Every morning I walk by a United Methodist Church on my way to the gym. The building is of the gothic variety, investing itself in awe and wonder and power and history. This Christmas past they set up a cut out of the nativity scene. As I walked by this morning, the scene was still set up, presenting the continuous message of peace the Child heralds. Not yet Christ, not quite God, just infant, the Child, like Christianity itself, holds wondrous potential.
Because of the sober winter Boston has felt this year, I saw a pile of melting snow off to the side of the Child. Gray. White. Brown. Melting. The snow seemed as if it could be symbolic of the way Christianity seems to be receding from the public. Active participation in Christian religion in general, as Pew and other sources have reported on numerous times, is dwindling. For various reasons, people are not finding fulfillment and joy in the pews of Christian churches. With such great potential, Christianity, sadly, is losing many devotees.
This blog post is not meant to be a reflection on the reasons people are vacating churches. Those reasons are legion and are mainly personal. Also, I’m not a social scientist, so I don’t look at the movements and motivations of people.
I am a literary theorist. And as such, I like to see the potential of words. It’s something that attracts me to study of theology itself, rather than the study of religion. Theology, for me, is the belief of God and all that follows that belief as written in words and given to a community of believers. Those words hold potential.
So, even as Christian activity devolves like the melting snow, its theology, the ideal words as delivered by people thinking deeply about God and belief, can be read and the potential, like the Child in the manger, can be seen.
Thousands of human years have been spent thinking, considering, ruminating, and theologizing what Christianity, in a broad sense, means. What is the Christian mission and message? Who is able to engage with that mission and message? Writing on that has led to colonization, crusade, and control; but it has also led to love, liberation, and leadership.
How does one balance the scales, on one side the atrocities that have been committed in the name of the Child in the manger, on the other side the goodness that has happened because of that same Child?
I focus on the Child in the manger, rather than the Man on the cross, because the Child is potential, whereas the Man is fulfillment.
Christianity, even though it is waning, still has great potential to do good. And, yes, it still is doing great evil at the same time. I generally do not use the words “good” and “evil” because they establish a moral framework that eliminates some levels and abilities of inquest and inquiry. But here, I’d like to use them because, if viewed through a Christian moral valence, Christianity itself has acted contrary to its moral compass, which can be equated to great evil, while also following its moral compass, which can be the doing of good. The words of theology have led people to act in many different ways, ways that should not be shunted away but rather engaged and overcome.
I see potential in the way that Christianity teaches to focus on loving God and through that loving of God to love neighbors. Love is the four-letter word that I think about most. It’s so ubiquitous and contingent, unifying and divisive. It’s a complicated emotion to be encapsulated in so few letters. But I think, and hope, in general the love of neighbor as funneled through devotion and love of a higher being is a positive force. (John 14:15)
I see potential in the care Christianity urges its practitioners to give to those around it. As Jesus healed, as his apostles and followers healed, the Christian disciple is urged to care. To heal. To mend. To bridge build, instead of wall construct. (James 1:27)
I see potential in the clarion calls to peace make and become family. To give the kingdom to the poor. To fill the hungry and thirsty. To obtain mercy by being merciful. (Matthew 5:3–9)
At the end, I return to the Child in the manger. Even though that Child was God clothed in flesh, he, it, they, was, is, and were new, innocent, filled with potential. That Child had not yet healed the sick. That Child had not yet carried a cross, been spat upon, been used as a political tool. That Child was just a Child, with every need placed upon the parents, at the whim of the world that is so cold and cruel. Christianity may not be a child now, thousands of years is a decent amount of time, but I believe it can think on that potential and reclaim it.