Monthly Archives: May 2011

Empire and Institution

My friend Sean recently wrote a piece called Heartbreak Empire in which he discusses the biblical narrative as a critique of Empire Building. My comment on his post was getting a little lengthy and so I decided to post it on my own blog instead.

Thanks once again for a thought provoking and well written post Sean.

You reveal a critical aspect of the biblical story – God’s disapproval of Empire – and I fully agree!

In all its’ horrid manifestations Empire is always opposed to the Kingdom of God. I do find myself wondering though whether we at times conflate Empire and Institution when we speak about the church. I think we all know what we mean when we criticize the institutional church. But I also think that sometimes our meaning is lost on those who operate in and minster out of healthy institution. I’ve been feeling led recently to write something of a flipside view of church as institution.

I say this because in a sense institution is simply another word for organization, association, society and the like. In this sense it is nothing but the visible manifestation of people organized around a common goal or mission. Therefore the church is naturally institutional. In fact human beings are naturally institutional since the opposite of institution is generally anarchy or at the very least disorganization.

Institution can be many things, amongst others it can be organic, healthy, holistic, love-centered, people-centered, edifying, self-sacrificing. But it can also be oppressive, power-hungry, corrupt, selfish, profit-centered, static or life-less.

While I also agree that the adoption of Christianity as state religion under Constantine had major implications for the direction the church took in subsequent generation. I also see a bit of a danger in overstating a romanticized version of the Church before Constantine and demonizing most of what followed as though there is no continuity between the church pre-Constantine and the church post-Constantine (Which I don’t think you necessarily do – but I think there is a danger there).

As you know, I’ve often been drawn to these kinds of black and white scenarios. But recently (in part through you and Chris) I’ve been trying to see things a little differently. When I was studying the Eastern Orthodox Church I was surprised to see how much continuity actually exists in the church when viewed through the writings of the Apostolic Church Fathers both before and after Constantine.

Many of the things we think occurred through Constantine were already established in the 1st and 2nd centuries. As you note in your post this is well within the “persecuted church” stage of history. I’m talking about things like, church governance with bishops, priests and deacons serving a special and unique role in the church, the setting out of clear theological boundaries against Gnosticism, Judaism, Ebionism and other heresies (and thereby the justification for continued boundary setting in subsequent centuries), the discussion of the new ‘apostolic writings’ and the stages leading to their acceptance as Holy Scripture at Nicea (the Canon was not officially closed until the Protestant Reformation).

Of course I also agree with you that in the writings I’m referring to these realities are in their infancy (though still clearly accepted by the church) and under Constantine and Rome they gradually became more and more solidified as the Church grew in size (and power) – which led to both good and bad consequences. Many of these growths however were the natural consequence of a growing institution. When things are small they are easier to manage and require less formal structure, but once Christianity had become as big as it did it required greater institutional management – which was neither all good, nor all bad.

I think the ‘Parable of the Wheat and Tares’ speaks powerfully to this reality. We should always remember that under Constantine, under the Roman Popes (even during the Middle Ages) and even in the Western Institutional Church today we have a mixing of Good and Bad that Jesus warns us we are incapable of uprooting. Not that we should say nothing when we see evil (or even just unhelpful) realities in the church, but that we should remember that our vision is limited and sometimes we may think we are seeing Tare when in reality it is Wheat (and vice versa).

I’ve written before on some of my concerns regarding the nature and consequences of the protest that happened during the Reformation. While others had “protested” corruption in the church before they had also remained a part of it and sought to change it from the inside. Jesus taught in the temple and synagogues and lived as a Jew under Judaism – even while criticizing many of the failings that had befallen the nation. Similarly Francis of Assisi, who I know you are quite familiar with, remained within the church and brought about positive changes without creating the schisms of the Protestant reformation. Often schism, even for good reason is due to a power-play on both sides of the split – just look at the East West Schism.

That said, it seems true that the realities of the reformation protest did not allow for change from within and simply could not be contained within the Catholic Church. But it also just goes to show that even within an institution as hierarchical and structured as the Roman Catholic one a Saint like Francis can exist and do mighty things for the Kingdom of God.

I may take up this theme in a future post, an examination of the good that has been done in and through the institutional church. Not as a defense of the institution over against the voices of criticism, but just a reminder to myself and others that the Church as an institution is unavoidable. What we want to avoid is bad institution, corrupt institution and this is what we usually mean when we speak of institutional church. But any time human beings act in an organized manner institution is created in the sense that is forms the skeleton around which we, as the muscles, blood, nerves, and skin, may operate. What we want to aim for is healthy and Spirit-led institution. Institution that is organic and life-giving.

I think we would all agree that the church as institution, both before Constantine and since, has never failed to have positive aspects – even if at times the negatives almost seem to outweigh the positives. It is easy to get caught up in the negative aspects of what the church has done and is doing – and at times this is needed – but in the long run I think we also need to remind ourselves of the good things the church has done and is doing as it shares the Light of Jesus with a world caught in darkness.

But just to reiterate, where I fully agree with you and the main point of your post is that God opposes empire, Jesus opposed empire and ultimately it seems that the meta-narrative of the bible really is a critique of human institution as Empire Building and the incompatibility of Empire with the Kingdom of God.

Childlike Faith

This is my first attempt to reflect on my experience of belief. I want to try, as far as I can, to avoid discussing theological concepts or models of belief. Reflecting simply on what I have experienced as a believer. In this first post I recall growing up believing in God.

For introducing me to belief in God I must thank my parents. And also the Methodist church I attended for much of my childhood. Even though my parents were not very religious, Christianity was cultural and an expected part of growing up. When I say they were not religious I don’t mean to imply that they were atheists either, but simply secular through lack of engagement with their own beliefs.

We attended a Methodist church for no other reason than that my parents viewed it as an English equivalent to my Father’s N.G. (Dutch Reformed) denomination in which we were baptized as babies. As far as Sunday school is concerned, the thing that stands out most vividly in my imagination is worship, especially a song called “Jehovah Jirah” and another called “Love the Lord your God”. I can remember enjoying these and other songs, and sang many of them outside of the Sunday school setting – which is strange given my complete inaptitude for all other forms of music.

At home, my mom sometimes read bible stories to us and at night, I will forever remember the “Now I lay me down to sleep” prayer. How, as a young boy, I pictured my soul leave my body as I lay down to sleep – hopeful that it had made its’ way to God. And that should anything happen to me while I lay there in my bed, at least my soul was safe in God’s hands.

I also remember the need, sometimes, to pray that prayer, and later the Lord’s Prayer, over and over again. These repetitions arose from concerns that I had become distracted, and had allowed the prayer to be completed on autopilot. This of course seemed problematic since perhaps auto-pilot prayer didn’t have the same power as self-navigated prayer. If this was true then perhaps God hadn’t heard that He needed to “keep my soul”, or “forgive my trespasses”, or “deliver me from evil”. Thankfully I never let the autopilot continue once I had noticed it, and usually I was satisfied that the prayer following the discovery was done with sufficient devotion and care to reach the ears of God.

To this day this habit continues and will often manifest as repeated grace during the first bite of the meal, as I move the focalized prayer at the table to my heart, and there reiterate my gratitude for God’s provision. Likewise, the Lord’s prayer is still at times susceptible to autopilot transmissions, and still I feel the need to bring my focus back to the prayer and repeat whatever was spoken without intention. These early struggles are also discernible in my need to sometimes overemphasize my intention, or meaning, in prayer – in case God misunderstood me and thinks I’ve communicated something unacceptable.

I remember the first time I was hurt by “the church” or rather by members of it. It was the usual bullying that many of us experience at various times when we are young. My experiences unfortunately connected to those who were part of the body of Christ – but also just little boys like myself. And though I no longer connect the hurt to the church, the bullying itself has left deep scars.

I also remember my first unanswered prayer. Oh, there may have been others before this. But this one was different. This was something very personal and something very painful and I wanted deeply for God to change it. I prayed and prayed and prayed, waking each day to find the prayer unanswered. I have no idea how long it went on for or when I finally realized God wasn’t going to answer the prayer. It was an unspoken prayer and nobody knew that I was praying besides me and God. I also have no idea what I thought of God because of this but I do remember the pain of living daily with a reality that I deeply desired to escape and finding no God to take the pain away.

Until I was 16 my outlook on life was narrow and finite. I believed everything I had been taught and had no reason, nor any desire, to believe differently. That was until I read a newspaper report linking God to a part of the brain. Innocently my eyes had fallen onto one of the headlines of the open newspaper lying on the dining-room table. It read something like, ‘Scientists discover God linked to part of the Brain’. In an instant my world changed. Suddenly my clear and solid vision became blurry and unstable. For the first time that I can remember, I had encountered something I had no tools to engage. My childlike faith was never taught about the supposed conflict between science and religion. I had grown up believing that both were true, along with history, geography and everything else. This brief moment would launch me into adolescence in a way that left the rest of puberty looking quiet tame in comparison. In many ways it was the death of my childlike faith.

Unexpected

A quick lament for distance felt
A quiet prayer for Presence

The Wind is blowing where it wills
none can know its’ way.

sitting
reading
thinking
Singing

average day
average life.

Spontaneous Combustion
Sparking faith to meet the Spirit.
Heart ablaze with Love’s sweet kiss.

How Amazing
Unexpected.

By Jacques Rothmann