A couple Sundays ago I visited a large church where a young speaker spoke to thousands on the “supremacy of the gospel.” He spoke about his own living situation as an American missionary in North Africa. His family lives in an area where his children have to watch out for raw sewage in the streets while playing, and yet nearby are parking lots full of Mercedes Benz and BMW vehicles. He described and displayed a chart that was supposed to demonstrate that humans fare better in countries where Christianity is the dominant religion. He also told a story about people who worship rats in Deshnoke, India; and how it was important to bring the gospel into areas of “ugliness.” While his stories were interesting I kept hoping he would explain what he meant by “supremacy” and “gospel,” but this never happened. His words left a sick feeling in my stomach as they seemed self-righteous and arrogant. However, I also took into account that he is young and he and his family are living in a unique situation that probably deeply influences his stance.
On the other hand, this Sunday I heard a young speaker at a church of about 200 who explained Communion or “The Eucharist” as a time that celebrates the good news which teaches that Jesus invites everyone to the table. He explained that the ceremony represents friendship and that Jesus welcomed even those who didn’t like him to come to the table to break bread. I was so moved by the way he explained the gospel, not to mention the Hawaiian bread we dipped in the grape juice was delicious. The other interesting thing about this service was that before we took Communion he had invited a young atheist to enter into dialogue with him for the “sermon.” For me there was no comparison. The first service left me questioning my faith while the second flamed the fire of my beliefs. The first rang of colonialism and Crusades while the second felt like we were gathered around a warm fire engulfed in the love of God.
So, what do these experiences have to do with Polanyi? There are a few instances where Polanyi mentions religion and Christianity. In one statement he describes the effects of fascism and explains, “This re-education, comprising the tenets of a political religion that denied the idea of the brotherhood of man in all its forms, was achieved through an act of mass conversion enforced against recalcitrants by scientific methods of torture.” (p. 237) For some reason when I read this I was taken back to the first service I described above and remembered the feeling of disappointment and dread that this type of mentality was being communicated as the “gospel” to thousands of people live and by video. The “gospel,” depending on how it is defined has been used for millions of atrocities, physical, mental and emotional. I’m disinclined to think this is the “good news” that Jesus hoped to bring to humanity.
Polanyi also discusses the idea of freedom and Christianity referring to a Welsh social reformer and states, “Robert Owen was the first to recognize that the Gospels ignored the reality of society. He called the ‘individualization’ of man on the part of Christianity and appeared to believe that only in a co-operative commonwealth could ‘all that is truly valuable in Christianity’ cease to be separated from man. Owen recognized that the freedom we gained through the teachings of Jesus was inapplicable to a complex society. His socialism was the upholding of man’s claim to freedom in such a society. The post-Christian era of Western civilization had begun, in which the Gospels did not any more suffice, and yet remained the basis of our civilization.” (p. 258A) It is interesting to think about how the concepts of “freedom” and “individualism” have become an ideal in our society and how these may have influenced the way we look at our other human brothers and sisters. And yet, there was a co-operative sharing that took place in the Christian gathering I mentioned in the second service. In fact, even in the space where the individualist ideas of atheism and Christianity were shared, was a community spirit present. Polanyi concludes with statements that mark the beginning of a discussion on freedom. He explains, “Man accepted the reality of death and built the meaning of his bodily life upon it. He resigned himself to the truth that he had a soul to lose and that there was worse than death, and founded his freedom upon it…life springs from ultimate resignation.” (p. 258B)
He goes on to explain that as long as we are creating abundant freedom for all we need have no fear; and this is the meaning of freedom in a complex society. Perhaps these concepts of abundant freedom, the gospel, individualism, and community are integral to the great transformation happening to each of us individually and as a society. Why is transformation important? What is your definition of “the gospel?” What kind of freedom does “the gospel” bring? How does it bring freedom?
Polanyi, Karl. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1965.