One evening last week, while the rest of the family was at baseball practice, my daughter and I spent some time sprawled on the living room floor, building a car village with wooden blocks. I had to chuckle to myself a little, this is how a girl with an older brother plays house. We built a bridge, a couple of garages and an elaborate apartment. And then we played house with four little matchbox cars. The cars played games together, went on a picnic, enjoyed some yummy unleaded fuel and a car battery dessert with spark plugs on the side. Becca also seemed to take peculiar delight in having her cars knock blocks off the bridge I built! Which quickly led to the best part of our play time, bulldozing our block creations. There’s something very satisfying about knocking over block towers. It was chaos. Pieces of the apartment lay next to remnants of the bridge. Furniture was scattered. Cars were overturned. And because I don’t do chaos well, this destruction was immediately followed by a super fast cleanup as we got blocks and cars back into their respective boxes.
Of course my story, while true, also serves as a good metaphor. Jesus, during his very short ministry, seemed to take perverse delight in toppling blocks off the very sacred structure of the Jewish religion. And he did it so effortlessly, revealing, in the process, that religion is very much a human construct and therefore impermanent. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, his followers seemed mostly in awe of Jesus’ ability to push over these blocks with the tips of his fingers, cornerstones which they had always assumed were cemented, riveted and anchored for all time. Jesus tried to assure them that they too could do the seemingly miraculous. But they resisted, content to observe Jesus in action. That is, until Jesus threatened to push the whole block temple over and in short order wound up on a cross.
But before his death, Jesus talked about a Holy Spirit that would come after him. And sure enough, not long after his death, Jesus’ followers realized his Spirit, the spirit of God lived on……in them! Now just an aside, I have to wonder if Jesus offered a little bit of a Dumbo’s feather here? Interesting how the gospel passage of John defines the Holy Spirit. In John 15:26 Jesus says, “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.” And again in John 16:13 Jesus says, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” So another word for the Holy Spirit is, “the Spirit of truth”. Personally, I believe Jesus was the embodiment of the Holy Spirit dwelling fully within a person. And just as I would say in God is the fullness of time, so also would I say that the Holy Spirit has always been and always will be. But Jesus reframed things a little and presented this Holy Spirit as something new that would guide them once he was gone. And sure enough, after his death, resurrection and ascension, his followers grabbed onto that feather, the one that had always lived there within them and through them……and they flew!
This is what I see happening in the Pentecost passage from Acts (2:1-13). Because they finally believe that God is working with and within them, the Holy Spirit surges into their midst and these Jesus followers begin to go a little crazy, flying around and crashing down all sorts of religious blocks. It is chaotic. It is a mess. It is…..beautiful. All those divisions that human nature, dressed up as religion, had erected over generations…..bull dozed down. No more east or west, no more south or north, no more male and female, no more slave and freed. Diversity abounds, but divisions cease. They are all speaking with voices everyone can hear and understand. Best of all, God is no longer boxed in, defined by the strict confines of one religion. God is free to be mysterious, to be unpredictable, to be greater than their imaginations can stretch. This is the context for the birth of the early church described in chapters 2 and 4 of Acts. As I read through these chapters, I imagine the air crackling with the Spirit’s electricity. These Jesus followers believe anything is possible and their lives attest to their convictions. The church they build is yet free from religion and is a living testimony to Jesus’ teachings and life. But there are still more blocks left to topple.
In Acts 10, the Holy Spirit descends upon Gentiles. Another division collapses. And this final barrier might have been the tallest block tower of all, because shortly after this divide comes crashing down, many good church people become uncomfortably aware of these blocks strewn everywhere. It’s more difficult to see the beauty when you focus on the mess. And so much to Paul’s dismay, the early church struggles to come to terms with this new dismantling of ancient prejudice. But to their credit, they do learn to live with yet more scattered blocks and they move on and the church keeps growing.
Well, you have to know that at some point, someone is going to feel compelled to gather up all these broken divisions scattered all over the place and get everything back into boxes again. This was the gist of my blog post a few weeks ago (If this is Christianity, am I a Christian?) when I talked about the era of Constantine - that time in history when the new church became institutionalized as the state religion. Old divisions got rebuilt in short order along with a number of new ones to throw into the mix - elaborate block walls between men and women, rich and poor, right belief and heresy were erected. And Jesus? Well, Jesus got boxed up as religious and state leaders opted instead to construct a soaring tower with Christ perched on top.
I just got done reading a brand new book called, Christianity After Religion by Diana Butler Bass. Bass has a doctorate in religious studies from Duke University and has served on the faculty at a couple of universities and a seminary. In this book, Bass points out the fact that religious awakenings are scattered across the history of religion. These awakenings are like Pentecost movements in that the Holy Spirit sweeps through and topples many of the religious institution’s sacred block structures. The most well-known example would be the Reformation with the Radical Reformation following on its heels.
As far as I can tell, most theologians seem to agree we are in the midst of another awakening period. Though there might be wide-spread disagreement about whether this is a good thing or not, the fact that it’s happening seems pretty widely acknowledged. There is little consensus though about how all-encompassing this awakening is in relation to history. Bass illustrates the uncertainty by pointing out a few differing opinions. Harvey Cox, a well-known and long time religion professor at Harvard Divinity School believes we are currently moving out of a 1,500 year period in Christianity called the “Age of Belief”. Phyllis Tickle, another premier American theologian, suggests we are going through a 500 year change-over cycle. Many others would more humbly put forth a 300 year cycle. Bass never indicates where she falls on the spectrum, instead asserting that at the least, our country is in the midst of the Fourth great awakening.
Bass writes, “Historians of American religion generally recognize three significant awakenings in the United States and Canada: the First Great Awakening, 1730-60; the Second Great Awakening, 1800-1830; and the Third Great Awakening, 1890-1920. During each period, old patterns or religious life gave way to new ones and, eventually, spawned new forms of organizations and institutions that interwove with social, economic, and political change and revitalized national life.”
This Fourth Awakening most likely began in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I’m too young to really remember what things were like at that point in history, but from what I’ve read and been told, it was a time of great social upheaval. People sensed the very structure of society, even civilization, was changing. Of course, change always brings with it fear. So while many, many people were embracing, celebrating and working for change, many others were cowering from it, even fighting it. And in every awakening there are changes to celebrate as well as changes to be wary of.
Bass points out that every awakening is also accompanied by a backlash movement. The greater the awakening, the greater the backlash. It’s almost difficult, in modern history, to imagine a greater social and religious backlash than that which occurred between the 1970’s and 1980’s. In the realm of religion, we saw the rise of the Religious Right. Their promise was a return to 1950’s values and people, unnerved by increasing moral relativity and a greater openness to diversity, came flocking to this movement. And so the evangelical movement took off and it did so in the media spotlight. While this movement plateaued and began to slump in the 1990’s, increasingly this version of Christianity became the public face of American Christianity. Whereas in the 1960’s and 1970’s, new generations began to leave the church because church seemed more and more out of touch with their lives, beginning in the late 1990’s and up to today, we also have many people leaving the church because they are offended, repelled, angered by the conservative, evangelical face of Christianity which is assumed to be the norm. At the same time, people continue to exit mainline denominations as well due to an undiminished sense that church no longer addresses their lives in a meaningful way.
And so this Fourth Awakening, which took a 20 year break in the 1980’s and 1990’s, came back with a vengeance as the 21st century opened. But this awakening has changed shape somewhat since the 60’s and 70’s as we encounter greater religious pluralism and as technology continues to shape modern civilization.
What this Fourth Awakening will produce in concrete terms is still very sketchy. However, I am really excited and encouraged by the descriptors that keep emerging. To me, it sounds like blocks are flying as a new generation of believers gets to work dismantling age old divisions. Bass writes, “the current awakening is marked by its insistence on connection, networks, relationship, imagination, and story instead of dualism, individualism, autonomy, techniques, and rules.” The Occupy Movement embodies these newly emerging values and priorities.
While fear is an understandable reaction to change, perhaps what is most needed at this point in time is honesty. The movement of the Holy Spirit is always a little scary because no person can control this wild wind. It blows where it will. And yet, without it’s life-giving energy, the landscape of religion all too quickly gets littered with towering block institutions in need of a good bull dozer. And maybe this time we'll sit with the beauty for a little longer before our attention inevitably turns to the mess. Whatever the case, it is time for divisions to come crashing. It is time for age old prejudices to get overturned. It is time for power-hungry religious structures to be toppled. Come, Holy Spirit, come. It is time.