In recent days, Diana Butler Bass and Andrew Sullivan (in a Newsweek cover story, “Forget the Church, Follow Jesus”) have both given expression to some angst about the death of the church. Bass has gone on to hold out the possibility for a “resurrected Christianity.” This Christianity, she argues, one that she catches glimpses of in “exile” communities on the margins of mainstream church, will thrive only insofar as it learns to answer the questions of belief, behavior and belonging in their newest incarnation. Here is Bass:
“Religion always entails the “3B’s” of believing, behaving, and belonging. Over the centuries, Christianity has engaged the 3B’s in different ways, with different interrogators and emphases. For the last 300 years or so, the questions were asked as follows:
1) What do I believe? (What does my church say I should think about God?)
2) How should I behave? (What are the rules my church asks me to follow?)
3) Who am I? (What does it mean to be a faithful church member?)
But the questions have changed. Contemporary people care less about what to believe than how they might believe; less about rules for behavior than in what they should do with their lives; and less about church membership than in whose company they find themselves. The questions have become:
1) How do I believe? (How do I understand faith that seems to conflict with science and pluralism?)
2) What should I do? (How do my actions make a difference in the world?)
3) Whose am I? (How do my relationships shape my self-understanding?)
The foci of religion have not changed–believing, behaving, and belonging still matter. But the ways in which people engage each area have undergone a revolution.”
Bass attributes this change, in the nature of how we engage these three foci of religion, to a revolutionary turn to internal individual authority (the self) as the main shaper of religious identity (or lack thereof). And while I think Bass is really on to something here, both in her description of the questions we religious misfits are now largely asking and in her tip of the hat to what may be arguably the most powerful legacy of postmodernism (this turn to the authority of self), I wonder if she goes a bit too far when she implies that contemporary religious experience has essentially purged itself of a desire for external authority. Her stark reductionism here threatens to elide the multiplicity of human experience- or, the multiplicity of self, for that matter. For as much as I am constantly asking what it looks like for faith to be real for me, and holding up the claims of so-called religious “authorities” next to my own experience, I am also well aware of my innate desire to find a foothold for truth that is outside of myself. A transcendent authority on which to stake my faith- in my own case, Jesus. I venture to say that I’m not alone in my desire for an external authority here.
And, if Jesus is this authority, then the church, it seems, exists simply to point me and other religious misfits in the direction of knowing and following Jesus, and giving ample room for us to get to know Jesus on our own terms. The expression on our own terms can scare a lot of us, leaders and lay people alike. We want to hand out a list of additional prescriptions for right belief, behavior and belonging. But it seems to me that if the church is functioning at its best- a big, often elusive “if,” I know- then it is simply opening up a safe, wide open space in which Jesus’ authority can engage my own and, in the power of the Holy Spirit, woo and transform it. Because the great beauty and scandal of the Incarnation are that God Himself gives us the precedent to let us know God on our own terms.