What’s all this for?

article by Rick Fabian, Dec 18, 2009

I’m inviting you to an important conversation. For two years since leaving the Rectorship of St Gregory Nyssen, San Francisco, I have traveled to scores of other Sunday services. Everywhere I encountered courteous welcome, and sometimes warm interest in what St Gregory’s Church does. Everywhere I found enlivening preaching, music, and signs of community. Yet a question has come up repeatedly for me as a visitor: What do we think this Christian enterprise is for? In a few places answers did surface, in sermons or the congregation’s behavior and conversation; but in most the Church’s purpose passed as if taken for granted, or awkward to discuss. Yet our discussing it together is urgent now. How can we hope people will join us, devoting their money and above all their time to an enterprise that will not say what it is up to? We need discussion even more than we need settle on an answer.

A century ago answers were easier, and today socially “conservative” churches talk as though the Christian purpose were self-evident: to save people from hell, for example, or to elevate the morals of inferior societies. If those conventional answers no longer serve “liberal” bodies, we need others that will.

And they need to make immediate sense. Familiar Christian apologies presume agreement about the human condition (the world is good or bad, and why) that our culture no longer broadly shares. Too many Christian preachers start by selling the problem first, which their answers will seem to fit. By contrast, Buddhists have an advantage here: the Buddhist enterprise aims to rescue every sentient being from suffering. Rescue from suffering is a project anyone on earth can grasp and support straightway; theories can be argued out later.
I have heard a few good opening shots already. Each has strengths and limits, and if none is THE answer for us today, they’ll get our discussion going. In coming months I’ll report one at a time, and invite you to contribute more.

GREGORY OF NYSSA ends his Life of Moses, and possibly his whole life’s work, stating the Christian purpose “to become God’s friend: this is as I have said, the perfection of life.” His answer holds real attractions for our time. Other Greeks called philosophers alone “God’s friends,” but Gregory made that every single human’s true purpose: universal, democratic, and warm rather than lofty. Reading Gregory always fills me with excitement; sometimes he sounds like a 21st century man dropped into the 4th century. But our modern hearers may ask what good we Christians do the world by becoming God’s friends? In fact social action fills sermons by Gregory and his fellow Cappadocian theologians; but Gregory’s pithy answer here does not name community impact, as our contemporaries will expect us to do, if we would draw them into our enterprise.

What purposes would you like to contribute to our discussion?