I was sitting on the patio of Conversations Café in downtown Beamsville, on a bright, cloudless morning, with a steaming cup of fresh brewed java in hand. It was the first time since the beginning of the pandemic that I was meeting people for morning coffee and conversation. It was an odd feeling, a mix between excitement and hesitation. A part of me was thinking, “am I allowed to do this?”
I’m a realist, and the reality is that the past few months (18 or 19 of them) haven’t been resplendent ones for institutional Christianity. Even without mentioning the global pandemic, public opinion about the role of institutional Christianity in Canadian society has cooled. The scandal of residential school gravesites unearthed deep feelings and set a nation reeling.
So, hear me out. Things like global pandemics and public scandals aren’t the things institutions recover from as an act of the human will, or as the result of the power of positive thinking. There were times this summer, when I watched the news and thought, “we will never recover from this, it just goes from bad to worse.”
As the news kept feeding my anxiety, I was wrestling my way through a compelling—albeit controversial—read, Church of the Ever Greater God: The Ecclesiology of Eric Przywara, by the Jesuit author Aaron Pidel (University of Notre Dame Press, 2020).
I won’t say much about Przywara here, other than he was a mild-mannered, Polish Jesuit priest. He was also an academic of the highest calibre, who had a wicked sense of humour that he employed in intellectual sparring matches with the protestant theologian Karl Barth. Barth took the sparring very seriously, and would eventually declare Przywara’s theology to be the work of the anti-Christ!
But having survived World War I, and the Spanish Flu, and Karl Barth, only to witness his country dissolve into World War II, Przywara succumbed to a deep depression that seemed to influence his theology, deeply. Witnessing the scandal of the first half of the last century, he felt “that God is permitting the collapse of the…western Church” in order to inaugurate a “cosmic” and “global” one; the pilgrim church on earth in-habits a realm of “unmasterable tensions”, an oscillating rhythm, a parallax.
This is a brilliant, but controversial, hypothesis: “God doffs the vesture of Western Christendom to free not only himself, moreover, but the Church for renewed mission.” So far, so good, because our working definition of mission these days goes like this: mission is seeing what God is doing, and joining in. Don’t get too comfortable, because there is a parallax effect; it wasn’t long ago that Christians believed that colonization, and slavery, and national socialism were exciting things that God was doing. So, when it comes to joining in, we don’t have a clean record of discerning spirits.
Is Przywara right? Is God fed up, and “ungirding himself from Western Christendom” in order to set the record straight? If so, how do we ‘join in’ and cooperate with this divine work?
And this brings me back to my steaming cup of java, on the patio of Conversations Café, one bright morning in July, to the “unmasterable tension”, the parallax-effect of being there. It was a familiar place, I had been there many times before, but something had changed. Was it me? Was it society? I couldn’t reconcile how it felt being there.
Church of the Ever Greater God introduces us to a post-pandemic theologian of the 20th century, whose struggle with mental illness offers insight into the parallax-effect of our present context. If nothing else, his theology encourages us to dwell in the oscillating rhythms of “unmasterable tensions”, while not succumbing to the temptation to force resolution. The Church, “beset by human weakness” but “bolstered by divine strength”, inhabits a time-and-place that it cannot master by virtue of its own will; and that is the grace of it! With such an assurance of living in proximity to the ever-greater, we lean into our anxieties, and stretch outward to becoming the Church of the Ever Greater God.