Friday, June 15, 2007

Thumbsucking Sucks: The Marginal Model of Church

The Astonished Heart (excerpts from the book)
by Robert Farrar Capon

via Dave Wainscott
emphasis is mine

For some time now, we've been treated to a good deal of heavy breathing and earnest thumb sucking about the plight of the Christian religion and the problems of the institutional church. My thesis is that almost all of it is wildly off the mark. While it is true that our present dishevelment may well be one of the larger crises (or opportunities) the church has bumped into over its long career, our real difficulty is something else: we have an almost continuous track record of hitting the Christian nail squarely on the thumb. All our noisy hammering to the contrary, the problem is not that we need to get back to the truth of our religion or to get on to some better version of the ecclesiastical institution: rather, it's that we need nothing so much as to stop acting as if we're either a religion or an institution at all.

To begin with, Christianity is not a religion; it's the proclamation of the end of religion. Religion is a human activity dedicated to the job of reconciling God to humanity and humanity to itself. The Gospel, however-the Good News of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ-is the astonishing announcement that God has done the whole work of reconciliation without one scrap of human assistance. It is the bizarre proclamation that religion is over, period. All the efforts of the human race to straighten up the mess of history by plausible religious devices-all the chicken sacrifices, all the fasts, all the mysticism, all the moral exhortations, all the threats-have been canceled by God for lack of saving interest, More astonishingly still, their purpose has been fulfilled, once for all and free for nothing, by the totally non-religious death an resurrection of a Galilean nobody. Admittedly, Christians may use FORMS of religion-but only because the church is the sign to the world of God's accomplishment of what religion tried (and failed) to do.

Furthermore, the church that God inspired to be the ongoing sign of such vulgar Good News is not an institution; it is a community of merely human beings entrusted with the proclamation of an astonishingly catholic salvation. Institutions are not human. The Congress of the United States, The Presidency, Marriage, the family, General Motors, IBM--even the Holy See and the First Presbyterian Church of Resume Speed, Indiana-none of these are flesh and blood persons. Real people may indeed be members of such ethereal entities; but for all that, the entities themselves are not people for whom Christ died.

This is especially important to bear in mind in our present context, when most of the forms of the church we've know have collapsed or are collapsing before our eyes. We are faced, you see, with the task of creating a new form-even a multiplicity of new forms. It might be nice if we could come up with something a little less dangerous to our catholicity than some of the models we've previously been tempted to try on...

One model we have yet to the Marginal-Church Model. Of all the places where renewal can really begin, this is the most likely; there's just too much corporate baggage everywhere else. My program would be this. Whoever is in command over the dying institution at the next highest level of corporate church-the diocese, the presbytery, whatever-would take the bull by the horns and kill it: close the church, dissolve its bard, sequester its endowments, and sell off its property, putting the proceeds in escrow just in case the corpse ever rises and finds a use for them. Then the managers would explain to the remaining members of those churches that they were free to do anything they could think of (or nothing at all, if they so chose). A suggestion would be made, however, that they might think about holding a kind of wake the next Sunday, perhaps in one of their homes, or in a restaurant or bowling alley that didn't open till 1:00 p.m. And if they took that suggestion...

Well, they might sit and stare blankly at each other to begin with. But with any luck,, some free spirit (young or old) among them would break the ice with the questions they had never been able to ask-namely, "Who are we?" "Why on earth are we here?" And most importantly, "What do we think we'd actually LIKE to do?" Having no model at all to meet the upkeep on and no known shape to whip themselves into, they would for the first time be open to looking for radically new answers--honest answers that could range anywhere from "We haven't the foggiest notion, but let's get together again next Sunday and see if anything occurred an the meantime" to "We're here to be the church, I suppose-whatever that means"", to "How about for openers we just try to stick with fellowship, breaking bread, and the prayers--maybe God will take care of the rest, if He wants any."

Those answers wouldn't sound like much of a start, of course; but then, a bunch of Galileans twiddling their thumbs in Jerusalem for nine days after the Ascension didn't seem like a grand opening, either. The operative fact is that a start can occur only after stop. As Isaiah reminded Israel, the church's strength is to sit still: all the power, all the resources, and all the hope of the defunctly marginal lie hidden in the terrifying reality of their death. Only out of that can they live. The only thing they need to guard against is the temptation to stop being dead. Alive and kicking may be nice, but it's not astonishing. DEAD AND KICKING, thought, that's astonishing. That in fact, is resurrection-and its the only thing that can bring the best out in the church...

It's the thirst for astonishment that we need to recover...It won't be easy, though. Astonishment is a highly perishable commodity. It may be the igniting fuse of every romance, every marriage, every career, and every intellectual delight; but given the soggy march of time and circumstance; its hard to keep lit. No new form we adopt will protect us from the loss of astonishment we will suffer if we forget the Good News that only the dead hear the voice of the Son of God-and that only the dead, therefore, LIVE. But I promised you comfort, and here it is. The Lover who restores the world in Christ is not the god of the philosophers or even the theologians (unless they are very astonishing theologians indeed). And that God is certainly not the god of inner harmony through self-help gurus. The God incarnate in Jesus is an utterly DESIRABLE God. He runs the world from beginning to end by the radically astonishing device of ROMANCING it into being out of nothing.

Because the church is not a club; its is a divine Mystery-the body of Him who fills all in all and who, when He is lifted up, draws all to Himself. We are in a dance of desire over which we have no final power to throw in a wet blanket. The thirst of the astonished heart lies at the root of all thirsts, however trivial, and it is the THIRSTY, therefore-and the hungry, the last, the lost, the least, the little and the dead-who are the sacraments of the church's hope. Only fools, of course, willingly embrace these conditions. But the divine Fool who died and rose needs only one of them-Himself-to bring the dance to its wild conclusion. Even if all the rest of us are tripping over our feet to the end of time-even if we spend every one of our days trying to wallflower our way through the various models of the church-even if we never get the dance of desire right, God never gets it wrong

Resurrection reigns wherever there is death; and with it comes the joy of the Really Good News: the dance into the New Creation in Christ will always be alive and well. DESIRE, however we manage it, can always explode into astonishment.

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