Even though the question “where from?” presents no problems, the question “where to?” is a rich source of confusion. Not only has universal anarchy broken out among the reformers, but also every individual must admit to himself that he has no precise idea about what ought to happen. However, this very defect turns to the advantage of the new movement, for it means that we do not anticipate the world with our dogmas but instead attempt to discover the new world through the critique of the old. Hitherto philosophers have left the keys to all riddles in their desks, and the stupid, uninitiated world had only to wait around for the roasted pigeons of absolute science to fly into its open mouth…. If we have no business with the construction of the future or with organizing it for all time, there can still be no doubt about the task confronting us at present: the ruthless criticism of the existing order, ruthless in that it will shrink neither from its own discoveries, nor from conflict with the powers that be. – Letter from Karl Marx to Arnold Ruge, 1843
After reading Matt Miller’s Church Again I was again appreciative of his articulation of the problems facing evangelical churches in northern New England and this evoked in me some questions:
Where do we go from here?
How do we flesh it out and how do we thoroughly criticize and remind and reimagine together?
In short, what is the hope and how do we flesh it out in practice together?
As I was considering my own response to these questions I remembered young Marx’s enthusiastic expression that what was called for what the ruthless criticism of the existing order.
Marx was talking about the social and political order of his day. But I think the same impulse is applicable for the religious and theological order of our day. A ruthless criticism of the existing church. Ruthless not in the sense of violent or abusive, but in the sense of thoroughgoing – leaving no stone unturned, no assumption unexamined. This is ultimately an eschatological project – and one that might be characterized in the words of Christ: “repent and believe for the kingdom is near.”
Criticism can be an obnoxious destructive thing. It can be done by those who have no skin in the game and just take a kind of aesthetic pleasure from sitting back and taking apart what others are attempting to do. Criticism can be a manifestation of a self-destructive perfectionism, bent on pleasing some invention of the superego of what others or some idolatrous god demands or exacts from eager-to-please servants. We have not known Christ in that way. Christ is not a taskmaster, but one whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light. This is not one who wills for us to self-flagellate and live in a constant judgment of our sisters and brothers and their attempts to manifest love for God and neighbor. But Christ does call us to live out repentance, a constant willingness to reimagine, reorient, reform our lives according to the call of the kingdom.
And that then becomes a call to ruthless criticism of the the existing order. Criticism of the order and the things constructed for the sake of that order must be separated from the people involved in that order and the creators of the constructions. God is the judge of human hearts and we are called to love, to understand, to bend over backwards in “hoping all things, believing all things.” Our criticism is necessary, but must never devolve into ad hominem. It must always be made clear that our ruthless criticism is not to the man, but to the system. We judge human creations, God judges humans. And God as we have come to know God in our Savior Jesus Christ, has already judged humanity in the cross and resurrection – and proclaimed God’s unbounded love. Our criticism is not against humans but their idols, their institutionalized unfaithfulness.
And so I respond to Matt’s call to “Repent, Regroup, Remind, and Reimagine”
Let us have an intentional conversation in order to engage in a holy criticism of the existing order — all for love’s sake. Courageous criticism for the sake of Christ.
I’m reminded of Wendell Berry’s clarification of the term patriotism here and elsewhere:
FOR A NATION TO BE, in the truest sense, patriotic, its citizens must love their land with a knowing, intelligent, sustaining, and protective love. They must not, for any price, destroy its health, its beauty, or its productivity. And they must not allow their patriotism to be degraded to a mere loyalty to symbols or any present set of officials.
Loyalty to Christ entails a love for Christ’s beloved community that does not allow itself to be degraded by dogmatic loyalty to symbols or status quo formulations which amounts to idolatry.
It is a willingness to repent of every injustice, unjust systemic formulation, teaching, institutionalized mission that through ruthless criticism becomes seen as destroying the health, beauty, or productivity of the ecclesial terrain.
Ruthless criticism is not ad hominem and it is not ad deum. We criticize not the God worshipped, but the prayers by which God is addressed. We criticize not Christ, but the way that Christ is depicted. Ours is a kind of critical iconoclasm not for the sake of no icons, no new formulations, but for the sake of better more godly and just ones.
The white Christ, the homophobic Christ, the androcentric Christ, the American nationalistic jingoistic Christ, the middle class Christ, the moralistic Christ, the self-help Christ, the Islamophobic Christ, are all conceptions that must ruthlessly criticized and exposed for the idols that they are. Tested against scripture and the wisdom of the church past and present (tradition as the democracy of the dead, as Chesterton puts it). And all that fail to meet the test, all dogmas and systems that are unhealthy, must be left behind. Let the dead bury the dead.
These conversations will be local conversations. People in relationship with one another with a commitment to Christ and to a community of people in place will come together in cyber and real space in order to ruthlessly criticize and imagine together a more beautiful and faithful expression of the Christian faith.
These conversations will require confrontation and difference because the people involved will be as limited by sin and ignorance as the existing order that they bring under their critique.
The whole enterprise must be grounded in a humble awareness of our limitations and never lose sight of the trailblazer of our faith whose beauty and whose kingdom vision is the source of the love and longing that energizes our critique of all that holds us back.
We must move slow because relationships are slow, because community building is slow, because haste not only breeds waste but in many instances violence against the very ones we long to love more fully, including ourselves.
We gather for conversation, we gather for sacramental fellowship, we gather to worship the one who transcends our limited conceptions and whose community of grace is already among us even as it is infected with sinful intentions and institutions. We gather to remember that the point is the beloved community, that the critical venture is for the sake of love and not the other way around.
We will read together, learn together, love together, become curious together, and we will leave no stone unturned in our longing to see more clearly, love more deeply, and rest more fully in the love of Christ.
There is the need for courage in confronting in ourselves all our mistakes, ignorance, limitations, complicity in injustice —
There is need for compassion for ourselves for all these things.
It’s only through that confrontation and through our shared compassion that we will see the connections that can lead us forward through criticism into courageous community.
Let’s not be afraid to read and discuss, to learn and grow.
Let’s not be impatient because such learning takes time.
Let’s not hold on to anything but Christ and allow Christ to tune our hearts to the love of the Creator who holds past, present, future, in the gentle and everlasting arms.
- Slow conversations in community – willing to ruthlessly criticize everything (not person) in the way of the kingdom. Lots of reading, sharing our understandings and allowing them to be held in the questions and curiosities of others and always open to transformation by the vision of Christ communicated by the Spirit through the gathered community.
- Create beautiful expressions of the kingdom: music, artwork, community expressions of worship and cooperative work and protest and mutual giving and loving.
- Keep no standards of inclusion in the conversation but commitment to Christ above all else.
- Cultivate community “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” For “there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Eph 4:1b-5)