This is the continuation of a previous post entitled “The Problem of Pentecost: A Festival of Perversion in Two Parts.” This is the second part of the two part post, in which I attempt to explore and draw out the conceptual in-congruence and contradictions implicitly present within the cognitive social psychology of the modern practice and observance of the liturgical celebration of Pentecost.
If one was to ask a celebrant observing Pentecost what the impetus of the event is, more than likely the answer given, in one form or another, would suggest that Pentecost, in it’s Christian context, celebrates the birth of the Christian Church. Yet, when the original events of Pentecost are studied contextually, historically, anthropologically, sociologically, and, of course, religiously, one cannot help but notice that “The Church” given birth to at Pentecost in Acts 2 is quite simply nothing like what we have come to understand as the Church. The Church at present is the utter antithesis of what is witnessed in the community immediately following Pentecost. This was a bottom-up, grass-roots, non-hierarchical, egalitarian collective with no organizational structures, no committees, no creeds, no statements of faith, no building, and certainly no clergy. When set side by side, even a scant perusal reveals that these early “Christian” communities hold almost no parallels or commonalities with the ecclesiastical constructs we have before us now. What we have before us in the West is an externalized homogeneous objectification of what was once an internalized subjective individuation, i.e. a geographic space, an architectural edifice, and a fixed set of systematized beliefs and practices versus a fluidly eclectic non-standardized grouping, in which “The Church” is defined or demarcated as the differentiated individuals that comprise the community. This begs the question are we, in all actuality, celebrating the joining together of these counter-cultural discontents in the observance of Pentecost, or something else?
Being something of a veracious student of the sociology of religion, I recently read a book by Dave Ferguson and Alan Hirsch called On the Verge: A Journey into the Apostolic Future of the Church. While I more than adamantly disagree with many, if not most, of not only the authors’ starting points but also their conclusions and propositions as well. This is not to say that there are no point of interest or that the work is entirely devoid of value. There are several instances of elucidation or endeavors that do prove to be some what fruitful. They do effectively point out this differentiation in the conceptual understanding of the “Church” as an emancipated individual over and against the “Church” as an authoritative institution. Ferguson and Hirsch write that “We know intellectually that the church isn’t a building but a people, but our language and actions betray what we really think. That’s why we can talk about “going to church” or “getting married in the church” or “the Presbyterian church,” and so on.” Here, we see that in reference to the “Church” there is a chasmic gulf of divergence between intellectual cognizance and that which is phenomenologically experiential or understood in practice and practical engagement and application. Ferguson and Hirsch make clear that “We understand the word church in the context of its formal structures and institutions, rather than as dynamically located in the people” and that “most of us mistake the forms, theology, and models of church for the church itself.” As a result the “Church” is conceived of “as being made up of buildings, programming, creeds, rituals, denominational templates and formulas, symbols, clergy and religious professionals, and so on.”
One of the other areas in which I agree with the assessment of Ferguson and Hirsch is in regards to where they locate the origination of this conception. They propose that “this institutionalization of our way of thinking and doing church stems mainly from the period when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.” Beginning in the third century of the Common Era, Emperor Constantine had accepted and embraced Christianity, and in 380 CE Emperor Theodosius decreed Christianity to be the official religion of Rome. This would begin to ultimately shape, formulate, and systematize Christianity into the modern establishment of the present thereby impacting the whole of Western society. It seems that, as Ferguson and Hirsch conclude, “The previously subversive Jesus movement of the early church was now given magnificent buildings at the epicenters of towns and cities, was pressed by the emperor to standardize its theology and formulate creeds and to develop a formalized clergy caste to guard and maintain the affairs of the church.” The early Christians began as a loose confederation of radical heretics, heretical both Roman standards, in their dismissal of the state gods and state religion, and also by Jewish standards, in their rejection of many of the formalized ritualizations of the Jewish religion. Reza Aslan points out (here) that “Jesus himself was the quintessential reformer.” Aslan goes on to say that Jesus’ central message resides in this “one fundamental truth: the Temple does not have the right to define what it means to be Jewish; authority rests in the hands of individual Jews, and they need no mediator” and the Christ followers after Pentecost took their place in what Aslan calls “a long line of individuals who have seized the authority from institutions to define their religion for themselves.”
Yet, after having been co-opted by Constantine the cusp of Christianity contrarily became obsessed with orthodoxy and weeding out heresy, that is any view that deviated from the creeds and doctrines formulated by the accepted mainstream of imperial Constantinian Christianity. Much in the same way that Lenin would eventually take over and declare an orthodox Marxism, Christianity had been high-jacked and its revised format has become normative, revealing that, as Ferguson and Hirsch suggest,”Constantine is still the emperor of our imaginations, of the way we see and experience ourselves as church, seventeen centuries later.” The radicality of the early Christian community gave way to the systematic subversion of everything Jesus and the community of Pentecost stood for.
Returning once again to Ferguson and Hirsch they stipulate that “Christianity is designed to be a people’s liberation movement, a social force, a viral idea passing from person to person through the medium of gospel and discipleship, creating gospel communities in its wake. And yet, by all accounts, most churches can be described as primarily institutional in form and nature.” What then is being celebrated in the institutionalized observance of Pentecost as the birth of the church? It is not the celebration of the empowerment of the first century community depicted in Acts but, rather a festival held in honor of the third century birth of Constantine’s organized perversion of Pentecost.
An authentic expression of the “Spirit” of Pentecost is not to be found in sacraments, tradition, or liturgy. It is not in the cloister, at the alter, or in the sanctuary. It is not in creed, council, or clergy. But, in the world, in the city, in the streets, the highways and byways, standing at the side of both the neighbor and the enemy, at the disposal of those in need. It is not within a Messiah, a Christ, or even in God, but in the death of God and the renouncement of all ideological, socio-religious, and socio-political constructions that impede the becoming of the individual. It is in the disavowal of that which we have sought to mask the traumatic responsibility of existence. It is in the rejection of what Nietzsche described as the “formula for every slander against ‘this world.'” and “every lie about the ‘beyond’…the deification of nothingness, the will to nothingness pronounced holy!” It is the acceptance of being adrift on an infinite sea, a horizonless ocean, with no objective guide and no absolute compass.
In a recent interview with Chris Hedges, Bishop George Packard expressed these notions astoundingly and poignantly clear, saying:
The spirit is calling us now into the streets, calling us to reject the old institutional orders. There is no going back. You can’t sit anymore in churches listening to stogy liturgies. They put you to sleep. Most of these churches are museums with floorshows. They are a caricature of what Jesus intended. Jesus would be turning over the money-changing tables in their vestibules. Those in the church may be good-hearted and even well-meaning, but they are ignoring the urgent, beckoning call to engage with the world. It is only outside the church that you will find the spirit of God (Read Full Interview Here).
It is well beyond the ecclesial doors that Pentecost is actually experienced, in a place without pews, scripture, or vestments, amidst outcast, excrement, and refuse. As Marie L. Baird suggests, “Christianity’s ultimate self-realization is in secularization” and perhaps truer words were never spoken when Ernst Blochdeclared that “only a Christian can be a good atheist, and only an atheist can be a good Christian.”