I read Reaching for the Invisible God by Philip Yancey ten or twelve years ago. I loved it. It was so helpful for me at a time when I was lost and searching, clamoring to make sense of losing the faith of my childhood, and dreadfully uncertain that I’d ever find another one in its place. I didn’t, actually, until some six or seven years later, which is precisely why Yancey’s book provided such balm to me personally:
“I have known God’s presence and God’s absence, fullness and emptiness, spiritual emptiness and a dark void. The sequence as well as the variety of these steps in my pilgrimage took me by surprise, and as I looked around for a roadmap that might offer clues on what to expect, I found much confusion.”
I thought Yancey got it. And he does, I think, get the deep and vexing search humans must encounter if they are to understand God in any kind of personal way.
But after recently reading an interview Yancey gave to the Huffington Post, I’m equally convinced that, like so many conservative Christians/evangelicals, Yancey clearly does not get it, if by that we mean that he has any insight about the larger systemic issues associated with being Christian in the United States, and with being religious moreover throughout the world. In the interview, Yancey said,
“I am staggered that so many conservative or evangelical Christians would see a man who is a bully, who made his money by casinos, who has had several wives and several affairs, that they would somehow paint him as a hero, as someone that we could stand behind.”
Ironically, Yancey cannot fathom why evangelicals would do this for precisely the same reason that they do it – by virtue of his association with evangelicalism, he embodies a kind of religiosity that requires one to tow the party line and not not ask certain questions that require the larger system (i.e., the church as an institution) to give an account of its actions, especially as they relate to the other systems that institution is itself intertwined with (i.e., the Republican party).
That is to say, as a rule, evangelicals have almost no insight into the systemic inertia that is implicit in organized religious practice, precisely because they are so deeply entrenched in the system which requires that they not question it. Yancey himself is no exception if he can honestly say he is baffled. Apparently, he is comfortable questioning the agents of the system (read: church-going evangelicals supporting Trump), but not the larger system (i.e., the institutional church itself). If he did, this would not come as such a shock.
What does questioning the larger system look like?
It starts with the frank acknowledgment that any organized church is also a system, particularly any church that is connected meaningfully to a denominational body (which is itself also a system). This is important because systems have one goal — to maintain themselves. So, even if a religious system (e.g., a church) says it has a different primary goal, such as propagating the Gospel of Christ, by virtue of its status as an institution, it cannot help but also have this first more primary goal of sustaining itself.By “more primary goal,” I simply mean that if ever there comes a conflict between the goal of the institutional church self-sustaining and any of its additional goals, the primary goal always wins. For example, a church threatened by its loss of power in culture will gladly line-up behind a presidential candidate like Trump, even though Trump’s messages are inarguably counter to those of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The primary goal of self-sustaining always trumps secondary goals. (PUN INTENDED)
All of this is what Fr. Richard Rohr has been driving at for years as he has professed that there are nine levels of spiritual development, and that the whole of U.S. religious practice, and indeed, much of the religious practice the world over is stuck in the first three, where people are preoccupied with pleasure needs, security needs, and image-maintenance needs. Rohr says that
“Almost all of…religious history has been invested in the creation and maintenance of first half of life issues: the big three concerns of identity, security, and survival. They don’t just dominate, they totally take over. That is where history has been up to now, I am afraid. In fact, most generations have seen boundary marking and protecting those boundaries as their primary and sometimes only task. Most of history has been the forging of structures of security and appropriate loyalty symbols to announce and defend one’s personal identity and one’s group. We were both overly defensive and overly offensive it seems, with little time left for simple living, friendship, or communion.”
What’s confusing about all of this is precisely that conservative evangelicals are seemingly so unaware of it. Average parishioners, Yancey included, believe churches when they regularly profess they have but one goal in spreading the Gospel of Christ. Unfortunately, it just ain’t true. One more time, and for the record:
Churches are [a part of] systems, and systems seek primarily to maintain themselves, even when they say otherwise. If something threatens the primary systemic goal, like losing a Presidential election, the system’s secondary goals, like propagating the Gospel of Christ, must fall subservient.
This is a devastating realization when you wake up to discover that a man like Donald Trump could be the political darling of conservative Christians you identify with. The temptation here for some is to pretend it isn’t happening. The temptation for many others is to leave the church altogether and denounce religion as wholly defunct. Fortunately, that ain’t true either.
Good religious practice involves mature, thinking adults who refuse to check our brains at the door with our coats, and who are willing to stand up to the system, including the institutional ones we are a part of, and promote the fundamental messages of our faith, even at our great peril.
This is not the same as “fixing the system,” because it requires the acknowledgment that the system is fundamentally bankrupt and can only continue to act as systems do – in their own self-interest. Instead of offering some system-remedying ideology, Christ offered himself as an avatar for justice, mercy, charity, peace, and love. And it is precisely why he was executed as a threat to the religious and political systems of his day. So too must we offer ourselves, and be willing to stand for the same virtues when our religious systems fall before the idols of self-preservation.
Trump and boulder pictures courtesy of Wikimedia Commons used under Creative Commons License.
Richard Rohr picture courtesy of CAC used under Creative Commons License.
Jesus Image ©CreationSwap/Jennifer Powell. Cropped from original. Used with Permission.