The Forgotten Ways: Ch. 4

This chapter is about disciple making, which Hirsch calls “perhaps the most critical element in the mDNA mix” (102).  While I’m in agreement with the most essential concept of the chapter, I’m not in love with most of the discussion itself.  A significant reason for this is the extended aside on the context of disciple making as Hirsch sees it.  I think he misses some things in that analysis, which I’ll critique at length.  But there is also something about his slant on disciple making itself that doesn’t sit well.

The Main Idea

Hirsch relies on Neil Cole again, coming to a conclusion to which I am amenable: “we seem to make church complex and discipleship too easy” (104).  He rightly identifies the persecuted early church’s disposition, including the development of the catechisms, as “far from being seeker-friendly” (104).  This jab at attractional church has a sharp point.  In a time when persecution, including martyrdom, was already a deterrent, the church went ahead and screened those who still wanted to follow Jesus.  This historical fact is not just a contrast with the notion of seeker-friendly or attractional churches, it is a radical departure.

I find the idea of demanding discipleship to be consonant with Jesus’ own call.  What I find puzzling about Hirsch’s discussion is that he seems to be referring to a high level of “commitment to the cause” rather than commitment to Jesus.  That is a distinction he might not wish to make, but I perceive it in his writing anyway.  For example, he holds up the example of early Methodism: “the key to Methodism’s success was the high level of commitment to the Methodist cause that was expected of participants” (103).  Likewise, he summarizes Steve Addison’s findings on the nature of missionary movements.  One of the points reads: “Commitment to the Cause: The people who are touched in such a way by God give their lives to the cause as articulated by the movement” (105).

As I said in the final paragraph of my first post in this series, I appreciate the clarity with which Hirsch states the need for a direct, explicit, even covenanted commitment to be missional (read: to multiply).  And I haven’t forgotten that the previous chapter was about the centrality of Jesus.  But it makes me uneasy that the notion of discipleship comes across as commitment not to Jesus but to being a movement.  “In fact,” says Hirsch, “without meaningful discipleship there can be no real movement and therefore no significant impact for the gospel” (106)—a statement that reveals the value of discipleship relative to the real end, which is the movement (and reiterates his numerically-oriented understanding of what is “significant impact” in kingdom work).

The question is, then, of what does discipleship actually consist in the chapter?  The flow of the chapter is odd, but Hirsch does come to this point, which he ends up elaborating in a few short, somewhat disconnected, sections.  First, Jesus’ primary aim (mission) is “to fill the world with lots of “little Jesuses” (114).  Discipleship is, as has been said many times, about imitatio Christi, but Hirsch correctly emphasizes the point that the imitation of Christ is, beyond personal holiness, participation in his mission to redeem the world.

A section on embodiment of the message follows, in which the reader infers (as a direct connection lacks) that discipleship is also about transmission of the message by “modeling” it (116).  Discipleship as embodiment on one hand demonstrates an integrity that authenticates the message and on the other establishes a pattern for subsequent disciples.

The next two sections are about leadership, the first of which has no clear connection to the chapter’s topic, though the second bothers to spell it out: “If this is not already obvious by now, let me say it more explicitly: the quality of the church’s leadership is directly proportional to the quality of discipleship” (119).  Thus, discipleship is also the stepping stone to missional leadership.  “If we wish to develop genuinely missional leadership, then we have to first plant the seed of obligation to the mission of God in the world in the earlier and more elementary phases of discipleship” (119).

The chapter’s final section is an unfortunate attack against academic learning (seminary), which Hirsch characterizes as “Greek,” in contrast with holistic, hands-on “Hebrew understanding of knowledge” (123).

It is genuinely hard to change one’s behaviors by merely getting new ideas, as behaviors are deeply entrenched in us via our ingrained habits, upbringing, cultural norms, erroneous thinking, etc.  Even though gaining knowledge is essential to transformation, we soon discover that it’s going to take a whole lot more than new thinking to transform us.

The solution, he proposes, is the so-called Hebrew way of “acting our way into a new way of thinking” (124).  What this accomplishes is the formation of a false dichotomy that relegates certain teaching and learning styles, not to mention gifts, to a status of inferiority.  Whatever is not his practical, action-reflection mode is seemingly the wrong kind of discipleship.  In his own training organization, trainers may make referrals to books, etc. “We do hold inspiring learning intensives where we pass on a lot of information,” he says, “but this information is communicated only by those who have demonstrated their own capacity to do exactly what they are teaching” (124).  Those kinds of knowledge that are not strictly doable, therefore, are not even in view.  In short, I find the dichotomy misguided.  It is not that the stereotypical ivory tower is the best place for forming missional leaders, but Hirsch’s proposal is an overreaction that fails to promote a truly holistic view of knowledge or allow for a diversity of authentic discipleship paths.

The Aside

The problem with the aside on the context of discipleship is that it is a jumble of ideas that are, while not entirely erroneous, poorly explained.  The root issue is that Hirsch’s understanding of secularization lacks nuance.  He contends that the context of discipleship is one in which consumerism, along with a copule of other (apparently less powerful) cultural forces, has taken the place of religion.  “If the role of religion is to offer a sense of identity, purpose, meaning, and community, then it can be said that consumerism fulfills all these criteria” (107).  This was possible because of secularization, which he defines as “that process whereby the church was taken from the center of culture (as in the Christendom period) and increasingly pushed to the margins” (108):

The explicit aim (as in the French Revolution) was to create a secular social field whereby the state is not controlled by the concerns and domination of the church as it was in earlier periods, but one within which a plurality of opinions, ideas, and activities can compete for our attention and allegiances based upon rational discourse, individual freedoms, and democracy.  This was a significant part of what is called the Enlightenment, or modern, period of Western history.  But the end result of this process created a massive spiritual vacuum into which stepped an unprecedented host of cultural forces. (108)

The massive spiritual vacuum was filled, he believes, by capitalism, the nation-state, and science, which constitute the “public realm” over against the “private realm” of “private opinion, personal values, and individual taste” (108).  Whereas previously the church has “played the overwhelmingly dominant role in the mediation of identity, meaning, purpose, and community” (108), these public-realm forces have “all but completely replaced the church in our culture” (109).

Thus, Hirsch sees the appropriation of “personal identity and religious meaning” in the religious marketplace as signaling the “consumerization of faith” (109).  In this context, passive church members are understood to be participating in a consumerist religious experience.  Yet, Hirsch declares, “we simply cannot consume our way into discipleship.  Consumerism as it is experienced in the everyday and discipleship as it is intended in the scriptures are simply at odds with each other” (110).

I have to agree with the claim that consumption has religious dimensions, as it always has.  But I don’t think that secularization is to blame—at least not in the US, and probably not in more European contexts such as Hirsch’s Australia either.  I will reference sociologist José Casanova’s article “Rethinking Secularization: A Global Comparative Perspective” as I explain why.

Casanova has defended the notion that we should distinguish between various uses of “secularization”: (1) the decline of religious beliefs and practices, (2) privatization of religion, and (3) differentiation of the secular sphere (state, economy, science).  Basically, Hirsch has not done so, leading him to see causality where it does not exist.  He has what Casanova would call a Euro-centric perspective:

European sociologists tend to view the two meanings of the term as intrinsically related because they view the two realities—the decline in the societal power and significance of religious institutions, and the decline of religious beliefs and practices among individuals—as structurally related components of general processes of modernization. (Casanova, 8 )

Comparative analysis puts this perspective to the test, however.  Casanova emphasizes in the article how secularization-as-differentiation is now seen to have taken place in many global societies without leading to secularization-as-religious-decline/privatization.  This only confirms what has always been the case in the US—a differentiated but highly religious society.  The US phenomenon in particular is the more important point here, though, because the “we” and the “West” of Hirsch’s writing is certainly referencing the US missional church audience to whom the book is marketed.

It still seems to be the case that the context of discipleship in the US is religiously charged consumerism, but I’m not content with Hirsch’s description of how we got here or what is going on.  In fact, given his earlier critique of Christendom church, I find his argument to be not only wrong for the US but also strangely inconsistent for his own position.  Hinting at this conflict, he says, “For all its failings, the church, up till the time of the Enlightenment, played the overwhelmingly dominant role in the mediation of identity, meaning, purpose, and community” (108; emphasis added).  This way of putting it suggests that that mediation was a positive thing; yet, I would not construe it as positive.  Rather, as his previous statement about secularization being liberation from control “by the concerns and domination of the church” admits, mediation is actually about brokering from a position of domination.  It is a power play—a kind of power the church should never have exercised.  Here is the issue.  “Mediation” is indicative of precisely the institutional substitute for discipleship—the authorization of a worldview rather than the facilitation of its appropriation (i.e., disciple making).

I put it this way because “identity, meaning, purpose, and community” should be understood more broadly than merely as “religion.”  These are important components of worldview, and worldview is what is actually at issue in the discussion of secularization.  The question that lingers over Hirsch’s discussion is whether secularization in the “West,” when it resulted in the decline of institutional religion as “mediator,” actually resulted in a massive spiritual vacuum or merely revealed one.  Because mediation is not discipleship, I suspect that on the societal level (not the individual case-by-case level) we are discussing, it was revealed, meaning already existent.

Differentiation needn’t result in either decline or privatization.  Taking the US as an example, it resulted in neither.  But even if it were to result in privatization (which, by the way, is not synonymous with relativism as Hirsch seems to think), which is a viable option in the current US social climate, that is hardly decline.  The vast majority could be privately highly religious, rather than being adrift without identity, meaning, and the rest.  More to the point, disciple making, which is to say worldview transformation, can happen—indeed, must happen—regardless of how differentiated the secular sphere is from dominant religious institutions.

The real problem in the US is that the context of discipleship is the lack of discipleship among Christians.  Just as the demise of institutional religious domination revealed an existing vacuum in Europe and its colonies, so a very similar vacuum has existed and been filled in the US despite strong ongoing religiosity.  In both cases, pseudo-religious forces such as consumerism function to define the society’s story.  In other words, I agree with Hirsch where it counts: in the analysis of consumerism’s function and the challenge that implies to the missional church.  But I strongly disagree that the problem is that the Christendom church was victimized by secularization, “pushed to the margins,” and thus ceased to mediate worldview.  (Becoming marginal is probably the best thing that could have happened!)  What we need is what the chapter is advocating: radical discipleship.

I think Casanova goes a long way in clarifying what is actually going on in the US, where the problem is not just consumerism.  Borrowing Weber’s analytical distinction between “community cult” and “salvation religious communities,” he observes:

The truly puzzling question in Europe, and the explanatory key in accounting for the exceptional character of European secularization, is why national churches, once they ceded to the secular nation-state their traditional historical function as community cults—that is, as collective representations of the imagined national communities and carriers of the collective memory—also lost in the process their ability to function as religions of individual salvation. Crucial is the question of why individuals in Europe, once they lose faith in their national churches, do not bother to look for alternative salvation religions. (Casanova, 15-16)

In other words, why did the vacuum “appear,” given that it didn’t have to.  I have already suggested that the answer to this is that the role of mediation (of community identity, in Casanova’s terms), already failed to involve a complete worldview formation through discipleship.  That is, it was already only functioning as a community cult.  The result was that the perception of need for “salvation” (the worldview question “What is the problem?” being at issue here) was already nonexistent.  That is one sweeping way to put it at least.

But how does the US compare?

In contrast, the particular pattern of separation of church and state codified in the dual clause of the First Amendment served to structure the unique pattern of American religious pluralism. The United States never had a national church. Eventually, all religions in America, churches as well as sects, irrespective of their origins, doctrinal claims, and ecclesiastical identities, turned into “denominations,” formally equal under the constitution and competing in a relatively free, pluralistic, and voluntaristic religious market. As the organizational form and principle of such a religious system, denominationalism constitutes the great American religious invention. Along with, yet differentiated from, each and all denominations, the American civil religion functions as the community cult of the nation. (Casanova, 16; emphasis added)

In the US, the salvation religion is in place, and this resonates deeply with the tendency of American conservative Christianity—the overwhelming emphasis on personal salvation.  But the community cult has been co-opted by civil religion and nationalism.  The vital point is that worldview encompasses all of what Weber distinguished analytically, meaning that the dominance of civil religion and nationalism at the community-identity level amounts to syncretism from a missiological perspective.  Americanism coexists with Christianity and becomes a powerful religious force within the salvation religion.  Flags are hung in sanctuaries.  Christians are expected to be of one political party or the other.  National political agendas, complete with violent intent, are sanctified from the pulpit.  And so on.

When the salvation religion is already weak on discipleship because of its particular construal of salvation, the vacuum already exists from the other side as well.  Then consumerism comes alongside nationalism in an increasingly toxic syncretism, and matters of identity, meaning, purpose, and community are badly misconstrued within the supposedly Christian worldview.  Because the “secular spheres” consist of state, economy, and science, it appears that secularization as some sort of malignant force  is responsible, as though state and economy were infecting the Christian worldview.  But the fact is that mere differentiation does not logically result in such syncretism.  The secular spheres, though neutral in and of themselves, can indeed offer an areligious alternative metanarrative.  Yet, the only reason they can act infectiously upon an existing metanarrative is that it is already inadequate—that the longing for identity, meaning, purpose, and community is unmet.  Only then do state, economy, and science turn into -isms.

Thus, while in Europe the context of discipleship is one in which a dominant secular worldview provides its own religious values (especially consumerism), in the US it is one in which secularized values (especially consumerism and nationalism) are accepted syncretistically within ostensibly committed Christian salvation cults.  While many of the issues are similar, I find the distinction to be helpful.  Moreover, I find it worthwhile to observe that the differentiation of the secular spheres per se is not to blame.  What differentiation did, in fact, was to make evident the previously hidden inadequacy of worldview formation in many corners of Christianity.  For that we can be grateful.

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