The Mass Cult of Big

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The Crystal Cathedral, Garden Grove, California

The following is essentially a piecing together of selections from a Facebook thread in which I participated today. The following quotation led off the discussion:

We have become fascinated by the idea of bigness, and we are quite convinced that if we can only ‘stage’ something really big before the world, we will shake it, and produce a mighty religious awakening. – D. Martin Lloyd-Jones, 1958

This response was given by a poster:

“Doing something big, for bigness sake is silly and egocentric… however we shouldn’t fear something becoming something big…”

This was followed by a back-and-forth discussion. Here are my responses, more or less, stitched together and revised a bit:

I don’t fear big. But I am deeply suspicious of it.

Why? “Big” almost always means systems and ideology, but rarely attention to persons. It is typically about marketing, not about communion. It almost always means vanity (though usually is not advanced enough for real pride), but almost never any humility. It is usually about control and not about freedom. That’s why.

I am not talking only about church size, but about more than that, i.e., philosophy, politics, economy, architecture, education, etc. But even if we were talking solely about church size, a church designed to be big is automatically subject to all those problems. It is so prevalent one could almost assume that it’s written down in some sort of mega-church mega-manual. But such things are by no means prevalent on the much smaller scale. Why? Because human beings can only truly know so many people. After one’s communal capabilities are saturated, the only way to maintain things is through ideological and technocratic systems. Even the mega-churches at least sense this, which is why they do “small groups” to try to offset their technocratic leviathan.

Yes, some little church communities do indeed exert a kind of control over members, but that is rather the sectarian/cultic impulse, which is not really about the question of big/small or systematic/local, but rather of fierce personal loyalties. The fact that a mega-church cannot command such loyalties is precisely because of its inherent weakness—it is not about incarnational communion, but about marketed, corporatized consumption. Loyalty is created to a product, to programmes (which are a kind of product), not to persons.

If a mega-church is less susceptible to cultic-style control, it is essentially because it is a corporate entity that does not and cannot care. But it exerts a far more subtle and pernicious kind of control over its clients. It is one vast system, and if the mice wandering around in the maze do not realize they are in a maze, so much the better! The control here is essentially the control of the consumerist market, keeping consumers trapped in their own passions and desires. The rules it enforces are the demands of ideology and system—why do you think mega-churches need so many signs, ushers, automated check-ins for kids, etc.?

At least a little cult-like religious community still maintains the clear sense for its members that it is a set-apart elect. Members can more easily leave such a group, because all the control is usually focused into one or two people, and members may more easily have full social networks that are not comprised by the sect. And at least there is the possibility for repentance of the leadership. In a mega-church, if one head of the hydra is cut off, no one particularly questions the whole system. They just find another head to run the monster.

Loyalty should be only to Christ, not to personalities or religious products or programmes.

Yet “big” tends to lead in such directions almost without fail. “Small” actually quite rarely does. Very few small churches are cults of personality. But big ones quite often are, and they are more often (and sometimes simultaneously) cults of religious product.

It is telling that, in the early years of the Church, when congregations started becoming large enough that not everyone in the same city could easily join together for worship, the bishops began delegating their authority to presbyters to lead spin-off congregations.

And then when the faith was finally legalized in the early 4th c., there wasn’t a sudden move to building gigantic church buildings so that the full Christian population of cities could recombine.

The general rule was always small and local, even when necessity did not require it. It was because of a theology of the Incarnation and the communion that it creates, something that simply cannot scale up indefinitely, because of the God-made limitations of human personhood.

A desire to scale up indefinitely is indicative of a defective theology of the Incarnation, usually one that is devoid of any ecclesiology. Church is conceived of not as communion, but as rock concert.

It is true, of course, that some 3,000 people were baptized into Christ on Pentecost. That’s actually a fascinating and telling example, though—the Apostles were clearly perfectly capable of attracting a mass “rally” of sorts, but there’s only one example of such a thing ever happening. This exception proves the rule.

It is one of the great (at least linguistic) ironies of modern American Christianity that it has become a mass religion—a massive religion about masses of people, but without any hint of the mass.

Ite, missa est.

Internet Discourse and the Fear of Death

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When I was studying Hamlet in college (which I did several times, being something of an addict for that story, despite my claims at The Tempest being my favorite of the Bard’s plays; I once took a class in which we spent three weeks on “Who’s there?”), if there is one thing I learned that the poor Dane learned too late, it was this: We all die. Indeed, we are all dying. The play is essentially Hamlet’s attempts to come to grips with this truth, but not before his inability to deal with death deals quite a lot of death in the meantime. Funny thing, that.

As such, when I was recently dared into an online debate by a 70-year-old atheist regarding the basis for my religious belief (as if anyone believes in “religion”), it occurred to me more than once that perhaps this pastime must be something like playing golf is for many people, an amusing distraction to bide the time until admission to assisted living, hospice, and then the cold, hard dirt itself. What does a 70-year-old atheist want with trying to convince a priest that he’s necessarily mentally deficient by virtue of believing in something beyond what his eyes see?

But it seems that so much Internet discourse runs along these lines, making the assumption that those involved must have all the time they could ever want. This assumption reveals itself typically with the claim by one of the conversants that, unless the other is willing to engage him and hash through all that stuff with him, he must be a coward, ignoramus, etc. If someone walks away, he is of course admitting that he is wrong. It is never believed when one says that he has been through all this before and doesn’t particularly want to go through it all again. He is not, after all, immortal, and he has things he wants to do before he dies.

The Scripture actually tells us that sin itself is often the result of the fear of death. Fear of death in our own day typically manifests itself in two ways, an obsessive emphasis on the physical body by means of dedication to pleasure, healthcare, etc., and the atemporality of (the usually unspoken) assumption of immortality. That is, either we fear death by trying to extend and enlarge our physical life as much as we can, or we fear death by denying its very reality. (And often, we do both.) In the case of much Internet discussion, the latter is the typical characteristic.

I must admit to having fallen into this trap on many occasions, but I am more often constrained from doing so lately by having more things to do and (most frequently) by being tired of the expectation that I engage in the same back-and-forth with another person who was not there when I did it before. No doubt he’s done it before but hasn’t tired of it yet. We might be accused of a lack of evangelistic zeal when not wanting to dive yet again into this same quagmire of endless oneupsmanship, but even the Lord said that sometimes it’s necessary just to move on. Some make it their mission to keep trudging down these paths, and perhaps that really is their mission.

As for me, though, I’m going to die someday—perhaps today, perhaps tomorrow, perhaps sixty years from now. I’ve already got my funeral home picked out, though I do still have some work to do on picking a cemetery plot.

Samuel Johnson’s Foot

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The great lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson, who it is said was once asked how he knew something was real. In response, he walked up to a tree and kicked it. This is a proper and robust environmentalism cum epistemology.

The following is an excerpt from a much longer talk I wrote but did not deliver, as I learned the day before the event that it was desired that I deliver a very different sort of lecture. The essential thrust of the talk, written for a mixed audience of both believers and unbelievers, was to prepare them to receive the Gospel, in this case, specifically by encouraging them to look at knowledge as something that is not mainly information but participation. This talk is titled “What is Truth?”

I have an atheist friend who believes that it should be illegal for parents to expect their minor children to follow their religion. When I asked him why he believed that, he said that it was because the kinds of claims that religion makes are inherently non-falsifiable. If you’ve not encountered the term falsifiable before, I won’t annoy you with a complex philosophical definition, but you should at least know that it refers to a truth claim that could be proven true or false by anyone.

An example of a falsifiable truth claim is that Barack Obama is currently the president of the United States. The evidence to prove or disprove that claim is fairly available to all, assuming, of course, that we are not trying to thwart the Secret Service. A non-falsifiable truth claim would be something like this: Zeus is the ruler of all the gods. We do not have the gods at hand to interview as to whether their fealty has indeed been sworn to Zeus, nor are we likely to be able to get Zeus himself to speak in front of a congressional committee, to offer testimony regarding the part he plays in Olympian politics.

Thus, falsifiable truth claims are the sort of thing that can be scientifically, objectively proven, while non-falsifiable truth claims cannot be addressed within the context of objective science.

My friend is, of course, quite sincere in his belief that children should not be subjected to participation in non-falsifiable truth claims. There are, however, a number of problems with his position that parents should be prohibited by law from teaching their religion to their children and encouraging their participation in it. Such a law would, for instance, make it illegal for Roman Catholics to have their babies baptized or for Jews to circumcise their sons on the eighth day after their birth. But even aside from the disturbing political issue of suggesting that the state is a better arbiter of parental practice than parents, there remains the question of why it is that only falsifiable truth claims should be taught to children.

Anyone who has ever tried to raise a child knows that most parenting time is not spent on falsifiable truth claims. Indeed, claims such as “It is good for you to stop hitting your brother” are not provable by scientific means. In fact, science might suggest that hitting your brother is an excellent idea, because it helps to keep you in control of his toys. This sort of thing could be said about any moral claims, and although we take many of them for granted, such as the Golden Rule, there really is no hard science which demands that we live that way. In fact, science never says that we ought to live one way or another, but childrearing is precisely about teaching how one ought to live.

The truth of our human existence is that the noblest, most powerful, compassionate, beautiful, and remarkable things in life are almost never undergirded by purely falsifiable truth claims. So why would we want to deprive children of these things, even if we were capable of totally shielding them from such experiences? Who better than loving parents to feed children not just with physical nourishment but nutrition in what is at the heart of humanity? (Of course, loving parents are an inherently non-falsifiable phenomenon!) But supposedly, this is the best way to apprehend the truth without religious or philosophical bias, so that only facts may be known.

What underlies this whole approach to knowing the truth is the notion that truth is a piece of information. If truth is, indeed, only information, then of course it can be reduced to the category of fact. Much of our culture’s behavior is based on this characterization of truth, which is why studies and claims clothed in the language of science and fact are given so very much stock in public discourse, while appeals to higher, nobler kinds of truth typically find their way into the public square only in terms of sentiment. But when we mean business, when we’re being really serious, then we bring out the falsifiable truth claims. That’s when we want men in white coats doing something called “science,” giving us something we call “facts.”

One of the underlying assumptions of our modern idea about truth is that it should be objectively true, no matter what anyone’s particular subjective experiences tell them are true. That’s why we have peer-reviewed scientific journals, so that other scientists can check on the claims of their peers. But underneath this model of knowledge is the idea that we can know things simply by observing them. If we are somehow personally involved in the experiment—for instance, by using ourselves as test subjects—then the results are suspect.

Yet the reality of human existence is that most of us do not solely take up supposedly objective, distinterested means in order to make decisions and live life. For instance, it is unlikely that any of us conducted stress tests on the floor currently beneath us in order to make the decision that we would stand and sit upon it without fear that it will collapse under us in the event of an earthquake. And I doubt that geologists were consulted before this evening’s lecture to determine by means of the scientific method whether there would be an earthquake. And I must confess that I did not ask for a copy of this building’s blueprints to assure myself that the roof would not fall in, should that earthquake in fact take us entirely by surprise.

Setting aside for the moment the incredible difficulty in using the scientific method to predict earthquakes—how, for instance, does one do a controlled experiment on the North American tectonic plate?—the precariousness of our situation from a supposedly scientific point of view should give us pause. Just how do we know that this building will not suddenly send us all quickly to meet our Maker, Whose existence by definition is a non-falsifiable piece of information? We really do not know, at least not in scientific terms, and even if we were to undertake all the possible tests that could be done to try to assure ourselves that this place is safe, conditions would change so much in the meantime that our results would almost necessarily be obsolete before we could sit back and enjoy them.

The end result of all this nonsense is that attempting to live life according to purely “scientific” standards of knowledge would end up in a sort of annoying paralysis of analysis. We simply don’t have the mental or computational power to figure out all the possibilities. And even if we could, how can we say we absolutely know for certain that our own senses are not fooling us when we read the data?

Now, my purpose this evening is not to engage in a lengthy discursus on epistemology, which is the branch of philosophy that examines how we know what we know, but I do think it’s worth at least asking ourselves just how we really end up living life, how we make decisions, and how we live with them, especially since there’s really no logistical way to put all our eggs in the “science” basket that our society claims to revere so faithfully.

What we usually think of as a “scientific” philosophy of knowledge is not really science, anyway—it is a philosophical outlook known as positivism, that all knowledge must be based only on empirical sense experience. Yet some of science’s greatest advances, such as Einstein’s theories of time and space, as well as most of quantum physics, are not credible by positivistic standards, instead requiring leaps of imagination and intuition which are beyond what empirical means can yield. And credible scientists hold such things to be true.

The truth is that we all end up functioning mainly on trust. We trust that this floor is solid. We trust that there will not be an earthquake in central Pennsylvania tonight. We trust that the architect and the general contractor responsible for putting this building together did their job correctly. We act on this trust, despite not having the sort of information that we probably really “should,” at least according to the exacting standards of the scientific method. (So anyone whose concern for our safety has been sufficiently raised and would like to exit the building now is welcome to do so.)

The Cosmic Cathedral

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Sunday of the Forefathers of Christ, December 13, 2009

Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
Emmaus, Pennsylvania

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

If you follow the news, you know that this past week and in this coming week, the city of Copenhagen, Denmark, is hosting the United Nations Climate Change Conference. During this conference, representatives of dozens of world nations are gathering to discuss Earth’s climate and to propose potentially sweeping changes in reaction to claims that the world’s climate is negatively changing, and especially that these changes are the result of human behavior. And of course you may also be aware of the recent leaking of a series of emails from a climate change study facility which has been the source of some controversy, the so-called “Climategate” scandal.

What you won’t find at the UN’s conference is discussion of the theology of the ecosystem. It is an altogether secular conference, focused on data analysis and deeply entwined with the interests of politicians, competing nation-states, great corporate powers and environmental celebrities.

Whatever your opinion might be on the veracity of the claims of anthropogenic global warming made by some scientists or the counter-claims of others, we should note that the Orthodox Church actually does have something to say about the environment, or, as we might more properly say, God’s creation. As it says in the Psalms, “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein” (Ps. 23 (24):1).

From this basic theological affirmation, that God created this world and that it still belongs to Him, we can say a number of things. First, despite what you may read on some bumper stickers, we do not belong to the world. Of course, it does not belong to us, either. Rather, the world and all of us belong to God. We are His children, and He created us, this planet and everything in it as an expression of His love, along with the whole of the glorious cosmos that surrounds the Earth.

Some Christians take this affirmation and conclude from it that the Earth has been given into our hands by a model we might call “stewardship,” that we are to use the Earth wisely, managing it like we would our money or other possessions, but still with a sense that God has handed it over to us and that negative things we might do to the Earth should be understood only as mismanagement or simply as inefficiency. If we couple this model with a sense that the end of the world is imminent, we can see how a rather reckless approach to the natural world might result. The Earth is ours to do with as we please, but since Jesus is coming soon, we don’t have to worry too much about tomorrow.

Yet we Orthodox Christians do not see the Earth in this manner. Rather, we have experienced and continue to experience the incarnation of Jesus Christ, that the Son of God took on material, physical form. From this experience we know that the created world does not constitute a grand utility building, whose contents are just tools to be used “wisely.” This creation is not a toolshed. No, it is a temple. And, as a temple, it is holy.

The Psalms also tell us that “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps. 18 (19):1). The same Psalm says “in the sun He set His tabernacle.” The same is true for all elements in creation, including mankind, for even our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19). Where we as mankind sin is when we use either our own bodies or the body of this Earth as something other than a temple.

And if this world is a temple, a church, then the cathedral of the cosmos presupposes certain kinds of behaviors, and it also says something about what man is. Man is not simply a “steward” of creation. Rather, he is its priest. And what priest would desecrate his own church? Rather, mankind as creation’s priest offers up the created world to God, Who in turn blesses it and uses it for man’s healing and sanctification. This is the Orthodox Christian image for a true ecological vision.

Thus we can see that this world is not merely something to be “used,” as the “stewards” would have it. Nor, however, is it something to be worshiped, as certain environmentalists seem to prefer. A priest does not worship the temple. Rather, he worships the one true God within the temple.

When someone enters into a church, he understands that the church building, with its architecture, ornamentation, and beauty, is not an absolute in itself. That is, we who worship here do not do so in order to serve the temple. Rather, we serve God, in Whose temple we are. Those who say that Earth is our mother are thus encouraging us to idolatry, to turn our worship away from God Who is our Father to serve another purpose. The ancient Jews and the Christians who followed them quite deliberately did not cast the Earth as our mother. Rather, if we have God as our Father, it is the Church who is our mother, to echo the words of St. Cyprian of Carthage.

Throughout all the ages of mankind, the temptation to idolatry has always been present. In our own time, this idolatry manifests itself in a number of ways. There are two forms that are most prominent in our culture. The first is the idolatry of material possessions, which has been highlighted for us in many Gospel readings lately and is so visible before us at this time of year. The second is the idolatry of ideology, and it is this idolatry which we see so prominent in all our political culture, including the ongoing climate conference, and also in much of our religious culture.

Make no mistake that ideology is a kind of idolatry. It is not the same as philosophy or faith, which are guides and motivations for living in certain ways. Rather, ideology is a thought system which makes itself prevalent over all. Ideology demands obedience, not through freedom and persuasion as faith or philosophy do, but rather through force. Worst of all, ideology places the freedom and wellbeing of human persons beneath its own concerns.

With the ideologies of Communism and Nazism, the 20th century saw horrifyingly how absolute systems of thought—even based on ideas which are in themselves good, such as patriotism or economic well-being—necessitated the slaughter of many millions. What was important for Stalin, Hitler and others was that people served the ideology, not that they were loved or free. In the name of creating utopian paradises, millions were murdered. The depth of the irony would be laughable if it weren’t so tragically awful.

We can see this same dedication to ideology when certain environmental activists put spikes in trees, which can easily kill someone trying to cut them down with a chainsaw. These people have put their thought system ahead of human life. And though usually not as deadly, we can see this same approach even in religion, when people tear each other apart in service of their preferences and ideas. But of course there have been the Roman religious persecutions, the excesses of the Crusades, the Inquisition, the pogroms against Jews, the Jihads, and the regular fist-fights between clergy and monks in the very Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

If we are to live as Orthodox Christians, our service should be to God and to His children, not to any thought system. We worship the one true God within this temple, His creation, the cosmic cathedral. And what is worship? It is to give ourselves freely and fully to Him, and in so doing, commune with Him. And as we commune with Him, we commune with each other.

We do not serve an ideology, whether political or otherwise. We do not worship a thought system, and we have no absolute, rigidly-defined, systematic theology. We have the revelation of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit. This is why St. Paul tears down these walls between us when he says today, “Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all.” When you approach this creation and the persons in it, consider that each place and each person has Christ mystically present within.

So as we see the news unfolding and wars of blood, rhetoric and economics being fought over ideology, let us remember the God Whom we worship. And in so doing, let us remember that this world and all of us are pillars in God’s holy temple. And not one of them should be desecrated.

To our Lord Jesus Christ therefore be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.