The first step in responding to falling membership is to try to understand what is wrong with the current product? In the case of the Presbyterian Church, this seems to be that:
• The Sunday services no longer provide a meaningful spiritual experience for enough people; and/or
• The church programs do little to provide a sense of hope and meaning for people’s lives nor do they equip people to deal with the serious problems of their lives.
• Instead of addressing these deficiencies, the Presbyterian Church seems exhaust its best energies debating the wrong issues.
All of this, it is suggested, stems from the fact that the Presbyterian Church has experienced a fundamental theological change and it does not know how to relate to that change. At the root of this change has been its departure from the traditional view of the Bible. This departure, however, should not be mourned. Given the developments in higher and lower criticism and the parallel developments in secular science, it was inevitable that this would occur.
This, however, is not the problem. The problem is the failure of the church to develop a new view of the Bible and a new theological synthesis to take its place.
First we must recognize just how radical our departure from the traditional view has been. There are basically four views of Scripture: the bible is the infallible, perfect word of God (verbal inspiration): the inspired Word of God but not literally inspired; contains the Word of God but needs to be interpreted in its historical context and demythologized; and a great and holy book but no different from other Scriptures such as the Koran or Upanishads.
There is really no essential difference between the last three and, ultimately, the views of the Bible can be reduced to two, namely, a view of the Bible as the “Inspired Word of God in the strict sense and a view of the Bible that is not.
Presbyterians often like to believe that they have found the middle ground. Unfortunately, this middle ground is usually a bit squishy. We try to kid ourselves that our less-than-totally inspired interpretations of the Bible are not much different, in effect, than the traditional interpretation. Not so; the ultra-conservative churches have recognized the pitfalls in the less-than-totally inspired views and, e.g., the Southern Baptist Convention made adherence to the traditional view a non-negotiable doctrinal standard.
Ironically, many if not most of the denominations adhering to the traditional view seem to be flourishing. They understand their market, they know their product and the results are evident. It is beneficial, therefore, to examine their product line and the portion of the market that they are able to capture.
At its core is the notion that the text of the Bible can be taken as factual reality. Hence, their primary market is the collection of people who want and need an “infallible” Bible. The Presbyterian Church should not seek to meet this need. It should, instead, seek to help people move beyond such needs.
The concern is that a religious experience based on an “infallible Bible” can become quite dysfunctional; particularly where a system of religious beliefs is wildly inconsistent with a common-sense perception of reality. When the conflict between the religious experience and the perception of reality is resolved by distorting the perception of reality, the price of the religious experience becomes very costly.
Presbyterians should not go after this segment of the market. Our primary concern should be for those people who need and want a religious experience that can be integrated with their common sense perception of reality.
The newly evolving views of the Bible should work just fine. Contemporary biblical criticism tries to understand the Bible in its historical context with all of its warts and allow God to speak through it. It opens us to the most profound struggles with the fundamental issues of life: what is the meaning of our lives, how do we endure pain, suffering and loss, how we can undo bad decisions, reverse unfortunate circumstances and find a sense of health and salvation. The Bible provides a vehicle through which we can address these issues in a most productive way. We have to recognize, however, that these issues have no closed-form solutions; there are only the questions and the search for the answers.
This is at the heart of our ecclesiastical dilemma. Like any commercial enterprise, the church has to provide a product and the overwhelming temptation of the church is provide authoritative answers to the fundamental questions of life; even when there are no authoritative answers. In part, this explains why some cling tenaciously to an archaic view of the Bible. This view of the Bible provides authoritative answers.
It is a necessary underpinning for the traditional construct through which salvation is achieved, “… whosoever believeth in him, shall not perish but have everlasting life.” This section from John uses contractual language and is a great source of comfort to many people. If, however, the very document containing the contract is called into question, then what reliance can we have that its terms will be fulfilled? “Very little” is the answer and this becomes a serious problem.
What we need to do will be very difficult. On one hand, we need to acknowledge that there are no simple answers to the ultimate questions of human life. On the other hand, we need to feel confident that there are solutions; albeit transcendent solutions. The ecclesiastical dilemma stems from the fact that “transcendent solutions” are not a very marketable product line. Because we cannot presume on what God might do nor can we manipulate God, we cannot deliver “ultimate solutions” with any commercially acceptable reliability.
We might, however, discover what we are seeking by looking at how Jesus functioned. The essence of his public ministry was to “encounter” the people of Canaan with an astute mixture of love, support, judgment and forgiveness. The profound result of those encounters was that many recognized that when they had met Jesus, that they had met God.
It was the encounter itself that provided the glimpse of the ultimate and its transforming power. The most logical place to look for this transforming encounter today is within the church. The most logical product line for us to pursue would, therefore seem to be the relationships that exist within the church itself.
This, of course, would only make sense if the church is truly a loving, supporting, judging and forgiving community; a community that provides a context within which its members struggle together to find the answers to the ultimate questions of their lives. Following the logic of 1 John 4:7, “… everyone who loves is born of God and knows God,” such a church would provide the opportunity to encounter God through relationships and open us to the possibility of the ultimate.
Our greatest need in this modern world is for such profound human relationships. Establishing “profound relationships” is not, however, an easy task. Life in mass society requires that we relate guardedly in all but perhaps a few very well chosen relationships; Sartre’s “hell is other people” merits serious consideration, and it is well that we do this.
The unenviable task of the pastor is to help people form transcendent relationships within the context of human unreliability but with appropriate safeguards; this requires a very high level of skill on the part of the pastor. It also requires a theological basis that will guide the movement and development of these communities and these relationships.
The Presbyterian Church can take the lead in developing a new theological synthesis. The foundation of that synthesis will not be an infallible Bible, but rather the search for the loving, supporting, judging and forgiving community that we would like our churches to be. It is in churches that we find real people trying to understand and resolve the fundamental issues in their lives: the profound questions of health, sickness, suffering and death and the search for meaning.
Our salvation comes not from a static truth in a canonical Scripture or a one-time avowal of faith; our salvation comes from accepting the questions of human life — including the question of death — and accepting the love and support of our neighbor and providing our love and support to our neighbor as we continue our search. The graphic portrayals of the death and resurrection of Jesus did not, as suggested by most traditional theologies, provide the answer; they simply demonstrated that God is present with us in our struggle with the questions.
Posted Feb. 27, 2004
John R. Powers is chairman of Corporate Communication Resources Inc. He holds an M.Div from Princeton Seminary and a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Pennsylvania.
Re: “Praying for the powerful”
I was astounded and relieved by your comments about the risk of overthrowing governments, and the connections between the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the recent terrorist attack in Beslan, Russia. Astounded because that is not exactly received opinion, and relieved that you could attribute similar views to “many people”, of which you are one – and I am another.
Staying short of conspiracy theories, it seems clear that short-sighted U.S. interference (on the wrong side in Afghanistan from 1979/1980 until the Soviet withdrawal, and in other ways as well), merely turned what might have been an orderly transition to more liberal governments in Russia and the Soviet republics into chaos – which is what is hazarded when governments are overthrown. The connection to Al Qaida is also clear. You may not “connect the dots” in quite the same way, but I interpret your remarks to be roughly consistent with this brief account. I will add that (in my view) the American Revolution succeeded, where the French and Russian did not, not without terror, because the first was more of a revolt than a revolution, which left the governing bodies and commercial interests of the colonies largely intact.
An opinion piece by Richard Young in the same issue expresses another important but generally sidestepped issue: the abdication by Congress of the authority to declare war, which is particularly poignant when Presidential campaigns are vying for the distinction of being the more willing to go to war preemptively.
These are not popular views, as the almost universal deification of Ronald Reagan has made clear. I fear that, despite “many people” who may share at least some of these insights, there will not be enough of us, it appears, to counter what is sure to come as the world faces dwindling resources. And that will be a tenacious attachment to greed and to conflict, which we have seen elevated to an ideology.
Therefore I wish to encourage you and the Presbyterian Church and the National Council of Churches (whose ten principles for evaluating candidates were also reported in the Oct. 4 issue) and your congregations in your humane endeavors. Thank you for your leadership.
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