Minding our Story

Years ago I was in the process of discernment for ordained ministry. I had completed the parish part , where your own congregation considers you for ministry, and then you meet with a group of clergy and they look you up down for the job. I was nervous about the meeting, and didn’t represent myself well, but we really parted company when they asked me about what were my “non-negotiables,” those things that I thought would be imperative to my ministry.

I rhymed off a list of things that I thought made people Christian : the importance of scripture, liturgy, the Trinity. I was babbling, but I think it was when I hit the Trinity that the examining priest in the Christmas sweater asked me “Where is love in that?”  The question hit me like a cold shower. At the time I said something about the Trinity, and God being a community ergo we are called to be a community of oneness in love (or something less articulate), but afterwards I was deeply puzzled that I had to give a justification for the presence of love in what I thought were core Christian teachings, and that I had to do this for a priest who was examining me for ministry was disconcerting.

As I have grown older in my church I have come to realize this experience was not unique unto me, but rather par for the course for those of us who fall into the generational divide between those who came of age in the church in the 1960s, and those of us who are coming of age in the church today.

This divide, and its explanation, has recently been examined in a very timely book by Jeff Seaton, a minister in the United Church of Canada. In this book, Who’s Minding the Story: The United Church of Canada meets A Secular Age, which was Seaton’s Phd thesis for Divinity, he applies Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age as a road to describe the course his own church has taken as it has adjusted to “the meet the world where it is at,” and where the world presently is, according to Taylor, is in the “immanent frame.”

The immanent frame is the term Taylor uses to describe the our present social imaginary, how we envision the world, and presently we, society at large, see the world more as matter to be worked upon. We are far less “porous” than our ancestors, who saw the world as a series of competing forces vying for the attention of our souls. There the medieval mind, Taylor posits, was attentive to the spiritual power of relics, the eucharist, eastertide, etc, we moderns are more inclined to think that it is we who bestow meaning upon these things rather than them having intrinsic meaning, and spiritual force, apart from us. We see ourselves as being in a Newtonian, indifferent universe as opposed to the pulsing cosmos of ancient times.

Seaton applies Taylor’s description of how we got from here to there, but in more recent times. Particularly, he looks at the change his own denomination has gone through since the 1960s and demonstrates how the United Church has adjusted its teachings to a society that has become increasing closed to the idea of transcendence, or at least the strange otherness offered by God in Christ Jesus. To this end Seaton uses the examples of two ministers to show how the workings of the United Church have accommodated this cultural shift, “John Pentland, who makes the argument for a closer connection between church and secular culture; and that of Gretta Vosper, an atheist who argues for a post-theistic future for the denomination.”

Both ministers, Seaton argues, are responding to the new environment of faith that we find ourselves in in 21st century North America, and that is an environment that has been (what Taylor calls) disenchanted. Our modern secularlity, says Taylor, has within it a compounding sense of being haunted, of loss, of “a wide sense of malaise at the disenchanted world, a sense of it as flat, empty, a multiform search for something within, or beyond it, which could compensate for the meaning lost with transcendence.”

For John Pentland the challenge is how to bring people into a relationship with the church, which, as an institution, has such alien language to compared to the culture at large. To that end Pentland compensates his ministry in this environment by toning down the “churchyness” of his congregation. “I’m just a fan of saying,” argues Pentland. “‘We’re all in this together,’ and let’s not alienate people.” There is one world, and it is sacred, but it is also enclosed within the immanent frame, within which we are called to live in peace and harmony without alienating one another. Ultimately, Pentland does not seem to have a need for, a use for, or a place for the transcendent in his ecclesiology.

Pentland creates distance from the Otherness of the transcendent in his ministry to accommodate the culture, make it palatable for a people not at home with strange language and customs of an institution that has grown old in a world obsessed with newness. There is a mercy in this, but it is a mercy that, both Seaton and Taylor argue against because it actually strips churches from being able to offer  congregations the “transcendental window,” that we, prisoners of the immanent frame, need in order to get the sense of freshness that comes from outside the malaise of modernity.

Vosper, on the other hand, will make no compromises. Whereas Pentland delicately distances himself from the weightiness of transcendental terminology that a Christian life has, traditionally, been associated with, Vosper is eager to jettison all allusions to deism. “As with the secular theologians of the 1960s, the focus is on a transition out of childhood tutelage and into maturity and a responsible, grown-upstance towards the world. Vosper imagines early human prehistory and the challenges of living on a volatile and dangerous planet: “you begin to realize how essential it was to find something that would take care of you, something that would shelter you, something that would keep the reckless writhing of the world at bay.” Humans invented God as a security blanket, but as our confidence in our capacities has grown, we have unmasked the illusions of Oz and come to understand “that like Dorothy, we need to make it work ourselves.”

Seaton speaks against this narrative of “growing-up,” and leaving behind the childish fairy tales of religion, warning that “[o]ur desire to be affirmed by contemporary culture—to be popular, to be seen as culturally sophisticated—has led us to adjust our story so that it contains only what secular culture will permit.” Smacking of Audre Lorde’s proclamation, that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, Seaton quotes the United Church theologian Douglas Hall who asks whether a church without Jesus at its heart can long endure, and goes so far to suggest that it is “probable that Christianity would cease to be were its adherents no longer prepared to see anything in Jesus beyond that which could be explained in purely human and rational terms.” Vosper’s expression of Christianity, if the word “Christianity” can be stretched so far, is not a call to renewal, to celebrate the holy mysteries entrusted to the safekeeping of the Church, but rather the bleaching of those mysteries so that they neatly fit into the prevailing culture of rationality where all are doomed to make sense. To be the church a robust expression of the church, argues Seaton, is to be bound up in the ability to articulate some form of belief in the church’s story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as its defining characteristic.

Both of  secularisms practiced by Pentland and Vosper create a distance from the great otherness of God, it’s a question of degrees, and in this both reveal themselves to be products of the cross pressure between the immanent and transcendent that Taylor says characterize our beliefs in this era. And yet while Taylor says this makes all of what we believe all the more delicate, this does not mean that the religious should surrender to these prophets of the immanent frame, but rather hold to our defining characteristic, to open the windows and let the light in.

Seaton’s own vision of renewal is titleed “A Progressive Orthodoxy,” which on the one hand embraces his “denomination’s heritage of support for social justice, right relationships, and efforts at engagement with those at the margins,” while on the other “asserts that, in the church, progressive values are given their shape and meaning and purpose by the gospel.” “Combining these two elements into progressive orthodoxy holds the promise of celebrating the fruit of the United Church of

Canada’s particular charisms as one branch of the Christian family, while the branch remains firmly affixed to the larger tree of Christianity rooted in the story revealed in Scripture.”

I find deep encouragement in Seaton’s work as an act of faith for the rest of us that have come to love the promise of the church, while we wait for the institution of the church to catch up. There is a deep hope in the members of my generation for the culture that has made for the progressive politics of our mainline denominations to live into the uncomfortableness of robust theology. Which is why I’m hesitate to embrace the term “progressive orthodoxy” as the term seems to suggest an incompleteness to the gospel. Seaton, I believe, might agree with me on this point, as he spends so much arguing against the neatness of Vosper’s theology on the grounds that it buys into the historical linear liberal notion of humanity’s progress, that we are “getting better” as we move through history, and because of the maturation we must cast off those childish things that are preventing this maturation: like religion. To this end I think Seaton might have been better of broadening the term orthodoxy for the members of his denomination, but then working within the United Church, the term is already so loaded for those fleeing the oppression of institutions – it was probably the best he could do.



2 thoughts on “Minding our Story

  1. Thank you so much for engaging my book so comprehensively and clearly! For me, the specific term “progressive orthodoxy” is problematic for lots of reasons, as you suggest. I think of it more as a placeholder term that gets at what I am urging the church to embrace—an inclusive social vision rooted in the Gospel.

  2. Lots to think about. Important stuff. As our understanding of God changes, so do we. How do we keep up with the changing of the culture of the Church?

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