Over the last many years, I’ve become interested in complexity. No, not in order to make difficult that which should be easy, nor to add yet more layers of analysis to what are already indecipherable experiences.
Sort of just the opposite. That which is easy is very often not so simple. Yet, we try to make it simple, and devolve into very remedial explanations that fit some conception of the world, but not a real like conception. Our ethics and structures are far too often functioning in an 8-bit world when there’s 64-bits — really much, much more — in the architecture. In understanding the complexity, we embrace the reality, in which the simple is complex, and embracing the complexity is embracing the simplicity, experiencing what is beautiful.
It’s an different kind of simplified reality that we use to deal with most of the world, reductionistic rather than complex. We’re a binary people, on or off, good or bad, do or don’t, wrong or right. Then there’s the nuance people, which is where a lot of theological ethics tends to land, which makes everything a mish-mash of colors, turning everything gray.
Those are the traps in theology. We create dogmatic stands on complex issues, oftentimes doing so in a way that aligns us, curiously perfectly, with political or social forces in our surroundings. Or we use a whole lot of words to say very little except how complicated things are, and we should see both sides, and buy my book.
We are also extremely compartmentalized. That’s church stuff, that’s business stuff, that’s God stuff, that’s me stuff, that’s my stuff, that’s your stuff, that makes me me, that doesn’t make you you or me. Theology does that too. Here’s the church stuff, let’s formulate that. That’s the stuff about Jesus, let’s stack this here. Here’s the bit on creation, that fits over by that wall. Here’s the Holy Spirit, where do we put that?
Now about salvation, here are your four steps that have very little to do with anything else I’ve mentioned but can be supported by five individual verses and so have to be the way things are. And here’s who can be in charge, and there’s a verse on that, and because there’s a verse on that, we don’t have to think about what it means in terms of Jesus, or Creation, or Spirit, or salvation, or any of the rest because the answer is clear as day and I’m in charge or can use really big words so be quiet.
Church stuff is settled, we meet on Sundays, have an hour or so of busyness, a couple guys stand up front, do a varying array of semi-mystical expressions, everyone sits or stands or occasionally replies with a scripted response. Some people are challenged or renewed or encouraged, others fulfill their obligation for the week, alleviating just enough religious guilt to keep God out of most of the rest of their lives until the next week.
The Body and the Blood. More like an automaton. Gears and levers and tubes filled with a viscous enough liquid that keeps things from binding up. Turn the switch, it stands up. Pull the level, air blows through the bellows and it speaks. Don’t mind the man behind the curtain, it’s the people, the people!, who are participating. Everyone in their cubbyhole, in their place and program and category, two or three times a week.
Very orderly. Can compile statistics about growth and involvement and giving and such. Put those in tables, tweak the numbers, pad the accounts, we’re all doing great. Why isn’t society listening to us? Hey! We’re still big, it’s the culture that’s gotten small.
Lest this seem like my litany of complaints about the church, it’s not. Like with yesterday’s post, there’s a bit of carthartic release just in the writing to be sure, but there’s something more. I go to a big church, one with staged worship, and manicured landscaping, and new seats that don’t clang when someone gets up to go to the bathroom in the middle of a sermon. I’ve even preached at times!
I’m in a Sunday School class, that remnant of once-care for the outcast and poor that has turned into yet another intellectualizing seminar for the relatively put together. I’m a member of that. Not because there are no other options. Not because I’m an ecclesial hipster who likes to hang around a traditional church in an ironic way, making snide remarks on my own or with other cool kids.
I go there because I believe that’s where God has me. Because of obedience. Now, the latter is going to be a rising theme hereabouts, so make not of it. Especially because obedience is grating on our sense of personal identity. Everything has to have an explanation, or it’s considered oppressive and degrading. So we want to explain. To put everything to the test. The test of what it means for my own sense of self. Which is why pastors like church services so much, you know, they’re the most important person at them. But, is explanation required? Does God explain to the people every time he has them do something? Or tells them not to do something? Rarely. But we expect it even still.
So that it makes sense and so by making sense we can put it in a particular file, label it with just the right title, then arrange it into the correct cubby hole, so that when we need to refer to that topic we know where to look. Here are my ethics. Here’s my finances. Here’s my relationships. Here’s my use of time. Here’s my house. Here’s my sexuality. Here’s my diet. Here’s my view on what happened in Florida or what happened in China. Here’s this and here’s that. Our ticky-tacky made out to be independent by giving it progressive names so that we’re not like those people but are entirely different by being exactly like this other group of people.
We are all conformists but we conform in different ways with different groups with each cubby hole, the file giving the instructions on who is the right guide for that part of our life.
This then fulfills our expectations for explanations. It’s enough that this is how it should be. It’s how we approach a lot of life, the appearance of freedom and complexity belaying the fact we’re simple sheep, with a multiplicity of different shepherds leading us different directions. That’s true with church too, you know.
The Law doesn’t make sense so we celebrate our freedom, except when the law is also part of our cultural sense of self so we give in an explanation that may or may not fit with reality. Going to church on Sundays is what people do, so we do it, and we do it because going to church is transforming because you’re going to church. When people see us go to church, they’ll say, “Hey! that’s a person that goes to church, I should go to church too because they are showing me what it is like to live as a person in our era and in our society.”
That’s what we like to tell ourselves at least. That going to church is transforming and going to church distinguishes us from people who don’t go to church and we’re better at being people because we go to church. That’s not why I go to church. I have very low expectations of what a Sunday morning might mean for me. I’m not closed off to it, but I don’t look for that to be my spiritual resource for the week.
Going to church has just as often encouraged my shadow sides as it has my light-filled side. Ambition. Competition. Performance. Pride. Envy. Gluttony? Anger. Acedia. Greed. There’s the list. Check off how many are fostered. Even as there are just as often encouragements and real expressions of lived faith that serves as a beacon, a model, a guide for me and others.
Church is a mixed bag. Just like the rest of life.
God said to us that our church was where we needed to go. And even in the midst of the frustrations I find myself wanting to be obedient. Because obedience in the context of relationship is an expression of trust.
And I want to trust. I want to trust that God is doing a work in and among this world, in my community, in my family, in my life.
Yet, I don’t want it to be a blind trust. I don’t think that is my calling. But in obedience I am drawn into an analysis that pushes me to be involved even where I might otherwise be disdaining. Because disdain is not a fruit of the Spirit, and God leads us to places so that we might learn and grow. I am finding in the big church experience all sorts of insights and lessons, and most importantly particular people, people are part of the body, finding their way in the blood, moving along the arteries. People who I can teach and who can teach me, who I can help and who can help me, people who I don’t trust and don’t trust me, but maybe we’re willing to test those boundaries a bit and see what happens.
And in my learning and growing, I’m thinking about complexity, and the inter-relationality of all things, and arteries and capillaries. Which has shaped my view of theology and my view of church to move away from the binary of this or that, horrible and wonderful, into finding how a multiplicity of forms and structures contribute to the more thorough transformation of our own life, families, and communities.
This means that my understanding of theology and my understanding of the church is coalescing into a shared approach, both informing each other, both needing to find reactive response to not only big, compartmentalized issues but also interrelated with all the other participants, themes, and scales. My view of the atonement radically affects how I think a church should be structured. My view of the Spirit radically affects my understanding of atonement. My experiences and challenges are shaped by and in turn fill in my perception of the Spirit. How God creates ties together my view of election, and eschatology, and what I should do when I gather intentionally with other believers.
Trust, obedience, faith, hope, love.
I’m not a big church guy. I’m, at heart, an embedded, missional, emerging sort of guy. Who God first led to the mountains to experience a semi-monasticism far from formal ecclesial connections, and then led me into the city where I became part of a local mega church, filled with all the sorts of good citizens — some of the world, some of the Kingdom, a few of both — that make it important in the church world. Is it where God will have me stay? Maybe not. But I suspect that if I go it will be with an interest in expanding rather than separating from that ministry. Arteries and capillaries. Mission and theology.