This document is part of the Festschrift in Honor of Charles Speel, edited by Thomas J. Sienkewicz and James E. Betts and published by Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois in 1997. The Table of Contents for this volume can be accessed here. If you have any questions, you may contact Tom Sienkewicz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Church in the Wasteland
Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence.
T.S. Eliot, Ash-Wednesday
The church is lost. We have lost track of where we are going. We are uncertain as to where we are. There can be no evasion of this, or there will soon cease to be any ground for discussion of what has become of both the church and our society.
There are no simple explanations or solutions to our present state. How we have become lost is not the product of a moment nor a generation but the work of centuries. What will become of the church and civilization in the new age? Who can tell? Who was wise enough even forty years ago to predict where we would be today? Who today is wise enough to know where we will be in forty years? We can only look around and try to measure what is lost and what is known. Then we carefully pick our metaphors to find meaning in this time and space.
The metaphor I find most suitable in this regard is "the wasteland." Its use
is intended to be distinctive from other figures of speech such as wilderness, exile,
exodus and diaspora. Its long, evolutionary development of meaning can bring an awareness
to the crises of the present time and, for the believer, shed light on essential tasks to
which we ought to be committed.
It has been suggested that the concept of the wasteland can be traced from one of the bleakest images found in the Old Testament: the vision of devastation depicted in Ezekiel 37.1 In this passage, by means of poetic imagination or through ecstatic vision, the prophet is led by the attending spirit of God through the Valley of Dry Bones and surveys the haunting remains of a massive carnage. With him all readers behold an arid landscape, littered with skeletal remains, blasted by gusting winds; a site without a sign of life.
To a contemporary reader the image may seem surreal and abstract, yet Biblical scholarship constantly maintains that the valley's imagery is best grounded in a historical space and time, though the specifics engender debate. Some scholars suggest the image is focused on the results of a catastrophic defeat near Megido where King Josiah, the last strong ruler of Judah, was slain while leading his forces against an Egyptian army in 609 B.C. Others posit the valley would be near ancient Jericho where, a few years later, the kingdom of David lost yet another critical battle to the invading Babylonians. Still others opt for a site of slaughter of refugees after 587 B.C. near to Babylon and the life setting of the exiled prophet's community. While these settings sharply vary, each nonetheless reinforces the notion that in the prophetic mind the scene of the dry bones represents not simply a disastrous military setback, but the dramatic political, cultural, and religious devastation that takes place at the end of an epoch.
For Ezekiel and his Biblical contemporaries, this note of destruction and divine judgment resounds as a dominant chord within their poetry. With the downfall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C, the final remnant of the covenant people was stripped of both its king and its land. These two realities had been long been in the religious center of Israelite culture and served as dominant means of grace for the understanding of God's interaction in the people's history. For the covenant faith to survive, events made it necessary to redefine both the identity of the people and the form of their religion. From an historical distance, we can define this as a transitional age when the divinely inspired kingdom became the people of the synagogue and the Torah.2 However, closer observation reveals that after the destruction, first comes the phenomenon of the wasteland: a place of shattered expectations, cultural displacement and spiritual paralysis. In the wasteland, the primary prophetic injunction is for the people to wait and wait again for an encounter initiated by God.
The experience of this slide into chaos is a defining element for the prophetic setting for the Old Testament books of Habakkuk, Obadiah, Lamentations, and much of Jeremiah. Visible in these accounts and in later witness of Deutero-Isaiah (Isaiah, Chapters 40-58) is an identity crisis that leads to spiritual depression. An essential theological project of religion becomes the construction of new structures of hope. Sometimes this is questionably and poorly done. For example Ezekiel's own futuristic projection of a strong unified monarchy, which is contained in the passage following the vision of dry bones, is a historical impossibility which can never achieve realistic form. The prophet's deeper inspiration comes with his definition of the present moment, and his comprehension that everything becomes dependent upon the movement of God. It is only when the prophet admits his own impotence and incoherence ("Son of man can these bones live?"--" O Lord God, you know."), that he receives a vision to share.
Thus, if conjecture is accurate, from its epistemological inception the wasteland is a symbolic place where religious culture is at every point challenged. Within the Biblical wasteland the nature of God and identity of humankind are redefined through loss and suffering.
In the centuries following the prophetic experience, through cultic myths and medieval legends, the concept of the wasteland was reinforced as the wasted or spent land that had fallen under judgment or curse. In the various strands of the Fisher King lore, it becomes the barren expanse bearing the collapse of the good. Again the descriptions are dominated by a sense of ruin. While there is no longer the geographic exile of the people, there is a deep spiritual exile of the land and its people from what they ought to be. Correspondingly, the wasteland image is accompanied by the loss of chivalry and the reduction of life to rudimentary existence in which physical want accompanies spiritual impoverishment. The wasteland evokes experiences of despair and nostalgia. Again, authentic hope cannot be seen as the manufacture of human endeavor. It is centered on divine or mythological activity that awaits the advent of the Fisher King, a heroic savior or the procurement of the grail (Pionion 1986:115ff.; Maxwell 1952; Southern 1968). Ultimately in this legendary form, the wasteland becomes a necessary point in the pilgrimage to spiritual renewal.
However, when, shortly after World War I, T. S. Eliot wrote perhaps the most memorable lines of verse in the twentieth century, the image of the wasteland was again subtly transformed so that it could become a disturbing explication of twentieth-century existence. Paradoxically Eliot's image is based not on the experience of a defeated, exiled, or impoverished people, but takes root mostly in the life (or lifeless) experiences of the apparently victorious and materialistically prosperous British society. Obviously, for Eliot, the Britain of the post World War I era was a part of Western Civilization that had lost far more that it had won.
In his poem, Eliot symbolically interpreted the surrounding landscape as an arid basin of destitution undergoing cultural and spiritual collapse. In this waste, Eliot found only the broken refractions from the litter of nugatory life. There are no whole people, no vital beings within the verse. There are only the partial caricatures existing in triviality. The hearer may initially find this echoing in the detached description of the feminine images which share a common but unfulfilled personality as they frequent the verse: the upper class wife whose conversation betrays utter detachment from her husband; a beautiful woman impassively stooping to folly; a decadent German-Austrian aristocrat lost in the remembrance of past frolics; a clairvoyant who cannot avoid a virus; the rapidly aging, thirty-one year old wife of Albert, in need of dentures to make herself more sexually appealing. These women belong together as shells of being. They rise and fall in a terrible union as marks of disjointed, trivial existence that is incapable of coherence and transcendence. The poet prophetically points out that for them "there is nowhere to go." For them, "there is nothing to do." There is no water to quench the ancient thirst that is the fate of all flesh.
As insubstantial as these feminine images may be in the poem, Eliot is not a chauvinist: The masculine images in this poem are even weaker, more vague and torpid. Surely, "hopeless" is an obvious word that describes Eliot's vision of humankind. Even the spirituality within the poem is fragmentary and finally incoherent, and betrays the poet's participation within the experience he describes. The religious symbolism suggests only a faint, but highly questionable, possibility of salvation. For the reader the unanswered question is, "Is the wasteland the territory that forms the boundary between God and humankind, or is it merely the shadowland between human experience and non-being?" This question is open and unanswered for Eliot at this point in his life, when he had experimented unsuccessfully with Buddhism and had lost the moorings of his family's traditional Unitarianism. It is several years prior to his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism. We should surmise that the writer intends the wasteland to retain its prophetic identity as a place of displacement and lamentation. Too much is broken. Too much is lost. All that remains of humankind is "fear in a handful of dust."3
For much of four generations the powerful images of The Waste Land have been studied but usually at an interrupted existential distance, especially in America. The sense of meaningless life in a land of plenty, might make conversation at the cocktail parties, at a coffee klatch or on a college campus, but in our history there existed a constant manufacture of great issues which usually possessed a more immediate claim upon society. In the twenties, American society was rebuilding from a war. The thirties produced a great depression. The forties found an evil foe to obliterate. Then in rapid procession came the Korean War, the deeper freeze of Cold War, the human rights movements, and Vietnam. From nineteen forty-five till the nineties, twentieth-century humanity lived with the apocalyptic vision of a nuclear nightmare. In such an era the primary question was not "Can meaningful life be found?", but "Can human life even continue?" We seemed to struggle against adversaries one at a time. Now, in the waning years of the twentieth century, we have arrived at a point where the sense of impending nuclear destruction has abated. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a full apocalypse of humankind appears less threatening. Surely there are a number of penultimate concerns: the rising cost of health care, the fear of AIDS, the collapse of family structure, the disintegration of the conglomerate state, ecological crises, the inability to curtail the trend of rising crime, the erosion of the middle class, the impoverishment of children, etc.; but throughout society there is no unanimity on dealing with these issues. Often there is a reluctance to discuss the issues at all. The end of the overwhelming threat of nuclear nightmare, has not delivered us to a golden age of peace. Instead the end of global political polarization has produced what many perceive to be collapsing societies and the dawn of multitudinous forms of despair. The issues that stand before what used to be called Western Civilization and increasingly now must be labeled international culture, divide and no longer focus our attention. This is as true within the church as within society. Recently Christians could be both embarrassed and frustrated when the National Council of Churches and the American College of Bishops emphatically positioned themselves on one side of a welfare debate, while the Christian Coalition and several prominent evangelists were just as entrenched on the other. Indeed Christianity in America, following an ecumenical age, seems very capable of dividing into two major religions that will share little beyond a decreasing intersection of vocabulary.
Within our society there is less and less confidence that we will find the means to control the plethora of demons that pierce us. Our hopes have disappointed us. The zealous optimism of the rights' movements has been diluted by the realization that even if women and minorities have full rights and entitlements, we will still be an infinite distance from any worthwhile utopia. Scientific technology approaches barriers that cannot be overcome. If cancer could be cured and heart conditions were overcome, we would still have the ignoble fate of aging to confront. Economic growth also shares little prospect for betterment. If affluence could become pervasive (which, given the prevailing trends, is very unlikely), there is little likelihood that we would be delivered to a happier state of existence. Such forces obscure and ignore our deepest questions of meaning. Added to this sense of anarchy is our entry into an information age. Suddenly all people explicitly exist with fragmentary knowledge and increasingly we have the uncomfortable feeling that we are known by our society as mere fragments of knowledge. The belief grows that our future spiritual welfare in the global city is more doubtful than humankind's past well-being in the village.
In some ways an application of Eliot's "Wasteland" to the American landscape can be literal and overdone. The re-emergence of spiritualists and movement to casual sex may make Madame Sosostris and the woman of folly almost too much at home in our current setting. The banal conversation and the great sense of detachment within the Game of Chesshas a stinging relevance in the late nineties. What is not at home in our society are the references to classic literature. Generally today's readers have a very limited ability to comprehend the metaphors, allusions and at times rich symbolism which are part of Eliot's verse. For example, a friend of mine, an English professor, has commented that he no longer teaches Eliot's poem in spite of its greatness because of the breathtaking labor that it presents for students. It has been nearly impossible to comprehend the depth of its lines without a commentary, but now the allusions to the Bible, Buddhism, Shakespeare, Milton, Ovid, Sophocles, Dante, Conrad and Augustine (not to mention the myriad of more obscure citations) are largely without foundation and are lost to most students with a contemporary education. Strangely in our pluralistic world, even the religious symbolism from the East is more distant to the present-day reader today than to a reader of Eliot's generation. Thus, for many readers, the poem ends evoking confusion instead of enigma.
The previous paragraphs stand as an assessment of where we are. We abide in an age
where the wonder of existence is centered over the many things that have gone so wrong. As
observers we often watch people existing as though life were a puzzle with misshapen
pieces that can never fit together. We wonder if Eliot's later assessment will come true;
life will end not with a bang but with a whimper.
The implications of existence within a wasteland can certainly have relevance to almost every field of human endeavor, but for the believer, the member of the covenant community, it has particularly severe ramifications. By definition we dwell in an age of religious and spiritual collapse, when the means of grace are being severely questioned, ignored and abandoned. In such an age, it may be anticipated that the covenant community will often be unaware of its environment. The church may find itself living with broken symbols that often lack coherence, spinning countless answers to questions that no longer exist, giving sanctity to actions which are already dysfunctional, and calling on the faithful (and indirectly those without faith) to honor forms of experience and behavior that no longer possess transcending value. Instead of delivering people from the wasteland, the church can inadvertently be deepening the crisis of the times.
Such an indictment can fall upon moderate, conservative and liberal elements within the church. Certainly groups who argue exclusively for Biblical infallibility do nothing less than invite people into a schizophrenic existence. There the various elements of science that light a bulb, develop the seed for corn, and allow aviation, are necessarily bludgeoned by a literalism that cannot differentiate between contemporary and ancient structures of thought. On the other hand liberalism, which often has valued ethical action nearly to the exclusion of the experience of transcendence, is out of touch with a society where the languages of angelology, new age, and the psychics abound.
The climate of crisis for the church and the believer takes on countless forms and can be described by a myriad of symptoms. In America, perhaps the first and greatest challenge to the church in this age is to realize that it is already displaced from any position of cultural ascendancy. The union of church with our dominant culture has been severed.
Loren Mead (1991), President of the Alban Institute, confirms a fact what is generally experienced by Christians yet seldom deeply discussed. Mead says bluntly that Christendom is dead. In truth, according to Mead, it has been dying for centuries. Now, at the end of the twentieth century, any belief that we live in a Christian culture is absurd. The trend is long-standing and dominant and there is no way to return to a land where being a citizen was nearly synonymous with being a Christian. The church must realize that this phenomenon does not stem from the fact that our society does not practice the values of its religion; the truth is that our society no longer has a religion upon which its values are based. Common sense observation can reveal the truth of the matter. Most people over forty can remember a time when the church had far more privileges than it has today. As late as the sixties many states still had "blue laws" to protect the sacred time on Sunday. There was an expectation that people ought to go to church. Even Sunday television and radio were filled with religious programs. Many were produced by stations as a pubic service. Today we see only lingering traces of a religious presence: prayers at an inauguration, a chaplain for the Senate, the inscriptions on coin, the "under God" in the pledge of allegiance, prayer breakfasts for politicians. Most of these are relics of a past age. While recent samples taken by the Gallup Poll may find that the vast majority of Americans still claim to believe in God, the divinity of Christ, and the inspiration of the Bible, the same pollsters are also discovering that the average "believer" attends worship less than twice a year, and has very little knowledge of Biblical content. By any obvious measure of participation, the church has already been placed on the sideline of society.
This looseness of membership implies that the religious environment within the church is hardly healthy and vital. There is scarcely a pastor in the ministry who is unaware of the magnitude of change that has evolved within the church and the enormity of the challenges that currently press upon congregational life. With the Bible losing its place as a cultural reference point, the enormous task of Biblical literacy falls squarely upon the shoulders of the local congregation. In the "first generation after God," one estimate is that less that twenty percent of American children are receiving religious instruction. This is an ill-boding fact for those who want the church to return to the cultural center of American life. John Lennon's pronouncement that the Beatles were more popular than Christ was only a generation from acceptance. The teenagers of the 90s certainly know the lyrics of Pearl Jam better than they know the stories of the Bible.
At Sunday worship, stress and tension have become regular visitors. The nature of music and the wording of liturgy have become bones of contention and battle-grounds within and between generations. Within preaching, the classic thirty-minute sermon has been shortened to fifteen minutes and is now dominated by story-telling method. A retreating and aging clergy often is afflicted by the feeling that the faithful are more apt to carry social expectations into a sanctuary than they are to carry religious attitudes out to the world.
In the past thirty years "professionalism" for ministers has increasingly become more a matter of accommodating and managing the social forces within church than of securing theological and Biblical competency. The possibilities for continuing education available to ministers reflect this fact. Countless fliers advertising seminars throughout the country cross a pastor's desk every week. Most seminars are oriented to success in the church. Most often this "success" is defined only by increasing active membership. The seminars are largely non-denominational. Even to the casual reader it is obvious that the nature and content of belief is secondary to the product of institutional growth. The question as to whether a congregation has found God may be considered trivial compared to its membership expansion.
It follows that religious affirmation increasingly can be viewed as a secondary or independent element within the structure of church life. In the church, as in society, style is dominant over content. A story may illustrate. During a vacation one year, a liberal southern male filled "my" pulpit in an integrated but fairly conservative church in Chicago. Upon returning, I was amazed at how well my friend had been received. To be honest I was simply hoping that he would not be tarred and feathered. At a later time, one of the congregation's officers again commended me on my choice for pulpit supply. I was still confused as ever by her praise until she said, "You know, Jerry, we didn't agree with a word he said, but he just had the most wonderful way of saying it."
It should not be surprising that, as in secular education, entertainment and salesmanship have become a deeper part of the life process of the church. In a media age, there is skepticism about how hard a congregation will or can work to hear a message. A nationally recognized homiletics professor will remind a class that preachers only have twenty to thirty seconds to plant a "hook." He further suggests that a sermon should not deliver more than two to three lines of theology before a drawing an image or illustration. For some this may seem to be simply a put-down of the current religious climate, but the transition in preaching may also be viewed as a small witness to a profound shift in the very way knowledge is acquired and used. As Neil Postman (1985) has pointed out in his provocative study on television, society has entered an era in which the graphic image is replacing the printed word as the primary means of sharing information and shaping thought.4With the end of the "typographic" age, communication in the church is going through an awkward, painful transition. Styles of preaching which try to master the rational, orderly structures of past, will inevitably be out of touch with the generation coming of age.
Perhaps this also helps to explain another change in the religious presence in society: The loss of the printed word. A person only has to visit a local bookstore and gaze at the religion section to see how the presence of religion has been diminished and transformed. Thirty-five years ago, in addition to Biblical translations, a reader would find books by profound writers such as Paul Tillich, Reinhold Neibuhr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, William Stringfellow, Jaques Ellul and Thomas Merton. On the side there were the self-help books of Norman Vincent Peale, Harry Emerson Fosdick and Fulton Sheen.5 An eighty-eight year old widow with a high school education could offer her pastor a copy of Elton Trueblood's book, The Company of the Committed, with the comment that the book made sense though she did not agree with everything. It has been several years now since theologians have had a wide literary audience. Today a visit to a bookstore will most likely uncover only a smattering of self-help books. Even in "Christian bookstores" the works of liberation and a new wave of feminist theologians, as well as the classic words of Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Kierkegaard, form a vast, distant, unseen ocean.
To be succinct, Christians of 1996 are not as well educated in religion as their predecessors. In his Guilford Lectures, John Polkinghorne (1994:7) was particularly wise in pointing out that, contrary to the scientific disciplines where in the information age knowledge expands geometrically, there can be no similar guarantee in the progress of religious knowledge. Polkinghorne suggests that compared to the church father of the fourth century, or the sixteenth century church mother, the children of God who live at the end of the twentieth century may find themselves under-trained and overwhelmed. A century ago, it was not uncommon for Presbyterian youths to study the Westminster Shorter Catechism of Faith and memorize the one hundred and seven answers within it. Now the individual believer may find little common ground which is broadly shared within a denomination, or even a congregation.
How can it be surprising that studies show that denominational affiliation for years
has been steadily weakening? Some may argue that this trend is a sign of spiritual
maturation and ecumenism, but, when gathered with the larger set of evidence, we would be
more honest to define it as chiefly another factor in the process of spiritual
disintegration. Most church members no longer know why Presbyterians, Episcopalians,
Methodists and Lutherans do things in a given manner. When this is lost, also lost is a
form of understanding that was fashioned out of the cauldron of what was once regarded as
sacred history. In a mobile society the people of faith have increasingly become church
shoppers who look for an environment which is experientially correct instead of a
congregation which is cognitively correct. Teachings and doctrine take a poor second place
to the "feel" and the comfort level found within a congregation. The legacies of
creeds, doctrine, and ethnicity are fading away as relics of a dying age. Some ardent
minorities try to prop them up, but one cannot help but wonder if they are "shoring
fragments against our ruins."
Certainly the foregoing analysis of where the church and culture are going poses major questions for the process of theology, whether the reflection is done in the classroom, the pulpit or the living room. Traditionally it has been posited that there are three elements of authority in theological reflection: Scripture, tradition, and religious experience. Within the realm of the wasteland each of these elements can now be seen as existing in a realm of crisis.
We can begin by exercising the reformation prejudice favoring the dominance of the Scripture witness.
It might seem questionable to even speak of any crisis given the plethora of translations and paraphrases currently available. The variety seems to provide a welcome relief from the days when the authorized version echoed with seventeenth century "thees," "thous," and ". . . eths." Yet does not the very number of versions create by their existence a new question of authority? The different approaches to translation deliver a variety of styles which invariably undercut the unity and solidarity of the Scriptures. When the King James Version dominated Protestantism, it often dictated that the readers would conform their vocabulary to the text. Today the opposite trend prevails. The text conforms to a number of contemporary vocabularies. While that has some advantages, it also creates a disharmony. Ask a roomful of Christians to recite the twenty-third psalm and we will have an experience akin to a Pentecostal celebration of speaking in tongues. The questions over the authority and accuracy of translations will not be decided by the church alone. The marketing of different Bibles has become very big business and no version has dominance in either the marketplace or the pew. Indeed many congregations unwittingly use paraphrases deeply tinged with theological assumptions which color the selections of words and phrases. In an age where truth in style often is seen as more important than truth in content, a person can question whether the church any longer has a single book as a source of authority. This dilemma is only the tip of the iceberg.
For those members of the "first generation after God," the Bible has seemingly become a cultural question-mark instead of a cultural anchor. The profound loss of Biblical literacy might have a greater impact if there was not also a corresponding breakdown in what has been called the canon of great literature. Certainly the loss of "cultural literacy" has been well documented and in some quarters very well lamented. Accompanying this loss is a profound realization that what formerly stood as the canon was terribly inadequate, often excluding very substantial and innovative works by women and ethnic minority writers. The first impulse may be to expand the literary canon, but the truth is that this canon seems to be on the verge of disintegrating as we move more deeply into a global village where other societies can more freely share and distribute their own literature and art.
The question of Biblical authority intertwines with this process in at least two significant ways.6 First, the Bible can no longer be placed in the "Scriptural vacuum" by the church. Increasingly it must be discussed along with the Koran, the Vedas, the teachings of Buddha, and other texts in the corpus of global religious works. American Civilization is no longer a closed system where the only religious options for discussion are Christianity and Judaism with the Bible perceived as common domain to both. (This has always been unfair to our Jewish neighbors whose perspectives on Scripture can be quite different from Christianity's.) Christian theologians and pastors must be able to discuss how the inspiration of the Bible is similar to and different from the inspiration for other sacred texts. Simply to recite a fundamentalist tautology which states "The Bible is infallible because the Bible says so" becomes scurrilous when neighboring Moslems can point to similar claims in the Koran. An "accident of birth" alone should not be the determinant of inspiration. Inevitably the people of the Christian covenant must be aware that the inspiration of Scripture comes from the presence of Christ whose reality should not be seen as contained in the Christian Scripture alone.
However the greatest challenges to Scriptural authority do not arise from pluralism. Religious faith thrives if civilization emphasizes questions of meaning and being. The Christian faith has been in such environs. The most significant challenge comes from the emerging consumerist culture of comfort and diversion that necessarily reduces the scope and significance of religion. The nature and the setting of the Bible now stands as something dramatically foreign to most contemporary readers. In a society where boredom becomes the worst of all sins and entertainment the greatest of all virtues, Scripture can quickly be reduced to triviality. Indeed, in the new high tech world, the very notion of literacy is being transformed in the marketplace in a manner that may imperil the value of all traditional literature.
To illustrate let me draw upon my wife's experience as a college instructor. A few years ago, Colleen was teaching a sophomore composition class and asked the students to write a short paper on a significant book they had read. Several students found the task difficult, but one coed remarked that she would have to choose a book that she read as a junior in high school since it was the last book that she had finished. For many people educated a generation ago, that seems nearly unbelievable. Yet the student was not lazy, uneducated, or obtuse. She certainly does not stand alone. Instead she may well represent the emerging character of twenty-first century literacy. Such a person will know the computer screen, the internet, the web, and the video screen, and will fully share in the multi-media subculture. For this individual the possibilities for technological excellence and entertainment are nearly endless. Given the existing breadth of diversion, there needs to be no end to the busyness of life. The question for the church is "How can a religion of the book possibly survive in such a framework?" Certainly religion must diversify (otherwise there will be no meeting of "the world"), but it also must require the Christian community to be anti-cultural. Christian spirituality requires discipline, quiet, and reflection. Repeatedly the church must return to the written word for guidance. Biblical understanding takes both time and patience. Can the church be true to itself and turn away from the authority of the written word? To do so is to lose the primary witness to Christ.
The crisis of interpreting Scripture mirrors the crisis of tradition. The distinction between the authority of Scripture and that of tradition has often been overstated. While on the one hand it makes sense for the theologian Hans Küng (1988:251) to write: "Christians do not believe in Christianity," the point remains that it is only through the Christian cultural tradition we have access to Christ. The presence of the Bible, the practice of sacraments, the institutions of the church, the thought and literature produced by previous generations, are all works of tradition and have been profoundly influenced by surrounding culture. The naïve belief that Christians can dismiss history and go back to a pure gospel, is more fallible than a Westerner believing he or she could easily slip back into the village life of a totally non-technological, agrarian society--in large part the setting of the Gospel message of Jesus of Nazareth. We are dependent on cultural traditions to carry the Gospel across the centuries. From generation to generation these traditions are constantly evaluated through the life of the church. Some are elevated. Some are dismissed. To lose the stream of tradition would be a disaster. Thus, a crisis in culture inevitably brings a challenge of faith. The images of Augustine weeping over the fall of Rome, or Rembrandt's Jeremiah brooding over the fall of Jerusalem may be far more poignant today than they were a century ago.
We have already discussed how the loss of denominational tradition and erosion of religious knowledge abound in our era. But we do not understand how shallow our roots can be when we easily dismiss denominational traditions and the influences of classical education. Without the presence of the tradition of the church, each generation has the errant feeling that it is the first to question the rationality of faith and the justice of a loving God. Religion is constantly being reinvented. The personal experience of the Holy which in community life has been consistent with, but subordinate to, corporate experience, now becomes definitive and divisive.
The rift between the dominant culture and the church and the deterioration of knowledge within the church forces a complex question upon the community of faith: Which symbolism from the past will we try to carry and which symbolism will we abandon as we move into the new age? When the leaders of Judah were taken into exile, they could not carry the temple, the city, nor the king with them. The faith of the community had to shift its focus. If Christians today are being similarly exiled from the mainstream, we must similarly expect to discard major elements of our religion. For example, vestiges of the religious supremacy of male dominant language and the unquestioned embrace of Western consumerism must both be denied and condemned as idolatrous. On the other hand, it is well to recall that in exile the Jewish faithful found elements from tradition that were reinterpreted and took on profound and increasingly transcendent meaning. The deepening commitment to the Torah, which was still taking on its form during the exile, became the defining mark of the synagogue. What traditional symbols will emerge for the church is still a mystery.
Certainly the church that abides will have an increased sense of its own community apart from the society in which it abides. We may recover the literal definition of the Biblical covenant community, and find ourselves the "called out" people of God.
Concurrently there is an ongoing liturgical renewal which has placed an increased stress in some denominations upon the sacraments and prayer. Strangely it may be that the recovery of worship will further separate the covenant people from the world. In her novel, A Message to the Plane, Iris Murdoch (1990) advances this view when she portrays the loss of worship as an inescapable tragedy for the residents of a post-Christian society. In the emerging society the author implies that we are left lacking a language for the mysterious, the mystical and the truly profound.
In her academic work as a philosopher, Murdoch, who personally experimented with Buddhism and, more recently, with demythologized Christianity, gives us another clue to the distinction between the believer and the "post-Christian." In the Sovereignty of Good, Murdoch (1970) tries, but with limited success, to rebuild the crumbling ruins of moral philosophy which she regards as a casualty of the modern age. Whether a transcendent form of goodness can be discovered apart from religious faith is, for her, questionable. Other philosophers speculate that in a global consumer culture, the value placed on the "unproductive" members of humankind will inevitably wane.7 Especially at risk are the developmentally disabled, the poor, the unskilled laborer, and the members of small ethnic minorities. In all of this, the moral tradition of Christianity and Judaism becomes increasingly distinct.
The experience of worship, the necessary commitment to the written word, and the value placed upon the non-productive members of society all seem to be among the marks of separation for the church. What may not be as vital are the theological affirmations of the church. Instead of theological expansion, the wasteland may produce a time of contraction. Currently arguments about process theory, liberation, and feminist theology are falling on deaf ears. The distance between the cognitive realities of the laity and the academic realities of the seminary theologians has already so increased that the contrasting mind sets are often operating in fully different, disconnected environments. While the Bible scholar contends with the minutiae of source and literary criticism, the laity simply asks how the gospel can hold life together. While theologians may dialogue with cosmologists, environmentalists, and linguists, the quest in the marketplace is largely for transcendent experience: a commodity the church once freely spoke about, but which seems now in short supply.
My instincts suggest that in the time to come Teresa of Avila8 may be more a voice of reform in the church than either Luther or Calvin. Spirituality, a topic which was once demeaned by "Christians who had come of age" is now suddenly a vital matter. Perhaps the admonition that theologian George Hendry shared with all his classes at Princeton Seminary has its wisdom, "God is far more a person to be spoken to, than a reality to be talked about." In any event what the church needs desperately is experiential theology that can pull the fragments of life together and allow for the discovery of transcendent reality.
In the past two generations there has been an increased reliance upon the realm of personal experience in the doing of theology. Jurgen Moltmann has discussed his experiences as a prisoner of war. Hans Küng has shared his feelings about being expelled from his position at Tübingen. Feminist and liberation theologies have drawn deeply from the experience of the disenfranchised and exploited. We have learned the intimate details of the lives of Bishop Romero, Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II), Simone Weil, William Stringfellow, Paul Tillich, Mary Daly and others.
Much of what has been written has been moving, but often it becomes strangely irrelevant. For example, recently I read an account of how Christian Becker, a leading New Testament Scholar, suffered as a teenage slave laborer in the Third Reich. The story for me opened another door to the horror of World War II. The full impact of how the events molded and shaped his life were visible. Yet these experiences were somehow distant and belonged to what seemed another world filled with the intolerable evils and sufferings that are quite different from those we commonly know today. That era was apocalyptic in nature, ours is not. Evil then ran hot. Today it runs cold. We must struggle to find our liberation from "tumid apathy" and to discover our meaning from within a vast sea of entertainment and information. Sisyphus at the end of the twentieth century may no longer have to roll a rock up a singular hill. Instead he has rocks everywhere to build walls, to skip stones, to play ball, and to bang together. But still there is no meaning. Still there is no transcendence within the experience. Within our space, there is the possibility of infinite distraction wherein birth and death are often received as interlopers.
When theology speaks today, it must speak with a vocabulary based on different experiences from those that were primary a generation ago. When it speaks of liberation it must articulate where the freedom is and is not directed. Are we liberating people only to become the occupants of the material city? Are we building and restoring "community"? Why? What do we have to share but mutual entrapment? Or is there something "awesome" and "holy other" that can build a wholeness within the believers?
Can the church today recapture a vocabulary that could include phrases such as
"the still point," "the moment in and out of time," a "spot in
time," and the "listening point"? We must seek freedom in a form that
transcends politics and makes it a true possibility for those who will never know plenty,
share power, or experience the absence of pain. During this era in history, the faithful
people should realize that the wasteland indeed inhibits us from making confident
projections of the future. This should not inhibit faith--it simply focuses it. We are not
Christians because we believe in the idol of Scripture or the idol of progress. We are
Christians because we believe that we know the identity of Eliot's "third
person" who sits quietly beside us. It is that voice alone which gives peace and hope
among the shattered ruins.
Ackroyd, Peter. 1984. T. S. Eliot. New York: Harper Collins.
Allen, Diogenes. 1989. Christian Belief in a Post-Modern World. Louisville, Kent.: Westminster-John Knox Press.
Anderson, Bernard.1966. Understanding the Old Testament. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice Hall. Part 3. The Covenant People is Renewed.
Bellah, Robert N. 1985. Habits of the Heart. Berkeley, Cal.: Harper and Row.
Bloom, Allen. 1987. The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Küng, Hans. 1988. Theology for the Third Millennium. New York: Doubleday.
Lasch, Christopher. 1979. Culture of Narcissism. New York: W. W. Norton.
Maxwell, D. E. S. 1952. The Poetry of T. S. Eliot. New York Barnes & Noble.
Mead, Loren B. 1991. The Once and Future Church. New York: Alban Institute Publications.
Mitchell, Basil. 1980. Morality, Religious and Secular. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Murdoch, Iris. 1970. The Sovereignty of Good. London: Routledge and K. Paul.
__________. 1990. A Message to the Planet. New York: Viking Press.
Naisbitt, John. 1984. Megatrends. New York: Warner Books, Inc.
Pionion, F. B. 1986. A T. S. Eliot Companion. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble.
Polkinghorne, John. 1994. The Faith of a Physicist. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press.
Postman, Neil. 1985. Amusing Ourselves to Death. New York: Penguin Books.
Southern, B. C. 1968. A Guide to Selected Poems of T. S. Eliot. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.
Teresa of Avila. 1961. The Interior Castle. New York: Doubleday.
Trueblood, Elton.1961. The Company of the Committed. New York: Harper and Row.
1. While derivation of the wasteland metaphor solely from the Old Testament may be to some extent questioned and diminished with other non-Biblical sources, nonetheless the relevance of this etymology is important for this essay since it was certainly included in T.S. Eliot's understanding of the reality.
2. For an understanding of the historical process at work, the reader may wish to refer to Anderson (1966 or any later revision).
3. T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land. I, The Burial of the Dead. I have found my own study of Eliot's poetry enhanced by not only Pionion 1986, Maxwell 1952, and Southern 1968, but also Ackroyd 1984, and, especially, the recorded readings of Eliot's poetry by Sir Alec Guinness (Decca Record Co., 1982).
4. The book seems to me the most powerful book of its genre. More provocative than Bellah's Habits of the Heart (1985), Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism(1979), Naisbitt's Megatrends (1984), or Bloom'sThe Closing of the American Mind (1987), this short volume gives a disturbing view of why contemporary generations actually think differently from those who came before.
5. The total male dominance of this list is not lost upon the author. This trend seems lamentable when writers such as Rosemary Radford Ruether, Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, and Lettie Russell could be having a wider audience in the nineties.
6. There is, of course, another crisis for Biblical authority, focusing around the male dominant thought patterns in which its witness exists. We cannot minimize the struggle and the resistance that this implies. It has been and will long continue to be an issue that further fragments the church. I would suggest that there are feminist theologians who can better define the issues.
7. This point is made by Allen 1989, who builds on the work of Mitchell 1980.
8. Teresa of Avila was a reformer of the Carmelite Order, a mystic, and an instructor of prayer. Her devotional The Interior Castle (1961) remains a classic.
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