I kept looking out my window at the buildings instead of watching the cars in front of me. A new town. I had never heard of it until I was asked to come out there for my interview. Driving through High Point, I searched for landmarks, tools to help me make a quick exit. I was also looking for landmarks to confirm that I was in a conservative, southern town. It’s a habit I picked up somewhere, even though I grew up in a small, conservative southern town. Or especially because I grew up there: condescension proves I have grown beyond it.
It wasn’t a navigational landmark, but I became quite fascinated by a small brick building with a couple of small windows, the True Standard Holiness Church. I started my mental attack immediately. True Standard? Am I going to find the old church, the Standard Holiness Church down the road? Is it redundant to qualify the “standard” with “true”? How have they determined what the true standard is? How do they know they embody it? Why do we Christians keep trying to justify ourselves as embodying the “true” standard? Do we need to split churches every time we think we possess the true standard?
The barrage of questions didn’t last long. Suddenly, I found myself in a kind of religious crisis. Like my church? The AMIA. “Orthodox” anglicans. Turning to tradition (a claim to possess the true standard!). Those sinful Episcopalians. Not to mention the debates within AMIA. Are we anglo-Catholic? How high of a liturgy? What can we alter in it? Should the sermons follow the lectionary? What does it mean to be “anglican”?
Oh no, I thought, I’m one of them. I’m part of the “true standard” church. And there is no way out! Not that I’m trapped in AMIA. But that I’m trapped in a “true standard” church. It’s not just them, it’s me. It’s my Christianity that is frail; it’s my Christianity that amounts to nothing more than contradiction and sin. My Christianity! My faith–petty! Insignificant! A display of sinful arrogance and self-justification!
“Christianity twisted like a snake in the hands of those who sought to us it: millenarian prophets, authoritarian and radical missionaries alike, British abolitionists, Khoekhoe preachers, and racist settlers all sought to control its language in a climate of intense power struggles, but none was able to establish final ownership” (Elizabeth Elbourne, “Prelude” to __Blood Ground__, p. 5).
A whole book investigating the complexities of Christian language, the way it is used in our world, or, for this book, in the world of colonial South Africa. It’s disturbing. Where do I fit in the scheme? More importantly, where is God? What does Jesus think about this dizzying array of options? About our complex motives, the factors beyond our control, the forces that make us the specific sinful humans we are? Is Christianity just like any other language, a tool to be used within power struggles? Is it nothing but another game of violent self-assertion?
I couldn’t find an answer. I started wondering: is this a religious crisis, a crisis of faith? Two days after my ordination interview, and I’m wondering whether there is anything worthwhile in Christian faith. Or, at least more worthwhile than any other product of the sinful human race.
But what are my options? To give up? To embrace atheism? But that is simply another option within the “true standard” religious game. I see through all this depraved religiosity, I see the root and the cause, and I have now risen above it and will call others to the true standard!
Starting a new church won’t get me out of it either. Didn’t all these schisms occur because a group thought it possessed the true standard? The same thing, over and over again. A rejection of one standard becomes, unsurprisingly, a new standard. Even the rejection of all claims to possess “the true standard” becomes a new standard, the standard. Nor can I just abstract from these concrete religious assertions and find solace in a pure, mystical religion. Mysticism, in this sense, is simply cautious atheism: I see through this utterly human construct called institutional religion, but instead of seeing nothing (atheism), I see a pure truth above and beyond the sinful institution. Behold, the true standard!
There is no place outside of this circle. A “turning against the religions…is manifestly impossible, whether in the form of mysticism or in that of atheism. For in making this judgment it will have to judge itself…The real crisis of religion can only break in from outside the magic circle of religion and its place of origin, i.e., from outside man” (Karl Barth, CD I/2, 324).
What, then, is the way forward? How do we move beyond the true standard religious game? If Barth is right, we don’t. We accept the condemnation. We make no claim that Christianity, in any form, has escaped the game. We “must not allow ourselves to be confused by the fact that a history of Christianity can be written only as a story of the distress which it makes for itself” (337). “Even Christianity is unbelief” (338). The “sum total of even the Christian religion is simply this, that it is idolatry and self-righteousness, unbelief, and therefore sin. It must be forgiven if it is to be justified” (354).
We accept the condemnation. We trust that Jesus will forgive us, especially for our religion. We stop striving to justify ourselves, to vindicate our religion, to contrast our purity with the sinfulness of others, to proclaim our possession of a way beyond religiosity. We too are judged. But in Jesus, we are forgiven. We need not find a positive spin on our history. Our history has been taken out of our hands; we do not need to find security in our ability to construct a purer religion. Not “only our security before God, but the very security of our being and activity, and therefore our security in relation to men, rests absolutely upon our willingness in faith and by faith to renounce any such securities” (332). We are free to renounce them because, in faith, by Jesus Christ, we do not need them. Our security before God does not rest on our Christian religion; it rests on God’s gracious forgiveness of our sin. Christianity is the true religion, according to Barth, always on the analogy of justified sinners. It’s false and sinful when considered in and of itself. Its truth, just like its justification, lies outside of itself, in Jesus Christ.
My “orthodox,” “traditional,” “anglican” church can either point towards itself, towards another form of the true standard religious game. Or we can accept a more humble and insecure place, as another form of sinful religion, and, hopefully–and this is what is peculiar to Christianity–as a witness to Christ’s mercy on us pious sinners.