Sunday, August 21, 2016

Anthropocentric religion, part 2

A while back I wrote on this blog against the complaint that Christianity is essentially anthropocentric. Yes, the universe is vast, and humans are very insignificant in relation to the whole sum of existence. That is hardly an argument against a faith which, historically, strongly affirms these claims.

But then again, experience often contradicts this fact and reinforces the idea that Christianity is a religion focused on satisfying some human psychological need. I was reminded of this a week ago during Sunday worship.

Perhaps the vast majority of self-identified evangelical churches would summarize the gospel as follows: we are great sinners, but Jesus is a great Savior, who through his sacrifice on the cross atones for our sins and loves us unconditionally, so that through faith in him we may approach God with confidence and find eternal life.

All the main elements of worship at the church where I worshiped were clearly designed to reinforced this message. From the opening remarks (in which the associate pastor confessed that he, too, is a sinner, awkwardly eliciting faux surprise from the congregation) to the songs (including a rendition of "It Is Well with My Soul" in which the instruments made sure to put a musical climax around the verse, "My sin, O the bliss of this glorious thought... is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more...") to the sermon (an interpretation of Psalm 139 which, though quite sophisticated, nevertheless boiled down to, "God loves you and thinks about you even more than you do"), everything pointed one's thoughts toward our individual need for love and redemption and the good news that God satisfies these needs. (Ironically enough for an evangelical church, it was perhaps the Lord's table which made an exception to this rule, the focus being not merely Christ's atonement on our behalf, but the spiritual life he gives us by feeding us. But I digress.)

The closing hymn was none other than "Just a Closer Walk with Thee," which has the following lyrics:
I am weak, but Thou art strong,
Jesus, keep me from all wrong,
I’ll be satisfied as long
As I walk, let me walk close to Thee.

Just a closer walk with Thee,
Grant it, Jesus, is my plea,
Daily walking close to Thee,
Let it be, dear Lord, let it be.

Through this world of toil and snares,
If I falter, Lord, who cares?
Who with me my burden shares?
None but Thee, dear Lord, none but Thee.

When my feeble life is o’er,
Time for me will be no more,
Guide me gently, safely o’er
To Thy kingdom's shore, to Thy shore.
Now, far be it from me to say this song is without merit as a hymn of praise. It is not wrong to celebrate one's personal walk with Jesus Christ. And yet, an outside observer could be forgiven for concluding from these words that Christianity is fundamentally about worshiping an imaginary friend who comforts individuals through hard times and assures them that one day this sad, physical, temporal existence will give way to an eternal, motionless bliss.

To be clear, I don't think the evangelical summary of the gospel is a lie. I merely think it is not a summary of the whole gospel. Where is the cosmic significance of Jesus Christ? Where is the story of God's creation? Where is the hope for the redemption of the universe? These things are also part of the gospel, and they beckon us toward something much larger than the affairs of human beings.

Consider a different hymn, "Of the Father's Love Begotten":
Of the Father’s love begotten,
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see,
Evermore and evermore!

At His Word the worlds were framèd;
He commanded; it was done:
Heaven and earth and depths of ocean
In their threefold order one;
All that grows beneath the shining
Of the moon and burning sun,
Evermore and evermore!

He is found in human fashion,
Death and sorrow here to know,
That the race of Adam’s children
Doomed by law to endless woe,
May not henceforth die and perish
In the dreadful gulf below,
Evermore and evermore!

O that birth forever blessèd,
When the virgin, full of grace,
By the Holy Ghost conceiving,
Bore the Saviour of our race;
And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer,
First revealed His sacred face,
evermore and evermore!

O ye heights of heaven adore Him;
Angel hosts, His praises sing;
Powers, dominions, bow before Him,
and extol our God and King!
Let no tongue on earth be silent,
Every voice in concert sing,
Evermore and evermore!

This is He Whom seers in old time
Chanted of with one accord;
Whom the voices of the prophets
Promised in their faithful word;
Now He shines, the long expected,
Let creation praise its Lord,
Evermore and evermore!

Righteous Judge of souls departed,
Righteous King of them that live,
On the Father’s throne exalted
None in might with Thee may strive;
Who at last in vengeance coming
Sinners from Thy face shalt drive,
Evermore and evermore!

Thee let old men, Thee let young men,
Thee let boys in chorus sing;
Matrons, virgins, little maidens,
With glad voices answering:
Let their guileless songs re-echo,
And the heart its music bring,
Evermore and evermore!

Christ, to Thee with God the Father,
And, O Holy Ghost, to Thee,
Hymn and chant with high thanksgiving,
And unwearied praises be:
Honour, glory, and dominion,
And eternal victory,
Evermore and evermore!
I have no idea why this is considered a "Christmas carol." It is a song which literally summarizes the entire gospel--from Christ's divine identity, to his creation, to his incarnation, to his redemption of humankind, to his final judgment. It calls in the entire universe to praise him, reminding the singer that human beings are not alone in receiving this good news.

This isn't just a long complaint about how the church needs "better music." Every element of worship is a choice affecting what members of a congregation will fix their minds on and remember. Worship is a reflection of our beliefs about God, and attending regularly will tend to shape and reinforce our beliefs about God. Just as one needs to be concerned with eating a balanced diet, so also, it seems to me, we ought to be concerned as Christians, whether our worship gives a balanced view of the gospel.

It is rather trivial to observe that most people focus on themselves most of the time. I'm not actually sure how true this is, exactly, but I know that any pastor can easily proclaim it as an unquestionable axiom of human existence. What is perhaps less trivial is how focused we are on our need for acceptance from others. Human beings have always been social creatures, dependent on family and tribe for survival, and this is only more true in a civilization in which most of our professions depend not at all on nature and the elements but wholly on ideas, technology, and our relationships with others. Beginning as children raised in schools, and continuing on as adults whose survival depends on successful performance reviews, we are obsessed with assessment. Perhaps it is no wonder that we present the gospel in these terms--God's view of our performance.

While it is certainly comforting to know that God is not like our boss--that he is loving, compassionate, patient, and forgiving--I think it would be even more eye-opening to have our gaze turned toward something other than God's assessment of us. When God spoke to Job in response to Job's complaints about suffering, he gave Job a tour of the whole creation. There is something about being reminded of our place in this universe which allows us to flourish in ways we had not understood before.

If Christian worship does not direct our minds and hearts toward the majesty of all creation, what will? Modern life doesn't reinforce the splendor of creation. We are obsessed with human creations--democracy, economy, technology, popular culture. I think it is our Christian duty to direct the eyes of human beings back toward the heavens, so that we might say with the psalmist, "The heavens are telling the glory of God," and, "What are mortals that you are mindful of them?"

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