11 May 2011
How Is Christianity Thinkable Today?
I was recently introduced to the French sociologist and theologian named Michel de Certeau and an essay he wrote in 1973 entitled “How is Christianity Thinkable Today?” (You can find it in The Postmodern God.)
In this essay Certeau reflects on the decline of the church, and he asks how can we imagine a vital, living, church today, and from whence that vitality and life arises.
I love his answer...
Certeau says that one function of the church is to create a sense of place – what we experience as a sense of home – a building, a community, a sacred space with its own language and rituals. Like any “place” it has boundaries. Like the walls and doors of our building, our community has certain activities, certain behaviors, and members. It has limits.
He says the other function of the church is to transgress the very boundaries and sense of place that it creates, to transcend the limits that it sets, to cross the line the church itself has established.
Simply, the work of the church is to draw lines that are made to be crossed.
Certeau says that there is “a coordination between necessary grounding points (languages, theories, institutions) and critical divergences (inventions, ‘prophetic’ actions, or displacements hidden within each Christian experience). But both these functions are equally necessary.”
Go back to the beginning of the church and consider Peter and Paul. Peter was the grounding point – the chief disciple, based in Jerusalem where Jesus died and rose again, leading the original movement of Christianity within Judaism. Paul was the critical divergence. Paul and his helpers took that same Gospel beyond Israel, into the rest of the known world. Both Peter and Paul were necessary for the church to grow.
Certeau writes, “The Christian movement is always the recognizing of a particular situation – and the necessity of a new step forward. There is always a necessary risk in being different. It requires simultaneously a place and a ‘further,’ a ‘now’ and an ‘afterwards,’ a ‘here’ and an ‘elsewhere.’
The church sets limits and the church transgresses the very limits it sets, for the sake of its life, its vitality, the vitality of its people, and for the sake of the Gospel.
Certeau puts it this way about the church: “Boundaries are the place of Christian work, and their displacements are the result of this work.”
Today we call this "hacking," which Mark Zuckerberg describes as "being unafraid to break things, in order to make them better.”
This is not how we usually think about the church. We think of church as set in place, unchanging, eternal, constant – which is comforting to some and boring to others. However, throughout its history, the church has always drawn lines and crossed them for the sake of the Gospel, for the sake of Christ. That’s what Jesus’ life and ministry were all about.
These two works of creating place and transgressing its boundaries are usually seen in the church as being in conflict with one another. But in fact, they are complementary. They are both necessary. They are both rooted in the Gospel. The church needs both.
Certeau argues, and I agree, that this is the place where Christianity and the church are “thinkable,” and where the church is the most alive.
How are you hacking church? How are you drawing lines and how are you crossing them? How do we balance the two? How is Christianity thinkable for you?