Thursday, May 9, 2013

(#1) A Heretic's guide to the universe


Just read a short piece in the Globe and Mail, by Reginald Bibby, he of the sociology of religion fame in Canada, attempting to mine the limited findings in the Canadian Household Survey (the replacement of the Long-form Census) about the declining numbers expressing a formal relationship with any specific religion. No surprise there, as the planet moves inexorably toward a more secular world view.
However, before we bury the churches, and the theology that has both birthed them and to a degree  sustained and sabotaged them, let's look more closely at the picture that emerges from what one might imagine to be the lens of the eye of  christian churches over the last half century.
There is a faint scent hovering over those eyes, hinting of some family bible with its pages inscribed with births, deaths, marriages from as far back as the various custodians of the museum piece can dig.
Probably those inscriptions have had more eyes poring over their contents than the words in the actual document. There is also a great respect for memory, given that the "book" (New Testament) emerged from the centuries shortly after the life of Jesus, and the Old Testament rose from the documents of the earliest oral histories of the tribe of Israel. And while no one doubts there is deep, useful and sometimes even startling wisdom, insight, poetry and narration in both sections of the 'book' there is a declining interest in reading anything that might take longer than a few seconds to penetrate, given the time warp in technological communication.
Most people in North America, and probably many in Europe, and more recently in Africa and South America have been 'fed' some form of religious curriculum, catechism, baptism as part of their early years, often pointing to the 'highlights' of a similar offering to previous generations in their families.
First Communions, too, have dotted the calendars of many young people, whose new wardrobes for the special day were put together as much to trumpet the pride of their parents as to express thanks, or even awe to a Holy God.
In some communities, attending church became a mark of business respect, giving the pew-resident a slight glow among the local potential client market. In some, church attendance was also an indication of the 'good parenting' of the guardians of the family, whose offspring were more likely to attain a respectable adulthood than those who were out "joy-riding" on a Sunday morning, after their loud and unseemly Saturday night parties.
In some communities, sobriety and abstinence, in both realms of alcohol and extra-marital sexuality, were communicated by merely appearing as one of the members of a local congregation.
In some church communities, and this gets a little more troubling, there was even a "given" that the people under that roof were practicing a form of the faith that demonstrated the errors of those practicing a different form of the faith. And so there was a kind of both snobbery and bigotry implicit in the faith communities, even if such exclusive and alienating attitudes and perceptions were only faintly audible inside and outside the church building. Those inside the 'circle' knew that their grandparents and great-grandparents would turn over in their graves if they knew that some current members were actually forming friendships, perhaps even dating, members of that 'other' church full of 'holy-rollers' or dogans, or 'political activists' or.....
And as those walls of separation began to crumble, and the various faith communities began to work toward some forms of harmony, or ecumenism, or possibly even union with others, of course, the purists in one church vowed never to 'break bread, and drink wine' with those of another church where similar vows were being whispered, or perhaps even uttered.
And there began to appear differences in approach to adolescent development, including sexuality, around such new technologies as birth control, and the churches scrambled to learn about the new developments, while their adolescents predictably outstripped their parents in both knowledge and use.
And there were also differences in approach among the churches around such issues as criminality, and poverty and formal education. Some, for example, would have nothing to do with the 'criminal element' believing them to have already 'sealed their fate' with God, and set their path on the road literally (and probably metaphorically) to Hell. Others preferred to train the laity to work in prisons, teaching, and counselling and befriending their brothers and sisters whose lives, for whatever reasons, had fallen into chaos; while others also attended AA meetings with their brothers and sisters whose lives had become subject to what the twenties dubbed the 'demon rum.'
There is an obvious pattern to the language attributed to those activities to which any church was opposed: those activities were 'evil' or 'the work of the devil' or 'Satanic' or 'unnatural'.
And then there was a collision of what it means to be a human being with what is evil....because humans are naturally sexual, and naturally gregarious (and consume alcohol as one way to celebrate their human associations) and naturally skeptical. On the other hand, there was little, if any, room amid the "hard and fast rules" for debate, discussion, difference and growth and development both of the individuals participating and the community that can and does grow only from such interactions.
And the churches that clung to their dogma (those matters they considered "sacred" as if they were imported directly from the mind/heart/spirit of God!), in the face of attitudes and behaviours that seemed both natural and even life-giving to some of their folk, struggled now with what to do with those who "fell by the wayside". In some cases, some clergy with the support of their bishops, refused to serve the eucharist to those who had wandered too far from the straight and narrow. In some cases, the miscreant was expelled, excommunicated, or simply turfed from the community, as an indication that the hierarchy simply "will not tolerate" such attitudes and/or behaviours, as, just like the legal system, made a glaring example of those miscreants, often even without anything resembling what the world now knows as due process...
The churches have been negligent in failing to develop processes of training, reformation and reconciliation, preferring, it would seem, to not have to deal with the messiness of such processes, and the impact on the fund-raising programs, the development of foundations, that have become a requirement of the future financial security of those same, once well-funded, ecclesial organizations.
The churches have also been in denial of too many of the human traits, to which each of us must claim possession, whether they have all been demonstrated in our actions or not, and whether they have been "found out" but those same church police whose job it is to keep the church "pure" and "chaste" from evil, just as they once attempted to keep their adolescents "pure" and "chaste" from exploring their sexuality.
There is such a flaw in the "perfectionism" that lives, vibrantly or more strugglingly, in all christian churches, that separates the human being from the love, forgiveness and embrace of God, that such perfectionism verges on, if not actually incarnates, infantilism. No form of religion practice, no path of the pilgrim, can be called such a path while at the same time excluding human attitudes and behaviours of all kinds. And no church worthy of the name can follow a "theology" or a belief system which functions primarily as a code of judgement, on the other people in the village, or even in the same pew.
And so, we will continue to witness falling numbers of people willing to sit in pews and to write cheques to support hierarchies and values that are necessarily rife with incompatible, irreconcilable and irreducible paradoxes, hypocrisies, and the expression of values and beliefs that are formulated to "target" others whose behaviour cannot and will not fit the perfectionist strait-jacket of a faux faith in an awesome God.

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