The Shack and Friedrich Schleiermacher
Because, if there is anything our world needs today, it is more anti-institutional simplification about religion that reduces it to an experience of relationship and a feeling of trust. The reviewer notes, of course, that few Christians understand the Trinity:
[a] mystery,” “beyond comprehension,” “impossible to understand fully”—these are some of the phrases Christians use to describe the Holy Trinity, a central tenet of the faith. I once overheard an adult initiation sponsor tell a catechist, “You don’t need to worry about the Trinity. Not even priests understand that.” The Trinity is an essential doctrine, yet few of us know much about it or its significance to our lives.
Karl Rahner said something similar almost fifty years ago. So is the answer really the edifying themes the books presents: God is interested in our lives; we encounter God in our pain; forgiveness is possible?
What is the Catholic response to such a tremendously popular work of pop-devotion? Well, this last year I had to read it as part of a faculty-wide discussion at the school I taught at. And I arrived home this summer to hear it mentioned in a homily, and learned that discussion groups at the parish were meeting to talk about this "inspirational" text.
On a related note, recently having enjoyed gleaming the witty site, www.stuffchristianculturelikes.com, I've been thinking about the theological problems (despite real strengths I admire) Evangelical Christianity runs into. And of course, since Catholics today seem to have almost complete ignorance of the riches of their tradition, grasping for any kind of support for their faith in today's world, they usually reach for whatever was popular in Evangelical culture last year. Now, it's The Shack. The above mentioned blog tamely mocks the propensity Evangelical culture has for these kind of books: it's The Shack, a few years ago it was the Left Behind detritus, before that it was Frank Peretti, before that Hal Lindsey, etc.
The response you usually get when asking a director of religious education about the wisdom of using such a book is, it's not perfect but at least it's reaching people and getting them interested.
At least it's reaching people and getting them interested.
Let me see if I can pull my thoughts together succinctly on The Shack, problems within Evangelical Protestantism, and Catholics using less-than-ideal materials to "get folks interested."
The key to all this is the dominant influence of Schleiermachian Christianity. You might respond, if he's the dominant influence, how come I've never heard of Friedrich Schleiermacher? Like a lot of consequences in history, the prime mover if you will is often undetected. In short, he was a German Protestant theologian who felt threatened by the Enlightenment's criticisms of Christianity. So he reduced Christianity to an experience of feeling, which science couldn't touch. i.e. Christianity now takes its departure from subjective experience, specifically, the feeling of "absolute dependency." This was well and great, but the 20th century realized that lots of other beliefs can induce feelings of trust, love, sympathy, etc. Thence you have mainstream Protestantism seizing on social justice as Christianity's sole unique contribution to human welfare. (Which of course was not unique, which is why mainstream Protestantism is two feet in the grave.) Conservative protestants resisted this, first intellectually under Barth and Bultmann, then popularly (and nearly exclusively by Americans) by means of Biblical fundamentalism.
Passing by a somewhat complicated history these last 100 years, now we have in America a majority of non-denominational Evangelical Protestants. You can probably include a lot of Pentecostals, Open Bible, and Baptists in that mix as well. The differences aren't so important anymore, as are the common features: little emphasis on dogma and historical creeds; largely unconcerned with the debates of the Reformation (i.e. post-Reformation); not much emphasis on the sacraments; very little emphasis on the liturgy within the traditional experience of Christianity (whether early-Church, Catholic, Byzantine, Lutheran, Methodist, or contrarily Anabaptist, Brethren, Quaker, etc.); emphasis reading Scripture alone and within small groups, with a particular slant to "how does this speak to me?"; a "church experience" gathering as a congregation in order to sing contemporary "praise & worship", hear a sermon--usually on a chapter or section from Scripture--and perhaps to be prayed over and more rarely experience the charismatic "gifts of the Holy Spirit".
But most of what happens in Evangelical Christianity is not only extra-liturgical, but extra-ecclesial. By that I mean, most of your average Evangelical's "faith-life" is devotional, happens outside the actual physical church, and got at by means of popular Christian literature. If non-fiction, it employs the method of relating a multitude of stories and personal examples in order to illustrate a few salient points, with little theological or even logical development. The point is to get the reader to "relate it to their experience." The points are rather simple, as in, institutions can be impediments to spreading the Gospel, selfishness is the main problem in most marriages, good stewardship will be rewarded, impurity is a bad habit and therefore cannot be cured by a mere good intention, God loves us despite out sinfulness. Again, the importance isn't so much on the theological rectitude of the idea, but how well it can get readers to "relate" it to their "faith-journey".
Of course, this isn't all bad, and there can be impressive stories and worthwhile points in such literature. I submit that the greater problem remains, however: it is the mode by which these books communicate, and the way they form the reader to expect a certain result from reading the book. Similarly, all the number of hip or fashionable stuff Christian culture likes almost always follows from the same logic:
in order to successfully communicate the Gospel, I've got to get my audience to relate to what I'm saying, to identify it within their own experience, and ultimately to bring about an experience of greater trust and even a fundamental decision to commit to the Gospel.
If you're familiar with a lot of post-conciliar Catholic religious education literature and methodology, this may sound familiar. Both it and elements in Evangelical protestantism in truth presuppose the same understanding of Christianity.
This understanding says, faith consists in a decision to follow God/the Gospel, or as a continual decision to keep believing, and grows as an experience and feeling of closeness and integration. Again, the point is not, is the subject objectively changed or became a different kind of person, but do they feel or experience their life as different now that they have decided to follow God.
The Catholic understanding is different. It is neither voluntaristic, nor sentimental. Which is to say, the approaches mentioned above (that dominate much of Evangelical protestantism and diocesan religious education) are anti-intellectual and gnostic/dualistic.
The Catholic understanding says that faith is primarily a habit of the intellect, even if the will is involved; that the intellect is a prime partner in conversion and the progression to a commitment to the Gospel; that we believe, not primarily because it feels good, or we can "relate", or even because we can experience as of right now a different kind of life, but because the Gospel is true. The former attributes can be a part of conversion, but they are subsidiary.
(One can make a similar analysis of love: there is the sentimental, subjective, and voluntaristic modern account of love, and there is the Catholic account that says it is either a passion, or an act of right relationship, that has certain objective qualities and conditions, where one wills the good of an other for their own sake, because they are seen as desirable/good/worthy of love.)
Preaching the Gospel therefore is not primarily about "relating to the audience" or "relevancy" or pointing to what is authentic in the recipient's own life; it is indeed about discovering the truth about a relationship, that the recipient is not in right relation with God, and must get in right relation. This is why religion is formally a matter of justice; and even if it is more than that, it must begin with or at least retain this element.
Preaching the Gospel deals with objective facts and contexts. It requires the recipient to evaluate his life and experience, true enough, but in order to bring to the light of truth what is false, and to see what is true and bears on his life as immediate and imperative, God's summons to repent and follow him (i.e. evaluation presupposes an objective standard or context from without, else it is solipsistic). As the convert grows in devotion, it is the objective standard of the residing disproportion between what God is calling him to and how he is still acting, and the objective truth that God always loves him and is indeed calling him and helping him to change, that helps him to grow. Furthermore, preaching the Gospel leads to an eventual understanding of what is objective and factual, namely the revelation of Jesus Christ, that inspires hope, and more importantly, greater and greater love, in order to act more and more in conformity with God's (objective) will, and respond with adoration, gratitude, supplication, and continued contrition to God. (Another interesting side point: when someone says, "it's God's will for me" as a reason, ask him, "how do you know?" In other words, how do we know God's will? If it becomes synonomous with how I am feeling, than real discernment is impossible. The right way to discern begins with the objective resources for knowing God's will as primary--the Decalogue, the Beatitudes, human nature, the evangelical counsels, morality, etc.)
Finally, the life of the Christian consists most importantly in now offering such right adoration to God, which is done by joining the prayer of Christ the High Priest, who offers his life to the Father once and for all, by means of the Liturgy. The Liturgy then is primarily about this right relation (not primarily about whether we can relate, or feel a certain way, or have it identify with our experience, even if these have at times a subsidiary role). In other words, we should be conformed to the Liturgy, not the Liturgy should be conformed to us. And this is indeed something objective, something we can know.
It might be an oversimplification to say the Schleiermachian way determines that the intellect follow the will (i.e. the emotions, since as a matter a fact the will is no self-starter), and the Catholic or orthodox way determines that the will follow the intellect, but I think it summarizes my point well.
Again, what matters foremost is not whether the congregants/students/retreatents/etc. feel that they are closer to God, but whether they indeed are in right relation to God.
If we become slaves to what is hip and fashionable (distressed jeans/rock music/coffee shops/giant projector screens), we run the risk that the medium becomes the message, and we make the Gospel a matter of feeling. If it feels relevant, if I can relate to it (which is nothing other than saying, this reminds me of what I already know!), there is nothing new here. For the Gospel must always, at all costs and imperatively, retain its character of newness, of surprise. If there is nothing new here, than there is nothing here that I need, nor anything here that can save me: therefore, Christianity is superfluous, and probably a waste of time.
Rather, it is communicating the Gospel in all its newness and imperative nature that is the task of the minister/preacher/evangelist. And not primarily by means of emotional persuasion, but intellectual persuasion (believe, it's true!). The love and affection of an other can open a door, and here perhaps we run the least risk of submitting to relevancy and feeling, for few things are more permanent on this earth than the presence of loved ones and relationships. But even in any given relationship, that love can fail, that affection can die off, that relationship can grow cold. And if the Gospel was accepted on condition of that relation, faith may suffer a mortal blow as well. If faith is nothing else than a feeling of total dependency, it resides on nothing more substantial than my own felt condition.
As for The Shack, there is indeed many points inside that are salutary and helpful. But ultimately, the modus operandi of the book is, inspire a feeling, reduce what is objective and certain to the rule of "does this inspire me?" and "can I relate to it?" Perhaps the nuggets of Trinitarian theology inside can lead to a greater understanding of one's faith, but the problem is, this is not how the book itself approaches it. The very story presupposes that any message is ultimately conditioned on the recipient's own needs, proclivities, and feelings. There is a grain of truth there (whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver), but truth is finally the adequation of the mind to reality. And I think this is why Christianity is not communicated to us primarily by means of art or literature, but by history (Jesus Christ really lived and left this inexplicable movement), by objective personal testimony (see what Christ has done in my life), and by the communication of imperative news (I have news of the utmost importance: God created you, and has called you...).
And once accepted and believed, Christianity grows in the life of the believer principally by means of the Liturgy. By joining in this prayer, with my brothers and sisters, in fact outside of time (can't get any more objective than that), even if performed in time, where Heaven really and truly is present, I am transformed. And not by means of, if it jibes with my feelings, or experience, or "where I'm at", is it effective. Such is the common misunderstanding of Christian experience in liberal Catholicism, which sees no objective need (only congruence) for things like sacraments, rites, rubrics, cult, priests, ritual, matter, etc.
Note well the weakness of this current within Evangelical protestantism (despite its many strengths and the things it gets right). This kind of methodology leads to a subjective, syncretistic, sentimental church. Preaching the truth in and out of season (keeping in mind the correlative truth that HOW we preach does matter, and we need to know our audience, their needs, strengths, weaknesses, and that strong meat should not be given to babes, etc.), leading congregants to an understanding of the truth, and an ability to discern whether they are in right relation with God, and a desire to have an authentic, objective experience of God (liturgy and mysticism), is what really works in the long run.