RonRolheiser,OMI

Two Churches, Two Sacred Places, Two Struggles

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God has given us two churches, one found is everywhere and the other is found at select places. Some of us prefer one of these and struggle with the other, but both are sacred places where God can be found and worshipped.

When most people think of church, they generally think of a building, a cathedral, a shrine, a temple, a synagogue, a mosque, or a holy site. Roman Catholics might think of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome or some famous cathedral or their local parish church. Anglicans and Episcopalians might think of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London or their local church building, even as Muslims might think of Mecca or their local mosque. These are all churches, privileged holy places where God meets us. This is one kind of church, housed in a building or a holy location. But what grounds this concept?

In the Book of Genesis we read that Jacob had a dream within which he saw a ladder connecting earth to heaven with angels going up and down on this ladder. Waking from the dream, Jacob realizes that he has had a very privileged experience within which the gap between heaven and earth was, for a moment, bridged. Not wanting to lose this experience, nor this special place, he sets up a stone as a pillar, as an altar, to mark the place, a concrete physical spot, where he sensed a special connection between heaven and earth, so that he find his way back to this privileged spot. That’s the first church building and that’s ultimately the meaning of every church building, every temple, every shrine, every mosque, and every holy site. It’s a privileged place where there’s a ladder between heaven and earth, with the angels of God ascending and descending. It’s a special place where one can go to pray.

But there’s a second kind of church that has nothing to do with buildings, churches, temples, shrines, or holy sites. This is the church that Jesus reveals to the Samaritan woman in John’s Gospel. Most of us are familiar with the dialogue Jesus has with this woman. In their conversation she confesses a certain confusion regarding churches. She tells Jesus that she lives in a world that disagrees about where the real church, the real ladder between heaven and earth, is to be found: The Jews tell her that the real place to worship, the authentic church, is the temple in Jerusalem, but her own community, the Samaritans, tell her that the proper place to worship is Mount Gerizim. So which is the proper place to worship?

Jesus tells her that she need not necessarily worship at either of those sites. Rather the real temple, the real sacred place, the real privileged place where a ladder runs between heaven and earth, upon which angels ascend and descend, is inside of her. The real church is not always a building or a holy site, but a place of conscience and spirit inside a person, accessible to us without having to travel to the Holy Land, Rome, London, Salt Lake City, Mecca, Lourdes, or your neighborhood church. The ladder upon which angels ascend and descend between heaven and earth can be found everywhere, nature itself is a cathedral and, inside each of us, there’s a church.

Thus there are two real churches given us by God; one is outside of us, physical and concrete, the other is inside of us, spiritual and amorphous. Ideally, of course, a healthy sense of church would have us all worshipping deeply at both places, outside in our church buildings and inside in our heart and conscience. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. Today huge ecclesial tensions exist within all major religions and within all Christian denominations, between those who define church primarily or exclusively by one’s active participation inside of a church building (If you aren’t coming to church, you aren’t a real believer!) and those who define church, however unconsciously, as sincerity and worship within conscience and spirit. (I’m spiritual but not religious!)

Both are right, both are wrong, and both need to widen their understanding of church. God gave us both churches, and both are vital. I know persons, not least some very good male friends, who struggle with spiritual interiority. They grasp the meaning of church buildings, holy sites, and church structures, and these genuinely ground their religious lives. They can relate to the church as a building and as an institution that holds holy services; they can grasp Jacob’s ladder there. Conversely, I have good friends, not least some women friends, who have a rich spiritual interiority but struggle with the church as an institution, one that, to their mind, too-easily and sometimes idolatrously privileges certain human organizations, sites, and persons as sine qua non avenues to heaven; they struggle to see Jacob’s ladder inside such concrete, imperfect physicality.

Both need to learn from each other, and grasp more deeply the interrelationship of the two churches that God gave us.

Less People Are Going to Church – Whom to Blame?

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It’s no secret that today there’s been a massive drop-off in church attendance. Moreover that drop-off in church-going is not paralleled by the same widespread growth in atheism and agnosticism. Rather, more and more people are claiming to be spiritual but not religious, faith-filled but not church-goers. Why this exodus from our churches?

The temptation inside religious circles is to blame what’s happening on secularity. Secular culture, many people argue, is perhaps the most powerful narcotic ever perpetrated on this planet, both for good and for bad. It swallows most of us whole with its seductive promises of heaven on this side of eternity. Within our secularized world, the pursuit of the good life simply squeezes out almost all deeper religious desire. Interestingly, this is also the major criticism that Islamic extremists make of Western culture. For them it’s a drug, which once ingested, has no cure. That’s why they want to block their youth from Western influences.

But is this true? Is secular culture the enemy? Are we, church-goers, the last true remnant of God and truth left standing, prophetic and marginalized in a society that’s shallow, irreligious, and godless?  Many, including myself, would argue that this conclusion is far, far too simple. Secular society can be shallow, irreligious, and godless, there’s more than sufficient evidence for that; but, beneath its shallowness and its congenital allergy to our churches, real religious desire still burns and the churches must ask themselves: Why aren’t more people turning to us to deal with their religious desires? Why are so many people who are seeking spirituality not interested in looking at what the church offers? Why, instead, are they turning to everything except the church? Why, indeed, do so many people have the attitude: “The church has nothing to offer me: I find it boring, irrelevant, caught up inside its own petty issues, hopelessly out of step with my life.”

Secularity is, no doubt, partly to blame, but so too are the churches themselves. There’s an axiom that says: All atheism is a parasite off of bad theism. That logic also holds regarding attitudes towards the church: Bad attitudes towards the church feed off bad church practices.

The great Jewish scholar, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, would agree. In his book, God In Search of Man, he writes: “It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than the voice of compassion – its message becomes meaningless.”

Novelist Marilynne Robinson (who has both a deep sympathy for and a commitment to the church) echoes Heschel. For her, as churches today, we are not radiating the immensity of God and the larger mystery of Christ. Rather, despite our good will, we are too much subordinating the mystery of Christ to tribalism, resentment, fear, and self-protection. This is one of the major reasons for our marginalization. Christianity, Robinson submits, “is too great a narrative to be reduced to serving any parochial interest or to be underwritten by any lesser tale.” It is our narrow attitudes, she believes, that denigrate the Christian message and leave the churches, for good reason, marginalized: “Undignified, obscurantist, and xenophobic Christianity closes the path for many” to enter the church.” Blaming the world for our problems, she argues, does nothing to enhance the respect the world has for religion or for Christianity. The drop-off in church attendance is very much our own fault because far too often we are not radiating a church with a compassionate embrace and we are not in fact addressing the real energies that are burning inside people. For Robinson, the secular world isn’t, per se, irreligious. Rather it sees our churches as self-absorbed, non-understanding, and non-empathetic to its desires, its wounds, and its needs. And so her challenge to us, church-goers, is this: “It behooves anyone who calls himself or herself a Christian, any institution that calls itself a church, to bring credit to the faith, at very least not to embarrass or disgrace it. Making God a tribal deity, our local Baal, is embarrassing and disgraceful.”

Some years ago, I heard an Evangelical minister state the problem this way: As Christian churches we have the living water, the water Christ promised would quench all fires and all thirsts. But, this is the problem: We aren’t getting the living water to where the fires are!  Instead we are spraying water everywhere, except where it’s burning!

He’s right. The answer to the mass exodus from our churches is not to blame the culture; it’s to make better churches!

Spiritual Warfare

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Spiritual literature has always highlighted the primordial struggle between good and evil, and this has generally been conceived of as a war, a spiritual battle. Thus, as Christians, we have been warned that we must be vigilant against the powers of Satan and various other forces of evil. And we’ve fought these powers not just with prayer and private moral vigilance but with everything from Holy Water, to exorcisms, to a dogmatic avoidance of everything to do with the occult, the paranormal, alchemy, astrology, spiritualism, séances, witchcraft, sorcery, and Ouija boards. For Christians these were seen as dangerous venues through which malevolent spirits could enter our lives and do us harm.

And scripture does, seemingly, warn us about these things. It tells us that for our world to come to its completion and its fulfillment Christ must first triumph over all the powers that oppose God. And for that to happen, Christ has to first vanquish and destroy death, darkness, evil, the powers of hell, the powers of Satan, and various “thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers.”

What, concretely, are these powers and how is Christ ultimately to triumph over them? How should we conceive the battle that’s taking place?

We are clearer about how death will be defeated: We believe that the resurrection, Jesus’ and our own, is how that battle is to be won. As to Satan and hell, each of us has her own idea of what these are, but what we share in common as Christians is the belief that these will not be vanquished but will continue to exist, alongside and opposed to God and heaven, for eternity. That’s the common Christian belief, though not the universal one. There have always been theologians and mystics who believed that the full triumph of Christ will occur when the Satan himself converts and goes back to heaven along with everyone else in hell. The love of God, they believe, is so powerful that, in the end, nobody, not even Satan himself, will hold out against it. Eventually love will win everyone over and Christ will be fully triumphant when hell is empty.

But that still leaves us with what scripture calls the “thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers” Are these simply another way of referring to Satan and his powers? Or do these refer to spiritual forces that many believe are hidden inside the occult, alchemy, astrology, spiritualism, séances, witchcraft, sorcery, and Ouija boards?  How might we conceptualize evil spiritual forces?

To the extent that we do not dismiss them out of hand as purely mythical, each of conceptualizes them in some way, usually in the graphic images given us in the Book of Revelation and by centuries of Christian artists. And so we picture some kind of spiritual warfare happening beneath the surface of things, a spiritual battle between good and evil, a warfare wherein, eventually, Christ will triumph by defeating and destroying all these malevolent powers, akin to the primordial battle wherein Michael, the Archangel, initially defeated Satan and threw him out of heaven.

But those are archetypal images, not meant to be pictured literally but intended rather to point us towards something deeper. What really are the “thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers” that are opposing Christ and how are they to be defeated? How might we conceptualize the spiritual warfare going on beneath the surface of things?

The spiritual warfare that is being described in scripture and inside all authentic spirituality has less to do with the occult and exorcisms than it has to do the malignant grip of narcissism, greed, anger, bitterness, hatred, lust, wound, grudges, and ignorance. These are the real “thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers” that oppose Christ and the struggle against them is the real battle between good and evil.

Authentic spiritual warfare is to be pictured this way: Inside our world and inside each of us there’s a fierce battle waging, a war between good and evil, and these are the contestants: Hatred is battling love; anger is battling patience; greed is battling generosity; bitterness is battling graciousness, jealousy is battling admiration; choosing to remain inside our wounds is battling healing; holding on to our grudges is battling forgiveness, ego and narcissism are battling compassion and community; and self-hatred is in a bitter battle with the acceptance of love and God’s unconditional embrace. Paranoia is waging a war against metanoia. That’s the real war that’s going on, in our world and inside each of us.

Hatred, anger, paranoia, greed, bitterness, lust, jealousy, non-forgiveness, and self-hatred are the “thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers” about which scripture warns us. Hence the final triumph of Christ will occur when the last of these forces is eventually subdued, when we are finally at peace with goodness, with love, with trust, with ourselves, with others, with our history, with our mistakes, with those who have hurt us, with those whom we have hurt, with our shortcomings, and with our impatience with God.

In the meantime, there will be spiritual warfare, primordial battles all around.