In one of my favorite novels, The Curate’s Awakening, by C.S. Lewis’ old Scottish master, George Macdonald, the main character, Thomas Wingfold, a local pastor (curate, in England) gets asked this staggering question, “Do you really believe one word of all that (meaning what he has professed as truth from the pulpit)?” This question sends Wingfold on a quest deeper into the heart of God; a quest that has him admit to his congregation that, from this point on, he would pursue not doctrine nor doxology but “the man Jesus” as He reveals himself to Wingfold. This journey has long-reaching effects for Wingfold, both positive and negative. Negatively, he loses friends, respect in the community, and, almost, his parish. Positively, his honest search leads him to a friendship with a spiritual mentor, to his future wife (who, in her own way, is also wrestling this out), and, ultimately into a deeper relationship with God.
In a previous post, The Kingdom Come, I wrestled out loud with my desire to move away from what I am calling “Christianity-as-organization (or empire or structure or worldview)” into a deeper quest for whatever it is Jesus (and the whole biblical text) means by “Kingdom”.
What I have been grappling with is this idea of “Kingdom” in light of the organizational structure that I see “Christianity” or “the church” becoming. Though there is much beauty in the organization, I struggle with how little of the social imaginary I see there. I am not talking about “hypocrisy” necessarily, but rather the “organizational structure” that is about membership, boards, committees, agendas, political action items, talking points, etc; indeed, the structure that has come to look eerily similar to that of any given organizational structure at place in a Wall Street skyscraper.
I am not trying to abandon either Christianity or the church, but rather move towards the center of what is true and beautiful and transformative in each–what I am calling the “Kingdom”.
In a previous blog post on education, I wrestled with the difference between “schooling” and “education” (Schooling, Education and the Shivering Self), trying to show that, whereas “education” should be about formation, liberation, wisdom, and virtue, “schooling” has become about tests, standards, information, complacency and compliance.
So, too, do I see a difference between “Christianity-as-organizational structure” and “Kingdom” in the following ways:Christianity/Church (as organization) Kingdom organizational structure spiritual organism contractual relationships (memberships) covenantal relationships focus on “answers” focused on Mystery fixed locations (where you go) who you are static in-breaking worldview worship informational transformational
Now, I am not critiquing all churches and certainly not all Christians, just the organizational structure. What I see in the narrative and practices of “organized Christianity” resembles much of what I see in the narrative and practices of the marketplace: CEOs, boards, taxes/tithes, consumption of goods and services, enlarged (and enlarging) structured locations, etc. I am trying, both intellectually and, more importantly, personally, to live into the Kingdom that Jesus keeps calling people into: agape, justice, righteousness, and shalom.
To paraphrase George Macdonald, “It’s not organized religion I’m after, it’s God.” Much like a yeoman farmer in the 1300s who, seeing a deeper mystery at work in the night sky or in the rhythms of the harvest or the sacrificial life of a neighbor, might have wrestled against the organized structure of the Catholic Church, so am I willing to stand in the tension between the “Kingdom” and “Christianity-as-organized structure” if it brings me closer to the vision of “true fasting” in Isaiah 58:
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
This comes back to the center for me when I wrestle with how I want my children to think of “church”. Do I want them to think of it as a place they attend once or twice a week, a place where we go, a building or structure that we drive to, something that has merit on given days but not on others? Or do I want them to think of “church” as something they are? As part of the everyday rhythm of our lives? As what we do? What if, when they thought of church, the first thought that came to mind was our home, our physical address? I think it is clear what I want for them: to fast for justice and righteousness and to spend themselves on behalf of the oppressed.
Now, just as my professional work is in redeeming the narrative of education such that, when we think of schooling, we mean education, so too do I want to work towards the day such that when we think of “Christianity” or “church,” it is the Kingdom that we mean. Some are there already in ways that are beautiful to behold (both within and outside of the organization). For me, like Wingfold, I am still asking the hard questions, seeking to move in toddler steps deeper into the Mystery that is at work to make all things new.