The Democratization of Religion pt. 2

 

Below is the second part to a paper I wrote for my Undergraduate Senior Seminar which seeks to explore the deeper connections between religion and technology, each of their innovative processes, and their potentiality for catalyzing a kind of emancipatory democratization. Please let me know what you think! Enjoy!

 

James Gleick writes that “Every new medium transforms the nature of human thought” (12). This has proven true with the emergence of each of the three previous ages that Pagitt proposes but, perhaps, this medium-transformative shift in “the nature of human thought,” which Gleick describes, proves to be an even more accurate assertion in this the present global setting that Pagitt terms the Inventive Age. The Internet, Social Media, smartphones, and countless other advances in information and communication technologies have drastically altered the cultural landscape, providing whole new ways of experiencing and engaging with the world, and bringing about striking and immeasurable changes to social values. The limitations of locality and geographical borders and boundaries have been daringly transcended. Kwame Anthony Appiah explains that “the worldwide web of information…means not only that we can affect lives everywhere but that we can learn about life anywhere” (xiii). This creates a kind of globalized cosmopolitanism, a citizenry (politēs) not merely exclusive to nationality but, of the world (cosmos) (xiv). Here, as well, knowledge and information retain all of their importance, esteem, and regard but only in so far it leads to discovery and innovation (Pagitt, 30). Thus, as Pagitt concludes, the impetus of the Inventive Age is focused entirely upon “inclusion, participation, collaboration,” and creativity (30). The parameters of the Inventive Age is precisely what media scholar Henry Jenkins et al, defines as Participatory Culture.

Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy, James Paul Gee, highlights that “We live in…an age of convergent media, production, participation, fluid group formation, cognitive, social, and linguistic complexity-all embedded in contemporary popular culture” (14). As such, Jenkins et al defines Participatory Culture as “a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby experienced participants pass along knowledge to novices” (xi). In this regard, as Jenkins et al goes on to explain, “Participatory culture shifts the focus of literacy from individual expression to community involvement” (6). This, then, is not a matter of “individual accomplishment but rather the emergence of a cultural context that supports widespread participation in the production and distribution of media” (4). Participatory Culture is highly responsive and extremely reactive, especially in that it is a bold and outright rejection of the largely passive and inactive orientation of consumer culture. Participatory Culture centers itself upon inter-activity and occurs, as Jenkins et al explains, as a result of the absorption of “new media technologies that make it possible for average consumers to archive, annotate, appropriate, and recirculate media content in powerful new ways” (8). Here, Jonathan Fitzgerald rightly surmises that “the meeting of the digital world of social media and the physical world show that what were once thought to be frivolous wastes of time – sites like Facebook and Twitter – actually have the power to change the world” (Fitzgerald).

Indeed, as Jenkins et al explains, “Participatory culture,” with its technological advances in communication, creation, and information, “is reworking the rules by which school, cultural expression, civic life, and work operate” (10). Barry Taylor makes clear that “New technologies have shifted the balance of power in the realm of information,” leading to the full and unabashed democratization of information and culture (12). Taylor adamantly expresses that “Democratization is the key dynamic of our times” (17) as it “seems to be at work in virtually every area of life today” (12), and as a result everyday culture is imminently witnessing both “The Rise of Crowdsourcing” (Howe) and “The Rise of the Amateur” (Rushkoff). As a consequence, the ‘experts’, those vested with centralized hierarchical authority, those to whom Dana Ardi refers to as the Alphas (1), and “institutions no longer have the last word or hold the authoritative sway they once had” (Taylor, 11). In many cases the wide-spread and sprawling confederation of Networked individuals are proving that the cumulative and culminating knowledge of the crowd can surpass that of the solitary specialist. Thus, Taylor states emphatically that “The collapse or loss of faith in traditional forms of leadership and structure combined with virtually unlimited access to information has resulted in an empowering of the masses that is transforming culture” (18).

Clearly the religious implications are also overwhelming. Just as in the periods Pagitt describes as the Agrarian Age, the Industrial Age, and the Information Age, religion in the Inventive age precisely parallels the principles of the time. In 2012 the Pew Research Center released a report demonstrating that in the United States 1 in 5 adults say that they are religiously unaffiliated and a full one-third of those below the age of thirty claim to have no religious affiliation (Taylor, 8). This represents an increase of over 5%, a rise that began at just above 15% in 2007 up to 20% by 2012 (Taylor, 127). Executive Vice President of the Pew Research Center, Paul Taylor, writes that not only are the ‘nones’ (the name given to demographic answering ‘none’ to the question of religious affiliation) disassociated from traditional religious engagement “they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them” either (127). Taylor also goes on to say that “Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules, and too involved in politics” (127). Similarly, a Gallup poll has shown that two-thirds of American adults believe that religious influence is declining (Saad). Likewise, a 2012 Gallup poll revealed that only 44% of the U.S. population maintains a high level of confidence in organized religion, a jarring low point, and the result of a progressive downward trend since 1975 (Saad). Many would suggest that the process of secularization is finally winning out as predicted by many philosophical and sociological thinkers, thereby proposing that these figures are indicative of the ending reign of religion. However, this would seem to be only partially correct. 68% of the religious unaffiliated still retain a belief in God; 37% are spiritual; and 21%p pray daily (Taylor, 127). Only the most marginal and miniscule faction of the ‘nones’ are atheists. If the collaborative decentralization witnessed in the other areas of culture exhibit anything it is that something else is occurring in the religious sphere.

Just as the values of the participatory culture have dramatically shifted from the hierarchy of institutions, so “Religion has also shifted” and “is no longer found in the institutions and public locations – the churches, synagogues, mosques, and other buildings of wood and stone that have traditionally housed the sacred” (Taylor, 100). Religion, too, is being democratized and entering into a whole “new evolutionary phase in which the power and influence of religious formation” is being taken away from the mediating exclusivity of the clerical class and redistributed to the masses “for whom the task of fashioning a connection with the divine is an intensely personal and creative venture” (Taylor,170). This is a new form of religiosity. This is the beginnings of what Barry Taylor calls “Participatory Theology” (201). It seems that the very same technologies that have set the precedent of the Inventive Age have divested the religious establishment of its monopoly on religious truth and meaning. The creative free-flow of collaborative information has forced the traditional institutions of religion to relinquish their corner on the market, rejecting the inactive passivity of religious consumerism, and bringing about an age of participatory customization.

As technology has advanced so has culture and, as result, religion has as well. Each advancement has ushered in a new era, a new age, a new evolutionary phase, each “completely revaluating and revisiting virtually every aspect of the human condition” (Taylor, 14). The democratizing effects of information and communication technologies such as the Internet, Social Media, and smartphones, etc. have aided in creating a post-religious and a post-secular age. That which at first glance appeared to be an indication of irreligion has proven to be the initiating phases of a new kind of religious innovation. This is a dialectical movement in which as Thomas Altizer writes that “the deepest negation embodies the deepest affirmation” (56). What seems to be an outright negation of religiosity is in fact an affirmation of religion. The black and white binary that dichotomously divides the sacred and the profane, the thesis of religion and the antithesis of secularity are dialectically merging into the synthesis of something far more innovative.

 

 

Works Cited

Altizer, Thomas J.J. New Gospel of Christian Atheism. Aurora: The Davies Group Publishers, 2002. Print.

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006. Print.

Ardi, Dana. The Fall of the Alphas: The New Beta Way to Connect, Collaborate, Influence – and Lead. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013. Print.

Burrus, Daniel. “Predicting the Future.” YouTube. YouTube, 28 Jan. 2013. Web. 15 Aug. 2014.

Davis, Derek and Barry Hankins. New Religious Movements and Religious Liberty in America, 2nd ed. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2003. Print.

Fitzgerald, Jonathan D. Not Your Mother’s Morals: How the New Sincerity is Changing Pop Culture for the Better. Colorado: Bondfire Books, 2012. Print.

Gee, James Paul. New Digital Media and Learning as an Emergent Area and “Worked Examples”as One Way Forward. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009. Print.

Gleick, James. The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood. New York: Random House, 2012.Print.

Howe, Jeff. “The Rise of Crowdsourcing.” Wired. Wired Magazine, June 2006. Web. 15 Aug. 2014.

Jenkins, Henry, et al. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009. Print.

Pagitt, Doug. Church in the Inventive Age. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2010. Print

Raulet, Gerard. “Critique Of Religion And Religion As Critique: The Secularized Hope Of Ernst Bloch.” New German Critique 9 (1976): 71. Academic Search Premier. Web. 15 Aug. 2014.

Rushkoff, Douglas. “The Rise of the Amateur.” MPI Web. Meeting Professionals International, n.d. Web. 15 Aug. 2014.

Saad, Lydia. “U.S. Confidence in Organized Religion at Low Point.” Gallup. Gallup Inc., 12 July 2012. Web. 15 Aug. 2014.

Slobodkin, Lawrence B. A Citizen’s Guide to Ecology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Print.

Taylor, Barry. Entertainment Theology: New-Edge Spirituality in a Digital Democracy. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008. Print.

Taylor, Paul. The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown. New York: Perseus Books Group, 2014. Print.

 

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The Democratization of Religion: (ir)Religious Innovation in a Technological Age

Below you’ll find an excerpt from a paper I wrote recently as part of my final research paper for my Senior Seminar in Religion. It is a bit of a lengthy essay so I will be posting in in two parts. The paper attempts to explore the connections between religious innovation and technological innovation, or more specifically the growing numbers moving toward irreligion in Millennials as a kind of religious innovation and the possible relations to advances in information and communication technologies. Please let me know what you think! Enjoy!

 

 

The very nature of change is permanence (Slobodkin, 5). Not a permanence in the way of concrete fixity, nor finality but, rather permanent as in permanent unidirectional change; change that moves one-way. Technology futurist, Daniel Burrus, describes this kind of permanent change as “linear change”, explaining that “Unlike cyclical change, when linear change hits we’re not going back” (Burrus). Burrus elaborates further, stating,

Once you got a smartphone, you’re not going back to a dumb phone. Once the people in China parked their bicycle and get a car, they’re not going to say, gee, lets get rid of the car and go back to the bike. Once people in India get refrigeration for their homes, they’re not going to say we don’t need refrigeration. Now these are one way – they’re not cycles – one-way linear changes that had profound…consequences (Burrus).

In this regard, although this linear-orientated change is vast, far-reaching, drastic, dramatic, at times, seemingly unprecedented, and though it’s consequences are indeed profound, ‘change’, itself, is neither good nor bad, “neither wise nor benign nor malicious” (Slobodkin, 11).  Change “simply is” (5). Change occurs and continues to occur, permanently altering not only ourselves but, also the world around us. The world is not the same as it once was, we are not the same as we once were and just as the world can never go back to being the way it had once been before, neither can we ever return to our previous manifestations. Ours is an age marked by increased and ever-expanding technological and social change. We are living in an era in which change is both rapid and ever-present. Simon Mainwaring writes that “The Internet, social media, and smartphones are giving people the opportunity to connect, communicate, and share values on a scale that before was unimaginable” (80). Information of any and every kind has become increasingly ‘open-sourced’ and or ‘crowd-sourced’. Networks abound and immense connectivity, or inter-connectivity is simply part and parcel of our present day context. As a result culture, itself, is becoming increasingly participatory and collaborative. The authority of formal institutions and the experts are not only waning but, are becoming more and more decentralized. In short, every aspect of society is becoming progressively democratized. Religion, then, is certainly no exception. Statistically speaking, attendance and confidence in traditional religious institutions are definitely on a downward decline, and quite possibly the fasting growing segment of the population is decidedly claiming no religious affiliation.  It seems that the religious sphere, too, has become a site of collaborative and participatory, experimental innovation. Does this signal the end of religion? Are we preparing entrance into an utterly religion-less world? Or is a negation simply a moment in the life of a deeper affirmation, a dialectical negation (Raulet, 77). Thus, it is the intention of this paper to explore the effects of the intersections of religion and information technology, in which irreligion and secularization are in all actuality dialectical methods of religious innovation.

It should be stated from the outset, however, as Derek Davis and Barry Hankins make clear, that although “We humans have tendency to think that we are living in unique times, and often we are disinclined to look at our pats as a help in understanding the present” it should be recognized that “Religious innovation and the controversy surrounding it goes as far back as history can see” (9). These statements may seem to imply connotation of something seemingly cyclical but, to be sure, this fact does more to emphasize the consistent continuation of permanent unidirectional change and its cultural and societal consequences then it does to refute it. While the specific changes experienced by a particular society are indeed unique to their culture, what is irrefutably undeniable is the irrevocability of the alterations presented there within, each of which found building upon the previous and moving forward in a singularly linear fashion. In other words, every culture at one time or another has been consummately transformed by its technological innovations. Indeed, these occurrences in and of themselves serve as a kind of historical, sociological, anthropological, and calendrical marking or place-holder, defining that particular age or era in its entirety. As a result, in each instance religion has been as equally as innovatively affected.

With this in mind, author Doug Pagitt proposes that culture has moved through “three distinct ages – the Agrarian Age, the Industrial Age, and the Information age” (4). The Agrarian age, occurring as a result the Agricultural Revolution which was initiated by the invention and implementation of technological advances in farming aids and tools, allowing for the manipulation of nature, saw a development of a culture that was highly “localized, organic, [and] almost-tribal like” (Pagitt, 15). Religion in the Agrarian Age was, then, a perfect mirrored reflection of this rural and pastoral way of life. Here, geography was of greater importance than theology, and religious leaders were the quintessential shepherds; the word pastor, itself, meaning “shepherd” (Pagitt, 15-16).

Likewise, the Industrial Age was brought on by technological progress, in this case, the mechanized manufacturing innovations of the Industrial Revolution, each of which emphasized efficiency, repetition, and replication (Pagitt, 19). With this age came increases in the density of populations residing in smaller areas of land and with it the beginnings of urbanization. Around every corner “life-changing innovation” was arriving; “the telegraph, the telephone, the radio, the automobile, the airplane” (Pagitt, 19). Religion too, followed suit on all fronts. New religions were being produced with an innovative factory-like precision; “Mormonism, Christian Science,” and a wealth of others (Pagitt, 20). If in the Agrarian Age religious leaders were likened to shepherds then, in the Industrial Age the figureheads of religious communities became “factory foreman”, seeking to efficiently replicate congregants in an effort to build or manufacture a religious brand (Pagitt, 20).

The Industrial Age subtly transitioned to the Information Age (Pagitt, 21). The Information Age is just that, an age defined by the prevalent accentuation of information and the ever-increasing outlets for its prevailing predominance. Because of the mass-production of the Industrial Age the availability of books expanded greatly and as a result this period saw a tremendous increase in literacy and a profound emphasis was placed upon education, especially as it provided a pathway out of the factory (Pagitt, 22). In this way, the cultural values shifted from production to knowledge, what one knew was considered to be drastically more important then what one could manufacture of produce (Pagitt, 22). The Information Age also witnessed the iconic emergence of the television, a technological advancement that allowed for an even wider distribution of information which rivaled many of its predecessors (Pagitt, 23). And just as it had in the previous eras, these trends carried over into the realm of religion, which echoed this new premium placed upon the essentiality of information and knowledgeability. Likewise, religious authorities emphasized their roles as educators, arbiters of knowledge, and CEOs, religious communities becoming organizationally patterned epicenters of learning and information (Pagitt, 23-24).

Yet, the forward motion of change is both constant and persistent. Just as the Agrarian Age gave way to the Industrial Age, and the Industrial yielded to the Information Age, Pagitt assesses the current context of culture well when he proposes that a fourth age has dawned; the Inventive Age

 

To be continued…

Is Saturday Forgotten on Sunday?

 

Holy Saturday is too often passed over far too quickly on the way to resurrection Sunday. It is a day that fully inhabits the death of God, a day that is utterly saturated with complete and total absence of the divine. If the cry from the cross marks the kenotic self-emptying moment in which God himself becomes an atheist and then dies, then Holy Saturday marks the fullness and completeness of radical theology as it wholly embraces the loss of God and the negation of totality. It is the radical theological tradition that is most devotedly and adamantly true to originality and unaltered ending of the Markan gospel. Mark’s gospel in its original form does not contain an account of resurrection but, rather ends abruptly at verse 8 of chapter 16 with the discovery of an empty tomb and Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome fleeing in fright.  Sightings and appearances of the resurrected Christ, the Comissioning of the disciples, and the ascension are all later editions and have no true home in the gospel of Mark. This is a gosepl most wholly adhered to by radical theology; a gospel that does not find its culmination in Resurrection, nor is it fulfilled amidst the rapturous ecstatic light of Ascension. Radicality of Mark’s text is instead its fulfillment in a fracturus and fragmented ending that witnesses only terror, fear, emptiness and absence.
Thomas J. J. Altizer writes that:

“Only Christianity among the world religions enacts the fullness and the finality of a truly actual death, a death that is an ultimate death, and a death that is inseparable from what Christianity knows as an absolute fall.”

Here, we must recognize, as Altizer states, that “the proclamation of the death of God is a Christian confession of faith, and a uniquely Christian faith in the ultimacy of the Crucifixion.”

But,  this loss,  this negation,  the ultimate death of God still does not go far enough for all this is found present within Good Friday. Holy Saturday is not only the dialectical destruction of the divine, it is at once a much stronger,  more foreboding, and a more menacingly traumatic event. It marks the actualized descent into hell. This is incarnational theology at its fullest. This is the incarnate followed through to its absolute end. For a fully realized incarnation cannot simply stop at the descent to earth, the descent to humanity, or even the descent into death but,  must ultimately and fully descend into hell. Here God is not only dead but damned.

Altizer writes that “if Jesus is the name of Incarnation, and of a once and for all and absolutely unique incarnation, that incarnation finally realizes itself as absolute death, and only that death makes possible or actualizes a uniquely Christian resurrection.” The centrality of this move within Holy Saturday is key to a proper understanding of resurrection Sunday. This must be the lenses through which resurrection is seen otherwise it not only improperly framed but mistaken, misconstrued, misinterpreted, misread, and incomplete. “[T]he deepest negation embodies the deepest affirmation, or the deepest death is ultimately the deepest life, or the deepest darkness finally the most ecstatic light (Altizer, 56).

Altizer concludes clearly:

“Christianity knows an absolute death as the one and only source of redemption, proclaiming that Christ’s death inaugurated the new creation, and all humanity is now called to participate in this death as the way of salvation. Death, it is true, is a universal way of ultimate transformation, but only in Christianity is redemptive death an actual and historical death, and only in those worlds that have come under the impact of Christianity can we discover records of a full and concrete experience of the factuality and finality of death”

The truest possible form of a total resurrection, that is, a resurrection of any deep actual meaning or abiding operative significance, can only come about as a consequence of this absolutely dialectical death.
“Only the most ultimate and absolute negation can realize that apocalyptic totality, but this negation is a self-negation or a  self-emptying, and only thereby can it make possible an absolutely new totality. Only this totality is a truly resurrected body, so here the resurrected body is a resurrected totality, and a resurrected body only possible as a consequence of an absolute self-emptying”(Altizer, 60).

This is resurrection. This is the importance of Easter Sunday. A wholly new totality emerging, resurrecting from the absolute death of the Godhead plunged into the very depths of Hell. Sunday morning is only seen clearly from vantage and scope of Saturday night.

Altizer, Thomas J.J., New Gospel of Christian Atheism. Aurora: The Davies Group Publishers, 2002. Print

Frodo, the Ring, and Religion…

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As I’ve been playing catch up reading some of my favorite blogs, which i am still horribly behind on (my apologies to those bloggers whom I follow), I’ve happened across a few that have been striking. One such post was from what is becoming one of my favorite blogs, Recovering Agnostic. The post was titled “Loss of Faith as Modeled in Lord of the Rings.” In this post there is, what I think is a clever analogy at work. In this writing the author seeks draw a comparison between a few of the various fortresses featured in the Lord of the Rings saga and how the way in which the defenses of each are penetrated is representative of the various methods and mechanisms in which one experiences the loss of faith. Helm’s Deep with its multi-tiered walls is likened to the slow and gradual slide from a conservative faith, to a liberal faith, culminating finally in a faith lost. Similarly, Mount Doom, with only a single heavily fortified line of defense, which when penetrated falls almost immediately, is symbolic of an abrupt and radical shift from firm faith to absolute atheism. It’s an interesting post that I recommend you read.

This whole idea sparked a few thoughts of my own and I could not help but comment upon the post. I though it also might be good to share them with you all here. Below you’ll find my remarks. I hope you’ll enjoy them as well the original post, which I hope you’ll read first.

I too, am well acquainted with the loss of faith. I have found my experience to be quite like what you described as the Helm’s Deep methodology, in which I passed through a immense liberalizing of theology and belief, eventually conceding to a loss of faith altogether and an accepting embrace of atheism.

What sprang to mind in this line of thinking (Models of losing faith illustrated by the Lord of the Rings) is yet another way, although I’m sure there are many more. Early on in your post you suggested that you were uncomfortable with the phraseology of “losing faith” because of its value laden implications, as it insinuates a loss of faith as negative in which would should rigidly refrain from the loss and if lost one should do everything within their power to find it once again. Perhaps then this third way I’m describing should be called the Frodo effect, in which the faith carried, like the ring itself, is a burden, an albatross around one’s neck, becoming too heavy and two shameful to bear. In this case, one is slowly being turned into someone they are not, progressively degrading into a monster yet, all the while becoming more and more consumed by it, believing it is the one all important possession that matters more than anything else. Yet, there will eventually come a point when they absolutely must abandon this faith, it must be cast into the fires of Mount doom and destroyed if they ever hope to survive, to remain sane, or to be well again. In this model is a battle to let it go and when it is gone there remains a hole that will never be fully filled and a wound that will never be fully healed. They know they are better off for having let it go but, the emptiness remains…

The All-New Jesus Show

I haven’t been very productive with my blog as of late. My academic endeavors have been more than all consuming. I’ve even become increasing behind on the blog that I often enjoy reading. Through the process of catching up I’ve come across a few pieces that I’ve enjoyed or that have hit home and struck a chord with me and I’d like to share them.

This blog is one such piece. I have found myself in almost the exact same position as this writer. As one has come of age in the throws of Evangelical/Conservative protestant Christendom, who no has two young children and who has also walked away from the church, faith, and theism, this seemed to me to be a very poignant essay which raises many of the very same concerns that I have had.

Enjoy!

Recovering Agnostic

Older son’s at an age where he’s realised that some things aren’t real, but he doesn’t know which ones, or how to tell the difference. He’ll be watching TV and ask me if Mister Maker is actually real, and then I’ll have to explain that there’s a real man who really makes things, but he’s not really called Mister Maker, he doesn’t really live in a cardboard box, and no, he doesn’t live in the TV either, which then usually leads to a long discussion about how TVs work.

He can get confused by the strangest things – I once had to explain how I knew the Octonauts aren’t real:

Well, animals don’t talk, and they don’t wear clothes, do they? And they don’t live in huge motorised underwater mobile homes, and polar bears aren’t really the same size as cats and penguins, and there’s definitely no such thing as…

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The Problem of Pentecost: Part II

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.”

The Erosion of the East?

This is another of the many essays written for an Intro to World Religions class. In this particular assignment we were asked to concisely sketch the differentiation of thought and practice between Eastern religions and those that are more Westernized. Enjoy!

In his book, Liberating the Gospels, author John Shelby Spong writes, “The fact that we must recover is that Christianity was not born as a Western religion. A Western mentality has been imposed on this Middle Eastern understanding or revelation of God” (18). Though Spong is speaking specifically to the Judaic origins of Christianity, it raises several important considerations when examining differentiations between the religious dynamics of the East and West. We often take for granted that the three ‘Western’ monotheistic faiths did not come to fruition or arrive fully formed and they did not develop in a vacuum from the influences chronology and surrounding cultures. As Spong reminds, many of the faith that we have come to consider Western have, in all actuality, been westernized. These religions were not always as we have them now but, they are rather Hellenized reflections of their former selves.
When examining the adamant polytheism of the Hindu tradition it is easy to draw stark distinctions between these pluralistic ideals and the monotheism of Judaism. Indeed, as Karen Armstrong makes clear, “We assume that the three patriarchs of Israel – Abraham, his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob – were monotheists, that they believed in only one God” but , it is far “more accurate to call these Hebrews pagans who shared many of the religious beliefs of their neighbors in Canaan” (14). The ancient Hebrews were monolatrous, at best, prior to the full development of monotheism around the sixth century.

It seems that Western sensibilities are all too willing to unashamedly impose modern concepts, beliefs, and interpretations upon a people, a text, and a time in which such ideas were unheard of, ungraspable, unavailable, and inconceivable. Karen Armstrong explains further, “We have developed, for example, a scientific view of history, which we see as a succession of unique events. In the [Eastern] world, however, the events of history were not seen as singular but as examples of eternal laws, revelations of a timeless, constant reality” (10). Armstrong continues, “Before the modern period, Jews Christians, and Muslims all relished highly allegorical, symbolic, and esoteric interpretations of their sacred texts” (12).

In many of these regards it seems that Christianity has suffered the most from its eroding divorce from its Eastern heritage. “Where Christians have come to indentify orthodoxy with correct belief, Muslims, like Jews, require orthopraxy, a uniformity of religious practice, and see belief as a secondary issue” (37). The “right belief” of Christianity has become the very basis of its soteriology, i.e. doctrinally ascribed beliefs will result in salvific reward of “Heaven” in the afterlife. First and foremost it must be noted that Jesus very rarely speaks of Heaven. Jesus is found speaking more predominantly of the Kingdom of God, though in the Matthean tradition, which is the most Judaic in orientation, renames this verbiage as the Kingdom of Heaven, neither of which should be understood as destinations following death. The “Kingdom,” though implicitly eschatological, was a present reality in-breaking, culminating, and coming to fruition in the here and now. This is far more indicative of  ‘realized eschatology,’ that is the Eschaton as a possession of the present. This is an existential engagement with the world and thus has more in common with Buddhism in this regard.

As such in one of the few instances in which Jesus references the day of Judgment, though he does so only in parabolic form, we see that as one stands in Judgment the questions asked by Jesus are not issues of doctrine, dogma, or even belief. He does not ask for a confession or statement of faith. He does not ask for an affirmation of his divinity or any other such theological conception. Instead, those servants found to be “good and faithful” are those who fed the hungry, gave drink to those who were thirsty, gave hospitality to the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited the imprisoned. This bears resemblances to the cessation of suffering spoken of by the Buddha.

Here, I’m reminded of a story in the Talmud. Rabbis Hillel and Shammai are approached by a gentile who requests that they recite the entirety pf the Torah while he stands on one foot. Rabbi Shammai is appalled and condemns the gentile questioner. Rabbi Hillel said to him, “That which you hate, do not do to others. That is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.” In Hillel’s astute paraphrase of Leviticus 19:18 he suggests that the love of the neighbor alone serves as the foundation of the Torah and all its 613 mitzvos. He suggests that every aspect of the Pentateuch is directly connected to man’s piety in relation to his fellow man and the only ‘god’ that seems to enter the equation is that which is revealed in the face of the other.

The Talmud then teaches that a person should envision the world as being perfectly and intricately situated in a state of balance, having equal parts good and evil(reminiscent of the Taoist view) (Ciner). When a person performs a Mitzvah he tilts the entire world towards good and likewise when he commits evil he shifts the entire world towards evil. In the Jewish faith it’s believed that Kedusha (holiness) and Tum’ah(impurity) are the causes of the good and evil in the world and any good that enters this world does so a s a result of a holy act performed by someone in this world. Buddhism, a non-theistic religion, similarly suggests this idea in its notion of Karma (Ciner). Buddhism sees suffering occurring as a consequence of greed, hatred, and delusion and thus, seeks to end suffering by replacing greed with selflessness, hatred with loveand compassion, and delusion with wisdom and enlightenments. As Thomas Merton once said, “In the end it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.”

Armstrong, Karen. A History of God: The 4,000 – Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. New York: Random House, 1993. Print.

Armstrong, Karen. The Battle for God. New York: Random House, 2000. Print.

Ciner, Yisroel. “Acharei Mos-Kedoshim – 5761.” Parsha Insights. Torah.org, n.d. Web. 28 Nov. 2011.

Spong, John Shelby. Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes. New York: HarperCollins, 1996. Print.