The God-shaped Hole II:Symptoms- b ) The Divided Church

October 4, 2011

[This post is the latest in a series; if you would like to read the others you can find them here: “The God-shaped Hole Part I: Diagnosis” ; “The God-shaped Hole II: Symptoms – a) Politics Without Principle“]

In countless mainline churches each week, worshipers acknowledge a unity of one “holy and apostolic church” in their Sunday liturgy. Many may do so nobly imagining a pure, underlying, spiritual church scattered throughout the world and grouped into various divisions under separate yet ultimately unimportant labels—the names they bear or the particular denominational flag they may wave is irrelevant to the true membership in this one church of which they are ultimately a part. Yet such an image may be hard to maintain for some when any real observation of the divisions facing the Christian community likely forces them to admit there are real, deep divisions among those who call themselves Christians.

But honestly, it has been a very long time by anyone’s count since there was truly “one” Church in any tangible, material sense, and reasonable arguments can be made that such a time never–or only very briefly–existed in the first place. The “Great Schism” of 1054 merely put an official stamp on divisions that had grown for some time, formally separating the Church of the Roman Empire—today’s Catholic Church—from the Eastern (Greek) and Western (Latin) Church—today’s Orthodox Church. The Protestant Reformation later signaled another huge break and “Reformers” have never stopped splintering and breaking away from one another after the break with the larger Church perhaps made separation-from rather than reparation-with “the other side” the more acceptable course of action. So I’m not about to argue that today’s current divisions among Christians are stronger than they have ever been. They are merely different; and in the ways in which they are different I see evidence of yet another symptom of the “God-shaped Hole,” one tied strongly to the last symptom we considered, “Politics-without-Principle.”

I have a brother with a strong interest in Church affiliation and denominational loyalty, particularly in once-lapsed now returning Church-goers, as an aspect of his professional studies. He has made the point to me several times (and many sources readily support his conclusion) that the denomination of a church matters very little today to someone becoming involved with Church for the first time or involved again after a lapse–denominations as a whole matter less and less to most people. He supposes the divisions and alliances of churches now are more akin to what he terms “Faith Tribes.” He sees these “tribes” roughly consisting of Fundamentalists, Progressives, Conservatives, and Moderates; I would add “Charismatics” to that list, suggest that “conservative” and “fundamentalist” in religious terminology are often separated only by a very fine line, and acknowledge the combinations possible within these tribes—Charismatics may be progressive or fundamentalist but I add them as a separate group because much of what makes them distinctive is unique and unlike what is found in any of these other groups; they are also arguably the largest and fastest-growing global Christian faction. Anyway, while once Protestants waged theological war against and distanced themselves from Catholics, and later Protestants fought amongst themselves and aligned into ever-increasing smaller camps, now the divisions come more from ideologies that separate people even within their own denominations. You rarely run into that staple of American Protestant life from 20-50 years ago, the denominational loyalist who seemed to honestly believe only Methodists (or Baptists, Presbyterians, etc.) had it “right.” Today, a liberal Catholic will have much more in common with a liberal Baptist than with a conservative member of their own Church. But it’s not this potential era of post-denominationalism that is symptomatic of the God-shaped Hole that I hypothesize; rather, it is the issues driving the current church conflicts that point to that problem.

I propose that the reason denominational affiliation matters less to most church-goers these days is because the traditional matters of the Church are less important, even to those regularly going to church. Typically what made a Baptist a Baptist or an Episcopalian an Episcopalian—aside from being born one, and even in those cases these same issues became identifiers as those brought up in the tradition learned and articulated them—were theological, doctrinal, liturgical, and ceremonial. The average Presbyterian in the pew today has little knowledge of Calvin’s theology and the average Baptist knows little about their denomination’s history of advocacy of church-state separation. The issues that matter to the average pew-sitting church layperson now are moralistic social issues—and these issues are usually tied up heavily with a person’s partisan politics. The side they come down on politically is where they find themselves religiously, and it is that side they align with that draws them to their counterparts across denominational lines. Of course politics are inseparable from religion, a point stressed in the last segment of this series and one which well continue to recur in various ways as we proceed. Yet it is the sort of politics-without-purpose that are pervasive in the new Church disputes far more often than a politics of compassion and passion refined from theological challenges and considerations—it is politics formed in the fires of 24-hour news-cycles rather than in the refining fire and challenge of the Gospel that the average parishioner brings with them to Church; that is the point, their politics are brought with them into worship rather than sparked from worship. A fire sparked from the Gospel and honed in worship and liturgy sparked the Social Gospel movement in America during the early twentieth century, drawing Christians out into the street to contest rampant poverty, abuse, and oppression. A fire sparked from the Gospel awoke the Church to the Civil rights movement. A fire sparked from the Gospel swept across Latin America in the mid-twentieth century resulting in a vibrant and challenging theology of liberation. Yet a politics brought from the news-pundits into the church and cultivated amongst like-minded individuals only results in inner-church rancor, splits, and pointless polarization. Church as entertainment fueled much of the mega-church boom at the tail end of the twentieth century; now that the generation of boomers who ushered it in have failed to bring in the next generation with the same tactics, politics as church becomes the fall-back position to hold onto what they have and futilely attempt to coerce another spasm of growth—yet mostly what it does is cause a rift.

The issues splitting Church’s today are by and large social issues and no matter how sides often try to paint it as a big picture debate involving the role of scripture in their tradition or church governance, the real issue that is the elephant in the room is sexuality more often than not; specifically homosexuality and whether or nor a church will acknowledge its gay members, ordain them as clergy, or support their marriage or civil union. Almost every mainline denomination has split over this issue and those that leave to form their own denominational splinter group are almost always the side angry that the denomination as a whole as opted on the side of inclusivity. On a larger scale, the two biggest Christian bodies in the world—the Catholic Church and the churches affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention—are still dealing with sexuality by way of traditional gender roles, refusing to ordain female clergy or in the case of the Catholic Church refusing to seriously consider the right of clergy to marry. In doing so both bodies are, perhaps inadvertently, blanketing one half of the human creation as inferior and (in the case of the Catholic Church) painting the act of procreation itself as undesirable. Gender and sexuality issues are certainly topics for which the “other side” can argue from historical or theological ground but in today’s age of church splits, scandals, and loss of relevancy the truth is that holding fast to discriminatory practices and theologies is much more the result of clinging to politics-without-purpose than true religious discernment. The sides that cling to outdated mindsets do so, sometimes inadvertently, for cultural and social reasons refusing to seriously consider the potential and truth that can be found in an all-encompassing, inclusive, and vibrant relationship with God. Certainly those who disagree with this will note that the traditional viewpoint has been theirs, at least in the context of the “bigger picture” of history; so this change to more inclusive and welcoming is an innovation and their embrace of historical consistency cannot be evidence of a God-shaped Hole. Yet it is in the refusal to consider all of the developments in ethics, theology, cultural studies, language, and history, as well as in human experience and relationships and the central role love should play in the life of the Christian that the only real justification for clinging to such untenable positions is the cultural, social and political prejudices and justifications that make politics the end result of both civic and religious relationships. Symptomatic of the God-shaped Hole in modern life is that too many cling to their religion as a means of reaffirming their already existing political opinions; if Church ceases to entertain them then it must at least reassure them that they are “right” and if it ever issues a challenge to their mind or heart they quit or split, taking their like-minded faction with them. In this day and age the split is a social split, the denomination itself is secondary, and theology is subservient to social customs—yet another symptom that even though they may not admit it, too many people feel that God is absent in their life and in the Universe as whole.

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3 Responses to “The God-shaped Hole II:Symptoms- b ) The Divided Church”

  1. dwhamby1 said

    Great article! Thanks for the shout out!

  2. […] [This post is the latest in a series; if you would like to read the others you can find them here: "The God-shaped Hole Part I: Diagnosis" ; "The God-shaped Hole II: Symptoms – a) Politics Without Principle"; "The God-shaped Hole II: Symptoms – b) The Divided Church] […]

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