Tuesday, September 8, 2009
Liberal Christianity: A Personal Reflection - Part III
The single picture on the right, from Tove Jansson's "Moomin on the Riviera" (a Finnish translation), expresses a personal reason that I have the hardest time to come to terms with, and that is the hardest one to confess publicly. Let's translate the words in the balloons:
Marquis Mongaga: Fancy that a millionaire dares to be such a romantic!
Moomintroll: But mother, father is not a...
Moominmamma: Shhh, my darling! It amuses him!
For as long as I remember, I have played the part of advocatus diaboli, always shifting my position on various issues ever so lightly to keep the conversation lively and interesting. I like the challenge of a debate, and I also feel that it is profitable to encourage others to focus their arguments, make them examine them in detail, by coming up with possible objections some other person would express in all seriousness. During my university studies I noticed that this practice of mine produced some interesting results when the questions were theological in their nature. For some students, it was bad enough that my take on Christianity had such a liberal outlook. When I picked up speed by bringing some highly unorthodox elements to the discussions - creating ad hoc narratives about the death of God, of him annihilating himself shortly after the WWII using the style of the biblical narratives; introducing the spirituality of the Christian mystics past and present, of Anna-Maija Raittila, of Hiljaisuuden liike, of Taizé, of applied Zen Buddhism; fooling about with the ideas of Jesus mythicists, with grand conspiracy theories, with John Allegro, with Robert Eisenman, with Hugh J. Schonfield; denying to call any of the early Christianities "heretical" - on occasions the results were highly entertaining, and slightly amusing even at their worst. It is a well-known fact that in Finland discussing spirituality and theology is not popular, and considered to be in the sphere of private matters - in stark contrast, I believe, to the rest of the world. Clearly I managed to rub some sensitive nerves, at times in an over-the-top way, for which I apologize.
For some on-lookers all this was fun and refreshing, for some it was sacrilegious. And all the time most of the people were all members of the same denomination, The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland. In my estimation, when you've got 4 million people, you've got 4 million different opinions, and in my church there are 4 million different theological ideas about Christianity, even if they may be simplified into some general families of ideas. As it took such an effort for some conservative Christians to acknowledge we all belong to the same church, I reacted with feelings of amusement - what a burden to bear! Consequently, it plays no minor role for me personally that many of my conservatively oriented brethren would be ever so glad to see me go. Partly for their sakes, I am willing to stretch the boundaries of Christianity. And if I get annoyed enough by some conservative developments in my church, I may still seek to be ordained. Well, fancy that!
2) The long tradition; the social networks
John W. Loftus wishes me to acknowledge that religion is all about social networks, personal relationships with like-minded people, and nothing more. Well, I agree: religion is not about God/gods, but about the people who practice it; I would not, however, reduce this to mere social networks, unless these are understood in a very generic sense. For a general theoretical framework and scholarly argument backing this notion, I suggest that Loyal D. Rue's "Religion Is Not About God" has much to commend to. For me personally, this is patently easy to see: as it is great fun to gather together with friends, it is still great fun to do this in the context of the mass, even on Sunday morning. Meeting old friends, occasionally being introduced to new people, taking part in the liturgy together, listening to the sermon (all priests have at least M.Th. on theology so they are generally an educated bunch), reflecting your life for a moment with the receiving of the Eucharist, having some coffee and cake afterwards while discussing theology, politics, life in general - what's not to like?
All these social contacts with other people are, of course, framed by the 2,000 year old tradition of the Christian Church(es), with their scruples, with their defects, and with their high moments. For a person who confesses he is living in a particular time and space, in a particular culture and history, the possibility to place myself into a chain of generations, into a continuum of ancient origins, has an important part in confining the chaos, and the improbability of history and of my life - cultivating my personal wholeness, as Rue would put it. The long tradition of the Church (including the Bible and all its interpretations) has enough diversity for me to work comfortably inside this tradition, as the most anti-intellectual material need not be manifested in any way; there is always another option. Consequently, I think this means that Christianity has not any "essence" apart from the way we decide to mold the threads from tradition together. A quote from James F. McGrath, of Exploring Our Matrix, does a good job explaining what I want to say:
"I believe that what us liberal Christians have done is rather to point out that Christianity has always been a "lump of clay", a work of art, and to take responsibility for molding and shaping it, rather than doing so while pretending it is not us but only God who is doing so."
No more "pious self-deception"; Christianity is what the people who practice it make it to be.
3) The organisational aspect
From #2 follows one important thing: as there is a lot in the tradition to choose from, there are many organized bodies of religion one may be a member of, and outside the Christian tradition (or with only small influences from it) there are even more. Some organizations, however, have more to offer than others. If all it would take to pick a religious tradition were 1) it's amusing enough, and 2) there are opportunities to form and maintain social networks, I could, of course, choose to become, say, a practicing eclectic wiccan (as there is also a respectable tradition behind it, especially the influences from feminism and environmentalist thinking it received since the 1970s, and if one is willing to suspend one's disbelief, one can go all the way to the paganism in antiquity, and even further). In which case, of course, I would have to do all the dirty work, beginning with drawing up rituals, adapting my religious calendar, etc, myself.
In other words, it could be said that I am convinced to remain a member of a Christian church I have become attached to in various ways because I am lazy. Not a nice way to put it, mind you - even if it is (partly) true.