Monday, September 3, 2007

Institutional Religion and the Jesus Way

Ever since I first read one of his books in seminary, Eugene H. Peterson continues to be one of my favorite Christian writers. I'm consistently impressed by Peterson's gift for breaking open familiar passages and stories in the Bible in ways that bring out new insights and depths of meaning that I had never considered before.

I'm now almost finished with Peterson's The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways that Jesus is the Way (William B. Eerdmans, 2007). In a nutshell, the book's thesis is that the means and the ends of the Christian life are intrinsically connected. We cannot reach the end or goal of the Christian life using just any old means we like; rather, we must use the means revealed to us in the deeds and person of Jesus. As Peterson puts it: "If we want to participate (and not just go off in a corner and do our own thing), participate in the end, the salvation, the kingdom of God, we must do it in the way that is most appropriate to that end. We follow Jesus" (p. 7; author's emphasis).

Considering the many other alternative ways available in our world (which Peterson focuses on in the second half of the book), this thesis sounds deceptively simple. But you don't have to get too far into the book before it becomes clear that the Jesus way of discipleship is far more demanding than many of us may have bargained for.

I've read numerous books and articles by Peterson, and thus far this is my favorite. Every chapter - and almost every page - offers so much food for thought and contemplation that I find it difficult to even begin offering a review of the book as a whole (perhaps, after completing it, I'll find the time and energy for that).

Instead, I want to highlight something I read earlier today in the chapter entitled "The Way of Caiaphas." Peterson writes:

We live at a time when there is a lot of ... anti-institutionalism in the air. "I love Jesus but I hate the church" is a theme that keeps reappearing with variations in many settings (p. 230).

This is becoming more common as our culture and society become increasingly post-Christian. And, as Peterson points out, there are lots of intelligent reasons why people end up rejecting the Church as an institution. "Religion," Peterson rightly notes, "is one of the best covers for sin of almost all kinds. Pride, anger, lust, and greed are vermin that flourish under the floorboards of religion. Those of us who are identified with institutions or vocations in religion can't be too vigilant. The devil does some of his best work behind stained glass" (p. 230). Whether it's clergy sex scandals or the current acrimony threatening to splinter the Anglican Communion (or any number of other sins of omission or commission), we don't have to look far to find warrants for thinking that we can embrace Jesus but reject the Church.

But that's a conclusion that Jesus won't let us get away with. Peterson rightly says that "it is interesting to note that Jesus, who in abridged form is quite popular with the non-church crowd, was not anti-institutional. Jesus said 'Follow me,' and then regularly led his followers into the two primary religious institutional structures of his day: the synagogue and the temple" (p. 230). And Jesus did that in spite of the fact that both of these institutions were riddled with imperfection, corruption, and sin - just like religious institutions today.

Some of Peterson's concluding comments are worth pondering:

A spirituality that has no institutional structure or support very soon becomes self-indulgent and subjective and one-generational. A wise and learned student of these things, Baron Friedrich von Hügel thought long and hard about this and insisted that institutional religion is absolutely necessary, being an aspect of the incarnational core that is characteristic of the Christian faith (pp. 231-232).

I think this is correct. But I would add more. For at least one of the things we mean when we affirm in the words of the Nicene Creed that we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church is that the Church is not epiphenomenal to Christian faith. The Church as an institution is not an afterthought, but rather indispensable to the way of Jesus. Yes, it's messy and frustrating and difficult. But it is just as much at the core of the Christian faith as the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus. Indeed, to separate Jesus and the Church - affirming the former while rejecting the latter - is not merely a rejection of the Church as an institution; insofar as that same institution is also Christ's risen Body and an extension of the Incarnation, to reject the Church is also to reject the Jesus Way.

Peterson's reminder that Jesus - critic that he was of the religious establishment of his day - did not take the Essene route of separating himself from institutional religion, but rather led his followers into the synagogue and into the temple, comes at a time when increasing numbers of people find the Church irrelevant. And it also comes at a time in the life of the Episcopal Church and global Anglicanism when it is all too easy to be cynical about the ways and means of the institutional Church.

I don't have any easy answers to either of those challenges. But I am grateful to Peterson for showing why it won't do to turn our backs on the Church if we want to follow Jesus.

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