I understand why Anne Rice has renounced (HT: Aquila Report) the visible, institutional church. She’s a modern and she’s an American. She might also have some “authority issues” (she was born “Howard Allen O’Brien“) but I digress. Yes, she’s Romanist but she’s a modern American first and the most basic conviction held by all moderns (and most all Americans) is autonomy relative to all other authorities. Autonomy says: I am the measure of all things. Moderns do identify with Jesus but only insofar as he can be put to the service of their agenda. The Jesus of modernity is a preacher of personal piety and good behavior. He is nice. He is sweet. He is gentle. He is inclusive. He is a prophet of human goodness and perfectibility. In short, the Jesus of modernity looks quite a bit like an enlightened modern.The modern commitment to autonomy is such that they are also deeply suspicious of institutions. It is widely accepted among moderns that Jesus did not establish and institution, indeed, a priori, he could have not done. The Jesus of modernity was the first Christian who experienced God spontaneously and who rebelled against any and all institutions. Modern Christianity has sought for two centuries to recapture Jesus’ immediate, spontaneous experience of the noumenal, the divine, and/or the transcendent and it has often sought those things outside of institutions. That this quest for what is often described as “authentic” Christianity is also a mark of evangelicalism testifies to the essentially modern nature of that wing of American Christianity. Evangelicals are largely just a more conservative version of their more liberal modernist counterparts. This theory explains why evangelicals are so quick to exit the institutional church for small groups. The classic modern evangelical pattern is to move from outside of the visible church, to the church, to small groups, and once again to leave the visible church. Autonomy uber alles. From the assumptions of modernity and Americanism, Rice’s renunciation of the institutional church is par for the course.
She’s also right to note that the visible church is a disappointment, that it too often says what it should not and doesn’t say what it should. I’m reasonably confident that she and I would disagree as to the agenda that the institutional church should follow but I understand her frustration. For many modernists, Romanists, and evangelicals the visible church is just another vehicle for achieving a socio-political goal. The cultural right wants the church to do one thing and the cultural left wants it to do another and neither seems to understand that the visible church was commissioned by her Lord to represent a kingdom “not of this world” with transcendent concerns with implications for this life that are not neatly consistent with any particular socio-political agenda.
Sometimes becoming confessionally Reformed, especially when leaving American evangelicalism, is like a second conversion because it requires a death to autonomy. As an evangelical I did not have to renounce my autonomy. Indeed, I was encouraged to baptize my assumptions and to bring them into the church. When I discovered the Reformation I found that there was another way of understanding the Christian faith which required me to deny that I am the measure of all things. It is this recognition that is at stake in the argument about human free will and sola gratia: autonomy. This is what is at stake in the argument about sola scriptura: the denial of human autonomy relative to the source of authority. Perhaps the great difference between Reformed confessionalists and American evangelicals is, however, the doctrine of the visible, institutional church. It is the recognition that Jesus wasn’t only meek, he wasn’t a rebel against all institutions, he wasn’t a prophet of pietism and the spontaneous experience of the divine. It was a great shock for me to learn than Jesus intentionally established an institution: the church (see Matt 16; 18; 28:18-20).
Rice is right about some things but she is also wrong too. Jesus wasn’t a proto-modern. He wasn’t a prophet of modernity nor a preacher of personal autonomy. He wasn’t an anti-institutional rebel. He was and is God the Son and the Son of God (and the Son of Man). He purified the temple but he did not destroy it, not until AD 70. The temple that was destroyed c. 33 AD was was his body which he gave up willingly for sinners. Yes he was at war with the status quo but not in service of enlightened, rationalism or late-modern, post-enlightenment subjectivism. He was a warrior for the glory of God and the salvation of sinners, two agendas in which autonomous modernity has had absolutely no interest. Jesus wasn’t devoted to human welfare. He did not heal every sick person in Palestine nor did he raise every corpse. By enlightened modern standards he practiced animal cruelty. He did not stop the slaughter of animals in the temple and he sent pigs racing off a cliff. He was (apparently but not actually) indifferent to some pressing human concerns. If he was really all about our health and well being then his death, which he could have avoided in the service of temporal human welfare, was ill considered and ill timed.
For moderns, who will not let Jesus be Jesus it is only a matter of time before discontent sets in. Jesus is most resistant to being re-made or remodeled. He was and is what he has always been: the Holy, Holy, Holy one of Israel and a disappointment. He seems to have disappointed his mother, at least initially, at Cana. He certainly disappointed the disciples (hence Peter’s sword) and the disappointment among the mob in Jerusalem led them to clamor for another and a new new hero: Bar-Abbas.
Jesus is just a Savior. He established a kingdom manifested in his (visible, institutional) church populated by Peters and Pauls and Judases and lots of other disappointing sinners. He did not give it great outward power or pomp. He gave it a fairly incredible message (a crucified rabbi was raised from the dead and will return in glory) and two rather unimpressive sacraments. It’s understandable why people would be disillusioned. At hear the root of disappointment is eschatology. Americans and moderns have an over-realized eschatology (yet another way in which evangelicals are thoroughly American and modern; “Shine, Jesus Shine.”)
Jesus is also Lord, however, and he is returning. All the glory folk seek now will be then. When the Crucified Disappointment comes in glory every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is the Messiah and the Lord of Glory. There will be no question. The empirical evidence will be overwhelming. The noumenal will become the phenomenal. What the pietists regard as private will become public. All social ills will be cured. All institutions will be perfected. The civil state will be no more. Of course, as I wish I had thought to tell my uncle decades ago, when he declared that he would believe the resurrection when it could be reproduced in a laboratory, they will have then what they want now but it will be too late. To have Jesus now (and then) is to have his disappointing visible church now. One cannot have Jesus without his little, ineffectual church. He called us “the least of these” for a reason.