This piece was featured in Issue 7 of The Mockingbird: The Church Issue. Issue 8 is well underway!
In a recent visit to Mexico, Pope Francis spoke to a congregation of Mexican bishops and clergy. His words were harsh, to say the least. Instead of decrying the social and political upheaval of the country, or its history of human trafficking and drug violence, the pontiff pointed the finger at his subordinates, warning them of their seduction by religious power:
Do not allow yourselves to be corrupted by trivial materialism or by the seductive illusion of underhanded agreements; do not place your faith in the ‘chariots and horses’ of today’s pharaohs . . . Do not lose time or energy in secondary things, in gossip or intrigue, in conceited schemes of careerism, in empty plans for superiority, in unproductive groups that seek benefits or common interests . . .
The rebuke was not uncharacteristic of Pope Francis’ overall reputation as a no-frills prelate. From his choice to eschew the papal apartment, to his frequent prison visitations and late night walks amongst the homeless, to his refreshing answers (“Who am I to judge?”) to hot-button issues, it is clear that Francis welcomes a new Catholic tradition that prioritizes accessibility and simplicity over religious heritage and historic prominence.
For Christians worldwide, and not just Catholics, this kind of less-churchy Christianity is a breath of fresh air, especially amongst young people, who lately find only more and more reasons to add their names to the ‘None’ column. With the rise of secularism and the increasingly repulsive caricatures of America’s ‘moral majority,’ a faith that looks anything like the churches of their upbringing spells ‘irrelevant’ at best and ‘irredeemable’ at worst. With Francis—in an office that seems to define the most inflexible parts of institutional religion—it almost seems, for the first time in a long time, like the Church might actually have something to say to the world. He is presenting a face of Christianity that speaks beyond all the strictures one might so dismissively refer to as ‘religion.’
The idea of a ‘religionless’ Christianity is not a new one. Long before today’s secular opponents to religious belief, Christian theology championed the incarnate God, the God with us. This understanding is a central tenet of Christian scripture, and its significance was the heart behind much of the Protestant Reformation.
But for a faith that has developed so many centuries of liturgy and doctrine and expensive real estate, it has also been a burr in the saddle. Despite the fact that within the Gospels the idea of ‘religion’ has always seemed antithetical to the message of Jesus, you need only look down the block to find three or four gleaming (or not-so-gleaming) examples to the contrary. If Christianity is religionless, its churches are not Christian.
Since modernity, the idea of a ‘churchless’ Christianity, a Christianity on the lam from the world at large, has fascinated an array of Christian elites. From within the walls of a Nazi prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked what a Christianity might look like for a ‘religionless’ age. W.H. Auden, a devoted member of the Anglican Church, balked at its institutional air, its orthodoxies and ancestral identities. The Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light closes on a solitary pastor, wondering whether or not he should celebrate the service since no one showed up. Of course, there is an inherent heroism to this picture—a fellowship of outlaw devouts, spurned by the sinful world—but it is also a hopeful observation, that the Christian faith may be better known by its message instead of its creeds.
The Catholic novelist Graham Greene set his masterpiece, The Power and the Glory, in similar seclusion. It takes place, as it happens, in Mexico, in the deserts of not just a waning religious landscape, but a murderously hostile one. The nameless Catholic priest, who is just called the “whisky priest,” is the only priest not yet killed in a Mexico that has outlawed the Church. Throughout the entire book, he is on the run from a nameless ‘Lieutentant.’ Stripped of his vestments, his communion box, even his Bible, he must live what’s left of his life, on the run, as an invisible priest. All the accoutrements of his priesthood are gone. And yet, in the absence of sacraments, his ministry continues. In prison after he is captured, he is strangely reminded of the Mass:
Again, he was touched by an extraordinary affection. He was just one criminal among a herd of criminals . . . He had a sense of companionship which he had never experienced in the old days when pious people came kissing his black cotton glove.
In losing all the ‘religious’ modes of celebration, something more fundamental than religion remains. Which provokes an interesting question, one that has harried not just the contemporary Church, but centuries and centuries of Church history: How did we get here, to these strange organizations, from the original fellowship of fishermen and tax clerks and sinners? And at the same time, what about that original fellowship continues to speak to the world today? What Church “fundamentals”—regardless of the contemporary zeitgeist of secularism—can and must hold true?
The Misunderstanding of the Church
In 1953, the German theologian Emil Brunner wrote a book called The Misunderstanding of the Church. Brunner wrote the book mainly to answer the question, “What is the Church?” It has been a difficult question to answer throughout its 2,000-year history. Mainly, it has been too difficult—for church insiders and outsiders alike—to parse the difference between ‘the Church,’ the fellowship of Jesus Christ, and the smaller institutions so conveniently called ‘churches.’
For Brunner, the conversation begins with Jesus and his disciples. Churches today are doing what churches have done now for millennia—fervently attempting to recapture or continue the primitive fellowship that Christ himself initiated. Especially in the Protestant camp, different churches have asked the question differently, and so have come up with different answers. All the same, for Brunner, it all goes back to the Ecclesia, the true fellowship of Christ.
Brunner makes the case that the human race is innately and pervasively religious. Like God’s people of the Old Testament, all people have sought and will continue to seek to confine God’s gift to rite and cult. The Latin word religio means “bind fast”—hold things together, hem them in. Religion, by definition, has always been a place to go, a prayer to say, a rite to perform, that preserves the livelihood of a faith.
This is problematic in thinking about the beginnings of Christian fellowship, though, because it is described more like a firestorm than a rite. As the Acts of the Apostles describes it, the community is alit by the Holy Spirit, animated by Christ’s message and ministry to the world. It is uncomfortably Pentecostal. Believers speaking foreign languages, selling possessions and living together. Baptizing passersby on the side of the road. The early Church, if it was anything, was spiritual mass hysteria, not religion. While brick-and-mortar doctrine came later, the early Church was not confined to a place or a text. Brunner describes it this way:
This meant a break with the Temple cultus due to the recognition that Jesus Christ Himself has offered the only perfect sacrifice, consequently is the only true high priest, and that this His sacrifice has been offered once for all. With this recognition, the idea of a distinction between priesthood and laity has forever ceased to be tenable.
With the sacrifice of Christ, the distinctions between sacred and profane, priest and parishioner, is null and void. The Ecclesia, therefore, is not a temple of sacrifice, but the transcendent fellowship of believers who see “through the veil” to God. There are no cultic laws, no priests, no theocratic pretensions to speak of. There is only the temple curtain, “rent in twain,” and the freedom to go where Christ’s Spirit bids.
As you might guess, for Brunner much of the Church’s ‘misunderstanding’ stems from the human propensity to fear this kind of freedom. As the Church grew, she sought security over trust. As well-intentioned as she was, her devotion to Christ’s Gospel, and her fear of forgetting it or getting it wrong, led her to implement what she believed were trustworthy systems to carry it on. ‘The living Word’ was secured by strong theology and doctrine. ‘Faith working itself out in love’ was secured by creeds and moral codes. Slowly, imperceptibly—and, surely, with the best of intentions—the effort to secure Christ’s message wound up replacing it.
It is so much easier to secure the life of the fellowship, its coherence and its indispensable hierarchy by means of solid legal forms, by organization and offices, than it is to allow the life of communion to be continually poured out upon one, to allow oneself to be rooted in it by the action of the Holy Ghost. You can handle and shape as you please such things as law and organization, but you cannot act thus towards the Holy Ghost.
In other words, in the effort to safeguard the message—by creating offices and titles, creeds and liturgies—the same Pharisaical proclivities for control and consistency are inaugurated in a community whose Lord so blatantly dismissed them.
Brunner dishes out particular blame to the early Catholic Church, for its implementation of canon law and ecclesiastical hierarchies. Within early Catholicism, the meaning of “tradition” changes. While the early Church defined ‘tradition’ by the preservation of the historical account of salvation—the life, death and resurrection of Jesus—Catholicism slowly begins to define it, instead, by the preservation and continuity of the institution. Message gets confused with form—and continuity comes to mean the offices held within the structures of church polity. As for the actual content of Christian belief, Brunner argues, any transformation of church doctrine or theology becomes justifiable, so long as the Church lives on. As Pope Pius IX decreed, “I am tradition.”
If tradition bears authority, authority, then, becomes expressed in canon law—religious mandates made by church authorities. Canon law becomes the calcified embodiment of the institutionalization and corporatization of the fellowship of believers. For Brunner, this is how the Church becomes “a substitute for the Spirit.”
Names and Distinctions
Before we start burning our catechisms, though, let’s hold on a minute. Isn’t this what we humans naturally do? Find God, build a monument? It might first do us some good to consider the pervasive religiosity of humankind—what that means—and whether or not that’s such a bad thing. First and foremost, this religiosity is our natural inclination to hold on to something, to raise it up as an authority. It is our tendency to worship something by giving it a name. Names give distinction from the ordinary. Names give us words to understand what we can’t, and naming them gives us a relationship to them: Father, Hometown, CEO.
Scripture attests to this propensity to name, as does history. Experiences of God or martial victories (or both) have tended to produce anthems and memorials of worship. Whether it’s Jacob’s stone at Bethel or a fragment of the Berlin Wall, we raise up signs that stand before us as tokens of an encounter. It is human to worship, and also to crave objects for worship—subsidia externa, “external helpers.” They bridge the gap between what we believe and what we cannot now see.
Like anything, though, our names and tributes quickly become the ways we build towers instead of bridges. These instruments, these mediators, become walls of separation. Instead of illuminating, they obscure the face of God. Nowhere does this seem more explicitly true than in organized religion.
Brunner’s central example of this is in the Eucharist, the focal point of many a church liturgy. For Brunner, it is an example of how an obstruction can be made from one of the closest-to-the-heart moments of significance. He describes the Lord’s Supper—the actual, historical moment—as not only religiously solemn, but also radically banal and everyday. Sharing a meal, something the disciples did every day, demonstrates Jesus’ lack of institutional preference. The institution of a meal just like we eat today is a declaration of God’s mundane, rough-hewn, deeply personal involvement with humankind. In other words, there is no mediation in this institution—it is a sign of God’s invasion into the most normal and necessary of human routines, and it dissolves the barrier between what is sacred and what is profane. God’s communion with man—as it is instituted by the Eucharist, and as the Eucharist points to the Cross—becomes a part of matter-of-fact reality.
The solemn meal implies that the everyday world is wrought into the texture of saving history, and that saving history is implanted in the thick of everyday life . . . One must see both aspects of this rite, its everyday quality and its solemnity, in order to become aware of the Church in its uniqueness and to understand how it might be that, just at this point, pre-eminently, the displacement of the Ecclesia by the Church could occur.
Unsurprisingly, it is not long before the Church emphasizes the solemnity and de-emphasizes the everyday, and what once served as a central sign of Christ’s gift becomes a redefined version of the gift itself. The sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, given by the priest to the parishioner, becomes the “food of salvation,” the religious rite of the ordained bestowed upon the initiated. In short, the Eucharist becomes mediator between Christ and his people, and between the clergy and the layperson.
This is not to say that the ‘sacrament’ became an essential focus of Christian worship when it never should have been. The body and blood of our Risen Lord always should have been and always should be an essential focus of Christian tradition. Jesus clearly asks his disciples to continue doing this until he returns, “in remembrance of me.” It is also true, though, that a ‘sacrament’ is the Word made manifest. It is defined by its nonmediation, or direct encounter, with the profanities of human life, not by its distinction from them.
This change in understanding is not brought on by one bad era, but by the accretion of the tiniest institutional reforms over the expanse of hundreds of years of canon law. According to Brunner, it is through this series of unremarkable ecclesiastical changes that remarkable shifts in the understanding of Christian theology emerge. Christianity slowly becomes identified less by the content of its message and more by the power its church hierarchy. Christianity’s good news is no longer identifiable without the instruments of religious structure.
Which is highly ironic, if you’ve read the Gospels even glancingly. The starkest difference between Jesus’ ministry and the religious premieres of the day is the lack of theocratic pretension Jesus conveys. Even his ruddy disciples demonstrate more ceremony than Jesus does; they continually beg their teacher to divert his attention from the halfbreeds of the religious realm. Continually, Jesus rebukes their snobbishness. “Do not prevent them.” “Let them come to me.”
The disciples should know better—they, too, are outcasts. When they are the ones in trouble, snubbed by the teachers of the law for plucking grain on the Sabbath, Jesus moves in, and takes aim at their incredulous piety: “The Sabbath was made for you, not the other way around. Don’t you understand that?”
At dinner tables—one of the most intimate of all settings, for Jew and Gentile alike—the Pharisees gawk at the scenes: Jesus at a brothel! Jesus with the tax scammers! At least have some dignity. Jesus calls them whitewashed tombs. He takes a jab at the insecurity latent in their surprise: “If you’re not sick, why have you come to the doctor?”
Throughout the Gospels—and throughout the Acts of the Apostles, too—there runs a theme of God’s direct, plain encounter with people. Jesus seems to take no truck with religious prerogatives. His invitation comes straight from the source.
The reformers saw the plain-spoken openness of Christ as essential to Christian community. As Paul Zahl writes in The Protestant Face of Anglicanism, it gained them the reputation of being ‘secular’ while Catholicism remained truly ‘religious’:
There is justice in this charge to the extent that Protestant ideality . . . requires renewal in every generation and within every human being. It cannot be passed down by means of ‘things’ or instruments. It is ever dynamic, even arduously so. Protestantism is only irreligious if irreligion describes Christianity without veils.
What Stays? What Goes?
During the late medieval period, there was a piece of church architecture called a rood screen. While it was done away with in many Reformation-era churches, it was brought back centuries later, and many who have worshiped in old, Anglo-Catholic churches will recognize the feature. It was a screened partition, usually framed by ornate woodwork or stonework, separating the layperson from the chancel, where the clergy and church officials administered the service. The intended message was clear: God and his sacraments were back there, beyond the screen. Within the actual construction of the church, a common worshiper was physically cordoned off from the God her priest gave her. If Christianity has anything to do with a “God unveiled” in Jesus Christ, the rood screen is a testament to humankind’s religious prerogative to put him back behind it.
In many countries, the reformers dismantled or whitewashed these screens. Along with other elements of the Mass, they were interpreted as superstitious and unnecessary to salvation. These observations became the pinnacle concern unique to Protestantism: what stays? In their freedom from ecclesiastical authority and their renewed sense of Christ “unveiled,” which elements of the Church from which they came—the creeds, the canon laws, the doctrines, the liturgies, the sacraments—were elemental enough to be kept? Which elements of early Catholicism should continue on as “tradition” in the various strains of a new church?
This work of renewing a “Christianity without veils” continues today. For Emil Brunner, it is the task of the Church—to not hinder the unmediated presence of Christ to suffering people. With the many layers of pretense and piety the Church has laid over her history, her task now, more than ever, is to get out of the way.
The truth remains, though, that the Church, and all that it has done to build barriers instead of bridges, has also been no less safe from the power of the Holy Spirit than any other institution or organization. Despite centuries of tyrannical conquests and latent hypocrisies; despite the fact that, for many, a church represents the height of moral hegemony; sometimes, despite itself, the Jesus of its scriptures and traditions continues to transcend its many layers of disgrace. For many churchgoers, thanks be to God, solace is still found in the sacraments and intimacy still lies within the four walls of a sanctuary.
When looking back, as Brunner does, at the theological minimalism of the early, primitive church, you risk forgetting there’s no going back, much as we might like. More importantly, you risk romanticizing a body of believers that had the same inclinations we still have, namely, the propensity for religiosity. Brunner rebukes a church that will replace the wild-natured fellowship of the Pentecost with an authoritative, rule-abiding one—and he has right to. But he also forgets that he’d probably do that, too. And so would we all, until Kingdom come. If there is anything we care about, we fight for its survival. Much of the time, we go about doing so the wrong way, rebuilding rood screens.
The perpetual task given the Church, then, is a deconstructive task. The Church is responsible for pointing again to the cross of Christ, and to the power of Christ’s Spirit, alive and well in the world; and for doing away with anything else that’s muddied the proverbial water. The Spirit of God is not under the Church’s control, so the Church’s task is to bulldoze any walls that might have sought to control it. While there is no returning to the “primitive” church of the New Testament, we can be sure the Holy Spirit carries its light better than the dark halls of our churches ever have. And what the Church can do, what it was only ever supposed to do, is preach the Gospel—of an earthly God, One who continues to break the barrier between God and sufferer, between sinner and saint.
The Church’s Only Hope
While Graham Greene’s whisky priest runs from the Lieutenant and the power-hunger of Mexico’s anticlerical government, he is able to see the power-hunger in his own vocation, and its ugly discrepancy from the Jesus of his faith. Remembering being in the house of a pious parishioner, he feels the old life of religion “hardening around him like a habit, a stony cast.”
Salvation could strike like lightning at the evil heart, but the habit of piety excluded everything but the evening prayer and the Guild and the feel of humble lips on your gloved hands.
While the Church can never not be institutional, it can point to a God who is not. It can and should point to a God who hangs from the cross of an institution, and carries its power to the grave with him. A church that takes the gloves from its hands and points to this God still has something to offer an outsider (or insider, for that matter). This church can offer more than history or popular offertories or inclusive language. It can offer the only thing that would distinguish it anyway: the unmediated presence of God’s grace.
More often than not, a church becomes one more semblance of the workaday week. It demands me to be someone else. It may prod me towards incentives, towards the “me” I wish to be, but it really has nothing to say to me as I live my life. In these churches, there is still mediation—there is still an ideal self that must be put on before the righteousness of God.
Whenever church becomes this kind of ‘House of God,’ it is no longer a home for anyone. It is, instead, another puppet show. The effect of this is always either despair or dishonesty: we must either masquerade a religiosity we do not feel or we must give it up entirely. This is because the ‘God’ we come to conceive of as God Almighty is not speaking to us. We must be who we cannot be.
This shouldn’t be surprising. Why should a church be any different? Frank Lake, the theologian and psychiatrist, sees the same religious mandates at work in any believer’s prayer life. Despite prayer’s reputation for being deeply personal, prayer is often a place where mediated ‘God talk’ or religious mumbo jumbo is as pronounced as the churches we enter. God, in many of our prayer lives, takes the shape of a divine taskmaster or an ashamed father.
But Lake also argues that honest prayer shows us the heart of Christianity. Through the Cross of Christ, prayer can be honest. It can allow a person to confront the anxieties they’ve suppressed so long with their piety.
Whenever a man brings his total reactions to life as he has experienced it, before God as He is revealed in Christ, demanding that the badness of the situation be reconciled with His goodness, he has begun to pray. He may not feel like a praying man. He may not feel like a religious man at all. He is not. He is a Christian and that can be a very different thing . . . [Prayer] is entering into a forceful dialogue with God about the totality of human experience, forgetting neither the wretchedness of our own predicaments nor the redemptive wretchedness of the Cross of Christ.
Within Christianity, Lake says, there is no need to see oneself as ‘religious,’ any more than one might see oneself as a music lover or a vegetarian. This God—the God presented in this suffering man—has not safeguarded his grace for the Sunday chosen. And his chosen form of communication is not just the appointed Collect for this week.
At the same time, there are people for whom the appointed Collect is more than just a pejoratively religious experience. What position does this put the Church in, having spent centuries defining and redefining the nature of prayer, having developed ornate and articulate liturgies for expressing prayer? What does this mean for the Church in general, with all its institutional lineage? The liturgies and hymns and prayers—they really are beautiful. Should we really tear down this house?
It must also be said that, despite the hodgepodge of churches and traditions out there, despite the institutionalization of Christ’s Gospel, church (and all the perfumed smoke that’s rolled in with it) still means a great deal to a great number of people. Is that bad? Is it bad to love the Eucharist, as it has come to define your weekly worship? Does the thurible actually do something for you—you can’t explain what or why? Or the Creed? Or the Confession? In other words, is God able to move to you through the institution of the Church? Despite all the parameters we put around it, is the power of God’s Gospel able to transcend all the ways we misunderstand it?
Of course it is. The sufficiency of grace covers, too, all the kinds of church we play, and all the religious snuffboxes we’ve tried to put Jesus in throughout the years. Despite our best efforts to ‘church’ the power of Christ, even the Church cannot keep the power of Christ at bay. Christ has and always will present himself to the sinner in need.
If this is true, then it is a balm to another wound in the contemporary conscience of American churchgoers: If God transcends all the ways we’ve sanitized him, then the declining church attendance and fracturing denominations and decaying moral literacy we fear are both delightfully beyond our reach and also not beyond his reach. These issues are no less subordinate to the power of Christ.
That being said, the power of Christ is nearly always invisible, and we, on the other hand, always need a visible sign. We are inveterate religionists. Like the Israelites in the desert, if there’s a moment of faith required, we will fashion a god we can see to believe. We will, time and again, justify the predictable means and well-trod rites of religion over the agonies and ecstasies of trust. Even in churches with a “low” ecclesiology—with no traditional liturgies or music or rites—traditions and lingos and best practices still crop up. We always feel better knowing the landscape of our salvation.
Thinking back on the life of Jesus and his community of followers, though, anything but well-trod paths and religious rites explains it. Instead, this Ecclesia followed him, stupefied and uncomprehending, from sign to sign. They asked the wrong kinds of questions and prattled on about who was the best of the bunch. They followed him atop the Mount of Transfiguration and asked to build a temple there, and when he said no, they followed him back down the mountain, to Jerusalem. Stupefied and uncomprehending, they followed their hero to his cross—the ultimate misunderstanding—to what seemed to be the final deviation from his Father’s path.
At what we now know to be the apex of Christ’s power—the infamy of the cross—his “Church” stood befuddled. We still do so today.
It would be good for us to remember this—that within all a church’s signs and sacraments, within what is preached and what is taken in communion, the focus of our collective worship is Christ, who is forever evading our grasp on his life. Much as we may long to control the future of the Church, or bolster her theology, her guiding Spirit is “like the wind”—and who is to say where it will go? Who is to say the Church won’t go into hiding, relegated to B-team basement meetings and recovery clinics and rest home hospitality rooms? Who is to say that she won’t, like Jesus himself, fizzle out into ignominy? Or, even scarier, that she won’t become the platform for a new dictator? The French Catholic writer Jean Sulivan puts it simply:
Don’t insist that he be adored. Don’t even try to make anyone believe. That will happen, or it won’t . . . Following him is all that counts. There is only one way—a way lit up by the Gospel and the Church, which is the servant of the Gospel. Let the Church have faith in God, Jesus Christ. Let it become transparent. That’s enough. Let it live by that faith. The news will get around.
If all the means for preaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments are destroyed; if there are no priests or congregants or even churches; if every Bible is confiscated; Christ will remain. His message of grace to sinners—the message for which all the Church’s sacraments work and which all her doctrines uphold—is the wind that will continue blowing across the face of the earth. Even invisibly. This is the unfettered everydayness of God. The power of the Church, after all, is the power of Christ—a power that to all the world looks like weakness.
 Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory, 2003, Penguin, 128.
 Emil Brunner, The Misunderstanding of the Church, 1953, Westminster Press, 21.
 Ibid, 53.
 Ibid, 64.
 Paul F.M. Zahl, The Protestant Face of Anglicanism, 1998, Eerdmans, 38.
 Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory, 2003, Penguin, 169.
 Frank Lake, Clinical Theology, 2005, Emeth Press, 40.
 Morning Light: The Spiritual Journal of Jean Sulivan, 1976, Paulist Press