Death of “Church”
William Stringfellow. A lesser known figure in American theology in the 60s-70s. A lawyer and, dare I say, pragmatist.
I’ve recently read through the first essay in his publication, A Private and Public Faith, which he writes is intended to, “[invite] argument and controversy, not however, for the sake of mere dispute, nor because of any overconfidence on my part in the observations made in the essays, but because of conviction that religion is, in principle, not only a very private matter but also a public issue, and because of conviction that the health and eventual maturity of the churches of American Protestantism depend upon getting some issues stated openly and discussed widely – by both clergy and laity and by the un-churched public as well.”
He ends his preface with the line, “The churches – particularly of Protestantism – in the United States are, to a great extent, preoccupied with religion rather than with the Gospel.”
Normally this dichotometrical distinction that produces a “Religion Vs. Gospel” or, in more contemporary terms, “Religion Vs. Relationship” makes me face palm. Mostly because the proponents of the bumper sticker theology of “Religion vs. Relationship” rarely define what they mean by religion. Or relationship. Or versus.
I appreciate Stringfellow’s approach, as he seeks to define religion, although in a negative sort of sense. He attempts to classify and define both “religion” and “Gospel.”
In the first essay, entitled “The Folly of Religion,” Stringfellow divides it up into three subsections: The Religiosity of Religion, The Agnosticism of Religion, and The Atheism of Religion.
He opens with words that I believe echo, in some sense, many of the disillusioned millennials who are fed up with contemporary church practice. “For the Christian faith, the happiest thing to happen in America for a long time is the recession in religion. For the churches in the United States, the healthiest fact at the present time is the decline of religion.”
Stringfellow explains that he is extremely excited for the decline in religious attendance, as it means those who are sticking with church meetings are those truly committed to the cause of Christ, and therefore the Gospel narrative. He writes, “It is just as well. The religious revival was no return to the Gospel anyway, and, though it enriched some churches in both numbers and assets, it was no renewal of the Church.”
(Notice his distinction between “church” with a lowercase and “Church” with an uppercase. Religion is associated with church. Gospel is associated with the Church.)
How does Stringfellow define “Gospel” versus “religion,” or “the Church” versus “church?”
He starts by suggesting that “religion begins with the proposition that some god exists; Christianity meanwhile, is rejoicing in God’s manifest presence among us.” Basically, other religions purport that man has to seek after god, has to find him in nature, in self, or in other places. However, Stringfellow proposes that Christianity suggests that God seeks after man, and makes himself known and apparent, most notably via the incarnation, and also through Scripture (and, I would suggest, through the Church, Christ’s practical body while he is away).
He further classifies, “Religion is fulfilled…in one of two ways: either (1) in consecrating some object or power or ideology or man – or, in earlier days, some commodity or natural phenomenon or animal or any thing – as a god, and as, hopefully, the god, or (2) in projecting god beyond history, into the unknown and the unknowable, enthroned, perhaps, before this life or in some after life but never in this life, out of this world, oblivious of the present existence and grandly indifferent to it, abstract, irrelevant, impotent, indifferent – a ridiculous god, in face, no god at all.”
In regard to the Gospel (of course not a full description), Stringfellow writes, “The news that God (even) cares for me (even). All those smaller gods – the gods of the various religions – are indifferent to that. What they care about, what idols are concerned with – is whether they are worshiped, is whether their own existence is verified and lauded. But Christ speaks very differently. Indeed, Christ embodies the difference between religion and the Gospel. Christ bespeaks the care of God for everything to do with actual life, with life as it is lived by anybody and everybody day in and day out.”
“In short,” writes Stringfellow, “religion supposes that God is yet to be discovered; Christianity knows that God has already come among us.”
This has a lot of implications for social activism and social justice, which resonate with much of Stringfellow’s thoughts and writings. If God cares for me individually, and loves me passionately, then I, now knowing who I am in Christ, am called to portray that same agape love toward the world. I am called to be crucified.
Stringfellow goes on to talk about how the “religious revival” of the post-war era (keep in mind Stringfellow is writing in the early 1960s) did nothing to truly advance the Gospel or Kingdom of God. It merely added uncommitted believers rather than deeply committed disciples. It put a tentative Christian stamp on market religion, giving it the facade of appearing to be the Church, while in reality, it was a meeting of self-seeking spiritual people, just looking for a means to cope with the realities of life, with no desire to give back. I think of Freud’s claim that religion is an illusion, a means to cope with the stresses of life and avoid existential burdens. Instead of sharing the Gospel news and call to action, they hide it away into individualistic, pietistic religion that is still seeking after God – seeking after in the sense they are still at unrest deep down. They refuse to engage with the harsh realities of life, and refuse to engage with the reality of being unconditionally loved by Christ. It is sad, really, but they have not truly understood how much the Trinitarian God cares for them, and so, while existing beside the Church in church, they continue to perform religion by seeking god, unbeknownst they are not actually satisfied. However, those who have grasped even a small glimmer of the call of the Trinitarian God (which includes the unconditional love), have the ability to stop seeking God (and thereby stop their “religion”), and instead, share with the world the wonder and beauty of the Gospel. This, I believe, is what Stringfellow is getting at when he talks about Religion vs. Gospel.
That is not to say Stringfellow can judge the hearts and intentions of these people. Only God truly knows what goes on in people’s deepest motivations. Nonetheless, there is much weight in Jesus’ call: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?” I think Stringfellow’s point here is that the post-war American context of the religious revival spurred seeking people to grab onto the first thing that offered existential consolation. “Jesus loves me this I know? The Bible tells me so? HECK YEAH I’LL JOIN THAT BIZ.” There was no weighing the cost of picking up a cross. There was no planning or deliberation. It was all about sudden ease and consolation, which could be one reason that the reality of unconditional agape love toward the individual never sunk in deep – there was no time spent truly contemplating the beauty of the call of Christ – and thus people were still seeking God in church. That is okay (unlikely) for a time in the immature stages of faith, but at some point, a disciple of Christ will face a decision(s) that determines how committed he/she truly is to the cause of the Kingdom of God, and it is at that point when the disciple can decipher if he/she is truly following Christ. It appears, then, that this mass “falling away” that Stringfellow talks about is those believers who couldn’t find it in themselves to mature into disciples. Their faith diminished, as they didn’t have faith, they merely had belief. Because of this, they could not produce nutritious fruit for the Kingdom. Thus, it was beneficial for them to wither away, for a time, in order that the Gospel could be more clearly articulated and explicit, in order that they may return with a correct understanding of what they were originally getting themselves into.
**This is not only criticizing the uncommitted individuals in church, though. It is part of the Church’s call to help the world realize the depth of God’s love for the world. If there are people in church that haven’t (started to) grasp this concept, it is most likely not entirely the individual’s fault. What is it within the Church that is preventing this click, if you will, in the individual’s heart and mind?**
Stringfellow goes on to talk about how being a Christian, being a part of the Church will be less beneficial than portraying the facade of being apart of it. He foresaw that eventually, the Church (and also “church,” what many people consider to be the Church) would become less popular, and possibly even despised by society. He viewed this as a good thing. He praised God for it. Why? It brings out true commitment. Only those who have counted the cost, who are ready to pick up a cross, to speak Christian-ese, will stick around in the Church during seasons of persecution (of any degree). He saw this trend as a blessing, not as a curse, and embraced it full on.
I currently don’t know where I stand or what all I think about some of Stringfellow’s themes in his first essay, but I do know he’s given me quite a bit to think about in a society that is becoming filled with “nones,” rather than with Christians.
I can only hope that Stringfellow is right when he suggests the death of church is the nourishment of the Church. Time will tell.
Let us all pray for, and love, the lost in our lives who do not understand the beauty of the Trinitarian God who so desperately wants relation with them.