In The Great Emergence, church historian Phyllis Tickle described how every five centuries, the church goes through a huge rummage sale, where everything we value — and many things we have taken for granted — get put on the table for sorting. Some of these things we, as a church and as a society, will decide to keep, and others we will discard. Our names for these rummage sales often involve the word “Great,” as in Great Schism and Great Reformation.
We held the last rummage sale around 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenburg. His action kicked off The Great Reformation, separating Protestant and Roman Catholic churches and setting the stage for the Enlightenment. Many of the ideas we’ve inherited, the things we value and the things we take for granted, were hashed out in a few centuries.
You may have noticed that we’re experiencing another rummage sale right now. Many ideas are on the table: ideas about gender, our preference for democracy over authoritarianism, male supremacy, capitalism, and the role of the media are just a few. And the stakes are very high. We are living in the early stages of what may very likely be a mass extinction.
A few years ago I felt I needed to get some distance to consider all that we are facing. As a pastor and a public theologian, I wanted to see up close our Reformation history, and to consider where we might be going in the next 500 years — not just as a church, but as a species. I applied for and was awarded a grant to take a sabbatical and to consider these things, and now I want to share with you what I’ve learned. I offer these reflective devotionals not as an expert prognosticator, but as a fellow traveler who is making some educated guesses.
I can’t help think about Harry Frankfurt’s essay, “On Bullshit” whenever I encounter white male pastors talking about a “third way” or being “centrist.” Frankfurt makes the point that humbug (a form of bullshit) is not a claim about reality; it’s a claim about the speaker.
Frankfurt quotes Max Black’s definition of “humbug” — “deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody’s own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes.” I suspect this describes many 3rd-way pastors these days.
I want to add that I’m not unsympathetic toward pastors who misrepresent themselves during this rise of white Christian Nationalism. I think there are a lot of pastors suffering from Moral Injury, a form of PTSD.
“Third Way” and “centrist” rhetoric may be a form of self-preservation. It says, “I’m not your target” to angry congregants. For many, speaking truthfully about the rise of WCN puts their families and their careers at risk. Far easier to talk about “polarization” and put the blame “on both sides.” But this silence comes at the cost of moral injury.
“Centrism,” in the USian church at this historical moment is a way of positioning my whitedudeself at the center of two imaginary and equally-obejctionable extremes. It reinforces the norm of binary USian “left-right” politics even as it pretends to offer an alternative. But it’s really just status-quo preaching.
(I have to note that the word “centrist” is very descriptive: it really does *center* white male power in the area of public theology and public policy. In this way it perpetuates material harm for others and moral injury for pastors.)
“I defy classification” is a lie that many church leaders tell themselves about themselves. They lament polarization, demonization, and enemyfying, and praise nuance and perspective-taking. All good. But when it comes to specific policies and questions of power… silence.
A preacher w/out this insight may even identify himself (and it’s almost always a “him”) with Christ, “crucified by both left and right,” as I’ve heard one preacher say, vicariously placing himself in the center not only of American politics, but the f’n cosmos.
3rd-way/centrism is “bullshit” because it’s a claim about yourself, not about reality. The last thing pastors want to do is talk about specific policies or theological claims, preferring to gesture toward the extremes and make apophatic statements about their own (& Jesus’s) identity (i.e. “Jesus is not a Democrat or a Republican.”)
Again, I know this is *moral injury* for many pastors. It’s a trap that leads to burnout and demoralization when leaders are crushed between institutional evangelical-capitalist expectations for church growth and a vocational responsibility for truth-telling.
We need to name this bullshit self-centering rhetoric not only for the sake of the people being harmed by these crises, and not only for the sake of the church, and not only for the planet, but for the sake of the pastors who are complicit in it.
Church leaders cannot navigate the crises of climate change, fascism, & disaster capitalism by making nice with wealthy donors whose interests are in perpetuating those things at the expense of everyone else on the planet. If Jesus takes no side here, he’s not merely useless. He’s doing harm.
Lord, you said that if I had faith the size of a mustard seed I could tell this mountain, “get lost,” And it would throw itself into the sea. I don’t know if I have that much faith. But I ask that you would Stop Those who move mountains to reach the coal underneath. That you would Stop Those who dump their waste into the sea. That, in the words of the psalmist, You would break the teeth of the liars, Those false prophets who played in the snow just a few years ago, Asking, “What climate change?” That you would make their lying tongues cleave to the roof of their mouths. That those who sell the needy for a pair of slippers That those who buy expensive things while they made unjust laws That those who have sold our children’s futures Would sink to the bottom of the sea with their yachts, Heavy as hundreds of millstones, That they would become food for the fish whose oceans they’ve choked with plastic. I ask that you would knock down prisons Built with covid money. I ask, as John did, that you would destroy those who destroy the earth, Because though I do not have faith the size of a mustard seed, I have rage the size of a mountain. Let the mountains fall on them, Lord. Let those who legislate poverty, Let those who tread down the good pasture with their feet And muddy the rivers with their excess Be washed away by the rising tides. And if any of my own wealth has been unjustly gained, Return it fourfold To those from whom it was stolen To the people, The plants The rivers, And the land. And when all I have is gone, Leave me with faith The size of a mustard seed. Amen.
Scripture references: Matthew 17:20 Psalm 58:6 Job 29:10 Amos 2:6 Isaiah 10:1 Matthew 18:6 Luke 4:18 Revelation 11:18 Luke 23:30 Ezekiel 34:18 Luke 19:8
A few years ago, I was chauffeuring my teenage son and his friend to an event. They were in the back, telling stories and laughing about how annoying and hilarious young siblings and little children are. I was eavesdropping from the driver’s seat, but couldn’t help sharing an anecdote or two about my memories of my son as a toddler. We laughed and I concluded with, “What they say is that when you’re a grandparent, you’ll be able to enjoy toddlers for awhile, then give them back to their parents before they get annoying.” My son and his friend were silent for a moment. Then she said quietly:
Our generation isn’t going to have grandkids.
There was no sadness or despair in her statement. She said it patiently, as though she were having to explain to the adult in the car that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. There was something else in her voice—pity maybe? She had accepted it, but she was aware that I was still under the delusion that our human species has a future.
She did not have to say any of these other things out loud. It was all in that one statement: Our generation isn’t going to have grandkids. Don’t you know we are living in the middle of an extinction event? That older generations lit the fuse, handed us the climate bomb, and waltzed off into the short story we call human history? That they got to name themselves the Greatest Generation, and Boomers, and other snappy terms for the ones that followed; but that the generations after ours will remain nameless?
I’ve been in ministry for twenty years. I answered the call to ministry because I was convinced God had put a passion in my heart to reach folks the church wasn’t already reaching, and that God wanted me to be part of a Reformation or an Awakening or a Great Emergence that was on the horizon. The vision wasn’t so grandiose (usually) to think that I would lead such a change, but that it was coming whether I participated or not; and wouldn’t it be better to be part of it? I’ve always been partial to the notion that some of the most dynamic, important, world-changing movements of the church have been on the periphery and the margins, or even outside of it, so that’s where I wanted to be, so I’ve often seen myself as a reformer and outsider. Yet her statement made me realize how entrenched and institution-bound my vision remained. Though addressing climate change has always been important to me, I couldn’t feel the existential threat that the next generation takes for granted.
I wondered: as a pastor, what do I have to offer my son’s friend? Certainly not Bill Hybel’s notion that “the local church is the hope of the world.” Not a parental figure’s patronizing cliché that everything will work out. Not a scientific assurance from Jeff Goldblum that “life finds a way.” And if I offer her Jesus, she’s likely to hear the name as institutional Republican Jesus who believes in “beautiful, clean coal,” puts immigrant children in cages, and builds oil pipelines through sovereign indigenous territory and over drinking water.
I retain this conviction that “God so loved the world, the cosmos, that God gave God’s only child.” The salvage project God has been working on since the beginning was never about humans only, but the whole created order. God’s movement both in creation and redemption is about self-giving embodiment, sharing with us the divine breath and walking beside us both in human and more-than-human form.
I’ve also taken to heart Gus Speth’s prophetic words: “I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation, and we scientists don’t know how to do that.”
So when I heard the voice from the back seat say Our generation isn’t going to have grandkids, I heard God say to me, this is on you, buddy. Your job is spiritual and cultural transformation.
But this affirmation and valuing of creation is not the theology I see proclaimed and lived out in the institutional church. And I’m not just pointing the finger at right-wing pastors like John MacArthur who claim the earth is disposable. Instead, my home denomination is about to split over how people should be allowed to have orgasms. 81% of white evangelicals and over half of white mainline Protestants have demonstrated they have no problem with white supremacy and fascism. And although there are wonderful churches full of good people who help the poor and offer vacation Bible schools and tell wonderful heartwarming stories, most of them are too timid to acknowledge that a substantial portion of people under 20 don’t expect human civilization to continue.
(For the record, I think my young friend’s view of human collapse is overly pessimistic, but not because I expect Christians to suddenly start loving the world the way God does. I think God’s plan for human survival has more to do with Jeff Goldblum’s quote than Bill Hybel’s. The Good Lord was crafty enough to make human beings tenacious about survival and sexuality, so I suspect “life will find a way.”)
It has become increasingly clear to me that the church can either pursue its dream of Great Awakening or Reform or Renewal for itself, or it can join God’s project of passionately loving the world and salvaging what we can. It cannot be about both. If we are going to be in a different relationship with our planet, we cannot do so without the help of non-Christians, of people well outside what we normally think of as “church.” If we are to love the world with the self-giving love of God, we will have to submit to learning from indigenous people who have been practicing reciprocity with the more-than-human world far longer than we white Christians been practicing our various forms of extractive capitalism.
Yes, it may be possible that in losing our institutional life we will save it. That sounds a bit like our gospel, after all. But whenever progressive Christians speak hopefully about this Great Ecological Awakening, they sound the most Asleep.
Confronting climate change means confronting — well, everything. White supremacy. Patriarchy. The way capitalism doesn’t actually pay for the real costs of energy and resource extraction, but only shifts the burden of paying for them onto the shoulders of the poor and of future generations. For the American church, these taboo topics are more sacred than God. We Christians don’t mind saying “YHWH” out loud, but these other things must be only whispered in church, never spoken from the pulpit.
I’m still following the call of God, but a young prophet spoke the Word of God to me from the back of my car: Will the church care about climate change? Will you love the world so much that you will give yourself for it?
Our generation isn’t going to have grandchildren. I pray that we will hear this young Jonah and repent. Maybe God will spare us after all?
*(I am grateful to Susan Bond for the giving me a new metaphor for understanding “salvation” as “salvage” in her book Trouble with Jesus.
*I am grateful to Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass for such a wonderful description of reciprocity, and to David Abram (whose work I have not yet read) for the notion of the “more-than-human world.”