Ever since I can remember, I have been chasing my ideas about life with a single solitary question. That question? The question is this: where did that (that being anything peeking my curiosity) come from (I know, I just ended a sentence with a preposition, sorry). One of my earliest memories is of the day I followed my then-beagle companion Toby into the dog house because I wondered where she was when she went through that little hole. My father’s reaction was not one of amusement. It was one of the few times I remember being punished as a small child. Well, maybe the punishment came because once inside the dog house I tried to hide there and lied in response to his question, “are you in that doghouse”, but clearly the threat of punishment was not enough to halt me in my quest to understand what was behind the mysterious opening.
That may be the first memory of my questioning spirit, but, with the gift of reflection (or might I say, hindsight), I can see so many ways that this question and my search for the answer has defined my journey. The thread is so easy to follow. For example, I entered college as a history major focused on the Elizabethan period of British history and, through the continual study of the antecedents of each historical age (that is, the Renaissance influences on the Reformation, the medieval influences on the Renaissance, and so forth) , I graduated with a Masters in Ancient Near Eastern history and wrote a thesis on the 18th Dynasty of Egypt– instead of a specialization in all things Elizabethan. For example.
This trend of thread-following continued and continues to this very day. Years of participating in faith communities of various flavors eventually led me to study at a seminary outside any of those traditions. I was on a quest to understand the foundations (the orthodox position, as it were) of the faith around which I form my very existence. That path of inquiry has led me deeper and deeper into the study of the Jewish culture that formed the original context of that faith and that, for me, still lives and breathes through everything we do and believe. I am unable to separate what is now from the context of its formation.
Clearly, I ask a lot of questions. I question authority (of all kinds, basically, I’m against it in principle unless the right to it is clearly earned). I question the meaning of what most would consider basic words, words about which most assume we English speakers all share a commonality of understanding.
And lately, I have many more questions than answers about the building blocks of my life and so, it seems that it is time to embark on an organized program of sorting and definition — particularly about the words we use. You see, how we understand these important words, how we define the concepts that form our lives — these ideas are the foundation around which we form relationships and participate in social groupings. These are the tools by which we make meaning in our lives, and making meaning is our primary drive as human beings (once we have satisfied the need for food, water, shelter, and a modicum of safety). The way we think (our ideology) and the way we arrange ourselves (our social structure) reinforce each other; if one is broken or damaged, then, so is the other.
New Testament scholar Timothy Luke Johnson refers to this phenomenon in sociological terms as our “symbolic world”. Our symbolic world, according to Johnson, is “a system shared meaning that enables us to live together as a group. A symbolic world is not imaginary; it includes more than specialized concepts and involves, in particular, “the fundamental perceptions that ground a community’s existence and that therefore do not need to be debated or justified. These symbols pervade every level of the group’s life. They effect the spatial and temporal arrangements and the rituals that mark them. …The symbolic world shared by a group can be discerned from the things that go without saying, the references implied by phrases such as “an so forth,” or even by gestures (pg. 11, The Writings of the New Testament).
There are many ideas here that strike me as important to my ability to understand my own ideology and my own sense of social structure. First, clearly there are a lot of inside jokes in a symbolic world, and therefore, there seems to be much in this idea of symbolic world that creates an “us” and “them” structure. There are insiders and outsiders. Second, shared beliefs not only generate social structures but they also create expectations, often unrealistic and unattainable. Third, I am struck by Johnson’s statement that there is such intense social agreement in the symbolic world that some things just “do not need to be debated or justified.” What happens, though, when someone in the symbolic world group does begin to debate the foundational assumptions and agreements? What happens when a member begins to question the ideology or the structure itself? Is change possible? Are those who question automatically shunned or excommunicated (look at what happened to Michael Gungor)? Does anyone even listen when they ask a question?
I am not simply going down a philosophical rabbit hole for the sake of the idea. I think that Johnson’s definition gets to the root of our ongoing discussions about the life or death of the church, the development of the “nones” and now even the “dones“. Clearly, by Johnson’s definition, the institutional church is a symbolic world that reached its modern zenith of cultural consensus in the America of the 20th century (one could argue for other “zenith” periods, such as the high period of the Middle Ages and even the Reformation when, although fractured within itself, church was the dominant social structure) and that now faces voices from both the inside and the outside that question that shared belief system. What happens to those of us who dare to ask questions like what is really meant by the word “church”, by the word “community”, and by the label “dying”? What if that symbolic world, intolerant of debate and questioning, is driving away those that might lead our understanding of faith into a new world — just because they refuse to conform to the requirements of a symbolic world that should be, let’s face it, at the very least changed and in all likelihood, gone?
I am still struggling with these words, church and community, and I will write more about those struggles as I have more ideas become clear. I am clear on one thing, however — my own symbolic world is broken. I am willing to consider the possibility that death may be necessary for the life of my faith — we are, after all, a resurrection people.
What if it is, in the words of the poem attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, in the dying that our faith will be born to eternal life, born to the presence of the Kingdom of God on earth? What if the death of the “church” is just the process of kicking down a man-made space that is now too small to contain the life and spirit of that God on earth? What if the death that we experience of our beloved institution is just the process by which we throw off another layer of something that separates us from that Kingdom? What if our truth is the same as that of Obi- Wan Kenobi, who wisely said to the evil Darth Vader: ” If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”
As I said, I have more questions than answers, but I will continue to ask them both silently and out loud because, well, that is who I am. Maybe there is a symbolic world somewhere for those of us who ask too many questions….