Viable religion is one that has a working reciprocity with the culture that produces it or with which it interacts (Townes 1995). The call and task of our religious communities lies in the ability to impact the society each assembly operates in. The task of religion is not isolated to personal salvation, rather it is a transformative agent in the world. Healthy religious practices seek to provide a way for individuals and communities to name their experience and to live in response to it. In many ways, religious communities are countercultural models of an alternative set of values and practices to those of the larger society (Allen 2008). Religion stands amidst in the society as a witness of the highest potential of that society and calls all the members of the community to their highest expression. Those concerned with religious experience, whether they are religionist or not, are the most severe critics of social norms and practices, recognizing that humanity’s alienation from the whole, is a threat to individual and collective salvation.
My own Christian faith tradition, in order to be more viable in the world, must recognize its exposure to and role in the patriarchal, paternalistic, domineering society. She must be in the world engaging a prophetic dynamism that is forever questioning the status quo and striving toward conversion on all levels. This means that our faith must engage the process of protest, self-criticism, self- denial, and reform; so that the voice of the church will be credible in a society yearning for liberation (Häring 1970). A church who does not consistently seek to impact mythology, historical analysis, social organization, political organization, creative motif, and ethos of the world around it fails to be at all relevant to the community. By disengaging the culture, a church ceases completely to live out its vocation in the world, and in doing so betrays the very Gospel for which it pretends to stand.
Whatever hermeneutical lens your local assembly engages we can never forget that theology functions within the church. Its task is to ensure the authenticity of the church. That theology is impotent if the church does not act out the Gospel it has received. James H. Cone taught us well that theology is that discipline which has the responsibility of continually examining the proclamation of the church in light of Jesus Christ and then to criticize and revise the language of the church (Cone 1997). Our theology has failed if we are not confronting the evils of this society with its failure to live into the highest ethics and values. Far too much of our highest humanity has been sacrificed to social norms such as extreme capitalism, consumerism, materialism, militarism, war, violence, rape culture, patriarchy, imperialism, and whole host of interlocking social systems. By in large our religious communities seem to have lost the vocal critique of these systems that serve only to oppress and dehumanize the world around us.
What would happen if the church and all religious organizations began to engage in cultural dissidence that seeks to counter the hegemonic narrative of oppressive power? What if we began to craft liturgies that seriously envisioned and revised our collective resistance in terms of the liberating message of all the prophets? What would it look like for your local assembly to participate in a principled public criticism of and opposition to systemic injustice (Hendricks 2011)? What if the church began to take seriously the lived reality and embodiment of Jesus (Wallace 2002). The poor Jewish Jesus with his non-normative body who shows up with an anti-imperialist message over against the religious tradition of his time. It is Jesus who unhinges the relationship between the underprivileged and the privileged: born in a manger and becoming King of the Jews without amassing either wealth or military might. It centers the Jesus who is incarcerated and dies in a government-sanctioned execution. What if we engaged preaching that lifted Jesus in his lived reality as a practicing Jew living in a territory controlled by Roman political, military, and economic forces.
If our liturgies employed this prophetic critique, we might have viable religion and be relevant in the world.
Please feel free to comment below.
Peace Is Possible,
Rt. Rev. Edward Donalson III, DMin | Director of Liturgy and Worship | Assistant Clinical Professor
SCHOOL OF THEOLOGY AND MINISTRY | SEATTLE UNIVERSITY
Allen, Ronald J. 2008. Thinking Theologically: The Preacher as Theologian. Minneapolis: Frotress Press.
Cone, James H. 1997. Black Theology and Black power. MaryKnoll: Orbis.
Häring, Bernard. 1970. A Theology of Protest . Toronto: Doubleday.
Hendricks, Obery. 2011. The Universe Bends Toward Justice . Maryknoll: Orbis Books.
Townes, Emilie M. 1995. In a Blaze of Glory: Womanist Spiriutality As Social Witness. Nashville: Abingdon Press.
Wallace, Maurice O. 2002. Constructing the Black Masculine: Identity and Ideality in Afircan American Men’s Liturature and Culture 117-1995. Durham and London: Duke University Press.