© Canadian Corporation for Studies in Religion / Corporation canadienne des Sciences Religieuses
Re-creating the Church: Communities of Eros
Reviewed by: Don Schweitzer
Pamela Dickey Young (Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario) writes that she began this book with a set of questions about how North Americans are religious at present. It turned instead into an interesting, accessible and stimulating book on the Church. Young argues that the ``once-mainline'' Christian churches in Canada are religious institutions in a crisis, signalled by falling membership and declining social status. Yet people have inherently religious needs and some Christian churches are growing. The challenge to the ``once-mainline'' churches in this situation is twofold. First, churches have to re-configure themselves as ``communities of eros'' in tune with peoples' present religious quests. Second, churches have to attend to their public presentation. They have to overcome stereotypes fixed in non-attenders' minds of churches as monolithic, dogmatic and irrelevant, and present themselves as communities in which people can live out a quest for justice, inclusion and wholeness.
Young begins with an autobiographical sketch of her own involvement with the Church. This leads into a portrayal of people as inherently religious, marked by a capacity for self-transcendence that, once engaged, becomes a quest to move beyond the present to a greater involvement with others and a deeper actualization of self. Young sees that the two poles of this quest are linked, and describes them as a search for flourishing and right relation. She defines ``flourishing'' as ``to exist as fully as possible,... in community with others, human and non-human''(14). Right relationship ``is about how one stands in relation to the whole and about how one's life is constructed by self and others to allow for or to impede flourishing'' (17). Churches need to become places that foster flourishing and right relationships.
For Young, the Church is primarily a voluntary community. The focus here is on local congregations and the active participation of their members. She grounds this vision in an interesting chapter on christology that owes much to Schubert Ogden. The Church is a community that arose in response to Jesus' person and message and that continues to gather in his memory. The resurrection plays a key role here -- as an expression of the faith of the early Church whose relationship to Jesus continued despite his death, and that it remains open to others as well. Empowered by this experience and faith, the mission of the Church is to embody God's transforming grace by celebrating and seeking to foster flourishing and right relationships for all creation. Young then examines how this plays out in terms of preaching, worship and mission, moving from theory to practice and offering concrete examples to flesh out her ideas.
Young's vision of the Church as a community of eros is re-visionary and yet still very rooted in Christian, particularly Protestant tradition. As she corrects or re-configures central notions of what the Church is and should be, echoes from the past reverberate through her text and inform her thought. The result is a concisely stated and stimulating vision of what the Church should be, a vision that, like the Reformers', seeks to correct the Church while remaining faithful to its past.
For myself, part of the stimulation came from not always being able to agree totally with all the ideas put forth. Young's stress on the need for churches to attend to their public presentation is insightful and picks up on an important aspect of how the problem of public communication in a highly differentiated society affects once-mainline churches today. But I found her dichotomy between eros, as passion for fulfilment through relationship with another, and agape, as self-sacrifice for the sake of another, troubling. This appropriates the famous analysis of Anders Nygren. But as Paul Tillich argued, eros and agape cannot be so neatly separated. Eros that does not become demonically distorted grows into agape, and agape that is not a mask for a hidden death wish or self-hatred includes eros for the beloved, and thus a concern for self-preservation and wellness. The either/or Young poses between eros and agape is provocative and gives her book focus, but it also tends to be reductive and not quite true to the vision she portrays.
Young's emphasis on the Church as a participatory community gives her book a welcome focus on local congregations, but its limitations surface near the end when she can find little to affirm in the traditional four marks of the Church as one, holy, catholic and apostolic. The nature of the Church always transcends its historical reality. This can be an excuse for overlooking the failures and sins of the church in history, but it also expresses an important truth. The Church is not divine, but it does have a transcendent nature by virtue of its election and calling. The marks of the Church seek to express this. They serve to give the Church orientation in history as a criterion of its authenticity, and also as an important element of Christian faith. Tolerance and openness to the pluralism of the present does not banish the question of truth. One should be able to discern some characteristics of unity, universality, truthfulness and historical continuity in congregations that celebrate and foster flourishing and right relation.
Finally, although there are several pages devoted to defining both ``flourishing'' and ``right relationship,'' I found myself desiring fuller and more extended treatments of both. Some of this happens in the course of the book, and one could always plead the need for brevity, but these two key terms were left a little vague.
These questions though attest more to the book's provocative power than to its shortcomings. Re-creating the Church is a concise, thoughtful, well-written book on an important topic. It deserves a wide audience.