At the Nelson Atkins museum right now, there’s an exhibit by an artist named Andy Goldsworthy called the Walking Wall. Goldsworthy is a world-renown artist who works almost exclusively with natural objects: rocks, trees, flowers, and leaves. Usually, when his work is completed, they film and photograph it and it floats away downstream or succumbs to the forest and the wind. Goldsworthy is teaching us to see the beauty of the moment—of things that are here for a moment and pass away—the way that things are constantly changing. The Walking Wall is a variation on that theme, and it’s teaching me what it means to be part of the church at the end of Christendom.
We are living in a time of deep disorientation, as a culture, and as the church. Huge aspects of life and faith we used to take for granted are being called into question. Old structures of belief and meaning are breaking down, and the faith our parents and grandparents seemed to effortlessly rely on is being reformulated and reconsidered. As a pastor, I am in constant conversation with intelligent, caring, wholeheartedly faithful people who can, frankly, no longer tell up from down. I hear the constant refrain: “What in the world is going on?” The ground ahead of us is nearly unrecognizable, but we have nowhere else to go but here.
Navigating the wilderness can be incredibly disorienting. It’s an ugly and often painful thing to watch. It can be easy to feel like we’re doing something wrong, like we’re heretics or traitors to the cause… like we used to be pretty good at Christianity, you know? It made sense to us, and helped us navigate our lives. But that all seems to be breaking down now.
I recently asked my church how many would say they are in a season of de-slash-re-construction. Nearly every hand in the place shot up. Thank God. I’m not alone.
Confirmation that you are good and seriously lost usually comes in the form of that familiar shot of adrenaline, the one that tells you when you’re about to fall, or get hit by oncoming traffic. For me, there’s always a twinge of embarrassment. Shame—my favorite affect—floods over me like I just violated some rule everyone but me seemed to know about, and I just cost my team fifteen yards. Is there someplace I can hide? Perhaps there’s another option besides making ourselves as small as possible and waiting for the crowd to stop booing.
What if we choose to mine for this tension like it’s solid gold, precious, and powerful, and for our benefit? After all, tension is nearly always the path to growth. What does faith look like in a season of disorientation?
Christendom was that supposedly wonderful time when Christianity was the default setting for all of Western Culture. Society was rooted in common beliefs, language, symbols, and practices that gave us all a sense of certitude. For most of the world, Christendom all but disappeared after Auschwitz, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But, the loss of Christendom is just now coming for many privileged white American Christians. Some trace the beginnings of their disorientation to the election of Donald Trump.
The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has an interesting way of illustrating the dramatic loss of Christendom. He says, four centuries ago one could walk the streets of Prague, Paris, or Amsterdam, and it would have been virtually impossible to find a person who did not believe in God. Today, the opposite is true. Walk those same streets and you’ll have a hard time finding anyone who does believe in God, much less a bonafide church member. It’s a massive change in a short time, and can feel like a major loss.
Taylor says, however, the loss of Christendom was about addition, not subtraction. To their Christian faith, Western believers had to suddenly add a truckload of new material—Darwin’s evolution, Einstein’s relativity, migration from towns to cities, the Industrial Revolution, modern medicine, consumer capitalism, World War I and II, the Cold War, the threat of nuclear annihilation, mass media, television, and the digital age—all to an ancient faith that was already beleaguered.
At some point it simply became too much, and certitude went out the window. People could no longer believe in God and still believe everything else they were learning. This massive period of deconstruction began. That’s the terrain for us. That’s why we feel such disorientation.
The loss of Christendom can register as a kind of danger, and from there it’s usually fight, flight, or freeze. The Fighters wage the Culture Wars, embracing politicians who promise to bring back the good old days of certitude. The Flighters bail on God, or bail on culture. The Freezers either maintain a vague, sentimental belief in God, showing up to church only on Christmas and Easter, or they join the ranks of the spiritual but not religious.
My friends and I are trying to imagine a fourth option beyond fight, flight, or freeze, one we just call faith—only in its verb form: Faithing. We are trying to stay engaged with God, the church, and the culture, and do the long slow work of reimagining our faith on the new terrain of culture.
During the long night he wrestled with God, the Old Testament patriarch, Jacob, made a powerful transition. Up to then, Jacob had been kind of a scoundrel. He swindled his brother out of his birthright, his father out of his blessing, his father-in-law out of his fortune, and had always managed to stay one step ahead of the consequences. But there in the middle of the night by the River Jabbok, the bill came due. Jacob wrestled with God in the form of a man.
It was as if there was no way for Jacob to move forward in life unless he learned to change, and grow up. His old brash and unrepentant ways made him a fortune, but ruined nearly every relationship he had. So, there in the dark he contended with God. Apparently it was a fairly even match, which means that either Jacob was incredibly strong, or God was limiting God’s strength to keep Jacob in the game. Either way, God seemed pleased with Jacob’s tenacity.
As morning broke God touched the socket of Jacob’s hip and injured him (confirming my suspicion that God doesn’t fight fair). But, instead of quitting, Jacob put God in a clinch and said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And that’s exactly what God did. “You shall be Israel—the one who wrestles with God.” God named and blessed Jacob right there by the river as the sun came up.
The transformation Jacob underwent is the same transformation we’re trying to make here in the midst of our own disorientation. At first Jacob was all bluster and bravado. He was fighting to win, to come out on top, to maintain his current way of being. After the injury, however, the game changed. From that point on he was just holding on for dear life, begging for God’s blessing, hoping for some sense of his true identity.
The story ends, fittingly, with a peculiar detail. We’re told that Jacob walked with a limp for the rest of his life. With his new strength and identity, would come a new weakness. Jacob had lost the match but won his soul. It was what Frederick Buechner has called, The Magnificent Defeat. A little less of a scoundrel, Jacob finally knew who he was: the one who wrestled with God and lived to tell the tale.
What the people of God have come to believe is that everybody has to wrestle with God eventually. And, if you do, you’ll walk with a limp for the rest of your life. Of course you will. Faith will become even more confusing than before, less simplistic, less in control, and just all-around harder to navigate. If you want to cling to God you will have to let go of the certitude and easy answers to which you cling. And this is the only way to be named by God, and receive our true identity.
Here in the midst of disorientation, our struggle cannot be a fight to win, to control God or maintain the status quo. Our struggle can only be to cling to God, to somehow receive a blessing, and a new and deeper sense of our own identity. The only ground on which this can happen is the ground of disorientation. Change almost never happens in safe, comfortable spaces. Only when we step out in faith into the mystery and danger of the night—only when we come to the end of ourselves and wrestle with God—do we learn who we truly are. Only when we are completely confused about everything, do we finally begin to know a few things as they truly are.
But, if you wrestle with God, you’re going to walk with a limp. It’s ragamuffin faith from here on out.
The Walking Wall
So what does faith look like at the end of Christendom? What does it look like to keep walking with God, even if we walk with a limp? The Walking Wall is teaching me.
Goldsworthy and his team built their beautiful rock wall about a hundred yards long using ancient methods, without cement, fitting these stones together using smaller rocks and pebbles to fill the gaps. Then, when they finished, they began to walk the wall forward. Taking the stones from the tail and adding them to the front, they just kept building the wall onto the ground ahead, about twelve yards a day, as if the wall was walking.
This Walking Wall is an amazing metaphor for the Church, here at the end of Christendom. The church is heading into new terrain that is always changing. Our task is to keep this walking wall of the church moving forward. And in order to do this, we have to return to the foundations of our faith and deconstruct them. We have to pick up these old stones and measure their weight. We have to learn their contours—what they’ll do and what they won’t—and then carry them forward, faithfully reconstructing them onto the new terrain.
Not everybody is up for this task. At one point, Goldsworthy’s wall blocked a nearby street, stopping Kansas City traffic for a few weeks. It’s incredibly inconvenient this work we are doing. That’s when you find out who the artists really are. Some people want to build the wall into a fortress and fight. Some will want to reject the whole enterprise and take flight from it. Some want to cement the wall in one place and freeze it in time. But the fight, flight, freeze responses mistake the very nature of the wall. It’s a walking wall, after all, always on the move, exploring the new terrain of culture. Cement the wall together, and it’ll never move again. Build it into a fortress and you’ll only fight about who’s in and who’s out. Flee the enterprise altogether, and you’ll miss out on the beauty and artistry of the work.
Our task is the task of faithing, picking up these ancient stones, the very foundations of our faith—scripture, tradition, reason, and experience—holding them in our hands, studying them, learning their shapes, feeling their weight, and carrying them forward as we wrestle with God thru this process of de-and-re-construction. Never losing track of even the smallest pebble, we know that all of this wall must be carried forward because there might be some terrain ahead where this exact rock is needed.
Isn’t that a beautiful picture of the church? This is what we do. We wrestle with God and with our culture as we slowly, faithfully, move the wall forward. That’s our life’s work. You can see it as a huge waste of time, or as a beautiful work of art.
We are living in a time of deep disorientation. You are not imagining it. It’s real. But, we are not in danger. God has us. God invites us to stop trying to win, stop trying to maintain, and instead to cling to God, wrestle with God, and ask God to name us and bless us. And if we do, we’ll walk with a limp. There’s no getting around that. We’ll be ragamuffins for the rest of our lives. But this is the only way to come to know who we really are, to know what it means to be human as human was meant to be. And generations from now, when we are all dead and gone, this walking wall of the church will continue moving forward. Our lives can be part of that legacy.
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