Many of you know that I am not a cradle Episcopalian. I found Anglican Christianity and the Episcopal Church about 45 years ago, when I was in my early 20s. I was raised in a free-church evangelical tradition, as I suspect some of you were as well. In that environment, there was a pretty strong emphasis on the necessity of having a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ. ” So my attention was arrested recently when I saw a meme on Facebook with a quote from a theologian debunking that notion, saying that Christianity is not about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. My first visceral response to this was to cringe in horror. I still do have an inner Evangelical, and while this inner Evangelical is duly constrained by my more overt Anglican Catholicism, he is nonetheless capable of raising his voice from time to time.
But, when I clicked on the link itself, I felt much better. It led me to a healthy explanation of the essentially communal nature of Christianity, that the Church is a “we” and an “us,” rather than merely a collection of “I” and “me.” Since this is a Sunday parish congregation and not a seminary class, I won’t use language like “ontological priority” … except, I just did! … and simply say that first there’s the Church, to which individual believers are then joined through baptism, rather than there first being individual believers who come together to form the Church. That might seem like splitting hairs, I suppose, but, when you stop to think about it, it’s really a very counter-cultural assertion, even subversive, perhaps. Modern and post-modern Americans are, if anything, hyper-individualistic. In our culture, everything is, in the end, personal.
At the Mockingbird Conference I attended in New York last week, one of the plenaries was an address by Oliver Burkeman called “Sisyphus’s Inbox.” Burkeman writes for the Guardian, and his work researches things like fitness apps, mindfulness seminars, productivity techniques – in other words, all the many self-improvement, life-management schemes that are on offer in Western culture these days. Mockingbird every year includes speakers who are not Christians, as Burkeman is not, but whose work provides evidence for one or more of the basic claims of Christianity about how the world works.
Mockingbird’s strong suit, in their words, is “cataloging the myriad ways in which the Christian understanding of reality – what people are like, what God is like and how the two intersect – is borne out all around us. Behind our entire project,” they write, “lies the conviction that none of us ever moves beyond our need to hear the basic good news of God’s Grace. In particular, none of us ever fully escapes the gravitational pull of personal control (and anxiety) when it comes to life and how we live it. Hence the name Mockingbird, which refers to the curious characteristic of the bird itself: to repeat the message it has heard, over and over again.”
Incessant repetition like that is something I know I need in order to live day to day as if I believe in grace, because grace just cuts so completely against everything human beings want to be true. It frees us radically from our daily treadmill of deserving, but it’s such a unique idea that even those of us who are all in for the Jesus thing lose the truth of grace regularly, just the way people lose the liberating insights we’ve had in therapy as soon as we step into the family reunion.