Friday, February 5, 2021

the burden of developing the soul....

In the Return of the King, (p. 190) J. R. R. Tolkien writes: It is not our part to master all the tides of the world. But to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule. (M. Scott Peck, People of the Lie, p. 39) In a footnote, on page 46, Peck outlines three models of evil:

·        the nondualism of Buddhism and Hinduism in which evil is envisioned simple as the other side of the coin. For life there must be death; for growth, decay; for creation, destruction. Consequently, the distinction of evil from goodness is regarded by nondualism as an illusion.

·        ‘Integrated dualism,’ espoused by Martin Buber who referred to evil as ‘the yeast in the dough’ the ferment place in the soul by God, without which the human dough does not rise. (reference, Buber, Good and Evil, 1953, p 94)

·        ‘Diabolical dualism’ of traditional Christianity in which evil is regarded as being not of God’s creation but a ghastly cancer beyond His control. Peck suggests that, even with its pitfalls, ‘it is the only one that deals adequately with the issue of murder and murderer.

Another of the more pithy observations Peck makes is this: “We become evil by attempting to hide from ourselves. The wickedness of the evil is not committed directly, but indirectly as a part of this cover-up process. Evil originates not in the absence of guilt but in the effort to escape it. (People of the Lie, p. 76)

And then, as a footnote, Peck quotes Buber again, from Good and Evil (p. 111):

Since the primary motive of the evil is disguise, one of the places evil people are most likely to be found is within the church. What better way to conceal one’s evil from oneself, as well as from others, that to be a deacon or some other highly visible form of Christian within our culture?...I mean only that evil people tend to gravitate toward piety for the disguise and concealment it can offer them. (Peck p. 76-77)

Another guiding light, in the process of any attempt to begin to unravel the gordion knot of evil, is found in Erich Fromm’s The Heart of Man : Its Genius for Good and Evil, p.173-178) found also in Peck, p. 81-2: Most people fail in the art of living not because they are inherently bad or so without will that they cannot lead a better life; they fail because they do not wake up and see when they stand at a fork in the road and have to decide. They are not aware when life asks them a question, and when they sill have alternative answers. Then with each step along the wrong path it becomes increasingly difficult for them to admit that they are on the wrong road, often only because they have to admit that they must go back to the first wrong turn, and must accept the fact that they have wasted energy and time.

Whether or not evil is a developmental evolution, as Fromm suggests and Peck endorses, the issue of how a culture envisions, defines, and then enforces what human acts it considers evil is deeply embedded in both religion and history. What may have been thought of as not evil two hundred years ago, could well be considered profoundly evil today (e.g. slavery). Similarly what was considered evil two hundreds years ago might today well qualify as quite morally and ethically acceptable. (e.g. gayness and transgender) Having both taken, and assumed the role of the arbiter of evil in a culture, the various churches have a considerable burden to bear in the dynamic that they both encounter and disclose, especially given the equally perplexing dynamic of the evil that they do not encounter (or seek to encounter) and thereby fail to disclose.

A now deceased bishop exclaimed to me once, rather didactically and also as a cautionary warning, the T.S. Eliot epithet, ‘humankind cannot bear very much cannot reality.’ In a deeply personal and also highly insightful piece in the Guardian, (Nov. 14, 2008) Jeanette Winterson undertakes an explication of Eliot’s renowned phrase: “That for him, was not the reality of dingy streets and gas fires, typists and tinned food, …but the vast reality of two quite different invisible worlds—‘the heavy burden of growing soul’ (Animula), and what might be called the ‘shaft of sunlight’ (Four Quartets), a spiritual illumination that became for Eliot, a journey towards God. For Eliot, the 3D world where we live, that which he calls in The Waste Land, the ‘unreal city’ is a beguiling or distressing distraction from facing life head on, facing ourselves as we are—and ultimately facing God. He is tough, he refuses consolation, ‘Time is no healer: the patient is no longer here.’ (She continues) When I read him that day, gales battering me within and without, I didn’t want consolation: I wanted expression. I wanted to find the place where I was hurt, to locate it exactly, and to give it a mouth. Pain is very often a maimed creature without mouth. Through the agency of the poem that is powerful enough to clarify  feelings into facts, I am no longer dumb, not speechless, not lost. Language is a finding place, not a hiding place.”

The heavy burden of growing soul, of facing ourselves as we are, and ultimately facing God,  an entirely appropriate and even essential process whose nature habitat is indeed the sanctuary and the ethos and the community we know as ‘the church’ is too often and tragically blocked, diverted, and even declared dangerous by the church hierarchy. For centuries, the Christian church not only permitted by actually endorsed slavery, absolutely decried gayness, and so embedded its culture in the culture of the affluent, the corporate, and the implicit biases, bigotries, and, even more deceitfully, in the process of continual denial of what it was they were either endorsing or castigating.

Did the Christian church stand up to the fork in the road in 1933 and in the years following?

Did the Christian church acknowledge the fork in the road when the epic line screamed out across the continent, a signature of the late twentieth century film Wall Street, “Greed is Good!” as if there could be a more explicit defaming of the role and importance of money in the American culture? There were likely some, even before that Michael Douglas line, who prophesied about the demise of the hollow and desperate life of one Willy Loman, in Death of a Salesman. The playwright, Arthur Miller, however, was not a prophet representing the faith.

Did the Christian church not only fall victim to the marketing chicanery of the corporate world, “Fill the coffers and the pews!” came the cry of an urban bishop, to a clergy who categorically refused, knowing full well he had all the tools and the skills to do what he had been directly ordered to do. That same bishop drove his thumb into my chest, uttering the words, “You will not publish that thesis! I am ordering you as bishop! My report is in the archives and that is all that will be made public on that event.” Tragically, it was the death of that same clergy by his own hand, at the altar, to which the bishop was referring.

Suicide, by anyone, is a deep and profound tragedy. And its committal was included as a criminal act, in Canada, until it was silently removed in 1977. Death, especially by suicide, among a small somewhat close community of worshippers, is deeply injurious to their individual lives, and to the community generally. However, there is much more to the “aftermath” than a rapid-fire paint job, a clearing of all affects of the deceased, and the smoothing over and almost unspoken convention, if not actual ritual, of silence, of never uttering the name of the deceased, and of ‘moving on’ so the struggling church can and will survive.

Similarly, there is much more to the narrow rendering of the Eliot “reality” line, than the bishop allowed, in his proferred perspective of the capacity of the church to encounter and to deal with head on the truth of our painful process of growing soul. If the church itself, and that means each parish, and each clergy in each parish, is not openly committed first to a spiritual discipline that includes facing our own darknesses, hidden traumas, dysfunctional families of origin, and perhaps even the kind of easily disguised guile and self-deception that can so easily dominate one’s personal modus operandi, then how can the church even begin to consider helping those sitting in the pews, in the committees, in the choir lofts, at the organs, and in the counting rooms, to consider that process an integral to membership, and certainly to discipleship?

It is not only a refusal to discuss the implications of a clergy suicide, but also the refusal to openly acknowledge such petty tensions as power politics, on an open, conflict-resolution framework basis, using each conflict as a moment of insight, clarity, and the concomitant ‘charity’ that can come only from a process of truth-telling. In another urban parish, an honorary assistant, substituting for an incumbent clergy on leave, delivered a homily addressing the defunding of a needed social service program for handicapped adults. The parish response, to the returning clergy ran something like this: “We cannot have him criticizing a premier whom we have just recently elected.” And then, when another parishioner privately told the returning clergy, “The honorary is a leader, and you are not!” all hell broke loose. A secret kangaroo court was held to discern the wishes of the parish leadership, about the future of the honorary. Even the results (13-4, 2 abstentions) were neither conveyed, nor executed!

Silence, in Man for All Seasons, from the mouth of Cromwell: “So silence can, according to the circumstances, speak!” Does one’s silence construe consent, as Sir Thomas More says in the same play? Or is silence, in the case of the unreported kangaroo court, another way of expressing a fear of the kind of confrontation that would have ensued upon the honorary’s receipt of the news of the meeting, and the failure to honestly and openly and honourably deal with its implications.

Fear of conflict, however, is no assurance of no conflict. In fact, fear of conflict is a guarantee that there will be more conflict, the implications of which will only grow and fester and ultimately, too often, result in some “significant” episode, the cauterizing of which boil will only engage the church in another one of its cover-up campaigns. Keep the lid on, if and when a priest decides to leave a marriage after falling in love with a parishioner. Secret, private, midnight surveillance of the apartment of the parishioner, in a directed effort to prove the evil, will only lead to another act in a drama too old for the church itself even to digest and to resolve. It is the ecclesial co-dependence that shackles both the individuals in an interior conflict and  the institution itself. And, of course, for the institution, the secrecy, the avoidance of having to confront whatever it is that is emerging as an open sore, is open acknowledgement of its institutional dysfunction, immaturity, and failure to provide a healthy model of conflict resolution for the people in the pews, themselves, obviously and inevitably, engaged in their own conflicts, (emotional and spiritual and familial). Furthermore, a theology that supports, encourages, and even enmeshes with “political correctness” as the voice of authentic Christianity is itself a denial of the essence and the spirit of that theology.

Anyone who speaks directly, as I do, will inevitably encounter many forms of rejection:

from a female supervisor: “You are far too intense for me!” to which I retorted, “I am also too bald so deal with it!”

from a senior parishioner whose family founded and funded the mission: “I am here to tell you all what to do about the organ and how to do it!” to which I retorted, “I feel very strongly parented at this moment!”

from another senior parishioner: “There really was no Resurrection! To which I retorted, If not, then this whole thing is a fraud!”

From a bishop, to whom I suggested, “It is time for men to learn and to own their emotions (2000), to which he retorted in a loud and uncontrolled scream: “No! That is much to dangerous!”

From a canon to the ordinary: I want you to meet with the bishop. When I asked, “Why?” he replied, “I have been trying to get through to him for nine years, and maybe you might be able to get through.” And then, to my shock, upon entering the meeting I learned that the canon had not informed the bishop that he had called the meeting, and the bishop was misled into believing that I had asked for the meeting.

From another supervisor, upon reading my report on rural ministry: “You were only sucking up to the Canon to the Ordinary!” to whom I today (twenty years later) “That is both insulting and disingenuous!”

From a Canon to the Ordinary: “If you so much as even contact a legal counsel, I will see that you never work again!” To which and to whom (now deceased) I respond: “If you and the church are so fearful of actually confronting the whole of reality, in my or any other’s situation, and circumstance, for which you have never taken responsibility, then I am obliged to follow through on legal counsel, if not for my own defence, but for the protection of the others who follow.”

Raised in a family in which too much abuse was routinely buried under the metaphoric carpet, and in a church in which the theology of bigotry and the messianic evangelist went un-challenged and then elevated into some kind of haloed and holy dogma, I guess it will come as no surprise that my little journey into and through the “fields that we know” (“Tolkein above) would have generated a perspective and a will to declare what little corner of reality of which I am familiar. It is shared in the hope that others will not have to endure the hierarchical silence, cover-ups, failures to investigate fully, and to confront the needed truths and reality of both abandonment, and denial. It is a failure to confront that fails most of us, and the church has a significant position to embrace its failed history, in the light and the spirit of a confronting God. 

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