The solution to church decline might seem to lie in some sort of purposeful activity. We should pray with more intensity, attend more liturgies with consistency, or become far more adept in speaking with theological language. I can’t disagree with such recommendations. These activities are more likely to become transformative for us when practiced with complete absorption. This may only come after we have moved past an initial discomfort with silence, or perhaps gotten past the self-consciousness of awkwardly fumbling with a hymnal in the pews or praying the Daily Office with smartphone in hand.

But there is a problem. These activities do require discipline, and we are in a time of decided skepticism about disciplines. Candace Chellew-Hodge recently asked her community college students (in an activity that seems pedagogically useful, sociologically fascinating, and theologically dubious) to create a religion. They had “romantic” ideas about meditation and pilgrimage but neglected to incorporate clergy or weekly meetings; needless to say, there would be no excommunication at all. Their aversion to discipline did not come from a lack of work ethic. Instead, it came from skepticism towards the institutions that would have to impose the discipline. One Millennial student opined, “We don’t need to some church telling us what to do when they don’t practice what they preach.” Here, Chellew-Hodge, keenly worried about her students, has to agree with them: “The problem, as I see it, is not with the lack of imagination of this new generation, but with religious institutions themselves,” at least as presently constituted.

How can the Church ask for disciplined prayer or study without exposing its own incapacity to ask for such discipline? The Church’s request, it seems to me, must take into account ecclesial sinfulness — the insistence must come from a position of brokenness, awareness that we really don’t always “practice what we preach.” But how can the Church speak like this?

The Jesuit Phillip Sutherland notes that Millennials — admittedly, generational analysis is inexact — are not merely distinguished by being anti-institutional: “spiritual but not religious.” There is also a pronounced dislike of violence and divisiveness. For instance, Thom and Jess Rainer report about this generation’s fascination with lasting peace and reconciliation:“They told us that they would like to learn from people who have long-term successful marriages. In fact, 91 percent held these people up as their heroes and their life examples.” With memories of 9/11 and hurtful parental divorces, Millennials, the Rainers report, are “abandoning churches” because “they see religion as divisive and argumentative.”

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This sounds decidedly unpromising. But Millennials also live in a time in which there is an emphasis on the particularity of narratives, which might require an immersion in a specific grammar and vocabulary. Because of the concern with divisiveness, any desirable narrative, in its “irreducible particularity,” must be distinguished by dialogue and invitation, not divisiveness. Here, Sutherland recommends Girardian language, which highlights the particularity of Christianity’s revelation of our propensity towards violence, even in our bloodstained churches, while revealing a difficult, even apocalyptic way forward to peace.

Put very simply, Rene Girard has suggested that our desires, pace Romanticism, are less natural than mimetic — the subject “desires the object because the rival desires it.” Desire is triangular. For Girard, even the seemingly pure love of Shakespeare’s Juliet for Romeo is intensified by rivalry, which is why she speaks of Romeo in intoxicating oxymorons, “Fiend angelical,” “beautiful tyrant.” Rivalry always leads to destructive competition — how could it not? And society’s collective hostility will be turned against an innocent victim to relieve stress and preserve peace. “And Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that very day, for before this they had been at enmity with each other” (Luke 23:12; see here).

The Church, with its “irreducible particularity,” bears witness to the Christ who reveals the scapegoat mechanism, for the self-emptying Christ was not enmeshed in rivalry yet died an innocent scapegoat.

In doing so, the Church bears witness against the divisiveness that stubbornly remains in our world.

Our world seems to have internalized the Christian message about the danger of persecution. But, as Sutherland notes, the scapegoat mechanism has simply become more elusive, ever more ingrained. “[I]nstead of victimizing innocent people, societies now feel morally justified in persecuting those who persecute innocent people: ‘you have to prove that your opponent is a persecutor in order to justify your own desire to persecute.’” We are in love with our own outrage. Just as importantly, though, the Church must bear witness against itself and its own legacy of violence. Sutherland writes, “Girard acknowledges that many Christians do not realize how they are still implicit in the scapegoat mechanism.” The Church must be clear that the message it bears reveals it as a hypocrite for bearing the very message.

After all, it is possible to see the scapegoat mechanism — the attempt to cast out Satan with Satan (Mark 3:23) — in church history. As Erik Borgman has written of the dynamic in nineteenth-century Roman Catholicism, “With their exclusion, Modernity and the conflicts it brought with it were symbolically driven out, and the Church was symbolically restored as a harmonious community.” The larger point is that this should be expected given the church’s own proclamation; the Gospel is not merely rigorous, but apocalyptic. Sutherland writes about the difficult question that is forced upon us, “Will we perpetuate the sacrificial mechanism that unjustly put the Son of God to death, or will we side with God and his Kingdom of peace and justice?” This Good Friday should be no easier than any other.

The starkness of this apocalyptic proclamation means that we should expect to fail. At times, the recognition of this failure has to mean tears, sackcloth and ashes (but never despair). At other times, perhaps it should be greeted with laughter at the church’s inevitable clumsiness. James Alison gives us two images for the church that witnesses to a message that convicts itself.

The first is a restaurant. Probably not the Olive Garden. You are an Aristocrat, eager for the meal and sure of your invitation. The Chef is hidden, perhaps like in Ratatouille, but you are sure that he likes you and means to feed you “of his very best in such a way that makes you even more aware of how aristocratic, privileged, and fortunate you are.” The problem is the waiters. They all want to be head waiter. They bicker. They don’t even like some of the guests. Or the menu. But because you are an Aristocrat, you will likely not “be sucked into the waiters’ soap-opera,” trusting that the Chef will somehow still get food to you, perhaps by means of clandestine, non-uniformed staff. You might even be “able to see the hilarity of the farce without losing the ability to be pained by its pathos.” (Recall that Rowan Williams once noted that the Church could very much resemble a soap opera: “short-term conflicts, blazing rows in the pub, so to speak, mysterious plots and unfathomable motivations.”)

Alison’s second image is of a halfway house, meant to move us from a “diminished and vitiated form of living together” to a “richer and more open form.” In this halfway house, however, the officers are themselves ex-convicts. They are liable to deal with the residents as though they were still in prison; these new officers will have continuous difficulties in perception. Likewise, “there will be plenty of half-way house residents who will be glad” that their officers continue to behave like prison guards — “it helps them put off the arduous training of imagination and desire which will equip them to be socialized into the new society.”

As Aristocrats, then, we should be prepared to occasionally laugh at the waiters, because we can trust in the excellence of the food that is somehow brought to the table. And, if we are clergy, we might think of ourselves as ex-convicts who suddenly and uncomfortably have to assume the role of officers in a halfway house.

Alison suggests that the vocation of a preacher is “Be a professional hypocrite who will become an authentic sign of Christ in your publicly being set free from your own hypocrisy as a truthfulness not your own comes upon you.” It’s wonderfully awkward. I have yet to see that job description listed in “Positions Offered” in The Living Church.

But if such a person invited me to pray more, attend more liturgies, and speak with theological language, I might listen more closely. I wonder if Candace Chellew-Hodge’s students might as well.

The featured image is “Abandoned church, Rathcormac” (2010) by Alison Killilea. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 

About The Author

Neil Dhingra, a Roman Catholic, is a doctoral student in education at the University of Maryland.

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