I’m sorry that my blogging continues to be slow. I have several items half-written, so more will be coming soon…. In the meanwhile, here are some passing thoughts…
There are days when I become very frustrated with the world of independent sacramental Christianity. Recently, when ruminating on an ecclesial drama, I recalled a conversation with a retired Evangelical Orthodox bishop (Ken Jensen) who is now a Roman Catholic layman. When discussing the EOC and similar independent churches, Ken asked me, “Just how perfect does the church have to be?” His intent was to question the often idiosyncratic views found in indie churches. However, I think we could ask the same question of folks who leave our micro-church world for the mainstream. We may be quirky, crazy, unpredictable, and living on the fringe of anything recognizable as church, but why is that a problem? Baptist radical Will Campbell likes to say that ministry is always right under our nose. When discouraged by the ISM, my task is to simply realize that it is where I am, and thus where my service can be found. How can I take my independent sacramental inheritance, and make from it a gift to this world? The ISM is like a strange contraption patched together by a mad scientist, but with a little tinkering, it may prove capable of wonders. It is an odd plant which we feed with our own blood, as it grows and changes with us – but with patience, blooms will come.
On the recommendation of +John Kersey (www.independentoldcatholic.org), I have been reading How to be Free, by Tom Hodgkinson of The Idler (www.idler.co.uk) – both insightful and entertaining. Hodgkinson is very influenced by the Do-It-Yourself ethos of Punk culture, and its resistance to handing over an increasing number of aspects of our lives (whether baking bread or making money) to the realm of professionals. This is the same reason I love the internet, the Principia Discordia, The Post Punk Kitchen (www.theppk.com) and self-publishing efforts like that of Brother Jeremy Puma (check out his latest at www.thegospelofthomas.org). In truth, we independent sacramental types are applying the same DIY spirit to the world of religion. We don’t need buildings, budgets, organizations, titles, or paid clergy – if you want ‘em, you’re welcome to ‘em. We can take care of our own sacramental lives, in freedom, with our friends, however we choose. Thank you very much.
If a small amount of formal organization works for your context, that’s all good, but be careful. The other night, I watched Jonestown: The Life and Death of the People’s Temple on PBS. It’s a very fine documentary, and I highly recommend making the effort to see it. These people did not die in vain if we allow their story to be a parable illuminating the trouble generated when we hand off our priesthood and our responsibility for our own religious lives to anyone else. Jones failed the members of the People’s Temple. So did the Disciples of Christ denomination, of which they were members. And – without even trying to address the thorny issue of culpability for their own deaths – the members failed themselves. In a television interview earlier this year, Stephan Jones (one of Jim Jones’ three surviving sons) remarked that every adult in the Temple community, including himself, carried responsibility for handing over their freedom to his father. Mercifully, matters don’t usually reach the tragic level of Jonestown, but as Flannery O’Connor said, to the deaf one must shout, and for the near-blind one must draw large pictures. Every time we tell even small lies about our convictions to fit in or appease church authorities, or act against our conscience in little ways to advance our place in the ecclesial structure, or squirm silently in a pew rather than exercising honesty and freedom, we have made one step, however tiny, toward Jonestown.
To bring in another example, Rudolf Steiner was a tireless advocate for human freedom in Christ. However, his community turned him into yet another authority. Around 12 years after Steiner died, Valentin Tomberg wrote:
One could say that inwardly one hears – continually – the blows of the hammer, pounding shut the grave of Rudolf Steiner. Nails are constantly being hammered into the coffin in order that it should stay shut, so that Rudolf Steiner should not work on, his teaching not become clear, and people not meet him as a living being. Inwardly one hears the hammer blows on Rudolf Steiner’s coffin, and these blows are from the words of the formula: “The Doctor said…” – which means that he has already said everything. It means that he has spoken and therefore we need say nothing more. The hammer blows of death ring through the words, “The Doctor said…” (V. Tomberg, Inner Development, pp.113-114)
The same dynamic applies to: “Tradition says…” Or “The canons and constitution of the church say…” Or “The creed says…” “The Bible says…” Or even “Jesus says…” All of these sources of wisdom may be immensely helpful to us, and we may come to have trusting relationships with them over time. But in the final analysis, to live in freedom, we must stand on our own feet. Otherwise, we are keeping Jesus in the tomb. Jesus tells his disciples that he calls them no longer servants, but friends. And surely friends can have disagreements among themselves. Sometimes it is precisely such differences which bring color and life to a friendship.
But what then of our commitments to the Christian tradition, to the church not made by hands? If we listen carefully to our inheritance, but refuse to give any final authority to it, what does this mean for our Christian identity? Perhaps marriage is a better model than friendship. In any marriage which has lasted longer than 5 minutes, there will be differences and disagreements. At least in my experience, I have found much value in the old marital advice that disagreements and arguments are fine, but leaving the room is not – unless you are planning on divorce. As a Christian, owning my baptism, I may throw down with Jesus and his followers, but I have promised not to march out the door. Why do we doubt that God who is Knowledge and Love would want anything less than freedom and honesty in relationship with us?