Because of this [teaching] many of [Jesus’s] disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away? Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe that you are the Holy One of God.”John 6:66-69 (NRSV)
A week or so ago, this article from the Atlantic, “The Prophecies of Q”, landed in my Facebook feed. I didn’t give it much thought. I’d heard about Q and Qanon because of other things happening in the news, but I don’t give much credence to conspiracy theories, as amusing as some of them are (I’m fond of the theories that NASA is hiding the existence of another planet in the solar system, or that the country of Israel regularly uses animals as spies).
Some conspiracy theories occasionally rise to a dangerous level of acceptance: Pizzagate, anti-vaccination, anti-Semitism, COVID-19 theories, etc. And now the Qanon conspiracy, which has been growing for almost three years, is reaching that level. And churches are feeling it too. Qanon is becoming an “alternative religion”, says this Religion News Service article.
It’s not all that surprising that people are turning to conspiracy theories for meaning. In an age where most sources of expert authority–teachers, doctors, scientists, lawyers, religious leaders–are increasingly viewed as anywhere from unreliable to outright evil, figuring out who to trust can be a difficult choice.
But it’s more than a bit disturbing that Qanon and conspiracies like it are spreading in churches. Maybe not surprising, but certainly disturbing. Mostly gone (and thank God) are the days when the old white male pastor wielded unilateral authority in the church, dictating everything from the budget to the art decorating the sanctuary to the congregation’s involvement in the neighborhood to the correct interpretation of scripture to membership in the community to what color the carpet should be. At one time, the word of the pastor was akin to the Word of God themself. As a pastor myself, I’m quite glad those days are behind us.
On the other hand, it does make things a bit more complicated. Ideally, a pastor or deacon should be able to preach that armed threats against dams, attorneys, journalists, cement plants, capital buildings, and children, and preventing firefighters from properly fighting wildfires, are sin. Instead, that preacher will be accused of being “too political” because the liberating message of the Gospel is at odds with the worldview that espouses such actions as legitimate (yes, all of those are Qanon actions). And because the authority of the preacher to name sin for what it is has eroded, the Gospel message is deemed less true and less important than the conspiracy.
With the successful attacks against what were always presumed to be legitimate sources of authority and meaning leveling the playing field, so to speak, everyone looks like (and sometimes believes themselves to be) an expert. All authority, traditional and made up, is too often considered “equal”.
This begs the question: for Christians, to whom do we look for authority? To whom shall we go? The obvious answer would be Christ Jesus, the Son of God. But how? Through personal and private prayer? Through the words of our bishops, pastors, and deacons? Through reading the Bible together with a group? Through reading the Bible alone? Through mystic, ecstatic revelation?
Yes. All of it. However you can get to him. However you can hear him. However you can feel him. Talk to eacah other. Listen to each other. Challenge each other. Think critically with each other. Trust each other.
The hardest part may be recognizing that we (including us pastors and deacons) do not have ultimate authority over ourselves. We are not our own lords. We don’t get a choice in this — we belong to God alone. That flies right in the face of the hyper-individualism that more and more undergirds our culture. We want to make our own choices. We want to be our own bosses. We don’t want to be responsible for anyone but ourselves (“Am I my brother’s keeper?” a human once asked). We want total authority over ourselves.
But we can’t have it. We are not the Gospel, only its bearers. We are not the Holy One of God, instead the servants and workers. We are not the Living Word, the words of eternal life. Following ourselves only leads us in a circle, or a spiral toward death.
There’s only one real answer to the question, “Lord, to whom shall we go?”