Thursday, July 24, 2008

Christian Faith and the Free Market

In the next two posts, I would like to offer some precisions on the relationship between Christian faith and the free market. I hope the significance of my position will come out as I work it out.

The free market is, essentially, the ability of individuals to decide for themselves what interactions they want to enter into.

Christian faith, on the other hand, is essentially a matter of revelation. In itself it cannot be freely determined, because its content is essentially given. Indeed (as is well known) the word "heresy" is simply the Greek word for "choice": to pick and choose on matters of faith is to fall away from faith. Whether Jesus is truly God and truly man is not for me to pick; it is for God (through his Church) to reveal, and me to believe.

Or, to come at it from a different angle, the core meaning of "faith" is trust in an authority. The authority might be a friend giving you directions ("well, I have faith" -- or "I don't have faith" -- "in his ability to tell me how to find the house"), a spouse's promise ("I trust that he will be faithful"), or God's self-revelation in Christ. To pick and choose is sometimes appropriate -- for example, we try to choose a spouse we can have faith in, and we might decide we have more faith in Google maps than in our friend's directions -- but this choice is, in itself, the opposite of faith. To decide for yourself is to indicate that you do not, or do not yet, trust the other person. Only after we pledge our faith to one another, or step out on a journey with faith in our directions, have we begun to have faith.

The first way I would like to apply this distinction between faith and free choice (and thus, the free market) is in the idea of church shopping. "Shopping" is a fine choice of words: because church shopping essentially reduces church to a consumer interaction. You find a pair of shoes that fit your feet and your style, you pick out the apples that look most crispy, and you shop for the "right" church for you.

Let me immediately acknowledge that this dynamic is complicated. We can't entirely rule out the role of free choice in finding a church, because you have to find a particular place that corresponds with the bigger revelation to which you ascribe. If a pastor is clearly contradicting the Gospel, you have to go elsewhere. The failing may be moral (if you fear he will abuse your children, for example) or doctrinal (if his preaching is so untrue as to prevent you from worshiping and growing in the faith).

Yet this dynamic of choice must be firmly circumscribed by faith. From the outside, it seems to me that American Protestantism has so erred on the side of choice as to undermine faith. "Church" becomes more a matter of finding what fits you than of submitting to revelation.

I think there are dangers of this in American Catholicism as well. In theory, Catholics choose a church entirely based on location: because it is assumed that you simply go to receive, not to find your favorite church. In theory, church shopping is entirely foreign to Catholics. But in our age of easy transportation -- and of widespread apostasy -- it has become normal to drive through several parishes on the way to "yours." Again, there is space for this: if the priest is truly abusive, you should leave. But it seems to me that choice has gone too far. Parish itself becomes a matter of preference.

And of course, ironically, the more people choose, the more they have to choose: if all the faithful people leave St. Luke's, and all the wacky people come in, then both St. Luke's priests and its congregation will increasingly become hostile to the faithful. This is what happened to mainline Protestantism -- all the Bible folks gave up on their denominations -- and it has happened in far too many Catholic parishes. Because the faithful leave, large swathes of people who have never thought it through -- indeed, who are, as they should be, receptive to the teaching of their local church -- never come in contact with orthodoxy. This is a grave disservice. Catholics and Protestants alike should be careful about abandoning their local church. If they have to leave, they should be careful to pick the most "neighborhood" church they can: to commit to a church because it is given to them, not because they seek it out.

A second irony of free-market church shopping is that it heightens one's faith in the local authority. Some Protestants, it is true, may be so little committed to any particular church that they always check their pastor against their own private judgment. But far more common, I think (because more in line with human nature), once people "pick" a church, they do indeed receive, in faithful trust, whatever is given them. I see this in many Protestants: precisely because they have shopped, they accept their local pastor (and congregation) as a near-absolute authority. To put it differently, because they have shopped, they can assume that everyone who disagrees with "their" church must be wrong. My Protestant uncle, for example, cannot imagine that other Bible-believing people could think differently about Baptism: even though it's an issue on which Evangelical Protestants themselves hold a variety of positions.

The same happens to Catholics. In theory, Catholics are members of the universal Church, and share a faith in common with all Catholics. We go to our local parishes precisely because we trust that the faith is the same everywhere. But the flipside is that because we have not chosen our pastor, we know that he is not our infallible authority. We share the "catholic" -- that is, universal, worldwide and ancient -- faith. If Fr. Smith doesn't get it quite right, we can shrug our shoulders, and hope that the priests get rotated regularly. By not worrying too much about the perfection of our particular church, we enter into a worship that is bigger than our local church.

But this is not so when we church shop. In my experience, people who pick out a parish, and drive a long way to get there, tend to elevate the authority of their favorite priest, and of their community, above that of even the Pope. Certainly this is often the case in communities that celebrate the "old" form of the Mass: precisely because they have left other parishes to join this one, they assume that everyone else is wrong and only their local community has the true faith. In a sense, their private-judgment choice of parish has made them more obedient, because they no longer listen to any voice outside that parish.

Church shopping is dangerous. I recommend that if your local Catholic parish is really bad -- if you have true abuse (and what constitutes true abuse depends greatly on whether you have children) -- then you should go to a parish next door. And Catholics should be very wary of choosing a house based on their favorite parish. For Protestants . . . the same, mutatis mutandis. But that mutandis is pretty tricky: there is a private-judgment consumerism built into Protestantism that makes it very hard to give oneself to the local community.

That's the first part of my post: how the free market affects the Church itself. Tomorrow I will post on how the Church should (and shouldn't!) affect the free market.