Church – It’s Not About Us…: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
Occasionally, you can stumble upon profound theology in the unlikeliest places. Sorting through my books, I came upon a small volume, by the novelist E.M. Forster, the author of ‘Howard’s End’, ‘A Room With a View’ and ‘A Passage to India’. The book I found had been published in 1923 and was entitled, ‘Pharos and Pharillon. A Novelist’s Sketchbook of Alexandria Through the Ages’. I obtained this book as it had a short chapter on Athanasius of Alexandria. I took the time to revisit the chapter. Reading, I came upon Forster’s very astute view of the Arian controversy.
“Were his [Athanasius’] activities all about nothing? No! The Arian controversy enshrined a real emotion. By declaring that Christ was younger than God Arius tended to make him lower than God, and consequently to bring him nearer to man – indeed, to level him into a mere good man… This appealed to the untheologically-minded – to Emperors, and particularly to Empresses. It made them feel less lonely. But, Athanasius, who viewed the innovation with an expert eye, saw that while it popularized Christ it isolated God, and raised man no nearer to heaven in the long run. Therefore he fought it. Of the theatre of this ancient strife no trace remains in Alexandria. Not even Cleopatra’s Needle stands there now. But the strife still continues in the heart of men, ever prone to substitute the human for the divine, and it is probable that many an individual Christian to-day is an Arian without knowing it.”
It seems to me that Forster, in a very few words, describes much of what passes for Christianity in our era. It often appears that we are more than willing to trade off the transcendent nature of God in order to make Christ appear more “like us”; to present Christ in a more “popular” form and manner. We may not say this aloud, but it often is proclaimed in our practice. The most popular Christian books are about “us”. They are about our problems and how Christ comes to solve those problems. Such attitudes are taken to a logical extreme in the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” still proclaimed among certain American evangelicals and endemic in Africa and parts of Asia. The thrust of the message is not that we are taken up by Christ into the transcendent nature of God, but rather that he came merely to be identified with us and, in consequence, to bring solutions to our problems.
Now, while this is expressed in a direct and unsubtle manner among those holding to such systems as the “Prosperity Gospel” I think it also finds expression in more commonplace situations. We want to popularize Christ. So, we create worship songs and choruses which, if one or two words were changed, could just as easily be about our boyfriend or girlfriend. We want our worship to be popular as well in order to bring Christ more fully into our realm of experience. So, we create church facilities that look like a lecture hall or a nightclub. After all, a stage is much more familiar to people than an altar. The professional lighting and large flat screens simply enhance the personal experience of the individual in the congregation and, some might argue, brings Christ closer to them. Moreover, this is what people are used to when they attend the theater, concerts or attend a TED talk. Of course, those on the stage, should be attired like those in the congregation, as we want there to be no difference among us. We are all the same… and Christ is here as well, and he is just like us.
As Forster observed, “…the strife still continues in the heart of men, ever prone to substitute the human for the divine…”
I would argue, however, that a proper understanding of the Incarnation is not about making Christ more like us, but about Christ making us more like him and, in consequence, drawing us ever more into the life of God. As the old creed says, “Who although he [Christ] is God and Man; yet he is not two, but one Christ. One; not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by assumption of the Manhood into God.” Clearly there is mystery here. A mystery, I believe, in which we are invited to participate – through Baptism, through the Eucharist, through prayer, through the life of the Church.
It is for that reason, that I would contend that the life of the Church is not meant to be a reflection of ourselves, but rather a reflection of our participation in that mystery. If it is merely about us, then do as you want, dress as you want, sing as you want, try to attract people just like you, listen to a lecture (or give one) and have a cup of coffee before you leave… or not, as you wish, because it’s all about you. If, however, we want church to be a reflection of that mystery, we might look again at how the Church has done this through the centuries and, instead of making it about us, make it about the One we have come to worship.