Friday, November 17, 2023

The Jesus Paradox

So there's this thing I can't quite figure out.

Churches, or so all of the data and trendlines tell us, are dying in America.  The oldline denominations are frothing away like a salted slug, and there's pretty much no indicator that this is going to change.  We're aging out, and the next generation isn't showing up, and that's just what's happening.

Why?  Because folks aren't interested in church as an institution.  Or Christianity in any of its organizational forms.  Or in the structures and frameworks of religion, generally speaking.

Sure, there's a yearning for real face-to-face community, and a sense that there's been a loss of meaning in our life during this new era of hypercapitalism.  Nothing is authentic.  Everything is for sale, commodified, marketized.  Friendships.  Love.  Intimacy. Family.  All of it.  We have become the product, and our souls reel at the venal horror of it.  People instinctively miss communities of ultimate meaning, gatherings that reinforce both personal and collective self-understanding.

But they don't want to go to a church.   They don't want organizational dynamics, or the inevitable politicking that always results when homo sapiens sapiens gets social.  "Church" and "Christianity" are seen negatively, as self-interested, hypocritical, a light gloss over the power dynamics that have always been a blight on humankind.

Jesus, though?  Jesus is not that.  The Jesus Brand is fire, bruh.  Srsly bussin'.  

Even among those who have been burned by church, those who have been driven out by the patriarchy or by mean-girl-church-lady-clatches, people who have been told they are unworthy, people on the margins?  Jesus, as the Doobie Brothers once sang, is just all right with them.   The radical compassion, the love of friend and enemy alike, the orientation to the last and the lost and the least?  Only the most glazed-eye #twitter antitheists get their knickers in a twist about Jesus.

"The issue," say most sane human beings, "is that most people in most churches aren't doing what Jesus says we should do."  I can't say that they're wrong.  Jesus and his teachings are not the cause of the decline of the American church.  Incompetent, unfaithful Christians are.  When we're graceless and false, cruel and unjust, people notice.

Which brings me to the paradox in question, a peculiarity that manifests in the dying oldline progressive churches.

If you look at how progressive churches express themselves into the world, there's a whole bunch of spirituality talk, center-to-far-left political jargon, and wellness/psychoanalytic speak.  There's much talk about "being church."  The emphasis is political, social, and organizational.  It's interfaith, and utterly generic.  

What you don't hear a whole bunch is talk about Jesus and the discipline of following him.

It's reached the point in my own dear sweet fading denomination that I've started to wonder if the Unitarians and the Democratic Party are going to sue us for copyright infringement.

This confuses me.  If we know that Jesus and his teachings still have a profound resonance, why would we de-emphasize discipleship and the effort to shape our personal and social lives around his teachings?

Our individual goal is not to "be church."  Church...the institutional, organizational structure that forms around any grouping of people who have committed to following Jesus together...can take any form, or be in any pattern.  You can be run by elders.  Or bishops.  Or you can take it in turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week, with all of the decisions of that officer approved at a biweekly meeting by a simple majority in the case of purely internal affairs, but a two-thirds majority...yeah.  You get the idea.

All that matters is that every person in that church, to the best of their ability and cognizant of their limitations, is trying to follow Jesus.  

Because the fundamental unit of moral analysis is the person.  Individual sentient beings are the ultimate ground of all ethics, and what makes any Christian community Christian is the commitment of each person within it to doing what Jesus told us to do.

Human beings hungry for meaning for their life couldn't care less about the box in which that meaning comes.  They'd rather not focus on the box at all.  They want to be nourished.  They want hope.  A sense of what does and does not matter.  They want radical compassion.

 That hucksters and ideologues have betrayed and misused the "brand" (cough) doesn't seem to have damaged it. 

So why, if the Gospel has such resonance, and the teachings and name of Jesus have such cache, do progressives so assiduously avoid making Jesus and the work of following him their obvious focus?