Sarah Coakley reflects on the failures of the church across history – and their cause.
Let me consider what I most lament in the failures of the church.
I think the first thing I want to say here – and it’s tremendously important because it often gets lost in discussions about Christianity’s failures – is to distinguish between the institutions of the church and the reality to which our founder, Jesus of Nazareth, called us. And there has never been – and you can see this already happening in the letters of Paul – there has never been a perfect form of Christianity according to Jesus’ fishermen. It is always confected out of sinful and frail humans, and the institutional parts of it are themselves, of course, subject to corruption.
Though I don’t myself take the view that is very popular these days, especially in America, that it was Christianity’s collusion with the state in the 4th century, the Constantinian settlement, that marked the immediate and insidious downfall of Christianity. Rather, I would say that all institutionalised forms of Christianity – and that even includes forms that appear not be institutionalised, such as charismatic movements, Pentecostal movements, even the Quakers, who are curiously institutionalised in their own ways – all these are subject to corruption, although some are better at monitoring the dangers of corruption. And where you have a collusion between church and state that is unthinking in its continuance, then there is probably more danger.
Having said all that by way of preparation, there are so many things to lament in the history of Christianity that I, particularly as a feminist Christian, hardly know where to begin. But I think the place I would begin, which in a way brings all these problems together, is the very nature at its basis of sin itself, which I see – and this is not uncontentious – as the mismanagement of desire.
So in Genesis 3, the famous story of the fall, Adam and Eve confront a highly desirable object and are told not to eat it, for whatever reason. This is a very mysterious story. But clearly what the fundamental problem here is, in this story, is one of getting desire wrong. And it’s not, therefore, primarily the problem of violence, which only comes in Genesis 4, and which is an outcome of getting desire wrong.
So when I look at what I want to lament in Christianity, I think of a variety of things which spring inexorably from the corruption of desire. One is the misuse of power in various forms – and this, of course, has included such enterprises as the Crusades, where blood has been spilled on behalf of the hegemony of Christianity. And one could go on instantiating many other examples along that round.
Another version of the corruption of desire and the mismanagement of it is the patriarchal dimension of Christianity, which hovers from the start and yet is not, in my view – this is contentious – but not in my view intrinsic to the teaching of Jesus. In fact, you can see the explosive nature of Jesus’ teaching on this front, as it were, being reined back on in the very earliest forms of Christianity, though ambiguously so.