Can you smell the despair?
I have to admit I may have exclaimed too loudly about the need to let the whole world know about Jesus the other evening at our Church Planting Summit. I am deeply disturbed at both the increase of people with no faith affiliation in the United States, and also the declining numbers of church attendance. Not because I care so much about butts in seats, or something, but because evidently people are losing faith, and I suspect it is in large part because of the failure of the Christian witness. I am incensed at the assault on Christian character and witness in the United States, often perpetrated by Christians themselves, and I need to express a different way to have faith and a different hope in Jesus.
The reason I need to do it is not because I am interested in saving Christianity as a concept, an idea, or even as a voting bloc. I’m not interested in preserving the faith for that reason. And I actually think the Christian insistence on fighting the culture wars has made us more inclined to support the empire than it is to reveal the Kingdom. I think the insistence upon doing that has disillusioned so many good and well-meaning people that the faith is being lost, and more important, hope in the something beyond the horror of the world is being lost as well. It seems to me like people are hopeless.
People are looking for hope
I was on the playground the other day. I talk to the parents that I meet there when I’m not wrangling one of my kids, and I share what I do. I talk about being a pastor and I wonder about people’s faith background and experience. Many people are formerly of faith of one sort or another, lots of ex-Catholics. I spoke to one recently about if she even thought of metaphysical things. She said sometimes she does, but it’s hard for her to not have hope in something more, or wondering what this is all about, in the climate she’s in.
I think that the existential dread of our occasion is brought to the forefront, not just when we experience trouble in our personal lives, but also when we experience something in common. There is a sort of “public permission” to grieve when the President tries to turn the U.S. into an autocracy, when the Mississippi floods, when tragedies occurred like they did in San Diego last week or Denver last night. People want something to grieve because the world is so troubled, they look for opportunities to do that.
Why did we grieve Notre Dame?
I was fascinated by how the world responded to the fire in the Notre Dame Cathedral. I felt it too. My sentimentality and sadness over the burning of Notre Dame really has nothing to do with my theology or Anabaptism. I think church is people, fundamentally. So I do not assign a lot of value to the church as a building, I have to admit.
Still, Notre Dame means something to people. It has power and meaning to a lot of folks, and the chance at uniting France in a positive way. It’s another blow to a country and a people in trouble. It’s beautiful, contains beauty, and is a symbol of faith to a largely faithless, secular country.
I think it’s hard to place the fire in context for a number of reasons, but put into the right context, it is deeply meaningful. I think it’s helpful to consider people’s contexts as they assign meaning to something that some may find meaningless. Our experience isn’t a principle.
The search for meaning through our subjective experience
And I think people are looking for that meaning, that subjective experience. They don’t want data or the facts or even materialism. Empiricism doesn’t supply meaning; subjectivity does. This is what the Church has failed to understand. People need to feel something, not know something.
They want to feel, yearn and hope for something better. So they grieve in order to feel the loss, and experience the desire for something more. That is why it is so important for Christians to allow people to grieve, but also to offer them hope in something more.
We need to allow people to consider metaphysical hope; supernatural hope; hope beyond the world. A raw materialist viewpoint, that is, that there is nothing but what we see, is so unsatisfying and, really absurd. Something is here instead of nothing. We have certainty that there is an uncaused power that preceded everything else. We know all things to be contingent, so something is above or greater than contingency. I’m not making an apologetic for God here, but explaining that for many people, hope in something more, or at least a wonder about it is possible. If there is something beyond the material, perhaps there is an opportunity for me to have hope in something more, or at least to express my gratitude for something more.
Social action is not the answer
I can see them grasping for it even in their interest in improving the political apparatus. The political occasion in the United States is so egregious and so beyond-the-pale, that many of my friends who would otherwise be uninterested and not quite conversant in political affairs are involved. Why? Why the sudden interest? Because the evil seems palpable. The world is on fire. Literally in some places. Climate catastrophe threatens us, and the very fabric of the society that they falsely put so much hope in is showing how fragile it is, or how insufficient it always was. Some people want a better president, but many people are seeing how decidedly insufficient the presidency is! They want something more, and in my view, the cynicism that it could ever come from Washington seems greater than ever.
People as public change agents seem to be a lost cause. But I want to engage them in a cause that uses a different power, is sourced from a different spirit, and fights a different battle all together. That Something Greater or that Someone Greater that precedes our contingency, I have a name for. I have a way to worship that God. I have a way to serve that God. And I have a role to play in God’s redemption project, in the saving and changing of the whole world.
I’m not suggesting that social action does not play a part in this redemption project. Not only does it take a lot of energy and interest, it also isn’t an option for some and it has limited possibilities. Both its means and its ends are not enough. They may give us a glimpse into what is next, or help us tell someone about that greater What Is Next, but I would say that they are limited in their salvific ability. I want a carbon tax, but that won’t exactly usher in the Kingdom of God. Your interest in the carbon tax? Maybe you are actually interested in something more.
I want to recruit people to join that cause of Jesus. Or at least tickle their curiosity into something more and something greater. So that’s why I ask questions on the playground, that’s why I open up about Who and What I find hope in. I think there are people looking for hope, and supernatural and metaphysical hope. And I have a specific and practical way to express it. The least I can do is share about it. I think people are yearning for something more, sensing that there is something more, and I can assign a name to that: A Name to Serve and Worship.