Tripp Fuller on (Re)Imagining Christianity

This post is part of an ongoing blog series on Pomomusings entitled “(Re)Imagining Christianity.” To read about the series, as well as get a full schedule of participants, click here.

What is one belief, practice or element of Christianity that must die so that Christianity can move forward and truly impact the world in the next 100 years?

American Christianity needs to let therapeutic ‘believing’ die in order to move forward and impact the world. A therapeutic form of ‘believing’ is not about individual doctrines or particular answers to any of those age old questions of existence or the faith. In fact one could be a therapeutic conservative or progressive Christian. It is not about a collection of ideas that are assented too but one particular shape believing took in light of modernity. Therapeutic belief is about the existential shape of one’s faith and not (primarily) about its particular content. Therapeutic Christianity takes the ‘as is’ structure of our world, church, and self off the table and asks ‘how can we as function better as individuals? How can we make our world a bit better than we found it?’ My assertion is that therapeutic Christianity became a possibility because of modernity’s secularizing trends and ended up being the religious ally to the very structures whose outcomes threaten life on our planet in the next 100 years. Should the church retain its therapeutic form of life, its professed connection to Christ will continue to become incredulous.

Prior to modernity God was necessary and determinative in the West’s account of reality. One couldn’t talk about what it means to be individuals, communities, biological or economic beings without God. In fact all reality was perceived as a cohesive whole with God at the top of the Great Chain of Being. During the Enlightenment the progress of science disenchanted the world, taking God’s necessity for the World’s enduring existence off the table. The Nation-State and eventually democratic forms that privileged the individual’s voting conscience came to determine humanity’s political arrangements and our economic relations came to be determined by the market. These were not of course the only non-religious social relations that came to hold sway in modernity, but more than the religious loss of interpretive authority was the conscious awareness of religious plurality…and not just all the new types of Protestantism! Under these conditions in which religion lost its ability to be identified as the shared organizing structure to society, the ubiquitous sacred canopy, or the culturally assumed ‘given’ for life and as such religion had to reposition itself. Though religion ceased to hold authority in reality, it did come up with all sorts of theological justifications for the minimization of its authority. These theological mythologies about the divine origin of ‘democratic freedom,’ for example, enabled the religious faithful in turn to be faithful to other life-determining structures as though they were of God.

Rendering the story of modernity this way serves to highlight both the origin and shape of therapeutic Christianity. It originated along with global capitalism, the Nation-State, and democracy and has functioned in such a way that its practitioners assumed these three structures into their faith. These three historical and contingent structures which mediate our social relations, determine the possibilities for life and the means by which power is exercised and distributed are understood (at least in practice) as final. Our age is the age of fine tuning the fruits of humanity’s social evolution. Our ministry as a church is to help its members be good people (citizens? consumers?), advocate for a slightly more benevolent system (regulations? rights? redistribution?) and care for its victims.

The problem is that the world can’t take another 100 years where the followers of Jesus put more faith in the ‘as is’ political, economic, and ecological arrangement than our inherited religious beliefs. Yes there are many Christians who use their faith therapeutically as a security blanket and need to be honest about their genuine doubts; Yes too many leaders just say what everyone wants to hear, performing belief on the behalf of others, so that serious questions never get raised; Yes much religion has become a marketable means to comfort and console human beings looking to ignore suffering, responsibility and the absence of meaning. But underneath the hidden doubts the ‘postmodern’ and ‘progressive’ types are letting come up for air are some strong and unquestioned beliefs about the finality of our human and ecological relations. Perhaps the most problematic belief in Christianity isn’t the inerrancy of scripture, strict Calvinism, religious exclusivism or ‘open but not affirming.’ What if the future of life on our planet is most threatened by our unconscious blind faith to the ‘as is’ assumptions integral to therapeutic Christianity? More importantly, what if Christianity freed from its role atop the symbolic chain of Being can take another form that doesn’t assume the ‘as is’ structures of our suicidal machine are final and is even more Jesuanic (that is a nerdy form of Jesusy!)?

Jesus, Paul, and the early Christians were an eschatological people. The apocalyptic prophet was crucified and through the event of the resurrection the church came to see the first fruits of New Creation breaking through in the present order. The eschatological breakthrough made the divinely gifted future of Creation present. Said a different way, the kingdom made present in the ministry of Jesus became the permanent coming horizon of each and every moment through the resurrection. The resurrection of the cross-dead Jesus was God’s confrontation of each and every inherited structure and assumption about the world as it is with the prophetic critique and eschatological hope of New Creation’s ‘will be.’

The resurrection then and now proclaims to every present order that they are not final. Each time a disciple prays the prayer Jesus taught they pray for God’s kingdom to come and will be done on earth, they are participating in the genuine ‘will be’ structure of Christian existence. The shape of a faith formed in the God’s promise of what will be is far from therapeutic. It cannot assume our present ‘as is’ structure is final. Even while recognizing the progress made through the advent of democracies, nation-states, and capitalism, a Christian cannot assume that this is the best our world can get. A Christian can’t relegate faith making it a particular means to cultivate a kindler, gentler, and slightly improved version of the world we are handed. If we are honest about our global situation we know we can’t. In letting a therapeutic faith die it is my hope that the church stop pleading the 5th or silently affirming our world as it is and find its prophetic voice again. We must insist that humanity can dream and create a more just and equitable way of relating as peoples and to our planet. We can do better.

What is needed are more Christian heretics. Christians for whom their previously assumed and unquestioned allegiance to Global Capitalism is as shaken as their ability to talk about original sin. We need heretical Christian communities where in our worship, devotion, and living our unquestioned fidelity to a utilitarian and mechanistic relation to Creation is rejected. Heretical Christians and a Prophetic Christianity are actually interesting, as in I would gladly get up on Sunday morning to be a part of that community. It is making claims for itself and our world in response to God’s promise in Christ. A Christianity given shape by what ‘will be’ can never be content with what already is and that is exciting. It is inspiring.

** To avoid the probable responses I will say that Adam’s question centered on what would impact the world. Of course therapeutic Christianity functions in the same way at the level of denominations, churches, families, seminaries, and even the individual. I am sure you could come up with examples, but here are two just to make sure you get how this seemingly social and political sounding post is in fact utterly personal. 1) Our religious denominations in this country have a continued fidelity to church leadership structures, ministerial education, and ordination procedures that occupy energy, create debt, and remove future leaders from their communities of calling. We need heretical educators and denominations! 2) Many of us are trapped in our ‘normal,’ those familiar patterns of living and relating that cause damage to ourselves and others (like an addiction or dehumanizing drive to succeed). We rarely call into question our normal or insist that through the presence and redemptive work of God we could become something different and so our faith helps us manage our lives ‘as is’ rather than inviting and supporting us into what we ‘will be.’ **

Tripp Fuller: Tripp is a caffeinated nerd with a lot of hair, a love for music, and the Los Angeles Dodgers. He moved out to LA from North Carolina with Alecia & their son Elgin in order to pursue a PhD in Philosophy of Religion & Theology at Claremont Graduate University. Besides reading philosophy into the early morning, he enjoys conversations over black coffee, seeing live rock shows, and improvisational interpretive dance to 80′s Glam Rock ballads (lol!). He is currently serving as the Minister of Youth at Neighborhood Church in Palos Verdes and hosts of a very nerdy podcast called Homebrewed Christianity.

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Comments

  1. dmf says

    TF, certainly thinking of religion in terms of what it can do for me, as opposed to what am I supposed to do for G_d, is a serious problem, but while we are called as modern cosmopolitan folks to do our part to engineer the sustainable development of this mortal world this is a different calling that the arche Call to love neighbors/enemies/etc. Post-modern christians need to develop practices akin to those say of buddhist compassion if church people are to come to do more than pay lip-service to their eternal obligations.

  2. Tom Eggebeen says

    When I read:

    “These three historical and contingent structures which mediate our social relations….”

    I actually read “medicate” rather than “mediate” … I think “medicate” might say it well.

    Tom

  3. says

    Thanks Tripp. This cuts through the left vs right, conservative vs liberal (false) dichotomies to the real underlying problem in faith communities. You touched on something I’ve been wanting to develop that I believe is at the root of the story behind the problems of late, global consumer capitalism, as well as the “good news” of Jesus and the church. These forces that are the status-quo are dehumanizing for both those who are oppressed and those who oppress (which are at times one in the same person/community). Christianity has become a chaplain to the system of dehumanization, therefore offering the solution of therapy instead of a radical break toward new humanity and creation. That’s what we must discover again: God making us human again, a new humanity. That being said, while I’m moving towards this “belief” I’m not sure how to escape my “normal” life. I’m struggling to figure out what this means for my life and how to nurture community and conversation around a shared, new humanity.

    • says

      Amen, Tripp, and thanks Joe: “Christianity has become a chaplain to the system of dehumanization, therefore offering the solution of therapy instead of a radical break toward new humanity and creation.” This indeed cuts through the left vs. right, and now that I have participated in both sides, I really see this! Silence and more silence, from the pulpit. Hopefully yelling on blogs will help.

  4. says

    Tripp – GREAT article. I share your penchant for COFFEE. I share your dislike/disdain for the ‘therapeutic gospel’.

    I have been a Pastor for 42 years and have a Leadership Development Ministry focused on sound exegesis of the text of Scripture that results in Applied Theology. What does the text say?

    Finally, in my previous life I was a Barber – I can relief you of that hair in a skinny minute!! :) Come to SC and it will be over in a matter of minutes!!

    • Frank says

      So Tripp … As a therapist I have the feeling that one of my much loved vocabulary words has been capture and redefined in a way that has nothing to do with the intent of the word “therapeutic.” This is nothing new, I understand, but In my world the word has to do with what makes whole and brings healing and meaningful well-being. In other words, therapeutic as I would use the term, would be something akin to the experience of the great yearning for shalom. Whereas, I agree significantly with what you are intending to say, I am not sure I am ready to surrender what I consider a important implication of the meaning of the Gospel in our lives. If the Gospel has any meaning in the human experience I would think that would have to be considered profoundly, essentially therapeutic, i.e. in the healing of our lives and relationships with god, self, others and the entire universe. What you are describing as “therapeutic” in your article would be for me anti-therapeutic. I realize that the word is also often miss-used so that Hitler might have considered it “therapeutic” to kill people. But, I think here we might have fallen off the other side of the horse by throwing away the baby with the very duty bath water … thus, your article comes across a bit confusing to me. Just a thought. I am thinking you might get a kick out of this coming from me. Perhaps next time in town we can light up a cigar together and grin at one another a bit.

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  1. [...] Go check out my blog were I say…. The problem is that the world can’t take another 100 years where the followers of Jesus put more faith in the ‘as is’ political, economic, and ecological arrangement than our inherited religious beliefs. Yes there are many Christians who use their faith therapeutically as a security blanket and need to be honest about their genuine doubts; Yes too many leaders just say what everyone wants to hear, performing belief on the behalf of others, so that serious questions never get raised; Yes much religion has become a marketable means to comfort and console human beings looking to ignore suffering, responsibility and the absence of meaning. But underneath the hidden doubts the ‘postmodern’ and ‘progressive’ types are letting come up for air are some strong and unquestioned beliefs about the finality of our human and ecological relations. Perhaps the most problematic belief in Christianity isn’t the inerrancy of scripture, strict Calvinism, religious exclusivism or ‘open but not affirming.’ What if the future of life on our planet is most threatened by our unconscious blind faith to the ‘as is’ assumptions integral to therapeutic Christianity? More importantly, what if Christianity freed from its role atop the symbolic chain of Being can take another form that doesn’t assume the ‘as is’ structures of our suicidal machine are final and is even more Jesuanic (that is a nerdy form of Jesusy!)? [...]

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