A strange people, again
A Communitas member recently shared about our boldness as strangers in a post-Christian pagan culture and our conflicting efforts to explain what we do, why we do, who we are, etc… From that conversation, I asked him to write about it – to get us going. We’ll be discussing it as a Communitas… but you need to read this also! Enjoy!
A strange Word
“…from that moment many of His disciples turned back and no longer followed Him. You do not want to leave too, do you? Jesus asked the Twelve.” – John 6:66-67
From time to time, Jesus said and did some things that were rather strange. He broke every social taboo he encountered while on the way to Jerusalem. He elevated the status of women in a patriarchal world. He spoke of a Kingdom that inverts this world’s paradigm of power, authority and what it looks like to be “blessed”. He is the High King of Heaven that conquered his enemy by dying on the cross. He rose from the dead. In the context of these verses Jesus just finished telling his disciples that one day they would have to eat his flesh and drink his blood. Several of his disciples had said that was a little too strange for them and left him right then and there. The Twelve’s response to Jesus’ rather vulnerable questions was the polar opposite, “Lord, to whom else would be go? You alone have the words of eternal life.”
The strange-ness of Jesus both alienates and attracts those who come near enough to hear what he has to say.
The early Church ran into the same issue as the world encountered her particularity. Here is an observation from a Roman officer sent to observe and report what these “Christians” were all about in the second century:
“Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind by country, or by speech, or by dress. For they do not dwell in cities of their own, or use a different language, or practice a peculiar life . . . but while they dwell in Greek or barbarian cities according as each man’s lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the land in clothing and food, and other matters of daily life, yet the condition of citizenship which they exhibit is wonderful, and admittedly strange . . . every foreign land is to them a fatherland and every fatherland a foreign land. They marry like the rest of the world, they breed children, but they do no cast their offspring adrift . . . they exist in the flesh, but they live not after the flesh. They spend their existence upon earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, and in their own lives they surpass the laws . . . In a word, what the soul is in the body Christians are in the world.”
Just as Jesus is “wonderful and admittedly strange” there was a point and time when the Church was too…what happened?
Modernity and Making Sense of Things
The advent of the Enlightenment and the modernization of the world ushered in some paradigm shifts that were rather traumatic for the Church and the theological claims she has always made. Two of these core shifts were on the nature of Truth and the nature of Religion.
In the pre-modern church the Truth was Jesus himself. Revelation and faith were both divine gifts that illuminated our souls, gave us ears to hear and eyes to see the truth of our human condition and the discord between the creation and Creator. Only after encountering Jesus could we be rightly oriented toward the Kingdom God has been ushering in since Christ’s resurrection. The philosophical revolution of the Enlightenment brought on by Kant, Locke, Hobbes, Hume and others changed everything. The Enlightenment pursuit of Truth was marked by several characteristics.
- Humans were understood as inherently good, rational beings.
- Truth became universally accessible through Reason.
- The pursuit of Truth was the quest of the individual.
- There became an obsession with absolute certainty. Only what could be scientifically proven with certainty was deemed “true”.
- The truth of any claim was judged against this rigorous standard of Reason.
- Religion became a system of propositions that needed to be proven as true.
What this meant for the Church was that her theological claims had to conform to an objective standard of Reason; a standard that was predisposed to be suspicious of any faith claims in the first place. The task for the academic theologian and church laymen alike was to make the Church seem credible to the world. This had some disastrous results. The yoke of Reason domesticated the Church and the parts of her story that did not make sense had to go. In essence, the Truth was no longer a person one interacted with but an obvious conclusion to arrive to. Don’t believe me? Go to any bookstore, find the “religious” section and look up any books they might have on apologetics. Are they books are trying to “make a case” for something? Is the book one long argument on why belief in God is the most reasonable explanation of things? The failure of the modern church was to allow this domestication to happen because, ultimately, she lost sight of her story. The consequences fell all along the spectrum of citizenship confusion (For example, there became such a thing as an “American Christian”) to not acting when she should have (the resounding silence of the Church during the Holocaust). Since the modern church conformed to Reason she enjoyed a privileged political status in the world but became unrecognizable to the Kingdom in many ways. In the ninetieth and twentieth centuries the tides of modernity had changed. Two World Wars and the use of the Bomb shattered all the promises of progress and world peace that the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolutions had made. The people had become cynical of both government and church. The foundations of Christendom had cracked and as modernity capitulated into this condition we call “postmodernity” Christendom followed suit.
Postmodernity: Becoming strange again
Sociologically there have been three general responses to the fall of Christendom and the marginalization of the Church in culture. One, segments of the Church have tried to gain political muscle by playing the game according to the rules of democratic liberalism. Two, people have left the Church in mass numbers. Three, there has been a growing number of us who have see this as an exciting new opportunity to rediscover our identity as a particular people, a colony of heaven. No longer having to measure up to scientific truth or normative rationality we are free to be strange again. We are free to participate in and proclaim a strange story of the death, burial and resurrection of God in flesh. Religion is no longer just a set of beliefs but properly understood by its original meaning: a monastic way of life. We are free from the rugged individualism of the Enlightenment and can live in true community with each other.
This, in part, is what Communitas (and the wider “neo-monastic” movement) is all about. Our apologetic to the world is not an argument to be won but a way of life to be lived. Our local expression of the Church isn’t the center of some public square that people go to but a living presence that exists in the context of our relationships with each other and the rest of the world. Most of all, though, our story is strange again because we intimately engage with the One who said and did some rather strange things himself.
 Hastings, Adrian. “Epistle to Diognetus”. A World History of Christianity. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1999), pp. 26. An outsider observing Christians anonymously wrote this letter. This is contemporary to Pliny’s letter to Emperor Trajan around AD 112.
 When the Latin religio was first translated into the English “religion” it was defined as such. When one originally used “religion” in a sentence it was in reference to different monastic orders.
Dan and Amanda joined us, never expecting to move to New Orleans or join a neo-monastic missional order. I’ve known Dan for almost 15 years. He’s a good thinker and valued part of who we are. His wife a darling and a heart as big as the sea. Thanks for this, Dan!