Failing and Flourishing (II): Facts, Theories, and Theologies

Harvard professor of ancient religion A. D. Nock once said "A fact is a holy thing, and its life should never be laid down on the altar of a generalization.” We who live life in the service of faith are in some danger on this front, because of course we deal with generalizations, not least about God and the world. But the facts sometimes defy the theories, or at least defy the sorts of theology we employ on them. We need to interpret facts about success and failure in the contemporary Church honestly rather than ignoring them, or placing values on them that are that are not so much theological interpretations as rationalizations.

A heresy that seems to be growing, not only in Conventions but in other parts of the Church, is where claims that certain initiatives, or certain programs or practices or whatever, are somehow manifestly the will of God, and the place of the Holy Spirit’s presence - and by implication, certain others are not. This is basically nonsense, but we seem drawn to it as a way of shoring up support for our preferred projects.

Success and God's presence are both important, but they aren't necessarily correlated, nor can we afford to be glib about claims of God's presence and favor. Our fundamentalist cousins in megachurches make it easier to demonstrate the point. If success were theologically significant, then the relative success of such entities at present would indicate that we have been proven faithless, and they blessed. We know this is not true - at least I will assert it is not - yet the contrast between relative successes in conservative movements (over a half century and more) and the decline of the mainstream is significant.

There are reasons for this that are not actually mysterious, and neither are they pernicious. What is pernicious is the claim that such success reflects divine approval. These groups are successful because they believe in what they are doing, have articulated that clearly, and are led purposefully and well. This is not some sort of gnosis, it’s observable and measurable and a variety of empirically based studies can offer useful analysis of it. And factors like these apply to Churches that are not fundamentalist as well to those that are; the problem is that these criteria are, frankly, often not found or even valued (in reality, as opposed to in lip service) in our own Church. We have, for instance, often been too satisfied with harboring the disaffected and being a safe place for the ambivalent, rather than being clear about a heartfelt, thoughtful, and nuanced faith.

This is why it is so important that our Presiding Bishop has driven us to reflect on being part of the Jesus Movement. The "movement" part doesn’t mean institutions aren’t necessary, and glib talk of dismissing them (especially when these come from being people paid by them…) is unfortunate, to be polite. The only reason this institution exists, however, is to harbor the movement about Jesus and to proclaim its good news. No movement can last more than a generation without institutional forms; but the institution withers without the reason for which it came into existence, which was not some vague idea about spirituality or self-fulfillment, but Jesus.

Yet while a clear sense of purpose - such as having a Gospel to proclaim - is likely to be a condition of success, it does not guarantee success, and even less does it tell is what God is doing. We actually don’t know where and how God is active in all this, but that is exactly what faith is for. We are called to work with reference to Scripture, and to celebrate the sacraments as tokens of God's presence and purpose, precisely because we don’t actually have tools to discern the will of God in our present history other than to identify what is holy, good, and loving. The faith that God is present and active is not the same thing as claiming to know where and how.

Even when good work is done in the Church, admittedly, and Jesus is proclaimed faithfully, success does not always follow. Yet this is a sociological fact as much or more than a theological one, at least as far as our present understanding goes. Failure and discouragement don't tell us the Spirit was absent or God was not glorified. There are many faithful Christians glorifying God as they and their communities journey to extinction, in faith and hope. It is also worth adding that extinction might not be all the world imagines.

Even the imminent institutional collapse however doesn’t mean the disappearance or vanishing of the Church. History teaches this fairly clearly. Nothing much vanishes, but its forms can change beyond recognition. What would be presumptuous - and which some are quite fond of doing - would be to claim that we know the new forms already. We don't.

In any case, if we don’t think the Gospel is good news for everyone, we won’t be faithful, and we won’t succeed either. We are way past the point where we can afford the Church being presented as a filling station for generic spirituality, or just as a vehicle to be taken for granted as we pursue social agendas - even the good ones. A social or political commitment will only be sustained in the Church if it is demonstrably integral to the Gospel, and if the Church itself is sustained meanwhile.

While we need to be thoughtful as well as confident, there is more room for Episcopalians to work for what will lead us to greater forms of measurable, numerical, success, as well as to other forms of faithful service. If ministry and community could be graphed on axes of Faithfulness (X) and Success (Y), more of us need to plan for existence in that upper-right quadrant of the graph where both these are possible, all the while knowing that God is glorified also in those who are faithful but may not be succeeding, or not known to be so.

[This and two other posts are from a talk given to the Board of Directors of the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes and invited guests at the Church of the Heavenly Rest, New York City, September 5 2018. The third post is here]


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