent self-assertion?

I couldn't find an answer. I started wondering: is this a religious crisis, a crisis of faith? Two days after my ordination interview, and I'm wondering whether there is anything worthwhile in Christian faith. Or, at least more worthwhile than any other product of the sinful human race.

But what are my options? To give up? To embrace atheism? But that is simply another option within the "true standard" religious game. I see through all this depraved religiosity, I see the root and the cause, and I have now risen above it and will call others to the true standard!

Starting a new church won't get me out of it either. Didn't all these schisms occur because a group thought it possessed the true standard? The same thing, over and over again. A rejection of one standard becomes, unsurprisingly, a new standard. Even the rejection of all claims to possess "the true standard" becomes a new standard, the standard. Nor can I just abstract from these concrete religious assertions and find solace in a pure, mystical religion. Mysticism, in this sense, is simply cautious atheism: I see through this utterly human construct called institutional religion, but instead of seeing nothing (atheism), I see a pure truth above and beyond the sinful institution. Behold, the true standard!

There is no place outside of this circle. A "turning against the manifestly impossible, whether in the form of mysticism or in that of atheism. For in making this judgment it will have to judge itself...The real crisis of religion can only break in from outside the magic circle of religion and its place of origin, i.e., from outside man" (Karl Barth, CD I/2, 324).

What, then, is the way forward? How do we move beyond the true standard religious game? If Barth is right, we don't. We accept the condemnation. We make no claim that Christianity, in any form, has escaped the game. We "must not allow ourselves to be confused by the fact that a history of Christianity can be written only as a story of the distress which it makes for itself" (337). "Even Christianity is unbelief" (338). The "sum total of even the Christian religion is simply this, that it is idolatry and self-righteousness, unbelief, and therefore sin. It must be forgiven if it is to be justified" (354).

We accept the condemnation. We trust that Jesus will forgive us, especially for our religion. We stop striving to justify ourselves, to vindicate our religion, to contrast our purity with the sinfulness of others, to proclaim our possession of a way beyond religiosity. We too are judged. But in Jesus, we are forgiven. We need not find a positive spin on our history. Our history has been taken out of our hands; we do not need to find security in our ability to construct a purer religion. Not "only our security before God, but the very security of our being and activity, and therefore our security in relation to men, rests absolutely upon our willingness in faith and by faith to renounce any such securities" (332). We are free to renounce them because, in faith, by Jesus Christ, we do not need them. Our security before God does not rest on our Christian religion; it rests on God's gracious forgiveness of our sin. Christianity is the true religion, according to Barth, always on the analogy of justified sinners. It's false and sinful when considered in and of itself. Its truth, just like its justification, lies outside of itself, in Jesus Christ.

My "orthodox," "traditional," "anglican" church can either point towards itself, towards another form of the true standard religious game. Or we can accept a more humble and insecure place, as another form of sinful religion, and, hopefully--and this is what is peculiar to Christianity--as a witness to Christ's mercy on us pious sinners.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Weakness of Christian Missions

"In the world of religions, the Christian religion is in a position of greatest danger and defenselessness and impotence than any other religion. It has its justification either in the name of Jesus Christ, or not at all." Karl Barth, Dogmatics I/2, p. 356.

For Barth, Church history should be told as the long, lamentable, and predictable story of the various attempts Christians have made to evade this position of weakness. Christian history reveals "the attempt which the Christian makes, in continually changing forms, to consider and vindicate his religion as a work which is in itself upright and holy. But he continually feels himself thwarted and hampered and restrained by Holy Scripture, which does not allow this, which even seems to want to criticize this Christian religion of his" (337). The history, therefore, is a history of our stumbling; it is the history of our attempts to become masters of ourselves, to vindicate ourselves, and therefore, of necessity, to detach ourselves from Christ and flee from his judgment against our religiosity, self-confidence, and self-assertion.

While tracing the various attempts to assert Christian truth as our own possession, Barth touches on the "comprehensive readoption of the missionary task" (336) during the modern period, especially towards the close of the 18th century. The new "confrontation" of Christianity with non-Christian religions went in the wrong direction since the "sending Church was itself seeking its strength at a different point from where it could be found" (336). The missions stemmed from a new Christian self-assertion, not from a new commitment to Christ's mastery. It is not as though these missions were completely ineffective in witnessing to Christ; however, God's gracious unveiling through these missions had to go against the "tendencies and directions" that dominated these missions. To put it concretely: the recipients of European, Christian missions encountered Jesus in spite of these missions! Reading through Savage Systems by David Chidester is a perfect illustration of this point: that anyone encountered Christ in the South African missions is the work of the Spirit usually in opposition to the operations of the colonial mission.

Barth provides a helpful way to interpret and move past the missional failings exposed by Chidester. He analyzes a shift that begins back in the 16th century and explodes during the 18th century in which "revelation" becomes understood within the more general idea of "religion," instead of religion being approached only on the basis of revelation (Jesus Christ). Once this shift took place, "revelation" became "a historical confirmation of what man can know about himself and therefore about God even apart from revelation" (289-290). Revelation fulfills our own notions about religion, our own sense of who God is and who we are and ought to be. Revelation confirms and extends--perfects--our own projects and concerns. (Barth argues that without this history in mind, "we are defenseless against the 'German Christians' of our own time," meaning, the Nazi Church, 292).

For Barth, the fundamental sin that underlies this whole movement is a rejection of the lordship of Christ. No longer is it held that "Jesus Christ is now his Lord, and man belongs to Him, and lives under Him in His kingdom, and serves Him, and therefore has all his consolation in life or death in the fact that he is not his own but is the property of Jesus Christ" (292, emphasis added). Barth places this rejection of Christ's mastery within our attempts to master others. In the missionary encounter, "we must not try to know and define and assess man and his religion as it were in advance and independently. We must not ascribe to him any existence except as the possession of Christ" (296, emphasis added). Thus, behind the turn to "savage comparisons" stands a rejection of the lordship of Christ over both our own selves and those we encounter. To master the others (and be masters of ourselves), we have to undercut all of our dependence on the mastery of Christ.

Rejecting the sufficiency of Christ's lordship, European missionaries strove to display the superiority of Christianity over the variety of other religions (or absences of religion). No longer content with the final (and hence only) word coming from the gracious forgiveness of Jesus, missionaries had to come up with some other final word justifying Christian truth. It must be a word imminent to themselves (otherwise it could not be used to elevate them above the others). Christian theology starts taking "refuge in reason or culture or humanity or race, in order to find some support or other for the Christian religion" (357). The options are various, but they all coalesce around the same practical result: they explain Christian superiority, non-Christian inferiority, and therefore justify Christian domination (one wonders what the missions in South Africa would have looked had no attempt been made to see what the "natives" were in and of themselves but only to look at them as those already claimed by Christ's lordship...).

Barth recognizes that this self-assertion--the rejection of Christ's mastery--could be accomplished without any explicit deviations from Christian language. The transformation of Christianity into a vehicle for self-articulation (and hence self-mastery and world-mastery) happened most often within the confines of Christian language and through. The rejection of Christ's mastery was sometimes bold and upfront; but often it was hidden behind pious language (and even hidden from those involved in the transformation). For Barth, this is not surprising since Jesus Christ exposes all religion to be nothing more than "idolatry and self-righteousness" (314). Even, and especially, the Christian religion. In fact, the problems of modern, colonial missions are born from our frequent desire to forget that "the sum total qualities of even the Christian religion is simply this, that it is idolatry and self-righteousness, unbelief, and therefore sin. It must be forgiven if it is to be justified" (354).

The Christian religion cannot point to itself to ensure its security and stability within the encounter and confrontation with various religions. In and of itself, it has nothing meaningful through which to distinguish itself as superior. Jesus Christ calls us to remember this situation. We are sinners, saved by grace. The question of the truth of the Christian religion is simply this: "who and what are they in their naked reality, as they stand before the all-piercing eye of God?" (356). In response to this question, Christians can do nothing other than point away from themselves (even from their own concrete structures and ethical programs) and point to Jesus. It is only in Christ's mercy that we stand before God as righteous. This righteousness is never a righteousness we possess, and hence it is never one we can deploy to distinguish ourselves as superior to others (or others as inferior to ourselves). The Christian religion is not the truth in itself; it is the true religion only by God's mercy and forgiveness in Christ. It's calling, therefore, is not to "out narrate" other religions; nor is it to "persuasively embody" the truth of its superiority. Even the posture of weakness, insecurity, or self-emptying does not demonstrate the truth of Christianity. Our standing before God does not depend on our rhetorical skills or our moral effort; it stands (or falls) with Jesus Christ alone. Christian religion has a claim to be "the true religion" only as it points to the truth and "proclaims it" (358). This work of proclamation is not a "power or authority of its own" but is the action of the Holy Spirit (359). Therefore, it is not an action it can point to so as to establish its own truth; it is a work that depends only on God's free mercy.

It is for these reasons that revelation--God's judgment and forgiveness of us in Jesus Christ--pushes the Church into a position of utter weakness. As Christ's possessions, we are called to see all others as also already possessed by Christ. Neither "we" nor "they" exist apart from Christ's mastery. Therefore, the truth of who "we" are and "they" are is a truth we cannot articulate. Nor need we. The truth has already been spoken regarding who we all are: we are all sinners living under the gracious lordship of Jesus Christ.

Far from undercutting the need for missions, this situation enables the Church to fulfill its mission. For its mission is not to replace Christ but to witness (by the Spirit) to Christ's continual work (in the Spirit). Since the church's life is not its own, neither is its mission. Since missions is God's work, we need not worry that we exist in such a weak and impotent position (regarding other religions). We need not flee from the insecurity in which we stand. God's word to us in Jesus is our security; and God's power--not ours!--is made perfect in our weakness. Within this weakness, the church is not free from the temptation to proclaim itself. But it is put on guard. It is threatened. And we hope and pray that we will continue to remember our precarious position; we hope and pray that we will not cease to proclaim the sufficiency of Christ, and Christ alone. We hope and pray that our mission will be, by God's grace, a real witness to the Spirit's mission.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Irresponsibility of Christian Missions

In his discussion of the Holy Spirit, Barth claims that "the outpouring of the Holy Spirit exalts the Word of God to be the master over men, puts man unavoidably under His mastery" (I.2, 270).  When the Holy Spirit is conceived outside of this relationship to Christ, the Spirit "is always transmuted into a quite different spirit, the spirit of the religious man, and finally the human spirit in general" (I.2., 251).  The Spirit's work can only be considered in relationship to Christ:  the Spirit always and only draws us under Christ's control.

Barth slowly unpacks what it means to "have our master unavoidably in Jesus Christ" (270).  One of his explanations really struck me and I want to quote it at length.

"To have our master unavoidably in Jesus Christ is to exist in an ultimate and most profound irresponsiblity...[The Word of God] does not impose on us a new and final and frightful, because unending , responsibility.  It claims our response.  It claims our will and action.  It claims the achievement which is, of course, required of us.  It claims all this, not as an autonomous work, the success of which we ourselves must guarantee, but as an act of service, in the fulfillment of which we are borne and covered by the work it does itself.  From this aspect, too, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit signifies the relativising of the question who and what we are in ourselves....As the people we are we have to participate in that work of the Word.  Not as those who have to finish the work, to reach the goal, to bring in the results.  In our very participation it is foreseen that we are men, and disobedient men, and therefore quite unsuitable for the work.  Our participation does not depend upon our fitness for this work.  It is a participation in spite of our unsuitability.  It rests on the forgiveness of sins.  It is grace...It is not a participation which involves anxiety and worry whether we can really do what we are required to do.  Of course we cannot do it.  That is the presupposition of our participation.  Only one thing is required of us.  As those who cannot do it ourselves, and never could, we have to participate when the Word does it.  It is a matter of the receiving and adopting of man into participation in the Word of God.  This participation corresponds to what took place in the incarnation of the eternal Son of God.  It is the basis of the life of the children of God, that non-autonomous life which is a life only of grace and of faith.  And when man is placed under the Word and under the command of hte Word, he is really free.  Free from worry about himself.  But also free from worry about others.  And free from worry about the whole development of human affairs in the Church and the world.  In the ultimate and decisive question, the doing of the will of God in all these things, he has no worries at all, even when he ought to be weighed down in all the penultimate questions regarding himself and others and the Church and the world.  That the will of God should be done in all things is what he can and should pray when the burden seems likely to crush him, and then it will not crush him.  But the very prayer, Thy will be done, is in fact an admission that I need not worry about it, because it is not my business.  I am not responsible.  This burden, the burden of my own and others' sins, does not lie upon me.  It lies solely and entirely upon Jesus Christ, upon the Word of God...I can never invest myself with the dignity of the Word, the dignity of Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ alone bears it and can bear it.  Our relationship to Him must always consist in our knowing and saying and confirming and attesting and living out the truth:  that He careth for you.  And in this very freedom, in this ultimate absence of responsibility, it is self-evident that we have to hear the freedom of God and the revelation of God....

[The Old Testament prophets and Paul in the New Testament] do not really aim to do what God does.  They aim only to participate.  They do not do the work:  they assist.  It is in this way that they are the recipients and witness of revelation...They do not need to be ashamed of the Gospel, because it does not need their own dynamic.  And it does not need it, because it is itself the power of God, and indeed, for salvation (Rom 1.16)" (I.2, 274-276).  

Missions is free from responsibility, and therefore, free from anxiety.  It does not produce results; it witnesses to God's work.  It is the Holy Spirit who draws people to the Father through Christ.  Strictly speaking, we are not necessary for this work.  The work is necessary for us--Christ binds us to it ("go into all the world"...).  But we are not there to do Christ's work.  Our function, our calling, is to witness to Christ's work (the great commission is preceded by Christ's claim to possess all authority, involves our calling to make disciples of Christ, and is followed by the confirmation that this work will only be accomplished because Christ will be with us by the Spirit.  Further, the mission of the Church begins at Pentecost, with the coming of the missionary, the Holy Spirit, further signifying that missions is strictly speaking, not our work).  

Conversion is not our work, nor is it our responsibility.  It is out of our hands.  We engage in missions because we want to witness to the Spirit's work of forming disciples (disciples are "formed and directed by" the Word, not by us, 276).  Missionaries make the bold step to witness to this work, not in the confidence that they have been brought out of disobedience, but  in the knowledge that God is faithful to the disobedient.  Missions proceeds from this place of freedom, which is a place of irresponsibility, of lacking responsibility for ourselves, the Church, and the world.  

The temptation for Christian missions is to assume responsibility, to take the work out of Christ's hands and back into our own.  This temptation is an attempt to live without dependency on the Spirit--conversion is our responsibility, and thus is our work, which the Spirit may help, but which is a work ultimately in our control.  However, the Spirit does not assist us in our work of making disciples but brings us sinners under the mastery of Christ.  Therefore, our prayer should not be "Spirit, enable me to convert these sinners to Jesus" but "Spirit, reveal Jesus to us sinners."  In other words, a properly irresponsible missions begins not with the question of how we faithful disciples may inspire faith in the faithless, nor even in the prayer that the Spirit speak to the faithless through us faithful disciples, but in the prayer that the Spirit would continue to reveal God's faithfulness in Jesus Christ to us faithless sinners.  

Any time we think of our neighbor as the one who needs our faithful witness, we have placed ourselves in opposition to our neighbor and our mission is headed down the wrong path.  Our neighbor--the "nonbeliever," the "sinner," the "disparaged or oppressed," whatever our preferred designation of the recipient of our missionary work--is not the one who stands in dependence on us but is the concrete reminder to us that we stand with them in dependence on God's mercy and care.  It is a reminder that may, and often does, contain a judgment on us, for in this situation of dependence it is always possible that they, and not us, are the ones participating in Christ's work.  When God speaks and calls someone to witness--as with the samaritan woman at the well, John 4--it might be that God views us, the disciples, as an obstacle to be sent away and then challenged to imitate the one we would ordinarily think needed (to be like) us.  Christian missions begins with the acceptance of this humiliation, for it knows that in this humiliation--in this judgment on us, sinners--Christ brings mercy.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Natural Theology and Colonial Missions

I'm currently reading Savage Systems: Colonialism and Comparative Religion in Southern Africa by David Chidester. It's part of a larger reading project which could simply be titled: "Oh no, I'm going to be a missionary....". The critical aspect of the project will involve reading books that describe various missionary practices and theologies as they pertain to the "project of civilization." The shape of the modern world is the product of Christian missions (it was the Pope who blessed the "age of discovery" as a part of the Church's mission and divided the world between ruling European powers). J. Carter has argued that the idea of race is born out of a theological discourse (if you want a kind of genealogical point of origin, he points to 15th century Spain, and the blood purity laws passed against Jews: race develops from the biologization of heresy). I want to get a better grasp of how missions was configured and deployed from this point forward; the goal is to better identify, clarify and personally feel the problem of modern missions. The constructive aspect of the project is to find a way forward. I hope to read some more general works on missions, but I'm expecting to get most of my help from Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. These two theologians identified the problem of Christian missions (though they didn't call it that) and started to push theology past it. Through Barth and Bonhoeffer, I hope to reconfigure a theology for Christian missions.

In Savage Systems, Chidester highlights a peculiar feature of colonial comparative religion: when the colonial boundary (the "frontier") is being contested by an indigenous population, the people are deemed to have no religion. However, "when the frontier closes, and hegemony has been established, a dominated subjected people are discovered to have a religion that can be inventoried and analyzed" (69). For example, the Hottentots lacked a religion from 1600-1654, then had one once a European settlement was established. When this establishment expanded, the Hottentots were again deemed areligious (from 1685-1700). Once the expansion ceased and the settlement was stablilized, the Hottentots were seen to possess a native religion. However, the colony started to spread again in 1770 and thus the Hottentots were again deemed to lack any religion (69). Even when they were deemed to have a religion, it was a religion that either resembled the stubbornness of the Jews or the superstition of the Catholics (70): "the Hottentots were credited with a religion that discredited them" (70).

The difference between Jews and Catholics seems to be based on a different failure. Jews stubbornly resisted Christian conversion, and thus exhibit a moral failure that explains their nonconversion; Catholic superstition is a sign of ignorance. Thus, the Hottentots' resistance to Christian conversion stemmed from either a moral or an intellectual failure. The intellectual failure was ultimately traced back to a different kind of moral failure, laziness. All three features could be tied together; Georg Meistert claimed in 1687 that the "absence of any religion among them was equivalent to their lack of literacy and industry" (45). Given their "bestial" language (37), the Hottentots necessarily lacked the ability to produce any kind of natural religion (and therefore, any proper human society, and therefore, any proper humanity per se).

Even though the recognition or denial of Hottentot religion constantly shifted, the missionaries zeal to analyze and discover (or produce) the native religion remained constant. Whether the verdict was positive or negative, the question was always being posed (and not only by missionaries but also by travelers, explorers, scientiests, and colonial administrators). No observer thought that the Hottentot's would exhibit the marks of "revealed religion," but they all pondered whether they were capable of producing a natural religion.

Natural theology, in the broadest sense of the term (especially as it is developed on the mission field in colonial Southern Africa), is the search for a merely natural (meaning, non-divinely inspired, not revealed) religiosity. What the European observers tried to catalogue was whether Hottentots had any idea of God, a transendent creator, and whether they developed any kind of rituals and ethics to relate to that idea. They knew that the Hottentots had various customs and rituals; the question was whether these rituals marked the presence of a rudementary knowledge of God or whether they marked mere superstition (and hence ignorance, laziness, and the absence of religion).

Chidester catalogues how the answer to this question varied according to the solidity of colonial control. In short, fighting natives had no religion (and hence were subhuman); conquered natives were religious after all (and hence capable of being absorbed into civilization). What interests me is how this compartive procedure stems from the search for a "point of contact" within the indiginous culture that would prepare it for the gospel. If the people resist the gospel, then they either lack a cultural starting point altogether (which makes them less than fully human), or they exhibit a cultural moral failing that prevents the gospel from taking root (laziness or stubbornness).

The search for a point of contact thus brings with it a compartive procedure. The missionary's native culture--a culture that has accepted the gospel--bears the marks of proper human culture. It has proven to be receptive to the gospel, and therefore (either naturally or by grace), has been brought out of sinful resistance. Those who refuse the gospel fail to measure up to the proper form of human receptivity (modelled by the missionary's culture). They lack what the sending community possesses: industry, civilization, intelligence, language, literacy, piety, a proper understanding of authority, etc. The resistant native population, within this strategy of comparison, can only be registered as a lack, as an absence, as the inverted image of the (colonial) missionary. They therefore lack religion. The dominated population is no longer violently opposed to the colonial settlement; they therefore exhibit some kind of potential harmonization within European conquest. They have some unformed religious potential.

This comparative natural theology held a privileged place within colonial missions. Missionaries (and other European observers) continually searched for--and registered (or produced) the presence or absence of--an African "unknown God." Convinced that there ought to be a "point of contact" (an African natural religion), European missionaries expressed shock at how uncivilized (and bestial) the areligious African were. Once they were brought under colonial control, their continual resistance to the gospel was read as a deformed religious response (on model with the Jews and Catholics). Natural theology, therefore, operated as a kind of intellectual backdrop (already worked out in missional polemics with Muslims, Jews, and later Catholics) through which to register the human differences encountered in the colonial world. The debate surrounding natural theology (i.e. Karl Barth's strident rejection of it) ought to be placed within this context. Natural theology is not just a doctrine but a disposition, a way of inhabiting the world that carries with it certain procedures of comparison and judgment whose concrete force can be most properly felt on the colonial mission field. In other words, the practical outworkings of natural theology are what Chidester describes in, and calls, "Savage Systems."