Sunday, June 19, 2016

Reflections on religion's 'wicked corporate and dogmatic dominions' (thanks to William James)

 In (“The Varieties of Religious Experience,”) William James distinguishes between various religious experiences and “religion’s wicked practical partner, the spirit of corporate dominion, and religion’s wicked intellectual partner, the spirit of dogmatic dominion, the passion for laying down the law.” (From David Brook's Column, Religion's Wicked Neighbor! June 17, 2016, New York Times)
The problems inherent in starting and in sustaining a religious "organization" that purports to incarnate a belief system dedicated to the worship of God are monumental. One of the more insidious, even self-defeating, problems is the baked-in-the-cake culture of the people who are charged with leadership in such an organization. Most of those people have and will come from enterprises designed to deliver services and/or products either on a for-profit basis, or a not-for-profit basis. Historically, organizations have borrowed templates from top-down, hierarchical, patriarchal organizations that demanded discipline to both the tenets of the theoretical design (dogma) and to the authority of that template. In religious organizations, there is also an over-riding impulse to perfection in the service of the divine, as if the only kind of "service" or engagement in the organization that can be acceptable to God is nothing less than perfect.
Within the hierarchical (etc.) organization that is dedicated to "perfectionism" lie the seeds of the very demise of that organization, in spite of all the best intentions of all of the people who attempt to provide leadership to that organization. Starting with the assumption of a top-down structure, as reflective of the "holy" is dangerous, simply because it necessarily infantilizes those who submit to the authority and the creeds of such an organization. The premise of "knowing" the will of God, regardless of the scripture on which that body of belief, is presumptuous in the extreme; and the preaching, teaching, modelling and conversion to those beliefs and then the monitoring and enforcement of attitudes, behaviours and liturgies that conform to those interior demands and expectations is among other things, the substitution of human power and will for the power and will of God. Just this week, Pope Francis spoke freely off the cuff to the effect that most people entering into marriages in the church are not committed to the life-long endurance of that union. They have not been indoctrinated in the church's teaching of the permanence of marriage, (only annulment permits the termination of marriage, within the church). Such comments were immediately interpreted as judgements on the married Catholics who marriages may have ended in divorce, separation or simply atrophy.
The contemporary culture of 40-plus percent of marriage dissolutions is obviously a great concern to the Vatican. Yet the original immutable linkage of sexual activity to marriage and procreation, exclusively, as part of church teaching, is not included in the discussion of the "results" of such a narrow teaching. Allegedly based on natural law, the church's original position has been promulgated and defended to the exclusion of all other possibilities, even in the face of counter-intuitive other perspectives on natural law.
And, to be fair, there is no scriptural or even doctrinal evidence for a God that is analogous to a frozen unchanging and unchangeable titanium ring. Nor is there scriptural evidence for an organizational structure that replicates the original military model. However, we have all bought in, to some degree, to both the dogmatic teachings and the military structure. And in so doing, we have promulgated a religious experience that is bound within the expectations of both the "corporate" culture (in terms of structure; more about motive below) and the dogma. As both of these are the results of human experience, in the collective sense, as opposed to the individual experience, they cannot be considered exclusive nor sacred.
And in considering both dogma and structure from human design as exclusive and sacred, we participate in the erosion of what started as a "permanent and indestructible" faith system, just as time as eroded the Parthenon, the Acropolis, and many other cathedrals whose crumbling walls remain to attest to their previous existence and their vulnerability to the elements.
The work of the leadership in such organizations is, and continues to be as a matter of necessity, inordinately dedicated to the preservation and enhancement of the "purity" and the relevance of both the dogma and the order, (read hierarchy) of its continuing existence. Corporate public relations, the management of the corporate identity, including the crisis management of those incidents in which embarrassing events might negatively impact the ability of the "corporation" (church) to sustain membership, and more especially to generate a flow of cash to pay the bills, becomes a very high priority and thus a time-consuming agenda of leadership, not to mention the high cost of such management of the message.
Unfortunately, some of the core tenets of dogma, (celibate clergy, for example) are often at the heart of some of these embarrassments. Nevertheless, the immediate management of the public image trumps the possibility of a review of the core dogma. And for that management strategy, the church turns to the corporate "consultants" whose practices have been recruited by the global corporations like BP during the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, to "stop the bleeding" of public confidence. None of this kind of campaign is even indirectly related to the "faith" of the institution. It is nothing more than micro-management of a public image, too often based on a dogmatic position that, it could be argued, is simply unsustainable given the evidence available on the nature the church is attempting to manage (read control).
So we can easily see the merger of dogmatic tenets with the corporate dominion that renders the ecclesial body beholden to the "spin-masters" and their expertise to trim the potential losses of public confidence. And the rhythm of the rise and fall of public confidence becomes the energy for much of the public discourse, within the church, about the church's viability. Spiritual issues, the lives of individuals struggling with their own real pain, in their own private lives, is, if not completely ignored, at least considered much less urgent, when that might be the central concern of the organization.
In fact, organizational needs, the building maintenance, the cost of stipends, the development of training programs and facilities, the demands of academic research in the universities, including those operated under the auspices of the church....all of these become, similar to the needs of a corporation, the driving issues of the organization. There may in fact be a case to be made that personal spiritual pilgrimages are incompatible with the corporate agenda of many church bodies.
Also, the exercise of authority, a core issue in all organizations, subsumes spiritual issues, although it can be argued that such issues cannot be separated from the spiritual issues of the pilgrims.  Some research has attempted to parse the perceptions of God, with respect to the kind of "authority" God demonstrates, using archetypes from the secular world: king, shepherd, father (mother), brother, friend, healer. And the way in which pilgrims encounter the exercise of "power" (in this case the supreme power of God) can and often does provide clues about how the individual experiences power in his/her secular life.
And so, while the enemies of the religious experience are clear, those very enemies can also serve as clarifying agents for those ready, willing and open to such potentially painful discernment. For example, many churches deploy clerics as primarily evangelists, (in the contemporary culture, marketers) to provide charismatic preaching, in the hope and belief that a segment of their congregation (or their target market) will be sufficiently attracted to become more diligent and dedicated adherents. Others deploy scholars in the hope that such leadership through homilies and educational opportunities will attract a different demographic. Others still deploy those they consider "pastors" (care givers) who will spend their time comforting their "flock" in the hope that such experience will gather new adherents. In the case of churches transitioning from conflict, the hierarchy will of ten deploy those cleric considered especially "strong" and "Churchill like" in order to bring order back to the chaos. And the pastoral needs of the parishioners will take a  back seat to the organizational needs of the corporation.
Ironically, that divide may have also played a significant role in the development of the conflict in the first place.
Clergy, tragically, have to operate in the confluence of the plethora of these forces, (and likely others, depending on the situation locally), many of them in direct conflict with other forces, and those forces will inevitably have lay voices demanding the cleric's attention. And so the "politics" of religion will tend to drown the individual spiritual pilgrimage of the people in the pews. And so long as the organizational "traits" dominate, (the cash flow, the numbers of attendees, the size of the church school, the numbers of social events, the size and the musical quality of the church choir, the inspiration of the homilist) then the important personal "spiritual experience" of the individual will serve these "higher" needs.
And to the extent that an individual wishes to remain "private" (as many in fact do) these external organizational issues provide the kind of cover that protects their privacy.
It is the question of growing a community of pilgrims in support of all members that seems quite problematic when the organizational "needs" tend to dominate...and for many, the divide between the personal and the corporate has driven them into the forest, to find their spiritual sustenance. And many of the corporate churches have empty pews, depleting fiscal resources, sliding recruitment counts, and rising sales of beautiful cathedrals.


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