Sprinkled throughout his critique of the Canadian Protestant church of the ’60′s, Pierre Berton implies possible solutions to what he sees as the sorry state of affairs in the Christian institutional life of his day.
It seems to me there were at least twelve things Pierre Berton hoped the church of his day might do to overcome its perceived malaise:
1. speak out loudly, boldly, publicly, and often, and act decisively, against war
2. condemn in no uncertain terms the doctrine of nuclear deterrence
3. advocate for full racial integration for all people in every aspect of the social structure
4. teach stricter ethical practices in the conduct of business and hold the business world accountable for their conduct
5. liberalize sexual ethics
6. liberate church leaders from the need to build “a successful church” that “is like a successful business”
7. reject any hint of church as a status symbol used to establish respectability and to support the prevailing elites of the community
8. reject religion which is “the cult of the establishment” and embrace “Christian radicalism”
9. recover Christianity as “a difficult, dangerous, radical, uncomfortable, shattering, but also vastly stimulating and exciting way of life.”
10. use “modern electronic devices and modern communication techniques to breathe fresh vitality into a message that has lost much of its sting through familiarity.”
11. abandon any commitment to dogma in favour of “reverent agnosticism”
12. “declare a moratorium on all pulpit preaching” allowing “some time and thought to be spent on non-pulpit sermons”
Berton imagined a church able to take a prophetic stand in the face of the prevailing culture of his day. Not surprisingly, the positions Berton longed for the church to champion, sound suspiciously like a typical left-leaning political ’60′s agenda. For Pierre Berton, the ideal institutions of his day were “the press and the labour movement…” which “were well ahead of the established Protestant Churches in calling for a change in attitudes and a change in the law.”
The journalists and the trade unions have been well ahead of the major Protestant Churches in attempting to outline a course of conduct based on the Christian heritage. They have been perceptive where the Church has been myopic, bold where the Church has been timid, specific where the Church has been vague. 51
Berton was eager for the church to speak out courageously when he could be assured that the stands the church would take supported his own social and political agenda. When any church position might challenge Berton’s stand he was quick to label it reactionary, complacent, and compromised.
Most troubling of all in Berton’s critique and his proposal is that he appears to have had absolutely no concept that the church might be concerned about things of the spirit. The spiritual dimension of church seems to have been swept overboard for Berton when, as a child, he learned that Santa Claus “was nothing more than the figment of a pleasant adult conspiracy” and that the stork did not bring babies, and when God refused to heed his pious plea to produce for him and his sister “two small, self-propelled automobiles.”
No doubt many of the problems Berton saw in the church of his day were real and many of them were seriously detrimental to the proclamation and embodiment of the Good News of Jesus Christ. The church has not infrequently operated in the past hundred years as a special-interest religious club constituted to cater to a select group of people who find themselves inclined towards a vague sense of spirituality. But, it seems unlikely that Berton alternative the vision of church as political agitator is likely to effectively address the church’s challenges.
The Sierra Club, The United Way, Amnesty International, Doctor’s Without Borders, and a host of other activist organizations are far better equipped to address current political and social issues than the church has ever been. This is not to say the church should not have a voice at the table when social issues are in debate, any more than it is to suggest that the church should not teach and act in favour of a more just and life-enhancing global community. But it is to recognize that social activism is not the primary nor the unique contribution the church has to make.
The church exists, before anything else, to encourage and enable people to open their hearts to the ineffable mysterious reality we call God that in the Christian tradition we see embodied in the person of Jesus and working in our lives and in the world as the Holy Spirit. This is not a function we can anticipate will be fulfilled by Mr. Berton’s favourite Labour Unions or by the journalists of our day.
As the church encourages its members to open deeply to the presence of God’s Spirit at work in their lives and in all the world, each person and whole church communities will find themselves drawn into particular was of embodying and living out that Spirit’s calling. This is the only way forward for a church that longs to be a living testimony to and embodiment of the reality of God’s work in all of life.