I recently wrote a post at Read the Fathers about Irenaeus and divine transcendence. Over there, I try to keep things a bit dispassionate. My main goal is to be a guide to reading the Church Fathers — who were they? what did they say? what do they mean? what was their context? Over here, on the other hand, my goal is also to go a step beyond that to ask:
And so what?
I broke my rule about dispassion in that post very briefly at the end, admitting as much, and writing:
There are some of us who believe that a failure to preach or believe in a transcendent God is part of the sickness now besetting the church in the West. Perhaps Irenaeus and the Fathers can be part of our cure.
Consider this. I was reading a news article not too long ago about the potentially amicable split in the United Methodist Church in the States. This article cited someone claiming that many millennials are leaving the church (not just the UMC but church in general) over concerns about gay/LBGTQ+ rights. The author made it sound like this was a cause for a majority, but given the ongoing haemmorrhaging of the Protestant mainline, there’s more to it than that. Apologies for not having kept track of this article to link to it.
So let’s look at both sides for a moment. When I mentioned to a pastor once about the church in Canada and the USA having lost its sense of God’s transcendence and this being a cause of church decline, he quickly set off in the direction of the declining mainline. I had to gently course correct him, because evangelicals are as guilty as the mainline, they just go about it differently.
We all tend to tame God. So if a lot of people who grew up in theologically and morally conservative churches are leaving over LGBTQ+ rights and issues, and not just going to liberal churches (some do, I admit; and some who do eventually slip away from the faith as well), somehow the God being preached and encountered at evangelical churches is not bigger than the wider culture.
We are not debating whether same-sex sex acts are sinful, nor whether the sacrament of holy matrimony should be restricted to heterosexual monogamy. I like avoiding trolls and so avoid this question on this blog. But let us, as a premiss for this thought experiment, take evangelical sexual ethics as granted. If a person finds that they are having trouble with this part of evangelical Christianity, leaving the Church, or least leaving the Christian faith, doesn’t strike me as an option if this person has also encountered the transcendent God.
If God is big enough, shouldn’t we be willing to hold unpopular opinions, or to spend time with Him — and even His people despite some discomfort?
It strikes me that if evangelical preaching of traditional sexual ethics is enough to drive churched people away, evangelicals haven’t been preaching enough Gospel, enough of the explosive truth that the untouchable, incomprehensible God Whose essence is unknowable came to us in the flesh in order that we might know Him. LGBTQ+ issues may be the presenting, conscious issue, but I suspect much more lurks beneath the surface when people leave.
Let us now consider the liberal churches, such as my dear, old Anglican Church of Canada. The Anglican Church of Canada, it turns out, is in such decline that if rates of decline continue (which they probably will not), there will be no members in 2040. Now, to be sure, many of us who grew up Anglican don’t darken the door of an Anglican parish on a Sunday morning because we find Anglicans exhausting, LGBTQ+ issues aside. Nonetheless, if the author of the article was right, it strikes me that liberal Anglican churches and United Churches should be flourishing.
Instead, two of the Anglican parishes in my neighbourhood have merged, and I noticed that at least one of the downtown churches has closed its doors during the decade I was away. If people were leaving evangelical and conservative churches over LGBTQ+ issues alone, would they not say, ‘But Jesus is worth it, I’m going to the liberal Anglican or United Church down the road!’
I think, instead, people are going nowhere. Maybe some people try a more liberal church for a while. But both sides have their own special tamed gods to preach instead of the wild God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Haven’t we all met the God of being nice from both liberals and conservatives? Or the God of self-help/pop psychology? The genie God of Joel Osteen? The God of moralism and legalism? The God of ritual perfectionism? The God of feel-good emotions? The God of social justice?
Or that sort of preaching that doesn’t really need God at all, but is an interesting bit of religious thought/ethics/philosophy/literary criticism/psychology?
Now, I believe that Scripture and tradition teach a moral code, and that we can’t just avoid morality in our Christian walk. And I think love and justice for the poor, downtrodden, beaten, and bruised is part of a sound, biblical moral vision. And it’s probably a good idea to be nice. And that Jesus can bring mental and emotional healing to our lives.
But do you know what else the God of the Bible, the God of Irenaeus, the God of the Nicene Creed has done?
He made everything out of nothing. (By everything, I mean the entire, majestic universe, from quasars to the quantum realm.)
He made a bush burn without being consumed. (And talked out of it!)
He parted the Red Sea.
He also entered history as one of us. The Mighty God became a helpless baby!
After performing many miracles, this Mighty God died. (‘Tis mystery all — th’immortal dies!)
He trampled down death by death.
With the lightning flash of his Godhead, he broke the gates of Hades.
He rose from the dead.
He ascended to the heavens.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.
And He invites us, poor, broken, dying, dead sinners to join Him in glory.
Not because we deserve it. Just look at the world around you. Does any of us really deserve glory? Left? Right? Centre? Rich? Poor? Young? Old? Think about.
But God, the Creator of the Universe, loves us so much that He took on flesh and died so that we could be with Him.
Let me tell you, this is a God Who is so much more thrilling than “5 Steps to a Better Marriage” (however helpful that may be).
Are we preaching Him and helping others find Him?
This question is one reason I write this blog and read the Fathers (and manage Read the Fathers!). We need to encounter this God Whom so many others have encountered, and bring His light to the world around us. For many, reading Irenaeus or Basil of Caesarea or John Chrysostom or Bonaventure or Gregory Palamas, or least meeting their ideas, is a gateway to worshipping the wondrous, transcendent God.