Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Green Brain, Part IV: The Structures of Faith

In his book A New Kind of Christian, emergent church guru Brian McLaren speaks of the structures of faith, or, how the Church has built and expressed herself through the ages. When Rome fell, that structure was monasticism. At the height of the Middle Ages, it was the Cathedral. As the Reformation exposed and lamented the abuses of the Church, systematic theology became the architecture of God’s kingdom. All three: monasticism, building, theology have survived into our time. But none seem anymore to adequately encompass our relationship with the Divine. The question before us today then, is what might our own structure of faith look like?

Monastic communities preserved the cities of the Ancient World when its urban society collapsed. The word community comes from a Latin root which means “common wall.” Doing the work of civilization, keeping learning and literacy alive, the monastic world provided a haven for those whose lives had little place in the feudal economy. But as the Medieval world grew beyond the fiefs of warring lords, and cities returned, cathedrals with their walled closes arose. Cathedrals made possible a new kind of community, bringing together work teams such as had not been seen for a thousand years. Growing out of Roman collapse, the High Middle Ages knew both the fear of flame and the solace of heaven. The result was a society that was both structured and visionary. A cathedral represents the architectural expression of this tension. To walk into a medieval cathedral is to taste the meeting place of time and eternity. The ceilings soar almost too high for the eye to follow. The space is cold, a little inhuman, both echoing and muffling at one and the same time. Light casts beams through narrow, lancet windows, in patterns of color where stained glass remains. In some way, a medieval cathedral is the ultimate material monument to the spirituality of the Kingdom of God. It had material consequences, too. The Gothic cathedral sowed the seeds of the Industrial Revolution, Western man’s struggle to harness the power of the earth.

Just at the moment the medieval building boom reached its peak, however, it went bad. Selling indulgences to raise funds to build St. Peter’s led to the great mixup of values that made the Reformation possible, that turned the Church away from statues and incense to a stern, stripped down austerity: Sola Scriptura, Eucharist as memorial not miracle. The cathedral of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation era became Systematic Theology, a series of interlocking doctrines, whose wheels within wheels work with the dazzling consistency of a really good intellectual puzzle. To study, say, the doctrine of Creation is to see also in its prism the doctrines of sin, soteriology, Christology, ecclesiology and the rest. In the excitement of discovering this mental map, people forgot Thomas Aquinas’ final vision, when God both congratulated him for his system and then showed him that he hadn’t gotten it, hadn’t gotten it at all.

Theology has now grown so complex and so detached from other modes of knowing, like science and psychology, that to most of us it is just one more thing to cope with, like all ideologies, like all the competing systems dreamed up by men to occupy our minds.

The Church is both spiritual and material. To err on the side of cathedrals is to lose theology. To err on the side of theology is to lose the body. The point in our faith is the balance that makes a third thing possible. This third thing, said Jesus as he prepared to leave his fleshly life, is the Spirit of Truth. Truth is fusion. It happens, says Jesus, when the Divine finds itself in the flesh and knows it.

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