Thursday, October 2, 2014

Living Between the Times

Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be:
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they.

                       ~ Alfred Lord Tennyson
  From In Memoriam

There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.

                                                                         ~ Leonard Cohen
                                                                             From "Anthem"

Living Among the Dying

We have been hearing statements and arguments, seeing graphs and data, witnessing lots of hand-wringing lately about whether or not the church is dying. The truth is, so much of what we know is in the process of dying.  Many of our major institutions – government, banking, schools, churches – were born during the Industrial Revolution. We are living with 19th century institutions and have not yet figured out how to organize ourselves in the post-industrial age. Some will counter, "but the church is 2,000 years old." Well, yes, but not the "church" we have been accustomed to with the pews in the sanctuary, the Sunday School programs in the educational building, etc. I grew up as a Baptist, becoming accustomed to evangelistic sermons, calling for people to come down the aisle to make a decision not realizing that no one did church that way until about 200 years ago.  As an adult, I came to appreciate the stately and ancient liturgy found in “the one holy catholic and apostolic church” as expressed within the large stone edifices of Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox churches. I found them to be a solid grounding in an ancient tradition, even as I realized that my attraction to that ancient form was a bit out of step with where society was moving.

But where is society moving? It is difficult to tell when you are living in between the times as we are today. When you look at the sweep of history, you can get a sense of what structures were needed for different stages of our social development. What served the hunter-gatherer tribes was not sufficient for the agrarian city-states as urban life became possible. The Roman Empire was one among many organizational structures that arose as civilization continued to advance toward a global as well as urban orientation. When the structures of the Roman Empire began to fail it took a few hundred years for that to happen. Even then, Augustine of Hippo felt compelled to write a treatise, City of God,  to explain that the end of the Roman Empire was not the end of the church (and that Christianity did not bring about the decline of Rome).  Eventually people saw that the end of the Empire was not the end of civilization either. People had to adjust their organizational structures. When the times change and structures are dying, it becomes necessary to reevaluate. Yet just as those living at the end of the hunter-gatherer period or at the end of the Roman Empire could not see that they were at the end of an age and heading toward another, neither can we fully grasp where we are or where we are going. "Aye, there's the rub," as the playwright who also lived during changing times said.

“Things Fall Apart”

There is a crisis in New York that is emblematic of the times. The Episcopal Church’s General Theological Seminary is undergoing a heart-rending conflict as faculty, who have by all accounts been faithful servants of the church and of academia, find themselves ousted from their positions in a struggle with their new dean. The conflict raises many questions about where theological education is headed, and whether current church structures are sustainable. People who held not just fond memories, but deep and meaningful connections with the worship and the grand and stately buildings at the seminary find themselves overcome with heartache and riddled with questions. “Things fall apart; the centre  cannot hold,” is the ominous phrase Yeats uses in The Second Coming. Life was not supposed to unfold this way. There was supposed to always be a center, a strong and reassuring ridgepole of security. Now people are even questioning the role of the church and the academy. Should we even be tied to buildings of mortar and creeds of old men? The world has scattered itself into a digital structure formed in cyberspace. We can all find our connections on the world-wide web. There is no longer a need for a physical cluster of buildings or a specific geographical area so some may say.

Others will counter that we still need physical proximity, we still need solemn worship within a sacred space. We cannot become commuter lackeys always moving, never settled nor can we resign ourselves to becoming just a digital brick in the cyberspace wall. The problem is that neither camp really knows where we are. We do not have the benefit of hindsight nor the gift of looking back over the arc of posterity’s history. We are living it as we go along. 

Guided by Broken Lights

We will eventually figure out what kinds of institutions will serve us better in the current age, and the church will adapt, just as surely as it did in the Medieval Period and in the Industrial Period. It will be here, in some form. Moreover, our other societal institutions will die, adapt, and/or arise to meet the needs of society-as-it-is. For now, we can only try to live with compassion in a society that is at once clinging to the little systems that have had their day while at the same time flailing against the fabric of another time and place. When the system falls, when the center does not hold, then we at least have a chance to look toward the next window which will be but broken lights of that which we seek, but which will serve us well on our pilgrimage from here to there. 

Photo: The Chapel of the Good Shepherd at the General Theological Seminary in New York.
Credit              by Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times


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