In one of my theology graduate courses, the assignment was to pick a theologian and research his/her contribution to the subject. I chose Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988), a Swiss priest who is considered one of the most influential theologians of the past century.
His name came up in an interesting article about British soccer team owner and prominent philanthropist Ilyas Khan, a Muslim convert to Christianity who credits von Balthasar for his conversion.
Reading the story of Khan’s life, I was struck by his comment, “if there was a push away from Islam or a pull, it was much more the pull of Christ.”
Kahn relates that he has received his fair share of hate mail and threats of violence because his apostasy from Islam. “I must admit that I do have a great deal of sadness in my heart when I contemplate people who use Islam to justify their actions. These actions aren’t just un-Islamic — they are inhuman and have nothing to do with my view of Islam as a religion. Sadly, there appear to be a very large number of Muslims for whom anger and violence seem intuitive first responses to anything they don’t agree with.”
Kahn’s dual experience with Islam and Christianity made a connection for me with a recent article in Newsweek “Christianity in Crisis.”
The first anniversary of the Arab Spring has revived the medieval conflict between Christianity and Islam. Christianity certainly was in serious crisis then, so my first thought concerning the Newsweek article was, “What’s new about that?” For more than 2,000 years the Church has been in trouble, from within and without. The writer of Revelation had words of warning to the Seven Churches about following false teachers. St. Paul wrote epistles on the same theme.
The new theme for Christians according to Andrew Sullivan’s Newsweek’s article is “Let’s just trash organized religion and follow Christ.”
Dennis Byrne, writing for the Chicago Tribune, comments on how convenient and easy it is to echo the preferred secular narrative: Religious institutions are not to be trusted. Sinful bishops trying to tell everyone else, even nonbelievers, how to live. You’re better off separating yourself from organized religion for a purer, simpler faith, unfiltered by hierarchies of self-serving clergy, secretive curia and stagnant traditions.
In short, go it alone.
That sentiment seems reasonable to some. However, Byrne counters that going it alone hardly seems to have been Jesus’ example. He gathered multitudes. He proclaimed the creation of a church, a community of people united by common belief. Not going it alone seems to me to be the entire point of organized religion. Jesus made it pretty clear that our relation with him is defined by the quality of our relations with others.
Byrne continues, “It strikes me that it’s a lot harder to get to where you’re going when you’re alone. And the church provides the structure that facilitates that trip.” Which is precisely why I think organized religion is important. Maybe the larger a church community gets, the less personal it becomes.
Adjacent to my property is a community church founded by one of my former religion students. It proclaims to be “gospel-based,” and I have no doubt it is. But so are mainline organized Christian religions. There are Christian “community churches” everywhere, popping up like spring mushrooms. They might be one-story structures, built with less concern about art and beauty, but more on a tight budget to serve a local group of 30 or more congregants. Perhaps it is social interaction rather than doctrine that explains this phenomenon.
Byrne agrees. “We all are quite aware of current polls that show that Americans, especially younger ones, are turning from traditional and mainline religions to a more ‘individualized and private’ faith.”
I’m with Byrne when he writes: “I’m more familiar with the Catholic Church than other Christian denominations. Its not-going-it-alone statistics are: more than 600 Catholic hospitals accounting for 12.5 percent of American hospitals and more than 15.5 percent of all U.S. hospital admissions. Four hundred health care centers and 1,500 specialized homes. Some 235 are residential homes for orphaned and other children. Emergency food, clothing, financial, shelter, medical and other assistance for more than 6.5 million people annually. Millions of students of all denominations in Catholic schools. Such is the essential nature of Catholic belief.”
Byrne concludes that the Church itself acknowledges that it is a human institution as well as a creation of God. Therefore, like all humans, it struggles and sins. So, it is constantly in crisis. But not because it reaches outside of itself. It is precisely because it reaches outside of itself that it has survived 2,000 years.
Perhaps this is the “pull” that former Muslim Ilyas Khan felt as he read the writings of Cardinal-designate Hans Urs von Balthasar. Perhaps, too, that is why von Balthasar is on my top-10 theologians list.