Monday, April 02, 2018

Ecclesial consumerism

I'd like to revisit an old argument by Bryan Cross:

In our contemporary culture, church-shopping has become entirely normal and even expected. Not only when moving to a new location, but if a person has some falling out with a pastor or other individual or family in his church, or even if his church-experience starts seeming dull or dry, he visits and tries out other churches, determining which one best suits his preferences. He might consider the kind of community they offer — how welcomed and wanted they make him feel. He might consider the kind of child care and/or Sunday school they offer, the quality of the preaching and music, the driving distance, the ethnicity or degree of ethnic diversity, the average age and culture or tastes of their members, the opportunities available to contribute with his own talents and gifts, whether they have home groups that he could join, and what sort of moral and theological doctrines they hold, what their views are on various social issues, whether they share or at least do not disapprove his political and economic views, etc. He weighs all the various factors and tries to decide which church best matches what he (and his family) are looking for in a church. He might even make lists of all he is looking for in a church, and see which church comes closest to meeting all the criteria.

i) There was a time in European history when Roman Catholicism was the only game in town. Moreover, to publicly question Catholic tenets was an invitation to be tortured to death by the religious and/or civil authorities, so there was a powerful incentive to keep your head down even if you entertained private doubts.

ii) In addition, for devout Catholics, it's not just a set of beliefs but an all-encompassing way of life. Daily devotionals like the Rosary. A religious calendar littered with saints days and novenas for the occasion. Catholic art, music, novels. Prior to Vatican II, Catholic education K-12, plus college–back when students were systematically and unashamedly indoctrinated in Catholic dogma. Everyone within your inner social circle was Catholic.  A complete, off-the-shelf package. That's how it used to be–less so now. That conditioning produces tunnel vision–so that any alternative is inconceivable. For those deeply immersed in Catholic culture, a break with Catholicism requires a radical paradigm shift.

That insular experience has parallels in 19C Germano-Lutheran immigrants and Dutch-Reformed immigrants who lived in close-knit, communities where everyone continued to speak the original language, retain old-country customs, &c. And it has parallels in other ethno-religious communities, viz. Judaism, Mormonism, Hinduism, Buddhism. Not just a belief-system, or even primarily a belief-system, but a whole prepackaged subculture. 

iii) By contrast, America is a marketplace of ideas. There's nothing that resembles default sectarian national tradition. Rather, America is religiously and ideologically pluralistic, with the result that many Americans do compare and contrast the religious options, and they often choose a religion or denomination based on a set of ideas rather than a cultural package or distinctive way of life. Since the American experience disrupts homogenous religious enclaves, theological ideas are what's left. There is no overarching sectarian culture. That's been broken up through confluent waves of diverse and divergent immigrant groups. 

Once inside, converts may deepen their religious practice to make it a more pervasive feature of their lives, but the entry-point concerns a set of doctrines. That may be inclusive of a complete, off-the-shelf package, but they're usually exposed to more of that after they begin attending a local church, reading the theological literature, or social networking with like-minded members of that religious persuasion. 

There's no point in Bryan bitching about that situation, because that's the situation in which most Americans find themselves. The religious traditions are scattered and splintered. So seekers have no alternative but to go church-shopping. No sectarian tradition enjoys social hegemony. So there's no alternative to surveying the options. And that may involve mixing and matching the best (or perceived best) of two or more preexisting traditions. 

iv) Moreover, that's a good thing. A person's religious affiliation shouldn't simply be a cultural given. To be randomly born into a particular religious package is not a good reason to be an adherent. That's the luck of the draw–which doesn't reliably select for truth.  

So we do need to give some consideration to the religious options. It can be a coarse-grained rather than fine-grained consideration. 

If we worship in a community or organization that is custom-made to our own tastes, desires, self-perceived needs, and interpretations, there is a sense in which what we are worshiping is something made in our own image, and thus self-worshiping, even as we sing praise choruses describing how much we love Jesus. 

That can be a problem, but contemporary Catholicism is no exception to that problem. At least since Pius XII, the church of Rome has been pandering to modernity. Bryan always talks about an idealized theological construct rather than the empirical church of Rome. 

Ecclesial consumerism carries with it a crucial theological assumption. The church-shopping phenomenon presupposes that none of the churches is the true Church that Christ founded. 

That's a misleading way to frame the issue. Low-church Protestants like me believe that Jesus founded "the church", but the church he founded is an essentially decentralized rather than centralized body. A church defined by Word and Spirit, which is portable. You find the church embodied in Christians. The church is lived out in Christians. 

In short, only if Christ never founded a visible (i.e. hierarchically unified) universal Church, or that Church ceased to exist, does ecclesial consumerism become an option.

Agreed. Jesus never founded the Roman Catholic polity. 

…the Catholic believes that the Catholic Church is the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church founded by Christ, and whose bishops assembled in ecumenical council at Nicea in A.D. 325 and again in Constantinople in A.D. 381 to state the Church’s faith concerning herself with those very words, “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” 

Appealing to the Nicene marks of the church is circular inasmuch as that pivots on the authority of ecumenical councils.

For the [well-catechized] Catholic, the identity of the Church is not determined by her conformity to one’s own interpretation of Scripture. Rather, one’s determination of which interpretation is authentic is determined by the teaching authority of the Church Christ founded. 

And how is the identity of the church Christ founded to be determined? Not by appeal to Rome, since you can only appeal to Rome on the prior assumption that Rome is the church Christ founded. Since, according to Bryan, Scripture can't be the tiebreaker, what is? 

Can't be the church fathers since, by Bryan's lights, their authority is determined by the church Christ founded. Moreover, your determination of which patristic interpretation is authentic is determined by the church Christ founded. So where do you break into Bryan's tight, Tungsten-steel circle? Unless, at a preliminary stage of the argument, he has an authority-source (or evidence) that's independent of his ecclesial candidate, he can't get going. 

In my experience, Bryan always commences his discussion of Catholicism with key assumptions taken for granted, as if that's already been established. Bryan's view of Catholicism is like an axiomatic system in which the first principles are arbitrary postulates. 

 “What I like ultimately has nothing to do with why I am a Catholic. I’m Catholic because I believe the Catholic Church to be the one, true Church that Christ founded, and all other churches to be sects or schisms from her.”

And Protestants like me return the favor by classifying Bryan's adopted denomination as a schismatic and heretical body which broke with the NT exemplars. 

1 comment:

  1. Is the Church of Rome the pillar an ground of the truth? Not even close!