One of the last things my father told me before he lost the ability to think and speak theologically, was how interesting impermanence is. As a young man he had been an actor in the play “Teahouse of the August moon” and he remarked to me how the teahouse was designed to be impermanent - disassembled - and reassembled in a different time and place. He went as far as to suggest that if, as I had been hoping - I started my own construction business, that I name it August Moon Builders.
Now I have yet to see the movie or play, alas it isn’t on Netflix or Amazon - but this idea has stuck with me - about impermanence.
When my second born son was barely two I began reading philosophy books to him, as a way to settle him down and get him to go to sleep. One such book was a book I remember seeing on my father’s book shelves as long as I can remember entitled “Thales to Dewey”. It’s yet another attempt to summarize the history of philosophy, and I could never have guessed my little toddler would take an interest in Socrates of all people.
I prefer the ancients - because in them you can see the incipient forms of all later philosophies. Likewise they were so simplistic in their views that it is often hard to reconcile their views with the world in which we live - “How can they say that, can’t they see…” has escaped my lips on more than one occasion; and yet there is a beauty to the elemental dialectic of thought itself.
One philosopher who has always troubled me is Heraclitus. He was was firstly a material monist - drawing the connection between all things as being of the same essence (for him fire). Secondly and most famously Heraclitus insisted that "No man ever steps in the same river twice” believing that ever-present change was the fundamental essence of the universe.
As I’ve wrestled with this, Ive struggled to accept that the idea of the water changing, is not the same as the course of the flow of water - nor is the fact that some of the water molecules may in fact transpire through cycle and flow through the course of the same river ad-infinitum. I understand Heraclitus’ point, and at the same time I see a need for two expressions of river - the one that is not the same because it is constantly changing, and one that practically speaking depicts the geography for useful purposes. These two different expressions cannot therefor be the same as the thought “river” nor as the reality of “river” because they are at odds with each other - and yet they must simultaneously exist.
Which leads me back to impermanence… and the church.
Jesus says “on this rock I will build my church” and we see a history of saints and sinners connecting us to Christ and the gospel over the course of two thousand years. And yet the church is not the same… it has changed.
I worked for some time with churches struggling with their existence, deciding to reinvent themselves or not… struggling with the concepts of what was and what is to be. I also know models of church which focus only on the present. Jesus said that wherever two or three were gathered, there he was in their midst - the real presence of the body of Christ, not in a eucharistic element, but in the gathering of unique individuals, unique to a time and place - never the same.
So I look at the church, a dying institution - I look at my profession - a dying career, and as I’ve thought over the past 15 years, there must be a new way forward. While we need an expression of the church that is geographic and orienting to our place in the progression of saints and sinners, we also need to express that the church is never the same; no-one ever goes to the same church twice.