Saturday, October 30, 2010

Reductionisms of love, faith and ministry

The most discouraging discovery of a decade serving as a clergy in both Canada and the United States was the discovery that much of what passes for legitimate "theology" and "faith practice" is little more than a bromide resulting in a kind of forced infantilism. The level of reductionism that has been inflicted on scripture by those espousing and prosletyzing a life as a disciple of Jesus Christ Resurrected is astounding.
The t-shirt emblazoned "WWJD" (What Would Jesus DO?") seems to express much of the problem. That product may have generated a potfull of cash for its creator; however, there is little doubt that it does not substitute for the real work of re-visiting our lives, in all of their complexities and all of their pain and mining the nuggets of insight, wisdom, love and learning from those investigations.
When we are beaten as children, and told repeatedly, "You are no good and you will never be any good," we do not understand either the beatings or the put-downs. We ask ourselves, "What is the meaning of all of this meanness?" "Where does it come from?" "What is wrong with the person who is doing these things to me?" And we come to believe that, because this person loves us (after all they gave birth to us so they must have something akin to love for us?), there must be some truth in their punishments and their denigrations.
And we keep seeking, inquiring into the lives of our friends, teachers and acquaintances usually to no avail. It seems that they do not have our experience; their mothers are not beating them or heaping 'dung' on their sense of themselves while that same parent is also singing in the church choirs, and baking pies to deliver to church suppers, and to bereaved families, and donating hundreds of quart baskets of raspberries to neighbours and friends. To a confused adolescent, there is something askew in the collision of these pictures: of a malicious, out-of-control woman who beats me ( and my sister) and of the most professional and caring nurse, benefactor and soprano.
And so, thinking that going to church, and becoming a member of a church would enhance an already tattered reputation with that mother, at twelve, I agreed to join. And to my dismay, the only question I was asked by the clergy, in order to qualify for ''admission" was, "Do you take Jesus Christ to be your personal Saviour?"
At twelve, I had no idea what that question meant; yet I understood that the expected response was an unequivocal "Yes!" and I delivered the expected response. Then I took communion, in the same pew with my parents, during a Sunday service.
Doing the expected also included attending Sunday school, where the teacher propagated something about "dispensations" whatever they are, for three or four years. I never "got it" about those things.
And while these years were passing, I was dutifully reading the Holy Bible, once again "doing the expected."
And then, when I was sixteen, I was listening to a homily from this transplanted Irishman from Balleymena, outside Belfast, when I heard, "If you are a Roman Catholic you are going to Hell; if you drink wine you are going to Hell; if you go to dances or movies or wear make-up, or cook meals on Sunday, you are going to Hell!"
And something snapped inside me. In my little mind, I heard myself say, "That's bullshit!"  I did not then, and do not today, believe that such poppycock could be extracted from either the words or the spirit of the scripture.And I never went back to that church, except, unfortunately, when I got married, and my parents "expected" the wedding to be in that church with that clergy.
In university, I searched out clergy like Rev. George Goth in London and Dr. Andrew Lawson in Toronto, who were preaching nothing like I had heard back home from the pulpit. They were both searching, probing and prodding in their pilgrimage for and to God. They were inspiring in the extreme, compared to the theological gruel being served back home. And they had the respect of and for their congregations.
Many years later, after confirmation in the Anglican church, I enroled in theology at Huron College where I found in a class of 17, there were 12 more students expressing the same kind of simplistic, reductionistic views of their theology and their vision of their prospective role as clergy. Five of us were considered 'liberals' and were virtually ostracised by the 'twelve' fundamentalists. One of the twelve actually proudly stated his purpose, "to convert all the people I meet to Jesus" and objected to a discussion of the meaning of evangelism as inappropriate for such classes. Another protested when some students asked questions in class, "Never mind that stuff, just tell us what we need to know and let us get out of here and get busy saving the world," was the way another of them put it. There was a fervent zeal to their 'faith' if that is what it was.
And then, when I finally began active ministry, I found many people fossilized in a similar, reductionistic, loudly judgemental faith that was nothing more than the projections of their fears of imperfection onto others, especially the clergy.
Simplistic explanations for what is essentially a monstrous mystery never can work, no matter the fervency of those pursuing that simplicity. God, the life of Jesus Christ Resurrected, the meaning of the various books and passages in scripture: these are not some simple subject reducible to aphorisms, as many in the church want.
Several of my experiences rank as both sad and tragic, and in most of them I played an intimate part, although looking back, I am not clear what I would have done differently in most.
  • I was dubbed a heretic for recommending books by Scott Peck and Matthew Fox and for changing Christian Education curriculum from David C. Cook's fundamentalism to the much more inclusive and global and refreshing and inspiring The Whole People of God; 
  • had homilies judged as heretical and 'new age' for bringing real life situations into focus through a lens of the lections for the specific Sunday;
  • followed a clergy whose last act was to shoot a dog and then turn the gun on the owner, all of which information was never conveyed to me, as part of my orientation;
  • had the residence I lived in broken into by angry parishioners who drove my successor out of the parish with their relentless pressure; 
  • was threatened and told to leave by wardens who were clinging to their need for control when I named that need; undermined by others whose appointment as warden I rejected because they had not done, and were not about to do, any spiritual work of their own, content and proud they were to continue to manage the 'public' performances that passed for their lives;
  • rejected as a potential clergy by a corporate 'suit' who boasted, "I am proud that I helped to drive the last priest out of our church, because he was not spiritual enough, and you're not spiritual enough either." And when I asked where he would like to be in his spiritual life three years hence, he laughed demonstrating he had no idea what I was talking about, and changed the subject.
  • had additional assignments refused, as Honorary, after I requested an honorarium for gas, to make the fifty-mile trip from my residence to the church twice weekly;
  • was the subject of a secret 'kangaroo trial' conducted by a priest who was threatened by my "leadership" when parishioners told her I was a leader and she was not.
What I also learned was that generations of English teachers, and clergy had not penetrated even through the skin of hundreds of skulls, let alone directly into the minds within, with the insight about the difference between literal, empirical truth and poetic and mythical truths. The people sitting in the pews, for the most part, at least my experience, are very uncomfortable with the notion of poetry, and beauty and anything smacking of aesthetics, as expressions of a God-given gift of imagination. And the church has, not surprisingly, a large tradition of paying homage to God through artistic expressions in stained glass, in oratorio's, in dance and in many parts of scripture, which cannot legitimately be reduced to 'rules' for living.
Nevertheless, attempting to bridge that chasm of resistance is nothing less than hernia-inducing. One bishop who told a clergy to "fill the coffers and the pews" was rebutted, in one case, by a clergy taking his own life at the altar, partly in dramatic protest against the manipulation that following those orders would require. Turning the church into little more than a sanctimonious business or corporation is not going to bring about transformation in the lives of the parishioners sitting in those pews, even if it brings honour and praise from peer bishops and the corporate leaders who "fund" that parish.
It is the reductionism of the christian faith to the generation of numbers of dollars and memberships that has and will continue to destroy the christian church, no matter the significant protests of individual pilgrims whose lives attest to a very different form of theology, devotion and discipleship. It is the literal, empirical addiction to those numbers that reduces every individual to something much less spiritual than his/her humanness and spiritual life requires.And those christian leaders who have confused their leadership roles as CEO's of just another corporation, (and the Anglican and Episcopal churches are renowned for their corporate memberships, attitudes, philosophies and theologies) who have abdicated the spiritual dimensions of their potential in favour of (you guessed it!) another reductionism: that God is impressed by greater and greater numbers of people and dollars in the church community. As one American parishioner put it to me, tragically, "Jesus was the world's best salesman, didn't you know?"
And like Adrienne Clarkson who, when she heard the comments of her students about the poetry she was trying to teach, left her teaching post at the University of Toronto, before those comments destroyed her appreciation of literature, I resigned in some considerable and not-so-politically-correct dramatic fashion and have not returned to formal worship except for the occasional eucharist.
And to think that those beatings and those  put-downs were generated in the name of the Christian God as was that heinous homily and those bastard treasurers' reports to which the church is addicted.
And I continue to protest reductionisms of the kind my mother imposed, and the kind the church insists upon, in its selfish attempt at self-promotion, rather than resting comfortably in the trust that God would have it incarnate.

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