GenCon14: “The Living Church”

Our First Speaker at GenCon14, on “The Living Church”


NOTE: This is NOT the speaker’s official photo, but a photo of a person animated into existence by an authority.

Again and again, before our time, men have grown content with a diluted doctrine. And again and again there has followed on that dilution, coming as out of the darkness in a crimson cataract, the strength of the red original wine. -G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man


As I recall my Mormon Lore, there came a time in the early days of the church when the Saints ceased to drink the sacramental wine. Fearing that they would partake of a tainted bottle purchased from their enemies, they received a Voice saying, it mattereth not what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink when ye partake of the sacrament, if it so be that ye do it with an eye single to my glory.


Here is an interesting measure of a people: What they choose to do when it doesn’t matter. And what did the Saints therefore choose to do? Did they, by the labor of their own hands and their own feet, press a pure wine of the grape of the vine, of [their] own make? Apparently they did not. Instead, they began to drink water.


Turning wine into water–I suppose that is a sort of reversed miracle, if you like. I wonder if there were those who discerned anything portentous in that development, because it seems to me a sign of something.


What did it signify when Jesus changed water into wine? What was the wine in relation to the water? Water brought green to the fields and cholera to the belly, but filter it through the vine and it became living water, fit for sacraments. Maybe that is how the people of Jesus’ day saw it. I don’t know. Whatever it was, now we have water again, because–lacking the time to make wine and the stomach to contain it–our forebears chose to drink water instead of wine. Not only did they choose water, but they made it official so as to ensure that all would drink only water ever after.


When Chesterton reflected on the trajectory taken by Christendom, from its birth until his own time, he did not see apostasy. Instead, he saw death. Christianity, as a living body of constituent members, more than once had lost its inner vitality and died; but it had risen again as many times, for it had a god who knew the way out of the grave.


In Chesterton’s estimation, by the late nineteenth century the Church had already managed to die several times through persecution, disease, and even (oddly enough) from old age. Although the body–still a named thing and concrete–remained behind, its soul was gone. We know, Chesterton wrote, how completely a society can lose its fundamental religion without abolishing its official religion. In the dead church, there was never any want for official things.


But the church had found its way out of the grave, apparently, and how was this accomplished? As a Mormon full of Mormon traditions and ideas, I find it more curious and interesting to consider how, apparently, this return to life did not happen.


Chesterton seems to have recognized restoration as a kind of vandalism or violence. Life is not imposed from without, as is restoration, but it sparks and arises from within the body so long as the conditions of the body favor it and there exists a supply of fuel to sustain it. Life is an inherently autonomous phenomenon, an innate attribute of the living thing. The Christian god had an affinity for life and the power to take it up again of his own volition after it had been lost. He didn’t die and then get resuscitated by some external force which, finding the life that had been lost like some lost penny, returns it again to the previous owner. So it was also with the Church.


Even living things of the usual variety cannot ascribe their lives to external forces acting upon them. While it’s true that a dying body might receive a shock from outside of itself in order to remind it what it means to live, or the freshly expired body might be revived in a similar fashion; and while all living things require nourishment for the continuity of life, these restorations only serve to renew the body in that which it already does naturally. These external things may influence, but they do not prescribe the form or the function that a life will take.


Now consider the case of the mortician, who works all day in the presence of dead bodies. He is at best a restorer, imparting only the blush of life to a corpse. Imagine the madness that would ensue were the mortician to install animatronics and rigging too, so that one might shake the hand of the recently deceased at his own funeral. It would be restoration run amok (a mockery?), and yet it appears to me that we have a religious restoration even more preposterous than this, if such a thing can be conceived.


I can imagine the insane funeral director who, having grown bored of the usual stiffs, offers an entirely new product: full-service funerals for unknown corpses. We have tombs for them, why not viewings too? Better yet, let’s forget the funeral business altogether and break into a new market. Let us instead raise the unknown hero up, give him a name and a history, and make him sit among us, offering eulogies and fine recollections of things that might have been.


How is such a thing to be done? The remains of some creature or other are first dug up or imagined among the rocks and roots. Surely these are the pieces of a bygone hero, a martyr who died in the service of a holy cause! Let a portrait be drawn to erase all uncertainty and the fossils assembled in like fashion, with servos and rods and a loudspeaker to proclaim noble things, as if this new monster were some old friend returning from a long absence.


Maybe that is a restoration service worth writing about on billboards, but it’s more suited to a freak-show economy of tourism than whatever economy it may have serviced before its descent into madness.


It would be a strange project to say the least, not to mention one that must inevitably fall to pieces whenever its author is not around. The precondition for this simulated, said to be restored, life is the presence of directors–commissioned handlers–to supply the required inputs to the dead system. When there is nobody around to speak through the corpse, or to program its motors, or to pull on its strings, it just sits there attracting none but the flies that pester it incessantly. Only a continuous stream of instruction–let us call it revelation–by one who stands at its head can make this dead thing dance.


The one who stands at the head of the church, be it man or god, is as the manipulator who operates a complex marionette, giving it a semblance of life without the essence of it. The will of the master is revealed at the ends of long cords, jerking and pulling on the compliant limbs of a dead body. There are no genuine, functioning organs here, only hinges and tools to answer the purposes and plans of another. What would it matter should the limbs become self-aware and feel happy and willing as they are being jerked around? Members of this body do not hear their own callings, nor do they operate and interact according to their own intrinsic natures and constitutions. Instead, they receive their predetermined programs by assignment–programs designed to accommodate the strange, unnatural workings of this new body. Members of this body become fungible components which–should any of them show signs of life in straining against the strings–can easily enough be swapped out for more pliable equivalents. Such a system can never die, because it was never alive in the first place. I suppose, however, that its members could eventually wear out and break down, and the body could find itself in a state of decay.


To say that there is one who stands at the head of a church, constantly revealing and regulating its necessary function, is as good a confession of dilution, death, and damnation as any I can think of. It is dilution because it has a levelling effect, endlessly repeating itself and producing sameness; death because any appearance of life is coterminous with and wholly dependent on its authority, without which nothing can be done; and damnation because we can’t see it for what it is. How could it not be alive? What dead thing could dance a jig like that? Like Jane Austen’s Wickham, this puppeteer simpers and smirks and makes love to us all.


If, as Chesterton claimed, Christendom could die–and had in fact died–then it was once a living thing whose members had the ability to self-organize and sustain the whole even as they were sustained by it. It must have had its own volition and the ability to wade upstream without being dragged there.


It may be that any genuine, living body is also sustained from one moment to the next by that which it cannot produce for itself. In other words, it must seek nourishment, and that nourishment acts as a constraint. Still, an endless variety of life may be sustained by the same source of energy; there is no universal requirement for all that must be expressed by living beings only because they have partaken of a particular thing. The nourishment is not the same thing as the life or the will, nor is it the source of life. Can nourishment be heaped upon a stone and cause the stone to live?


The agents responsible for life are free agents, that is to say, they have self-purpose. This is in contrast to bonded or commissioned agents that are given their purpose and direction from an outside authority. When a commissioned agent receives from the original authority, that agent expresses or embodies the authority as a vessel or a container. It displaces or conforms itself in order to channel something else. On the other hand, when the free agent receives from the original authority, it is as nourishment; but the free agent uses that substance to express itself rather than to lose itself. Free agents are therefore living things, and that is what our scripture means when it says to act for themselves and not to be acted upon. By definition, the free agent is free because it does not answer to an imposed authority.


To be a free agent, then, does not mean to choose for oneself between the imagined, enumerated, and finite choices offered by authoritative voices, but rather to act for oneself in expressing one’s being. Acting does not always entail consciously choosing between discrete possibilities; often it means creating new ones. When I hear Mormons talk about the importance of free agency, I scratch my head. Aren’t we sustaining commissioned agents who reveal universals and absolutes? Those aren’t free agents, and neither are the ones who submit to them for the sake of authority.


The member-agents of the living body are not all of the same character. I once had a year-long correspondence with a man who at last invited me to visit him at his shop in Minnesota. Upon discovering that I am a Mormon, he felt it necessary to warn me that he was a Jew… and an atheist! A Jewish atheist? At the time, I wondered if that was even possible. Wouldn’t one requirement for being a Jew be to believe what all Jews surely believe in?  Well, I travelled to his shop where we became better acquainted, and I found him to be apparently an active member of his synagogue.


The membership of my Jewish friend in the body of his community was not predicated on some conformance to a machine blueprint. It was not like membership in a Wholesale Shopping Club which might be rescinded should the member cease operating as the Director has laid out in the official Terms and Conditions. There was no central institution which, stealing the identity of the body, safeguards its imagined purity and purges it of organs it no longer agrees with, robbing them of their heritage. My friend somehow acted as a member of a body that still survived largely on religious traditions, all the while expressing himself as a Jewish atheist. The Jews were his people, and he couldn’t stop being one just because he happened to consume their traditions in a curious, contrary way. Maybe he and others that are like him are toxic agents, and the body will eventually die or cast them out, but I doubt it. I guess sometimes the body needs bile in order to perform its functions. I think, as Chesterton did, that it is more common for these bodies to die when their constituents grow slack.


In a machine or a robot, anything present that is not specified in the universal master plan must be rejected. The machine will break or malfunction if non-standard stuff is found in there. One will not find the usual organs, either. Certainly no bilious gallbladder or superfluous appendix will be present. There is not a lot of tolerance for those messy, misshapen, ill-understood things. The machine itself may prove superfluous in the end, but all of its pieces are explicitly called for in the manuals. It seems that just the opposite is true in living things, which organize around systems of organs ranging anywhere from the mundane to the outrageous.


All of the members of a dead machine must be catalogued and periodically inspected for soundness in order to enjoy full participation in the body. It is relatively easy to find oneself an “ex” member of such a thing, since membership in it is more a question of official standards than it is of volition and inner purpose. These centralized, managed memberships are yet another sign of systemic death.


The American social philosopher, Eric Hoffer, thought that humanity will only achieve its greatest potential when people of different interests, skills, and tastes know each other, commune daily with each other, emulate, antagonize, and spur each other. That is the sort of element from which living communities might emerge, and that is how I believe Chesterton’s dead Christendom was able to find its life again. The living church self-organizes and emerges from a community of converging, synthesizing free agents. It has never been engineered back into existence.


Again in Chesterton’s words, we have grown more and more used to seeing those vats and vineyards overwhelmed in the water floods and the last savour and suggestion of that special element fading like a stain of purple upon a sea of grey. We have grown used to dilution, to dissolution, to a watering down and went on forever. But Thou hast kept the good wine until now.


In the dead church, the good wine will be withheld until we have had our fill of dilution. Have we had our fill? We may still partake of the good wine yet, but we have allowed ourselves to be fashioned into the wispy limbs of a flailing scarecrow when we might have been rooted in deep soil, infusing the water with our own chemistry to make it live. We are the vines, and we should be growing the fruit for a vintage worthy of the blood of God.