For the purposes of this “dialogue”, I’m going to personify the doctrine that I see (on websites) and hear (in services) coming out of contemporary Methodist and Presbyterian USA congregations as MPC. I will also lay as a ground rule that we will not bandy Bible verses. I freely concede that I would lose such a tennis match to anyone who has spent years in a seminary… but I find, in any case, that bending Scripture into heated discussions is equivalent to wrangling over whether an Inkblot Test portrays a dog on a chain or a prickly pear cactus. That kind of exchange isn’t very edifying.
ME: My thumbnail definition of Christianity would run something like this. Every human being has a soul, and all souls are unique and precious to God. They are constantly called toward closer union with Him, and that coalescence becomes a state beyond time that discovers utter fulfillment. Yet souls resist the call as they pass from earthly childhood to adulthood, and they may be lost when the ends of this world replace the higher, inexpressible ends that work through this world’s matter to make themselves more visible. Hence a radical reorientation in the adult—a “birth from above”—is required to lift his nose out of the glittering muck.
MPC: Yes, of course. God calls upon us to serve others… and we fight fiercely against that duty as we busily feather our own selfish nest. It’s a shock to us to realize that we’re often not living life even when we are busiest—but we busy ourselves with the wrong things. We are immersed in life, but not in living it. For we must act in the here and now in order to serve others. Airy pieties do not feed the hungry, cure the sick, or clothe the poor. The way to the Kingdom is through energetic activity. We must give generously of our time and possessions. We must fight on all fronts against worldly forces that starve the less fortunate or hold them in chains: that is our high calling.
ME: Is it? In a way, certainly… but your explanation appears to me to risk confusion. Isn’t part of our calling also to dissuade other people from surrendering their lives to utter immersion in worldly affairs? Yet if I will achieve my high purpose only to the degree that I fight poverty and injustice, then it seems reasonable that I would spend every waking hour soliciting donations or filing motions; not only that, but I should probably also amass a maximum of wealth so that I might devote it to those worthy causes. And it would also seem that the impoverished and the unjustly imprisoned cannot live fulfilling lives without the intercession of energetic, wealthy benefactors like me. Yet I personally find that such people are often light-years ahead of their “benefactors” spiritually.
MPC: Which is precisely why we must assist them rather than standing by in idle complacency. They’re our brothers and sisters! We would readily recognize the common humanity in them if we did not allow social convention to insulate us from the greater need, the higher calling. Our membership in the arbitrary socio-economic communities into which we were born keeps pulling us down into a torpid, “us/them” mindset that paralyzes us.
ME: Yes, I’ve often noticed that you’re an inveterate enemy of social convention. You don’t like settled communities, do you—except those church communities of your own design, some of whose orders of worship and representations of duty can be… pretty inflexible. Somewhere in all of your “replacement conventions” is the line one crosses into introductory cultism.
MPC: That, of course, is an invidious portrayal of our mission and not deserving of a response. Yet it is true that we must labor tirelessly to loosen the glue that holds people inactive because they believe their brethren to be only among those who speak their language, wear their kind of clothing, and live in their kind of neighborhood.
ME: Well, there’s no condescending generalization at all in that portrayal, is there? But let’s stipulate that human communities (your communions, too, by the way) tend to brainwash people—for I see no need to mince words: we’re talking about behavioral conditioning. Do you not find it perfectly absurd to maintain that any human being can mature healthily and successfully in a cultural vacuum—an environment where the day has no tendency to rhythm and social interaction no predictable niceties? People would go paranoid en masse! They would live trembling under rubble like the survivors of Troy after the city was sacked and burned.
MPC: And this, brother, is just why our communions groom that “cult” of worshipful daily life at which you sneer. People need organization—and how better to organize their lives than around acts of loving concern and ritual sharing?
ME: You have now negated the moral value both of loving and of sharing, though you have blundered into a very honest description, I believe, of your objectives. What I see in all this is you of the priestly caste prescribing virtuous behavior to your… flock, shall we call them… and they obeying mindlessly in the confidence that their prophets know better than they what is to be done. You will tell me, perhaps, that playing Moses to the herd is an onerous burden, and one that you would willingly have rejected if not impelled by a higher voice.
MPC: Mock on, brother. We are not strangers to persecution. But the sad truth is that the oppressed would remain in chains and the poor sit starving in their hovels if all were such as you. Yes, people require leadership. They must be organized.
ME: Organized to accomplish the bare necessities of living, yes—but their will must be left free! Look: is your objective to enter the figure “zero” in the Homeless and Starving categories, even though you have to program the populace rigorously to reach that end; or is it to facilitate the discovery of a passage to God among individual souls?
MPC: This is more of that airy speculation which, if indulged, would indeed leave thousands of people homeless and starving. We promote action, not “feel good” formulas.
ME: I consider that very, very debatable. But let’s stay at the practical level. Do you dispute that even the bluntest pagan will share food with his starving neighbor out of primitive decency? In fact, small tribal societies are the most generous in the world at this kind of thing. Yet you say that vast communities of givers must be orchestrated to maximize the efficiency of the relief effort (once again casting yourselves, I notice, in the role of the unit’s collective conscience). Shouldn’t your calling, rather, be to awaken people far and wide from their fixation with mere physical survival, and beyond that from their determination to strike a admirable pose before the eyes of the masses? If you can do that, then they will embellish their rudimentary decency with higher service—perhaps with less money-making and more dedication to playing with their children or cultivating trees that survived the developer’s bulldozer. If you awaken people to indefinite ends, that is, you may just find that you get most of the definite results you want. A man who pauses to notice the stars is at least as likely to play Good Samaritan as a robot programmed to change tires for stranded motorists. But no! Not good enough! You’ve hopped several squares at once in this board game, as it were: you’ve directed everyone just how to be concerned and where to give. You’ve created efficiency. Your gospel might as well be a Stalinist five-year plan.
MPC: Oh, yes—it was bound to come to this sooner or later, wasn’t it? The “c” word, the “s” word. We’re communists, then… we’re socialists, is it? Well, I know you don’t like to hear the Gospels quoted… so let’s try a different citation. As a matter of fact, the plan that Jesus lays out for human society is essentially a socialist one, and there’s no reason why he wouldn’t have uttered, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
ME: Ah, yes: Saint Karl! But let me shift this… discussion… to a different footing. Let’s grant that the Christian’s high mission is to feed the hungry and clothe the poor. And let’s say that the mission is accomplished, as it may indeed be. Obesity is already reaching epidemic proportions even in some Third World nations—and look at the so-called refugees pouring into Europe who are sporting Nikes and Land’s End workout suits.
MPC: The poor are always with you, brother… but pardon my slip of the tongue! I quoted Scripture!
ME: No harm done—you happen to have quoted it very ineptly. Christ utters those words exactly to underscore that the objective is not a smooth-running social machine. But say, if you can possibly imagine, that one day you awaken to find no hungry to feed and no naked to clothe. You’d be done, wouldn’t you? Your church would have no further reason for being. You need the needy! You desperately need them. You need them to be needy. If they didn’t exist (as Voltaire quipped of God), you’d have to invent them. Your purpose, your direction… it would be gone. Your god would be dead.
MPC: How puerile! How pitiful! And all of this just to justify your sitting on your pile of loathsome lucre instead of helping your fellow man!
ME: Not an answer… and, by the way, you have no idea how I live or what my income is. We can compare homes and cars later, if you like. But okay, let’s stay with your new theme of rationalizing an egotistical choice with hifalutin motives. Let’s talk about justice for a minute—a word you strain with even greater overuse than “gift”. You exhort your congregation not to go to bed at night if the day hasn’t included some step toward bringing more justice into the world.
MPC: And, no doubt, that disturbs you for some strange reason.
ME: Yes. It disturbs me because… how do you know?
MPC: How… do we know what?
ME: Where the just course lies? How do you, miserable human being, know that a boy’s life of relative poverty isn’t preparing him for an adulthood of noble, enduring, invincible accomplishment? You haven’t even visited the boy’s home! How do you know that the dark-eyed alien facing twenty years for child-molestation isn’t actually a child-molester? You haven’t even reviewed the case against him! You cram individuals into sweeping categories that fit your script—and then you proceed with the script, ignoring specific circumstances and significant evidence. You have no time for details: you have to create a fairy tale in which you play the plumed hero on a white charger!
MPC: Whereas you, once again, would just leave the boy mired in poverty and the disenfranchised suspect rotting in jail while you interminably dig for “further evidence”… all so that you don’t have to move a muscle.
ME: You’re claiming that I rearrange reality to favor my complacency—yet you can’t so much as conceive of the possibility that you do the same, at a much worse level, by brushing over details in generating just the little drama where you can play the hero, the true believer. You never seem to harbor the slightest suspicion that perhaps what you call “justice” is a very simplistic reading of a complex situation.
MPC: Yes, everything must always be complex, mustn’t it? Complexity is always an excellent excuse for doing nothing.
ME: And doing nothing is usually a better alternative than doing the wrong thing—such as destroying initiative in young people to have them be the little victims you pull from the fire, or releasing a mass-murderer upon the public who has been cast as someone wrongfully condemned by a racist jury.
MPC: My goodness! We wouldn’t be speaking just a little bit stereotypically there, would we?
ME: No! Not typically at all! Specifically! I speak of specific cases that get nudged aside in your stereotypes… and you refuse to allow the reality of exceptions to your rule. Anyone who questions your categories is “stereotyping”!
MPC: I can see little hope for discovering common ground in this conversation. I’m afraid the action of the spirit must precede any such exchange if significant compromise is to be reached… and the spirit has simply not touched you.
ME: What spirit, precisely? For that’s the final point I would have made, the endgame. What in your system, finally, is spiritual? What you project forward into the “eschaton” is the truly perfected human society, where nobody does anything he doesn’t want to do, where all have their needs utterly fulfilled… and I don’t see where God fits into the picture, except as the architect of the whole thing: a boy with an ant farm between two pieces of glass who wakes up one morning and finds that his insects have finally figured out their tunnels. The ultimate purpose of the human soul is to crawl happily about in human tunnels, visiting a friend here, a friend there. Nothing but friends, everywhere! But no God. Where is the fusion with God’s mind in which the Christian is supposed to hope and to which he is meant to summon others? Where is God’s mind? Where is the intersection of the galaxies, the music that plays outside of linear time? I see nothing in your miserable utopian prison but human architect ground out by very human minds. It sickens me!
MPC: Peace, brother. We’ll all pray for you. Struggle can be fertile. Our doors are open to you whenever you wish to enter.
… And so it goes. Please view my brief new videos, The Perverted Concept of Justice in the Secular-Utopian Church and The Perverted Concept of Giving in the Secular-Utopian Church, if these subjects interest you.