Friday, September 23, 2011

Embertide thoughts on Mission and the “Post-Secular” Church

What follows is a poem by 17th century English author Thomas Traherne. The intricacies of this poem are many, as put forth in a fine essay by Forrest Gander here. When reading this poem, carefully take note of your emotions and the mood created.

“Spiritual Absence”
Thomas Traherne (c. 1636-1674)—Priest, Poet, Theologian
(Commemorated in the Episcopal Church on September 27)

That Man is Poor and Desolate whose Lov

None seeks, no man sollicits, none Doth move,

Whose Brightest Splendors in the Dark do lie

And all his Great affections are thrown by.

Rust covers his Resplendent fancy, Dust

Soyls all his Powers, & his Lov doth rust.

His Wit’s unseen, his Wisdom none admires,

His Souls unsought, his favor none desires.

None vallues his esteem, his sacred tears

No ey doth pitty, Fury no man fears.

His Passions are hung o’er with Cobwebs, and

His greatest virtues idle in Him stand.

His Courage no where is imployd his zeal
No Beauty doth to any Ey reveal.

His Excellencies in a Silent Cave

Are hid; his very Body is his grave.

His faculties are Empty, all his powers

Are Solitary, Withered, Blasted Bowers.

His Wide & great capacity is laid

Aside, his precept is by none Obeyd.

His very Worth’s neglected & Despised,

His very Riches are themselves not prizd.

He is the poor, forlorn and needy man,

That see, do, Prize, Enjoy, Admire at Nothing can;

Whose Goodness cant itself comunicat,

Nor Avarice Enjoy anothers State.

Whose Violent & Endless Lov’s displeased,

Whose Great Ambition is by no man Easd.

Who no Dominion hath, Whom no Mans Ey

Doth Prize, Exalt, Rejoyce in, Magnifie.
Who reigns not always in anothers soul,

Whose Highness nothing can at all Controul.

Who cannot pleas far more the Worlds! & be

A Bliss to others like the Deitie.

This is a poem about the effects of atheism on individuals and, consequently, on cultures. It omits reference to God until the very ending word. It creates an environment, a landscape of what it is to be shorn of any sense of the holy.

The severing of the spiritual dimension of life from the human person—something just beginning during Traherne’s lifetime, and something of which he was keenly aware—has very predictable effects on us. The poem’s language and content make this clear. It is a world of negation; the “golden thread” of meaning is lost, and the human becomes untethered, impotent, disconnected from the fabric of reality.

Similarly, the atheist world becomes one of personal isolation, incommunicability. The individual is the sole measure of reality. Whereas Christian orthodoxy proclaims that all reality is the product of the relationship of the Holy Three-in-One (in which we share through the operation of the Holy Spirit), our current age’s preference for mastery over mystery has resulted in a mechanized, de-personalized definition of the world.

So many in the Church are scurrying around today trying to find the magic formula that will reverse the trends towards marginalization of religion. I think most of these efforts are wasted and profoundly misguided. The “fix” is not to be had by clever techniques, campaigns, or attempts at making God relevant to people today. Traherne’s poem puts forth the problem in frightful honesty: we have become irrelevant to each other and to ourselves. The very form of our technological society ensures our continued alienation from earth, the neighbor, the authentic self-in-relationship, and God.

The prescriptions given by many in American Christianity amount to becoming better atheists: putting more and more faith and emphasis on artificiality, removing whatever sacramentality in the world or the Church has managed to slip through our empiricist grasp, and relegating such things as beauty, wonder, awe, and transcendence to the tender mercies of consumerism, ideologies, and the movies.

This is most clearly manifested in American Christian worship, which continues to grow more and more like Narcissus gazing into his mirror each year. 

Presenting so little truly meaningful alternative to the culture around us, we still find ourselves surprised that, apart from gimmicks and short-term pay-offs, we continue to loose our ability to engage the minds and hearts of those outside. Our response is to press on with the failed and empty methods of recent decades in the vain hope that repetition will result in "success," which is generally defined in terms of measurable "benchmarks" largely equated with money and popularity--two things notably absent from the records of Jesus' ministry.

The Church will not have grasped its identity and mission in our culture until it comes to admit that much of its life is corrupted and compromised by the very atheism Traherne’s poem laments. Our “Goodness cant itself communicat” while we remain locked in the assumptions of a functional atheism. The political, economic, and philosophical models we use must be held up for what they are. Where the joy of the Holy Trinity is not found, we must have the courage of all generations of true disciples and “pluck out our eye” where it offends. A Church, a clergy, a lay-leadership, that is unwilling to do this is unworthy of the name Christian, and will be rightfully cast off into the marginalia of history.

The good news in this poem is that the condition we are in can change in an instant. The last line (“A Bliss to others like the Deitie”) is only the ending in one sense. It is just as much the possibility of a beginning—a new start, a new life, a new relationship with Love and Life in its fullness. It is that renewal I believe awaits us after this ghastly era. 

As with most such renewals in Christianity, it will be sparked when enough people arise to demand better of the stewards of the Sacred Mysteries. Put into contemporary terms, when a generation of Christians learns of what it has been denied by its elders in their complacency, slovenliness, and arrogance. When that day comes, pray for mercy. The hunger in these souls so long denied authentic nourishment will be a fearsome thing.

No comments:

Post a Comment