Saturday, August 30, 2014

7th EPISTLE TO THE NEVADANS

                     Do We Have Anything Of Interest To Say?

         Three things recently collided in my head and left me with a disturbing concern about 21st Century churches. But let me preface this by saying my concern arises in the midst of an encouraging context. Episcopal congregations in Nevada that had once abandoned the project of education and formation are actively engaging that work again. Congregations large and small, urban and rural are waist deep in the 2nd Mark of Mission, teaching and nurturing new believers. Here as elsewhere, the congregations that offer education strongly tend to have better worship attendance, stewardship, and community outreach. The Episcopal Church has made a powerful commitment to education with the Covenant for Adult Formation and Lifelong Learning. http://www.episcopalchurch.org/page/adult-formation-lifelong-learning But while much of the Church is abuzz with learning, that very enthusiasm casts in sharp relief those congregations that have lost the faith that we have anything distinctive, helpful, or interesting to say.

         The event that set off my concern was asking a group of Church leaders what they thought a person might need to know in order to live the Christian life. They had various good ideas about the how of Christian education but when it came to what we need to teach, the content of a core curriculum, they were stumped. I might have hoped they would say the life and teachings of Jesus, Holy Scripture, the Creeds, the rituals, the examples of the saints, the story of salvation, moral teachings about theological and cardinal virtues, the stuff that makes us who we are. But none of them named anything that anyone needed to actually know in order to practice Christianity well. These are not marginal Church attenders. They are our best and our brightest. I mean this as no criticism of those Church leaders, but as a question about what has happened to the Anglican ethos that our best and brightest do not have a sense that the faith has a core content to be imparted. This is so foreign to the thinking Episcopal Church I have long known and loved. It is so foreign to the Church where one of 10 reasons to join it is “you don’t have to check your mind at the door.”

         Once I might have jumped to the conclusion that this rejection of catechesis per se was a uniquely Nevada problem – that it reflected the anti-academic/ anti-intellectual culture of our state. But the other thing already rolling around in my consciousness told me in no uncertain terms that the Nevada Church leaders were far from alone. I had just been reading Huston Smith’s Beyond The Post Modern Mind. Smith offers a broad brush sweeping intellectual/ theological history of Western Civilization moving from the Christian View of a personal relational reality in which ultimate values were knowable through reason and revelation from a personal God but the material world was a puzzlement; to the Modern View in which the material world was perfectly knowable and controllable through science but anything not scientifically provable was sheer fantasy; to the Post Modern View in which nothing either spiritual or material is really knowable, provable, sayable, or meaningful, and to say anything at all is suspect as it might repress something someone else might be silently thinking.

What could Christians say in the Post-Modern World View? According to Smith, not much. Basically we were reduced to: “We don’t actually know anything. But we hope it’s going to be alright somehow and we invite you to hold our hand while we hope and act as if this whole human project might mean something even though we haven’t a clue what it is.” Just so, our Church leaders thought personal relationships and the fellowship of Church (holding our hand) were important to help people feel better, but they didn’t have a clear sense that there is anything important we have to say.

Smith’s basic point would have been intuitively obvious to most of the people who have ever lived, but for us it is a controversial counter-cultural claim. The point: we need a worldview. Without a worldview that says something about right and wrong, true and false, meaningful and meaningless, we have no roadmap. We are lost in the Post Modern maze. That is why it is so important for us to think, to speak, and to ask questions about the big issues. For thousands of years, we have dared to speak albeit humbly about great things. To despair of speaking is to despair of encountering. Such despair makes our world small and desperate. To live effectively in the world one needs a frame of reference, a worldview. Such a worldview, Smith says, can be expressed in narratives (hence people need to know the great stories), but only up to a point. Conflicting narratives have to be reconciled by philosophy and theology.

Post Modernity’s radical skepticism has rejected both narrative and the right of theology or philosophy to say anything about the source, foundation, destiny, or meaning of life. It rejects these sources of truth in order to unfetter the creative individual. Radical skepticism, however, has not produced a burst of creative individual genius but rather a splitting of the world into two mobs: one of unthinking nihilistic despair and another mob of unthinking fundamentalist absolutism. We do need to get on beyond the postmodern mind and we need to get beyond it right away because it is causing intolerable wrongs. Christians cannot help us get beyond Post Modernity by placing our hands over our mouths and inviting people to coffee hour.

The third thing rolling about in my mind and banging up against our doubt that we have anything to say is a recent blockbuster of a book by my favorite systematic theologian, David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss. I love this book, book but don’t recommend it to anyone who doesn’t speak the language of academic philosophy and metaphysics. It’s a jargon and Hart speaks it with a razor sharp aggressive polemical wit. First, he demonstrates that the philosophical assumptions of both modernity and post modernity are themselves irrational leaps of faith. Noting Heisenberg’s insight that “The answers nature gives us depend on the questions we ask,” he shows that the scientific challenges to faith are for the most part a dogmatic and irrational refusal of philosophical materialists to think outside their own arbitrarily constructed box.

For example, some brain scientists observe that thoughts about God correspond to neurological activities in the brain. They then make the irrational leap to conclude that those neurological activities cause the thoughts and God does not actually exist. Even the arch atheist David Hume knew that such assertions are an utterly subjective speculation posing as fact. In all likelihood the scientists’ observations and interpretations correspond to chemical processes in their brains, which by their own reasoning means their observations and interpretations are fantasy. Nothing new in this. Kant told us about it in the 18th Century.

Hart goes on to argue convincingly that great thinkers like Plato and Kant have not been proven wrong by subsequent science or philosophy but rather they are simply “out of fashion.” The Post Modern worldview has not been shown superior to earlier beliefs. It is merely the prevailing fashion.

But the prevailing fashion is not working. It has nothing to say to Ferguson, Missouri about justice and reconciliation (words that Postmodernity renders as nullities). It has nothing to say about tolerance and the sacredness of human life and dignity to Iraq, Syria, or Gaza.

The Christian worldview, on the other hand, has a lot to say about justice and reconciliation. The whole complex image of atonement sustains our defined mission “to reconcile all people to God and to each other in Christ.” We have a lot to say about the sacredness of human life and dignity coming from our doctrines of Creation and Incarnation. “O God who wonderfully created and yet more wonderfully restored the dignity of humankind . . . . .” At a minimum the Christian worldview deserves to be known before it is
rejected. But if people are going to know it, someone has to teach it.

Smith makes a cogent case for having a worldview. He favors one in sync with the broad truths he calls “The Perennial Philosophy” of which Christianity is one expression. Hart makes a cogent case for the intellectual credibility of the Christian worldview. Reality clearly has “a whence and a whither” as Karl Rahner puts it. This dazzling part-chaos part-cosmos miracle into which we have been flung and are flailing about arose somehow from something and is headed somewhere. We experience truth, beauty, and goodness along the way. (Yes, I know that’s Platonist and so “out of fashion” but fashion doesn’t make truth, beauty, and goodness go away.) Can we help but imagine that there is a deepest truth, a most splendid beauty, a greatest value? (Yes I know that’s foundationalist [St. Anselm and St. Thomas Aquinas] and so “out of fashion” – but would things having a foundation be so bad? – the indigenous people of North America imagined this continent floating on a giant sea turtle – we don’t have to say what the foundation is in order to hope that there is one – but once we have imagined that there is a foundation, might we consider that it might express itself to humans in human form – and then we get to Jesus). Speaking of great things is risky. It can lead to scary stuff like faith, hope, and love.

I will grant without a hint of a quibble that only a small percentage of any congregation attends educational programs. But they are the yeast in the community loaf. Galatians 5:9; Matthew 13:33. In The Heart Of The Parish: A Theology Of The Remnant, Martin Thornton argued that clergy and other key leaders would do the church and the world more good by focusing their energy on building up that core group, the heart of the parish, so that they can serve the rest of the congregation and the world outside. Instead we clergy tend to invest most of our time and energy in the folks at the edge of the community who are more apt to be in crisis. Certainly it is crucial to serve the people at the edges and beyond, but that begs the question of who should do it. Thornton thought we needed to attend most closely to empowering the heart of the parish, the 20% of the people who do 80% of the work, to do ministry. We do that chiefly through education and formation programs.

I have been surprised to hear Episcopalians embrace the Post Modern premise that we should not teach people Christian beliefs because it might make them dogmatic, rigid, and arrogant. Granted the ego can warp anything, but in my experience the less people know the more dogmatic, rigid, and arrogant they are about the little they do know (or think they know.) The less educated the congregation the more bombastic it is apt to be. That may be why the radical skepticism of Post Modernity and the fanaticism of fundamentalism have come to the fore together.

Smith’s reminds us that the Perennial Philosophy sets all its truth claims in the context of reverent mystery for the Unknowable. The greatest Christian theologians (e.g., Karl Rahner) maintain that we cannot say anything about God with certainty. We can only use metaphorical language, like the Creeds, to point toward God. At least since the 6th Century (Dionysius the Aereopagite) we have admitted that everything we say about God is more wrong than it is right. So education, if it is honest, does not produce dogmatism, arrogance, and rigidity – quite the opposite. It promotes curiosity, humility, and tolerance.

While we stand silent about Christian belief, less progressive voices speak all too loudly and so define “Christian” in ways that are unhelpful. When I discovered the Episcopal Church, I wanted to embrace it, but there was a huge barrier. The doctrine of substitutionary atonement made no sense to me at all. It was morally and spiritually repugnant. But the Christianity I had known up to then made substitutionary atonement the cornerstone of faith. A priest explained that my roadblock doctrine had not been taught for the first 1000 years of Christianity and that there were multiple other salvific interpretations of the cross. That opened the door for me. But if we do not teach Christian beliefs, will there be anyone to open that door for future seekers as that priest opened the door for me?

I suspect the real reason we do not teach in our churches is that we do not feel competent to do so. But we do not have to be great Bible scholars, systematic theologians, or church historians to introduce Christianity 101. There are plenty of excellent resources that make it imminently do-able. These are a few suggested by Julia McCray Goldsmith of the Diocese of California:

Welcome Series – 8 series introducing Anglican spirituality, the Bible, Episcopal worship -- the real basics. https://www.churchpublishing.org/products/index.cfm?fuseaction=productTag&tagID=22&categoryID=302

         Animate – 3 series on faith, scripture, & practice. http://wearesparkhouse.org/adults/
                 

         Pro/Claim – a study based on the Baptismal Vows. http://www.diocal.org/discipleship/adults/proclaim
        
         Just Faith – 5 series connecting faith to action. http://justfaith.org/programs/

         N T Wright For Everyone – New Testament book-by-book series. Solid stuff compared to the less reliable speculation that is so popular and likely to mislead. http://www.ivpress.com/cgi-ivpress/book.pl/code=2180

        
Teaching the core of the faith can be as simple as playing a video then inviting people to talk about it out of their own thoughts, feelings, and experiences. We can stir each other’s hearts and minds to deeper wisdom and richer life.

         “Almighty God, the foundation of all wisdom:
         Enlighten by your Holy Spirit those who teach and those
         who learn, that, rejoicing in the knowledge of your truth,
         they may worship you and serve you from generation
         to generation . . . .” BCP 261

         “God of all wisdom and knowledge, give your blessing
         and guidance to those who teach in your Church, that
         by word and example they may lead those whom they
         teach to the knowledge and love of you .  . . “ BOS 182





Saturday, August 9, 2014

6th EPISTLE TO THE NEVADANS

            Is The Episcopal Church Possible Today?

         The Conga Line. I will tell you what I mean by “the Episcopal Church” and why it is a real question as to whether we have any place in the 21st Century. But first we need to consider why our existence matters. This story may not say it all, but it suggests a lot to those who can set aside the assumptions about religion grounded in how we adapted Anglicanism to suit the tastes of Boomers and Gen-Exers over these past 40 years.

         Around 1990 (give or take), an Episcopal congregation in San Francisco began bold new innovations to their ritual. Some were grounded in practices of the Early Church, but others suited the tastes of young people a quarter century ago. One such innovation was the conga line. The people danced their way out of the liturgy of the word into the liturgy of the table. As happens in our culture, especially in our church, the bold new innovation either disappears and is forgotten or it meets another curious fate: it becomes fashionable. I pass no judgment on the use of the conga line then. My point is what happens when it becomes fasionable.

         In one diocese this year, a diocese we might think of as rather conservative, the bishop and youth minister decided to make the diocesan convention more engaging to the youth. Their plan: a conga line at Communion. They were giddy with the excitement of how cool the youth would find this, how delighted the youth would be with their boldness in doing what had been going on in San Francisco for 25 years now. But that was before EYE (Episcopal Youth Event) 2014.

         That diocese sent a strong youth delegation to the Episcopal Youth Event in Philadelphia. The mission-focused event was a huge success. The worship had a few unfortunate snags from my standpoint – like passing the plate for the offering during the final half of the Eucharistic prayer on one occasion – but on the whole it was high energy, moving, powerful, engaging worship – and, after all, the glitches were probably grating to only this 64 year old curmudgeon from a seminary notoriously picky when it comes to ritual. But, to the point: the adult planners of EYE were of a mind with the conservative diocese – cool worship for cool young people needs a conga line so a conga line we had.

Near the end of the week, the diocesan youth minister asked her teens what had been the best part of EYE and what was the worst. There were almost as many contenders for the best thing as there were teens. But they all agreed on what was worst: the conga line. At the moment when they had wanted to meditatively and reflectively prepare to meet God, their prayer was interrupted by a self-conscious poser attempt at coolness. The conga line may have rocked the world of Gen-X in 1990 – but not teens in 2014.

The Episcopal Church. We are an oddity in the Christian world by the very way we define ourselves – not by different answers from other denominations, but by different questions. Since the 2nd Century A.D. Anglican Christianity had a distinctive style of worship and spiritual practice. It was never set over in opposition to the rest of Christianity. It was just our way, our part of the Body of Christ.

In the 16th Century, Western Christianity splintered into multiple factions, each defining itself over against the others by fine points of doctrine. The Lutherans had the Augsburg Confession (350 pages); the Calvinists, the Westminster Confession (550 pages); etc. Roman Catholicism had previously entertained a variety of doctrines but in response to the Reformation, began to tie down the party line at the Council of Trent so they too could be defined by their doctrines.

Anglicanism waffled briefly but after the Elizabethan Settlement simply declined to define ourselves very tightly by doctrines. We later came up with 39 Articles (2 pages) so we could talk with our ecumenical friends, but even those Articles failed to grab our imagination or hold our allegiance. We said instead, “This is how we pray” and “praying shapes believing.” “Come pray with us, in the old ways, the Apostolic ways, and over time your beliefs will grow and deepen and become more refined.” Two people praying in the same pew may hold very different doctrinal opinions, but they can still pray together, each interpreting the prayer in her own way. They can talk through their differences of belief in a class or just keep their opinions to themselves. We are a people of diverse opinions united by Common Prayer.

Common Prayer held us together while we differed over all manner of things – evolution versus creation; racial issues; support for versus opposition to controversial wars; etc. etc. People who disagreed passionately about politics and even religion knelt together, confessed their sins together, were absolved together, and blessed each other with “the peace of the Lord.”

In addition to Common Prayer, there was also a secondary trait that defined us: the way we made our decisions. It was a question of authority – who got to make the decisions. The struggle for authority reared its head in Western Christianity early and often. Look at the Epistles of Paul, Clement of Rome, and Ignatius of Antioch. Christians have always been a bit headstrong. It came to a crisis as a fight between clergy authority and lay authority in “the Investiture Controversy” of the 11th Century. In a dramatic showdown between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, the clergy won and ran the culture for 500 years – but never without rumbling from the lay authorities (kings, princes, lords). The fight between Archbishop Thomas Beckett and King Henry II is a classic example. The melodrama around Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon was not about sex as it seems in the movies. It was about the limits of clergy authority and the autonomy of national churches.

The English Reformation was about authority more than anything else. The resolution was a notion that has come up again this year as the Episcopal Church undertakes restructuring – “Shared Governance.” Some authority was vested in clerical authority; other authority was reserved to lay authority; and a lot of things require the concurrence of both clergy and laity. Take for example the election of a bishop. In order to elect a bishop at a diocesan convention, the same candidate must receive over 50% of the votes of the Order of the Clergy and the Order of the Laity on the same ballot. The authority of clergy and the authority of the laity do two things: 1. Obviously, they check and balance each other so that one order does not impose its will overmuch on the other; but also 2. (less obviously but just as importantly), they inform each other, teach each other, refine each other, keep a lively conversation going.

The authority of clergy and laity are organized this way at each level – rector & vestry in the parish; bishop & Standing Committee/ Convention in the diocese; House of Bishops & House of Deputies at General Convention. (The laity are reinforced by priests and deacons at the diocesan and Gen Con levels to keep a special eye on bishops – whom we don’t want to inflate with too much power lest they run amok.) This dialectic, this conversation, of laity and clergy is not as apparent on a Sunday morning as our Common Prayer, but it is also intrinsic to our character and it is distinctive among Christian denominations.

Romantic Individualism And Common Prayer. Over against Common Prayer and Shared Governance, there is a prevailing force in our culture. That is to say it has been prevailing for the past half century and it has roots going back to the early 19th Century. It is the elevation of the autonomous individual over all other sources of truth or judgment of right. Particularly in the domain of religion, where things cannot be proven by our one universally accepted authority – the scientific experiment – our culture values radical subjectivity. “I believe in the God of my creation and worship that God in the way that expresses my feelings. My religion is how I express my subjective beliefs, which are of my choosing.”

This poses an obvious problem for Prayer Book Spirituality, i.e., the practice of Common Prayer. Priests take ordination vows to be loyal to the “worship of the Episcopal Church.” But that is hard to do in an era whose theme song could be “I did it my way.” If the priest does not adhere to the Church’s practice of Common Prayer, then either the priest leads the congregation into his or her own subjectivity or tailors the worship to suit the subjectivity of the most influential members. It becomes a problematic power dynamic.

The Book of Common Prayer does not tie down every detail of worship. It leaves options and room for innovation and addition, but it does have a basic structure. It is like a tennis court with bounds and a net. That is what sets us apart from the “Free Church” traditions in which worship has no prescribed form. If one goes to a particular UCC (Congregationalist) Church for example, worship may follow a completely different form and style from another UCC Church. In the Free Church tradition, each congregation goes its own way like the divorcing members of Fleetwood Mack.

I do not mean to criticize the Free Church tradition. Most Christian denominations are of that form. The question I am asking is this: if the Episcopal Church gives up the spirituality that defines us, is there any reason for us to exist as part of the Body of Christ? If we are not defined as a denomination by our fidelity to Common Prayer, then that raises the pressure considerably for us to find a new way to define ourselves – that is, by some common opinion.

But here’s where the situation goes from troubling to deeply disturbing. It is highly unlikely in our era of Romantic Individualism that we can come to a common theological opinion. People today, even in doctrinally defined churches, do not personally identify with their theological beliefs. They identify instead with their political ideologies. In fact, we live in a society that is increasingly unable to address the issues that confront us – environmental issues; immigration policy; income inequality; the influence of money in elections and the consequences for government, etc. – because we are so identified with our political opinions that we cannot reason with each other or reach compromises without fear of losing our souls, which we have come to think of as fused with our politics.

The hope for holding together a society so politically divided is people coming together in prayer to be shaped together, formed together, challenged together and so transformed. In a world where people only gather for worship with those who share their political and social beliefs, there is no opportunity for transformation. But where we do come together, prayer that does not express what we already feel, but rather Common Prayer, the liturgy and those who are faithful to it can change us. Do we dare to be changed?

A story: Shortly after the Civil War in Virginia, a Black man showed up at an Episcopal Church. That was not new. But this time he did not sit in the balcony. When the invitation to receive Communion was extended, he went up to the altar rail and received. The white 1866 Virginia congregation did not know what to do. But from the back of the Church, the grey bearded senior warden walked up the aisle, knelt at the rail, and received the sacrament. Perhaps because the Senior Warden was Robert E. Lee, the rest of the congregation received the sacrament as well. The liturgy did not express what they believed. It challenged what they believed and changed them. It built a bridge they had not imagined. Do we dare to be changed? Do we dare to build bridges to people with whom we do not agree? If you want to consider this issue presented far more compellingly than I can, especially here in print, I urge you to watch Bishop Michael Curry’s explanation of the unifying power of the Eucharist in this short video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=USOMZpGheBc

This ancient ritual we have inherited as our spiritual legacy is not an arbitrary construct. It contains truths that cannot be conveyed directly. It touches us at levels we cannot understand. Sometimes we feel moved emotionally as in Evangelical or Pentecostal worship. But other times the movement is at a level deeper than emotions, as in Buddhist meditation. Common Prayer does not express what we already feel or recite opinions we already hold. It calls us into truths that are new to us as individuals but older by far than humanity.

         Romantic Individualism And Shared Governance. Romantic individualism is at a minimum suspicious of, usually downright opposed to, any authority other than the subjective will of the individual constrained only by the duty not to interfere with the subjective will of another individual. That works quite well for dancing depending on what kind of dancing is being done on the particular dance floor. It might not work so well if folks are square dancing, line dancing, or waltzing. It also would not work so well for a football team. Some things can be accomplished only by people working together and that necessitates the group exercising some sort of authority.

         Our system is unusually democratic. Clergy have authority over a very limited set of decisions. That is based on their training, which qualifies them to make those decisions wisely and in keeping with the tradition and teachings of the Church. Most of what happens in Church is governed by democratically elected lay people. Authority in the Episcopal Church is exercised collaboratively because working together is how we learn and grow.

         But again Romantic Individualism poses a problem. During the course of setting out a path to restructuring the Episcopal Church, Bishop Katharine and the President of the House of Bishops both spoke of a plan for “Shared Governance.” They were rather surprised to hear responses objecting to “governance” at all, shared or not, regardless of who did it.

         A story: This year I made an appointment that is in my canonical authority to make. But I did not just haul off and do it. The vestry asked me to do it by an overwhelming majority vote. Still I invited the congregation to offer their guidance. Again the overwhelming majority of the congregation joined the vestry in asking me to do the same thing. But some members of the congregation still objected to my making the appointment. It was an oppressive exercise of power.

         Romantic Individualism makes it impossible to function as a group even when the group has high level of consensus, perhaps especially when the group has a high level of consensus. The Romantic Individualist wants his way regardless of any authority structures, even the authority of the majority of the group even on a decision about the course of the group.

         So here is the question: are we willing to be part of a community if that means bending our will so we can accomplish things together? Does bending our will diminish us, make us less – or are we something larger than our will, so that giving up our will might be a way to grow. Might submission to the God’s Church, the Body of Christ, be an exercise in submitting to God? And might submitting to God be how we most genuinely pray, “Thy kingdom come”?

         I am not sure the Episcopal Church is possible in an era of Romantic Individualism. But it may well be that Romantic Individualism makes the Episcopal Church necessary. Romantic Individualism may be the disease for which the Church is the cure. Christianity along with Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and most of the name brand world religions, regards our ego, our self-will, as the problem to be overcome through religious practice. “I have become a great problem to myself,” St. Augustine said, explaining his decision to embrace Christianity. To choose Christ was to give himself away. Paul said, “Have the same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus, who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant . . . . . Do nothing from ambition or conceit but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” (Philippians)  “Be filled with the Spirit . . . submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5: 18-21)

         If Christian spirituality is right that the path to joy lies through surrender of the ego-will (often called “the flesh” by Paul), then submitting to the reasonable and moral decisions of people authorized to make those decisions is an essential spiritual practice. If we approach our faith that way, then we do not go to Church to get our way. Quite the opposite. Such a spirituality would even give money to the congregation trusting the vestry to spend it rightly rather than designating gifts so as to hang on to the power.

         Do you see that the issue is the same in governance and prayer? It is the choice between the assertion of self and the surrender of self. So is the Episcopal Church, with its Common Payer and Shared Governance, possible in our time?

         Conclusion: Tom Wolfe dubbed people my age “the Me Generation” because we were so unabashedly self-involved. I am not sure those just a bit younger are much less self-involved. For us, Romantic Individualism is an implicit assumption about what makes for a good life. To us, the Episcopal Church is naturally a hard sell, but it may be a necessary one. Just as we have had a particular need for 12-step programs to free our souls from the chemical addictions we acquired while expressing ourselves, we need help getting free from addiction to self-will. Is the Episcopal Church possible for us? Gabriel told Mary, “With God all things are possible.”

         But the Millennial Generation is a whole new ball game. They are looking for mission, hungry for community, and in many cases lean toward a contemplative mystical ritual such as the Book of Common Prayer as opposed to the more exuberantly expressive worship of the renewal movement so loved by my generation. I am thinking of those young people who did not like the conga line to the altar rail one little bit. It may just be that this generation, which is so commonly said to have left the Church, is the very generation for whom the Episcopal Church, Common Prayer, and Shared Governance is a perfect fit.


         My concern is whether the Episcopal Church, as we know it will be here for them. I am not concerned that we will close our doors. I am concerned that we will abandon Common Prayer and Shared Governance caving to Romantic Individualism. My hope is that we will not. My hope is that we will keep the porch light on for today’s young people who will be looking for us tomorrow night.

Monday, July 21, 2014

A PRIMER ON BEING

     Humanistic psychology aims to stir people into living out (“actualizing”) their full humanity, being fully themselves. You hear its echoes even in ads for the armed forces: “Be all that you can be.” I want to explore that “be.” This is our business as Christians because in the New Testament, “salvation” isn’t just -- or even primarily -- about pardon. It’s about becoming “whole” – being fully yourself, being “all that you can be.” When Jesus had his funny miscommunicating dialogue with Nicodemus, as they talked past each other, Jesus said you must “be born anathon.” That word could mean several things, but the only other time it is used in the New Testament, it clearly means from top to bottom, all the way. You must be born all the way. “Be all that you can be.”

     Humanistic psychology has its roots in existential psychology. Big names there: Rollo May and Erich Fromm. They hoped to stir people into living out their full humanity. They called that kind of living “being.” That’s because their thought is rooted in a slightly older set of writings, existential philosophy. Big names: Heidegger, Jaspers, Sartre, Camus – some of whom are comfortable with using the word “God” to describe the core of Reality; some, not. While you can’t tie down existentialism to a unified doctrine, existentialists are generally concerned with Being versus Nothingness. This takes us back to St. Thomas Aquinas who centuries earlier had described God as the Being of all beings – “the suchness of things,” Meister Eckhart called it.

     The term “human being” suggests that there is a distinctive way we humans are (be). When a person is authentically himself or herself, that person is living out of that human being quality, which is rooted in Being itself. Paul Tillich was the greatest 20th Century existential theologian arguing that God is “the Ground of Being” and we find our authentic lives when we are rooted in God. But he was not alone by a long shot. Even his greatest theological adversary, Karl Barth, held that God is Being and that the evils and failures of creation are the work of “das Nachtige (the nothingness).” Nothingness is the nature of inauthentic living because inauthentic living is futile. It is action that comes to nothing.

     Sometimes one can understand something better to consider its opposite. Being has two opposites – having and doing. Existential psychoanalyst Erich Fromm focused on the pathology of having instead of being. Fromm wrote in his book, To Have Or To Be that Western culture had gone off track, promising happiness through material possessions, but that the life of getting, spending, having, and clutching had failed to make us happy. It had drawn us away from authentic experience. As Wordsworth put over a century before, when this shift in culture was still new,

         “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers.
          Little we see in nature that is ours.”

     It’s like Citizen Kane dying with the word “Rosebud,” the name of his boyhood sled, on his lips He had built an empire but died longing for the simple innocent humanity he had lost along the way. Fromm said our obsession with acquiring and retaining things had cut us off from our real selves, cut us off like Citizen Kane, from our humanity, reduced us to jumping through economic hoops. It does not make us happy because in the end it is futile. It leads to nothing. That’s why it is not “being.” And living that way is not the life of human beings.

      But Fromm said there is another way. It is possible to live deeply and happily
through participation in the whole dance of humanity. He called that experience “being” and said we develop the capacity for being -- the capacity for life -- through letting go of possessions in order to connect with each other.

         It isn’t that greed and stinginess are morally wrong. It isn’t that anxiety about having what we want or even need is neurotic or even unreasonable. It’s that our attachment to “having” and the things we “have” cuts us off from each other, from the dance of life, and even from our deep selves. In Thomas Dumm’s recent book, Loneliness As A Way Of Life, he devotes one chapter to an interpretation of The Death of a Salesman. He describes Willy Loman as lonely, alienated -- cut off from himself -- trapped in the ceaseless struggle to acquire, to succeed by amassing possessions, to have, have, have – because the alternative to having is to be had. We trust owning things to insure our well-being and our freedom.  We want to be people “of independent means.” Dumm’s point (and perhaps Arthur Miller’s) is that this is an empty life. Willy finally paid off his house, but the day he did he died, and the house was empty of himself. Our lives, our bodies, our hearts become empty. We have given ourselves away to nothing instead of Being, which is what Thomas Aquinas called God.

         All true, but Fromm’s and Dumm’s focus on the existential suffocation of attachment to material things is the tip of an iceberg. It is our culture’s most pronounced way of acting out a deeper problem, and more pervasive form of “having” instead of “being.” Gabriel Marcel was one of the major voices of Roman Catholic Nouveau Teologie, in the 1940s and 1950s. In his book, Being And Having, Marcel says the problem isn’t just material possessions. It’s how we relate to everything. It’s treating the world, even our own bodies and ideas,
as something we can watch, dominate, possess, manipulate.

         That’s what Gabriel Marcel means by “having.” We can have our families as well as having our homes. We can possess a reputation and use it as an asset to get more power or whatever other thing we want to have. So the vegan yoga-practicing purist in patched jeans can be just as caught up in having his spirituality as the investor is in having his mutual fund. “Having” is about control and credentials.

We acquire in order to invest our acquisition in order to acquire more. J. Paul Getty was, in his day, the richest man in the world. Near the end of Getty’s life, a journalist asked him how much more money he needed. “How much is enough?” the journalist asked, and Getty answered, “A little more. A little more.” He would live and die in pursuit of “a little more” – always investing rather than enjoying. Willy Loman is Willy Loman no matter how large or small the numbers that measure his assets may be, and no matter whether the assets are wealth, power, fame, popularity, or any abstract value.

     The problem with “having,” according to Marcel, is that we stand back one step removed from everything, using it instead of celebrating it. The opposite of “having” is what Fromm and Marcel call “being.” It’s the real life that comes from participation, from joining the dance. It happens when we give ourselves away to something or someone larger. Marcel of course understood being as derived from Being. It’s a God thing.

         Now let me clarify the significance of the issue of having possessions in light of the larger issue of having as a way of relating to life in general. In our culture, as Fromm rightly says, having possessions is the culturally prescribed way of seeking well-being. That makes having possessions the key. How we relate to possessions shapes, for good or for ill, how we relate to each other, to our environment and experiences, even how we relate to ourselves. So placing Fromm’s issue in the context of Marcel’s larger issue does not downgrade the significance of the problem Fromm identifies or the magnitude of the opportunity for genuine joy that Fromm offers us. Quite the opposite, Marcel magnifies Fromm.

         What Fromm says about possessions and happiness is obvious to anyone. But recently there has been a whole movement called happynomics to study the relationship between wealth and happiness. Again the results are no-brainers. If people are in truly dire straits, homeless, without the basic necessities for survival, they tend to be unhappy. If they acquire the basics for security, they are considerably happier. But after that, added possessions do not produce added happiness, sometimes the opposite. We all see this. We know it. What interests me is the reactivity of some economists. It is as if happynomics was a frontal assault on their prime article of faith – human beings pursue happiness through financial self-interest. Adam Smith said it. Karl Marx believed it. So it must be true. We do in fact live by that truth, but that’s the problem – it isn’t working. Fromm and Marcel invite us to step off the economic hamster wheel to stroll through real life meeting real people in a real way – being. Someone else said that awhile back – he even did it -- Jesus.

         The fundamental issue here is relating to reality instead of exploiting it. In fact reality is highly resistant to exploitation, which is why our attempts to exploit it do not ultimately succeed. What’s more, the elements of reality that can be extracted through exploitation do not satisfy. It is as if we are missing a particular nutrient so we keep eating more and more food to satisfy that need but the food we eat does not contain the nutrient we crave. The addiction, compulsion, violence, anxiety, and despair we see around us and all to often experience ourselves arise from this basic error in how we live.

         The other opposite to “being” is “doing.” But just as “having” is a bit tricky because it is a way of relating rather than the simple act of possessing something, “doing” is tricky too and is often misunderstood. It is something subtler than activity.

         The idea that “doing” is problematic goes back at least to 19th Century German sociologist Max Weber’s critique of Protestantism and Capitalism as objectifying people, making them into tools of production instead of unique persons valuable in their own right. But the real deconstruction of “doing” came from Joseph Pieper, a German Catholic philosopher who, alongside Hannah Arendt, provided the definitive cultural explanation for what went wrong in Germany leading to the Nazi madness. His book was Leisure: The Basis Of Culture. Pieper argued that utilitarianism had reduced people to cogs in a machine, dehumanized them, made them means to an end in contravention of Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant’s fundamental principle: never treat a rational agent (a person) as a means to an end but always as an end unto himself or herself. Utilitarianism made us means of production. In the utilitarian model, a person who is not a good means to an end is worthless. That leads to horrific treatment of some people and anxiety for us all.

         “Utilitarianism” here is not precisely the same thing that was meant by English Utilitarian thinkers like John Stuart Mill who wanted to measure ethics by the mathematical standard of the greatest good for the greatest number. It is more broadly the idea that value lies in utility. People are valuable for what they do for the larger project – the state, the market, the church, whoever is doing the evaluating. So people set out to validate themselves, to earn their right to occupy space on this earth, by doing something worthwhile.

         I was once accosted by a homeless crazy man on a New York City street. He learned I was a seminarian and demanded that I justify my right to be part of society when I didn’t actually produce anything. At the end of the day I had manufactured no widgets to be used in some product. Feeling sheepish about my own worthlessness, I admitted I had doubts about whether I was any good to anyone. But it turned out he was testing me and I had failed big time.  He called me a fascist and said it was people like me who put people like him in the gas ovens in Germany. Pretty devastating – because I knew he was right.  I had succumbed to the prevailing utilitarianism of our culture, which dehumanizes us all, puts us through our paces for the good of the machine, and is ready to isolate if it cannot eliminate the non-producers. Think Ayn Rand and her scary disciples.

         Problematic “doing” is the project of using activity to validate ourselves. Henry Nouwen famously said that in our frenetic activism we are at risk of devolving into “human doings” instead of “human beings.” We feel that we must do something to earn our right to be here. Insecurity about our own worth drives us to constant striving and the striving has a tone of desperation about it.

         But I believe Nouwen is sometimes misread as equating inaction with spiritual virtue and action as a fall from grace. I don’t think that is what he was saying. His point about the problem with frenetic striving is balanced by Parker Palmer’s book, The Active Life: A Spirituality Of Work. Creativity, and Caring. “Being” is engaged with reality. It participates. An isolated quietude is as cut off from reality as a mindless busy-ness. The problem of “doing” is not activity per se, but the drivenness of self-validation.

         Being is a mix of action and inaction. It is living and moving, breathing and praying, watching and waiting. Being is not simple. It is rich, complex, and varied. Being is still and knows that God is God. Being goes on journeys and adventures. It does all these things and more, does them gracefully and graciously because it is buoyed by grace. Being is of God, the God “in whom we live and move and have our being.” Acts 17:28.

         Can we then say something simple and direct about how to practice the art of being? This is by no means a comprehensive prescription. It is just a few pointers for how to start:

1.    Hold all possessions as steward, treating what you have as something you look forward to giving away, giving to other people, giving back to God – which is the same thing – possessions as opportunities for giving, not clutching.
2.    Act in service and friendship – doing something because it is kind or generous, not because it floats your boat or because you will get credit for it.
3.    Pray. Pray in a way that entrusts your own well-being and the well-being of others to God. Be still and notice that reality is miraculously present investing your hope in the source of reality.

        When we give things away, it set us free from the bonds of having. When we genuinely serve others it sets us free from the drivenness of doing for our own validation. When we pray, we sink into the grace of being as we remember and acknowledge the ground on which we stand, what Karl Rahner called “the whence and the whither” of everything.