Recently I heard some say we live in a time in which Western Christianity is determined by ‘immediacy’. It wasn’t expanded upon at the time but this struck a chord with me, something rang true about this.
When we look at the word ‘immediate’ and break it down (or type ‘etymology of immediate’ into Google) you get the following.
Immediate basically means ‘not mediated’ just as immodest means roughly ‘not modest’. In this light you could say that Protestantism is defined by ‘immediacy’ or rather the rejection of mediators (such as Popes, Priests and Saints) between us and God. Christ is our only mediator we say. Yet I think nearly all of us would say there needs to be some form ‘intervening’ at some level. Even the most Protestant of ministers would attest to that, otherwise they’d be out of the job. We are increasingly our own authority and I think a danger exists that this is corrosive to not just the church but all society. What follows it a reflection on this and wondering what exactly is the right amount of mediation?
The idea of immediacy is one that seems inherently solitary. Any influence to qualify or interpret our understanding of events could arguably be considered mediated. A mediated experience is necessarily a shared experience. The family, school and government are mediated institutions. The media, whether mass or social, as its name suggests is by essence a mediated telling of events.
Even when we open the Bible to the Old Testament we see mediation in the actions of the Angels, Patriarchs, Prophets, Priests and Kings all of which are prefiguring or acting in the place of God. That is, until Jesus himself. After Jesus we have the Holy Spirit, but it isn’t disembodied but rather embodied in the followers of Christ. That is to say the Church. Scripture adopts familial language to describe the Church; Sisters and Brothers, Daughters and Sons, Mothers and Fathers. The Church is a mediated experience just as the family is. This is, to me, the first flashpoint between our contemporary understanding of ‘immediate’ Christianity and a more mediated reading of scripture.
In scripture we see the expectation of the experienced mentoring and setting an example for those unfamiliar or junior in knowledge of the faith. The Rabbi and his disciple, the Father and his son, the Shepherd and his sheep, these are all concepts familiar to us from the pages of the New Testament.Yet faith is largely solitary today, we may come together at set times, but more generally we operate with the general assumption that the Holy Spirit gives us the means, knowledge or ability to navigate through life and this is all we really need. We don’t really need one another, we have the Holy Spirit. What place then for spiritual discipline? What place then for accountability or confessing to one another? Is it possible that we experience the Holy Spirit through the family of Christ?
You may agree or disagree on this, which raises the question of who do we trust? Its debatable that part of the Protestant Reformation was a fundamental breakdown in trust between the Reformers and the Establishment of the Church in Europe at the time. I find it hard to move beyond the point where I am ultimately culpable for my own actions, I am response-able. Therefore one of the biggest obstacles I have in moving towards something like Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy (for example) is that I cannot agree with the theology of these churches, it is I not them who is ultimately responsible for my posture towards and relationship with God. A minister might be culpable, but it is I who is ultimately responsible. On one extreme we might say ‘no matter its more important to trust’ or that the belonging as a part of this or some other community, not theology, is the key to communion with God. Yet I can’t shake the root level Kierkegaardian existential foundation I find myself adhering to. I see that same existential relationship in the mystics of the church and their visions and with Christ in the garden alone with God. I am, as Charles Taylor suggests a ‘buffered self’ – I think we all are these days.
Thinking about all this I am reminded of two things.
- The first is the historical transition of monastic practices from solitary to communal. The immediacy of the solitary life being set aside for the mediated experience of life under both the rule of the community and the Abbott. The ironic idea that these people who withdrew from the world believed they drew closer to God by coming together (in a controlled context) than they did alone.
- The second is the Garden of Eden and the New Jerusalem. Both of these places are characterised by the immediacy of us (not I) with God. In this seems the idea that all our mediation in this life is an attempt ultimately at achieving shared immediacy. Mediated experience can be (and has been) abused and dangerous but ultimately the immediacy of the Bible is communal, there is nothing else. The coming of Christ, his Holy Spirit is the coming together of Creator and Creation. The coming together of a New Heaven and a New Earth.
Our contemporary immediacy however is one that is so often characterised by a coming apart. We seek to distinguish, to set ourselves apart, not just from the world but other believers too. This is a sin we say, and this is true. Yet so often discussions on this topic inevitably lead to raising the subject of humility in setting aside our foibles and differences in submitting to one another, yet even this quickly falls apart when we ask the next question of who do we submit to? Normally it is the ones calling for humility on the part of others. This would be fine if such people were ultimately the ones responsible for our communion with God, but instead they are merely culpable. If we genuinely disagree, or see the other is in fact wrong and cannot correct them we quickly reach an impasse, we come apart. I am not sure how this is addressed other than becoming slightly more critical of our impulse towards immediacy, to be willing to keep talking if nothing else. To seek the coming together in all things, particularly in faith and where we cannot, to ask forgiveness from one another and from God for our failings. Yet ultimately the ‘direction’ all Christians should be travelling in is that of our coming together. This doesn’t take the form of homogeneity but in the pattern God has given us, that of family.
Finally in reflecting on this, their is something still to be said about authority, or the handling of mediated experience. We do need to move towards a point where we can set ourselves under one another. To recognise we are always in some a way a son even if we one day become a father. The image of the monastics submitting themselves to a rule of life, to the authority of their Father or Abbot I find helpful here. In our pursuit of immediacy we may stumble, and it is in the context of these relationships we need to be open to being corrected. This taps into the idea of covenant which I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the Church should be a covenant community. Part of the immediacy of this age is that we’ve exchanged this image of the Church as covenant to that of Church as service. We should be operating with an ‘Opt-In’ mentality but instead frequently operate with an ‘Opt-Out’ one instead. To elaborate, I once heard a Church of England parish minister describe his understanding of being part of the ‘Holy Catholic Church’ mentioned in the creeds as being there as a service for everyone in his parish regardless of faith. Being generous this is the idea of treating the geographic community as covenant community without any acquiescence on the part of the former. This is civil religion and not the Christian faith.It is utilitarian and not relational. This might seem obvious but there is little difference in my eyes between this and those espouse social justice for its own decontextualised ends, the early church did not operate in this way. The act of baptism is going down into the water, communion is coming up to the table. We Opt-In to a life in relationship with God, this is necessarily communal and any community requires mediation if it desires to achieve immediacy with God.
These are my own fragmentary thoughts on this, I hope they’ve been useful. If nothing else this has helped clear my thinking on the topic.