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Monday, August 15, 2022

Can the church waken to its own enantiadromia?

 Several times, in this space, the question of faith in God, and the relationship between the institutional church and human faith, have had many words and thoughts and reflections dedicated to the river of their equations.

The decline of the Christian church, in both numbers of seats in pews and dollars in coffers, has been predicted, forecast and in some cases declared for several years. There are numerous pieces written about the ‘impossibility of the role of clergy’ in a culture in which human emotional, spiritual and social needs have, like their associated climate threat numbers, gone through the roof. Cor-relation, rather than causation is a minimal connection, and there are multiple factors in the ‘burn-out’ of both the clergy and the ecclesial institution.

While focussing on the social demands of parishioners, such as feeling abandoned if the clergy does not check in, or feeling anxious if and loved one falls ill or dies, or feeling especially depressed while facing a divorce, a job loss, an unexpected health crisis, the death of a child, or any one or more of a plethora of crises, those individual crises are much more than social ‘needs’. They are personal, existential often, and can and often do become triggers for serious long-term fragility, including psychic breakdown. And, in many cases, the clergy is expected to provide presence as a bottom-line type of service and then to assess the degree of trauma being experienced with a view to possible referral to another professional.

Rescuing alcoholics, those dependent on drugs both illicit and prescribed, and individuals whose early lives have been flooded with trauma, is a spectre of potential human issues that stretch beyond the basic needs of ‘stopping the pain’ and ‘reforming’ the daily life and habits of the individual. And, given the convergence of social and cultural attitudes, values and vocabulary, with the ideals, hopes, aspirations and beliefs of the church, those practicing at the intersection of those forces is tasked with discerning an appropriate ‘intervention time’ and both strategy and tactic. Such interventions too often require immediate crisis response, even after the paramedic and medical professions have been contacted and have begun their work.

And the difference between the prospect of an intervention by a clergy, known commonly as a ‘pastoral intervention’ is quite different from what is known as a psychiatric or psychological intervention. A clergy might begin with a silent or shared prayer, invoking words like trust, and love and a prospect of God’s love in a form and face and image that might be accessible to the person in crisis. Often, a person in such a state will utter words like, “Why is God doing this to me? I have tried to live a good life and have worked very hard, and tried not to hurt others and I do not understand the meaning of this pain.”

No deeper or fuller truth has likely every crossed a human’s lips that that deep and searing question. And, being expected to ‘answer for God’ is, of course, both impossible and also ‘expected’ at some level by the person in pain. The conjunction of a life crisis and the issue of both mortality and life meaning and purpose seem, in a large number of instances to present simultaneously. And, naturally, a single conversation, prayer, even a comforting story taken from personal experience, scripture, or a relevant piece of literature, is not going to have the impact of transforming the moment and/or the life of that person into something bearable, meaningful and founded in hope.

And while there is a human inclination to ‘care’ for those in crisis, and neighbours do it every day, in the case of a devastating fire, or a criminal act, or an untimely death, there are no formulaic words or expressions that can or need to be designed and imposed on such situations. People in public crisis are so vulnerable, fragile and recognizable that almost any person encountering them would offer comfort, a blanket, a phone call, a tourniquet if needed, and even a prayer. Professional medical personnel, like doctors and nurses, on occasion have refused to help fearing the possibility of a law suit should their intervention run ‘amok’ somehow. In some jurisdictions, Good Samaritan laws have been passed by legislatures in an attempt to ward off that resistance to help.

However, being a “Good Samaritan” as a clergy, is not only taken for granted by the general public; it is a cornerstone of the job description in most churches. And, if, for example, more than a single crisis occurs in a given morning, for a clergy in a small parish will be expected to ‘attend’ to each crisis with a deep and meaningful “intervention” appropriate and instrumental and effective in the eyes of the family in stress. And, by the way, the situation first encountered must never have any visible, audible or even mood impact on the second encounter. Such a ‘porous’ psychic, emotional and cognitive failure of boundary would be held as a serious failure in professional conduct, if not by the respective families, then certainly by any supervising superior.

Crisis intervention, and management, while important, is not necessarily the prime item on a clergy’s job assignment. “Showing up”, however, or not, will be considered a sine qua non of any satisfactory job performance review. Whether or not the intervention was ‘appropriate,’ fulfilling or even commensurate with the situation is such a subjective assessment and open to multiple and conflicting views and interpretations that the clergy can, and often is, left hanging out on a limb of professional dissatisfaction, if not actual termination. And, pour the various now public-gossip iterations of the intervention into a crock-pot of fundraising attempts, building repairs, volunteer training and assignment, liturgy preparation on a weekly and even a ‘special holy day’ nature, conflict among parish lay men and women, and a church hierarchy calling for the quarterly financial report that is overdue by three week, hypothetically,….and it is not hard to envision a clergy, whether a man or a woman, who is risking frayed nerves. And those frayed nerves are jangling inside the muscles and the blood stream, into the digestive system and also into the coffee shop where it is conceivable that the clergy encounters two of the more dissatisfied parishioners having coffee.

Of course, the clergy, steeped in and schooled in some of the supporting theology of pain and suffering, from the stories of Jesus, and the time in the wilderness of angst, one of the more supportive and inspiring narratives in the New Testament, will be silently returning to those stories as an essential spiritual nourishment in the midst of the whirlwind blowing around and through the parish. And, if you think that this hypothetical ‘picture’ of a clergy’s life is exaggerated, please rest assured it is not. Of course, not every day or every week is flooded with crisis, and yet there is a tendency among church regulars to ‘take the affairs of the church’ (all of the people, the dollars the numbers and the stories that are sliding over the internet and across the coffee shop tables, and over the bank counters, and into the doctor’s offices) extremely seriously. It is as if, for many, their church affiliation is an extension of or a surrogate for one’s personal family. And guarding and protecting the reputation of that ‘church’ is one of the top priorities in their spiritual pilgrimage, as worshippers of God. Indeed, for many, they are ‘doing God’s work’ in whenever and however, and with whomever they ‘act’ as part of that church community.

In fact, those ‘obligations’ including assuming official church roles in leadership, in choir membership, in altar guild discipline and membership, in church education leadership, in social activities co-ordinating are, for many, far more important than any private reflections about how their attitudes, actions, words and relationship might reflect on the kind of theology they might be living. Collecting the collection on Sunday morning, or serving at the altar on Sunday morning and then offering a character assassination of a parishioner or a clergy on Monday in the lunch-room at work seems to be missed as a personal example of how one might connect the dots in one’s own life.

And, it is precisely this notion of “judgement” as epitomized by the Christian church’s basic theology, in which the conventional interpretation of the Garden of Eden story, finds all human beings and defines us all as ‘sinful’ and needing the grace of God to be free from that sin, that is not only a theological abstract, but a practising ritual, baked into the cake of each and every parish in which I have worked and worshipped. Judgement, perhaps euphemistically considered a preparation for the Eschaton, when a final judgement is to be levied, lies at the heart of the church’s social, psychic, cultural, historical and existential identity.

And, merged into that ‘less-than-adequate’ picture, of course, is the natural self-assessment, whether conscious or unconscious, that one is never enough. And lying at the heart of the clergy’s pain is the notion that s/he can and will never be enough, depending on the perspective of the ‘assessor’….and certainly of the ultimate assessor, God.

Only if and through a serious transformation of the church’s co-dependence on a theology that demeans and reduces both God and each of us, through our inherent evil will the church and the clergy see a radically different approach to the ordinary and inevitable pain of ageing, social discrimination, gender politics and even parish administration. And the “more abundant” life that the gospel speaks about will not be integral to the church’s basic message, as well as its modus operandi will require a shift from the formal Christian doctrine of sin and evil, to a more God-centered and human-supportive personal and organizational commitment to ‘help’ and to care for each person and family, as depicted in the Great Law of Peace of the Haudenosaunee people.

Recognizing that each of us is capable of erring, and straying from our best decisions and choices, and in most, if not all, of those instances, there are forces that are at least implicated in such choices, First Nations peoples have discerned that the ‘good mind’ is the natural state of their people and each person is capable of returning to that good mind, if only after authentic and unconditional help and care are available.

Also, from myjewishlearning.com, we read:

Judaism teaches that human beings are not basically sinful. We come into the world neither carrying the burden of sun committed by our ancestors nor tainted by it. Rather, sin, chet, is the result of our human inclinations, the yetzer, which must be properly channeled. Chet literally means something that goes astray. It is a term used in archery to indicate that an arrow has missed the target. This concept of sin suggests a straying from the correct ways, from what is good and straight. Can humans be absolved of their failure and rid themselves of their guilt? The ideology of Tom Kippur answers: Yes.

And while rabbi’s are also ‘burning out’ while attempting to address the needs and the demand of their communities, their faith has a very different attitude to that of the Christian church.

There is no deity worthy of the appellation who would condemn or would expect any disciple to conduct their relationship with that deity in the manner in which the politically and socially and reputationally perfect church is attempting to operate. And, at the heart of this perspective is the inevitable and invariable notion that such “perfectionism” generates a protective mask of hidden truth, sometimes known, in psychological terms as the Shadow, which has grown like a colony of barnacles over the church’s institutional ‘ego’ leading to an inevitable enantiodromia*. When things get to their extreme, they turn into their opposite.

And the Christian church, in order to begin the process out of this fusion of the ‘public face and the Shadow’ will start by publicly and painfully acknowledging its institutional, historical and theological Shadow.

And, in that painful and dark process, there is a light, not only for the institution, but for the people who find even more enlightenment and spiritual energy in their affiliation.

*enantiodromia—the tendency of things to change into their opposites, especially as a supposed governing principle of natural cycles and of psychological development.

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