Be a church in the real world

Mary Harrington has written an interesting piece about the fusion of Thatcherism and Blairism that led to a war on reality (you can read the full article here). What is evident is that both Blair and Thatcher shared a neoliberal outlook that amounted to the individual uber alles. And it was such an outlook that meant they could focus on the world as they would ideally like it to be rather than the reality of the world as it really is. It is the ‘you can be whatever you want to be’ triumph of the liberal self. Thatcher’s do-it-yourself and Blair’s ‘opportunity society’ are all centred on the individual idealising for themselves.

Near the top of the article, Harrington makes the following comment:

Like Thatcher, Blair was animated by a powerful vision. His was also, like hers, a politics of the ideal: of elevating the abstract over the material world. And together, they’ve delivered a politics in which the ruling class has withdrawn en masse from engaging with the world as it is, preferring the world as they think it should be. Today, we live with the monstrous offspring of their combined economic and cultural politics of abstraction.

And the article goes on to outline much of the economic and cultural issues that come from hyper-individualistic neoliberalism.

Like them, we can end up with this sort of idealism in the church. We can present a vision for the church that is rooted in ideals rather than the real. We, too, can elevate the abstract wish dream (as Bonhoeffer put it) over the actual church that the Lord has given us. We can similarly ape the neoliberal hyper-individualism by forgetting that the church is specifically a corporate body of people together, not a series of individuals sat in the same room. The church, many of us seem to believe, is about my relationship with the Lord, not so much about my relationship with anyone else and I can approach it with a consumeristic attitude that will tailor it to exactly how I want it to be.

Again, the article goes on:

A distinctively Blairish sense of providential moral certainty that now overlays growing swathes of the economic individualism Thatcher inaugurated.

For if Thatcher believed markets and privatisation would deliver improved services for the British public across the board, it was under Blair that the corporate world embraced the idea that commercial and moral incentives could be aligned, for the benefit of all. The “Third Way” didn’t just involve sweet-talking oligarchs for a bit more tax take, or a slew of costly and ineffective “market” mechanisms in the NHS, but also a full-bore drive to fuse morality and profit via “social enterprise” policy, a move that tilled crucial soil for what we now know as “woke capital”.

And of course what this means in practice is less businesses doing good, than vast corporations hectoring us about abstract things that don’t impact their profits (such as pronouns) while remaining as avaricious as ever about material things that do (such as the housing crisis).

Which, again, mirrors what we may see happening in the hyper-individualistic church that mirrors this type of thinking (in typical fashion for the church, 30 years after it is du jour). It doesn’t necessarily mean “woke church” exactly (whatever that might actually mean), but does lay the foundations for the church seeking to align moral, or even gospel, imperatives to an attractional consumerism. Hyper-individualism and consumerism means we end up pragmatically seeking to ‘bring them in’ by almost any means possible, hoping that the alignment of such things to moral (or, gospel) imperatives will lead to growth. As Willow Creek famously discovered – even if anybody actually thinks this a credible approach – it doesn’t work in practice anyway.

The fact remains, the church is not founded on hyper-individualism and the politics of ideals. It is rooted in reality and corporateness. It lives in the real world of real sinners saved by a real saviour to be a real body of real people in a real place. When we overfocus on ideals, we run the risk of chasing after a wishdream that will damage the church. As Bonhoeffer put it:

Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial. God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idolized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands set up by their own law, and judge one another and God accordingly. It is not we who build. Christ builds the church. Whoever is mindful to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it, for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it. 

Our idealism may destroy Christian community. Our hyper-individualism may push us toward a consumeristic pragmatism that stymies genuine growth. In the end, we have to be, love and act as churches in the real world.