The Church of the Future?
by Anthony Egan SJ
Consider three statements. 1. Scrawled on a wall: “Jesus is the Answer!’. 2. Scrawled below it: “OK, but what is the question?” 3. A statement attributed to the great theologian Karl Rahner: “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not exist at all.” In other words, the Church of the future will be a church of mystics – or nothing.
Consider, too, the fact that – to prevent the spread of Covid-19 – the normal activity of the church has been seriously curtailed. And that even as restrictions have been eased the return to church services across the planet have been lower than expected.
What does this say about the Church of the Future?
Let’s consider how many people view the role of the Church. A very strong view is that the Church provides answers – about God, life, ethics, and society. In short “Jesus is the Answer!” Most of us have grown up on this ‘model’, accepting or rejecting it. Quite a few people might have simply gone along with it, but now no longer.
But Covid-19 has changed this. This model has been broken down. We have had to find new ways of living our faith. If the limited evidence, some based on surveys and much more based on conversations with pastors I know, of decreased return to church services is anything to go by, the ‘church of answers’ model is no longer working.
There is, however, another model of church out there: the ‘church of questions’. Rather than coming up with answers that once accepted save you, it embraces the idea that faith is a continual search, a deep dive into the mystery that is God. This, I think, is the Church that Rahner envisioned: the church of mystics.
We have always had a church of mystics. Some, like Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola and Therese of Lisieux, have become saints. Others like Meister Eckhart have been treated as suspect at best. Quite a few, like Marguerite Porete, have been burnt as heretics. What these and many others have in common is a sense of the inadequacy of simple answers and conventional practices in the face of a God whose complexity goes beyond human capacity to comprehend.
There is a certain theological attractiveness to the mystical way of faith. If we accept the orthodox proposition that God is ultimately beyond our creaturely capacity for understanding, could our obsession with clear answers be an attempt to reduce God to someone we can manage? Putting God in our little boxes? Another word that comes to mind is idolatry.
The crisis created by dealing with Covid-19 is an opportunity to rethink the future church we need. How we are to do it remains a question. A good start might be examining how people under Covid-19 sustained their faith. Another might be seeking reasons for the lacklustre return to church as the restrictions in many countries have eased – central to this is to move beyond the ‘easy’ answers, like laziness, that tempt church leadership still wedded to the ‘church of answers’.
However we approach it, we need to start asking questions. Now.