Tuesday, October 25, 2011

ruminations on an axiom, "I trust God, I just don't trust His people."

God in His providence often uses people and organizations.  This has been one of the scarier things for me to accept about life in the last couple of years.  Part of me is still some kind of old school Pentecostal hoping for some ostentatious miracle of provision rather than the mundane acts of flesh and blood people.  In certain circles this latter set of provisions are called "ordinary means of grace".  Well, I've had the kind of life where I have been doubtful about such ordinary means of grace.  In the last two years I haven't really had much of a choice whether or not to accept them. 

Years ago I once admitted that I've gone through a good deal of my life with the axiom, "I trust God ... I just don't trust His people."  It has dawned on me over time that in my own way this is a paraphrase of Ivan Karamazov's sentiment, which I paraphrase here as, "It's not that I cannot accept God, I cannot accept His world."  Over time the previously unrealized overlap in these two sentiments started to get to me.  The overlap got to me for two simple reasons.  The first was that Ivan's statement was about his unbelief and this made me realize that perhaps I have had more unbelief in my life than I realized.  The second was that Christ said "They shall know you are mine by your love for one another" and this got me wondering how much I loved God's people as a measure of my love for God Himself.  As a certain saying puts it, he cannot regard God as his Father who does not acknowledge the Church as mother. 

But there can be reasons it is good to not necessarily trust God's people, particularly at institutional levels.  A lot of churches have done a lot of bad.  There are always the tales about Catholic priests molesting children.  There are stories about metropolitans caught with young hookers.  There are stories about homophobic raging closet case Pentecostal preachers. There are stories about bloodthirsty Lutherans.  There are stories about draconian and cravenly political Reformed.  There are patent white supremacists, debauched cardinals, scheming patriarchs and the whole line-up.  The Church is full of people so bad and mean that even a superhero, if a guy like Batman or Superman were real, would throw up their hands and say, "I give up.  There's nothing that can be done to fix this."

Some churches have done a lot of good but depending on where and how you grow up you get told that "those" churches are just into some liberal "Social Gospel" that isn't the real Gospel.  Twenty years ago I would have assumed Presbyterians were all of the Social Gospel liberal cloth just because from a Pentecostal perspective they would be labeled the frozen chosen.  Not that I was in much of a place to talk like that because I'm not exactly fire breathing myself.  I used to joke that I was a Pentecostal holy roller but some of my college friends were astonished by this joke because when they found out that really WAS my background they couldn't believe it.  One of my friends said he'd always pegged me as Dutch Reformed.  Ha, are there actually any Dutch Reformed in the whole state of Washington?  Well, anyway, it would appear that even when I still considered myself Pentecostal a bunch of people figured I was more likely to be Presbyterian.  And, well, now I am, so I guess my friends were right about me before I could even have guessed it.

I'm at a stage in life that I know would be enviable to someone in the Third World.  I weigh a bit more than I should and I live in a pleasant enough home.  I need eye surgery to remove cataracts and, fortunately, I am getting help for that.  Yet if a fellow American were to suggest I'm not really poor I'd differ with them.  I'm poor.  God willing I won't be at some point in the future but there's nothing like having no money and no job to make me realize both of myself and of people around me that when white well-off people talk about "consumerism" most of the time they don't really mean consumerism at all, they just mean that they like to bitch about the purchasing habits of other people so as to feel more righteous about their tastes.  People who are into "realistic" fiction can see comic books as unreal and something to look down on.  C. S. Lewis used to write that the child who reads about dragons and monsters is less in danger of being lied to about the nature of real life than a kid who reads dramas about borading schools and students who become friends there.  There may, in the annals of post 20th century literature be few dangers to dealing with reality than a literary fetish for socialist realism of any kind.  That's my take, but I digress as usual.

I'm not homeless and so I can't speak to the "hard life" that other people may have but I have become irritated by the realization that class resentments seem to abound.  I'm aggravated when relatively well-off white guys complain about racism from native populations who also complain about class warfare.  A college friend of mine once said that he'd hear fellow white guys say "I'm working for the Man"  Dude, historically speaking you are the Man!  That doesn't require a prophet like Nathan to mention, does it?  And the witness of non-white Christians to how many white Christians have conducted themselves doesn't need to get recited ad nauseum yet we do well to remember it. 

As Fearsome Tycoon noted over at BHT earlier this year, the Anglo Christians did their missionary work in a way where a lot of the native populations targeted by their work have renounced Christianity and Christendom.  And why wouldn't they?  It's hard to adopt the religious beliefs of people who attempted to subject you to genocide, right?  Cue no true Scotsman to the fiftieth power.  Those who think they know history and won't repeat its mistakes are worse off than those who don't know history.  It was the Pharisees, after all, who were saying they would not have persecuted the prophets when Jesus told them they were self-deceived.

But the reason it's scary to need help from other people is not exactly because I don't need help and can't accept help.  I can ... it's that this is, in its way, a kind of crisis of faith.  Is God "only" knowable through the kindness or cruelty of His people?  The more the Christian life is integrated into the life of Christian community the more perilous it becomes when you realize how broken and past repair every Christian community truly is.  If you haven't found something wrong with the spiritual community you're part of you just haven't looked hard enough.  But if you haven't found some spiritual fruit within that sphere of believers from which you can participate, benefit, and grow then you haven't looked hard enough, either. 

There is a brand of Christian piety that is not really marked by love.  It is impatient, it is cruel, it envies and it boasts of its purity,  It dishonors, mocks and belittles others while tacitly promoting itself.  It is, by accident of obsession, self-seeking even in its altruism. It is easily angered and keeps an endless list of wrongs for reference at such times as will be appropriate.  It may not delight in official evil but can indulge in a bit of schadenfreude now and then when providential suffering is meted out to the right people.  It rejoices in the truth so long as that truth conveniently confirms its own worst suspicions about other people or the rightness of one's own cause.  It often protests, rarely trusts, snickers at hope, and doubts the use of perserverence.  Yet it will still protect, still assume the best, will still hope, and will perservere.  It is a paradoxical thing.  It is something I see in myself even more than I see in others. 

Trusting in the kindness of God's people is difficult because if we are betrayed or let down by God's people we then inevitably feel betrayed or let down by God, too.

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