Who Are We?: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
It seems that it is all starting again. The old designations are being used once more. Capitalism is set against socialism. The idea of the individual is set against the idea of society. Yet, I believe the danger is to imagine that this is where the real struggle lies, for these binary ideological approaches may merely be mirror images, each with a limited view of the human condition. Taken together, perhaps they constitute the City of Man described by Augustine, a city “which embraces all the opinions of the philosophers”. In this city we discover a view of human life which seems to teach that the meaning of history, or indeed of our individual existence, is to be found in the passing moment, the latest headline, the last tweet or this morning’s Facebook post. In this “city” there is really no moral order. It is not that people have chosen to disregard a certain set of values, but that morality, as such, is without a clear definition. In 2019, in this “city”, morality, like religious values, has become a matter of taste and opinion, the product of the passing moment or the latest headline.
In this environment, the Church is in danger of simply becoming yet another dimension of the problem, offering yet another opinion, or, perhaps, merely an alternative ideology. In many sections of the Church, there is a palpable panic. As we speak about matters of sexuality, all of us – Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Evangelicals – live in glass houses and we are, perhaps rightly, hesitant to throw stones. It is not, however, merely the sexual abuse cases that make headlines. It is also the failure of marriages which we see all around us (including many clergy). In talking to mega-church pastors, it is the realization that many, if not most, of those who come to be married are, in fact, already living together. For some, it is easier to make sweeping pronouncements on LGBTQ issues. Yet, I’ve occasionally wondered why this issue is addressed while other matters much closer to home receive little or no comment. I am probably not alone in this observation.
There is, however, another panic that may make issues of sexuality pale by comparison and that is the viability of the Church itself in its local expression. The statistical information is available for anyone who wishes to delve into the numbers. This panic has resulted in a rush to plant churches, to offer power point presentations on leadership, and/or to offer models for survival that range from the semi-monastic (The Benedict Option) to hiring a drag queen as a “Minister of Fabulousness” (the idea of Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber). In our church programs we speak of commitment and conversion. Yet, it is the person in the street, who stands outside of the Church, who may rightly ask, “Commitment to what, conversion to what?”. Curiously, it is the person in the street, the person that the Church so desperately wants to reach, who has recognized that in society at large any pronouncement by any church is now heard as simply another opinion. Moreover, it is merely one opinion among many that are considered of equal value. While as believers we tend to recognize in theory, if not always in practice, that the Church holds a “deposit of truth”, those outside of the Church do not recognize the authority of that truth. Sometimes, they question what its value might be to contemporary society even if the pronouncements of the Church contained some element of truth.
Throughout his long career, Augustine expounded and defended the simple truth that the world is not eternal. Simple though this truth may be, it was, in fact, his dividing line between the City of God and the City of Man. Ultimately, history is not cyclic for there will be a consummation. In fact, Augustine reserves his sharpest criticism for those pastors of souls who seem to be teaching their flocks that the Christian life should be embraced because it brings happiness in the city of man. Rather, in Augustine’s view, because one is a Christian, one “is likely to suffer more rather than less in this world” (Sermon on the Shepherds). This suffering, however, is not the result of some puritanical rejection of “the world and its ways”, or because the soul really belongs to “another world”. It is simply because we are “alien residents” in the city of man, and the city of man will end.
I have been a “resident alien” (in the modern sense of the term) several times in my adult life. That is, I have lived and worked in another country in which I was not a citizen or subject. I was allowed to live, work, pay taxes, buy cars and even offer my opinion as to their politics and social policies. I could not, however, vote, sit on a jury, stand for election, or serve in their military. I carried the passport of my own country with a “resident alien” certificate attached. In the pre-9/11 days, there were even occasions when we would gather with other resident aliens at the US embassy in London or Paris on the fourth of July and celebrate our “otherness”.
The analogy is not perfect, but there are similarities and, perhaps, some lessons for those of us resident aliens dwelling in the city of man.
Now, we often think of the City of God and the city of man moving through time in parallel. Yet each city is moving toward a different destiny, and that should inform the life of the Church. The future destiny of the Church, however, has already been realized owing to the presence of Christ among us, for Christ is both the present and the future for the Christian. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his celebrated lectures on Christology delivered in Berlin in the summer of 1933, recognized the link between Christology and Ecclesiology. He argued, however, that we could only understand that link by facing up to the full implications of the Chalcedonian definition of the true union of the human and divine nature in Christ. That is, Christ is present in the Church not only in a “spiritual” sense, but in a physical sense – through the sacraments and through our humanity which Christ shares with us. Moreover, it was in and through the humanity of the Church expressed in humiliation, obscurity, suffering and, indeed, martyrdom, that we most clearly discover the essential relationship between the living Christ and the living Church. All this is to say that as the Church, we are “other”… just as Christ was “other”. We are resident aliens… just as Christ was a resident alien. “He came to his own…”
As Bonhoeffer said:
“It is the mystery of the community that Christ is in her and, only through her, reaches to men. Christ exists among us as community, as the Church in the hiddenness of history. The Church is the hidden Christ among us. Now, therefore, man is never alone, but he exists only through the community which brings him Christ, which incorporates him in itself, takes him into its life… Therefore man can no longer understand himself from himself, but only from Christ.
Who are we? We are a community of faith with a different destiny, different priorities and linked inextricably to the person of Christ.
We are the Church.