There is a familiar story meant to illustrate the key to happiness. It is a story about heaven and hell. Hell is a great banquet hall with a scrumptious feast set on the table. All of the people are holding forks but their arms are strapped to planks. They cannot bend their elbows. Consequently, everyone is starving. Heaven is exactly like hell in every respect, except one: they people are feeding each other, so everyone is enjoying the feast very much.
The Church exists first and foremost as a place where we learn to feed each other, and – this is even harder – be fed by each other. These are not easy lessons because an unfortunate twist in human nature gets in our way.
The first congregation I served as a priest was Christ Church, Macon, Georgia. In the mid-19th century, the rector, Mr. Reese, was of the Protestant persuasion; until he spent a sabbatical studying with Bishop Onterdonk. When Mr. Reese returned to Macon, he put candles on the altar. The uproar was -- well -- uproarious. In the end, Mr. Reese and half the congregation
left Christ Church and set up shop as St. Paul’s across town. The plot line is too familiar to be of interest, except for the endnote. By the time I got to Macon in 1990, Christ Church had become the relatively high church in town, and St. Paul’s was rigidly Anglo-Presbyterian. It was enough to make one wonder what the fuss had all been about.
We were playing that same uproar game in the 1550s when Bloody Mary had the Protestant-leaning bishops burned at the stake. We were playing it in the 17th Century when Archbishop Law was torturing Puritan clerics, and then when Cromwell returned the favor by having Archbishop Laud beheaded. “When will we ever learn? When will we ever learn?”
In recent years, the battle lines have not been high versus low as often as left versus right. But it’s the same game. We heat the pot up to a level 4 or 5 conflict boil. In the Alban Institute ranking of conflicts (Speed Leas) Level 4 means someone has to leave. Level 5 means after they leave we track them down and kill them. So we ratchet up the emotionality of the argument. Then someone stomps out of the room in a melodramatic imitation of Martin Luther, as if their stomping proves their integrity. And the other side says “good riddance.”
I challenge anyone to seriously read the Epistle to the Philippians or 1st Corinthians, either one, but Philippians is more explicit. Read Philippians and explain to me how this mutual intolerance for each other accords with Apostolic Christian Faith.
I appeal to you, make my joy complete by being of a single mind, one in love. . . . Let your behavior be free of murmuring and complaining. . . . I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to come to an agreement in the Lord. And I ask Syzygus to really be partner and help them. . . . . Have the same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus, who being in the form of God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped
but humbled himself . . . .
In Galatians, Paul lists “partisan spirit” as a “work of the flesh,” which corresponds to Ego or “concupiscence,” which in Augustine equates with “original sin.” That is the twist in human nature that makes our church project of learning how to feed and be fed by each other such a challenge. From Paul’s and Augustine’s perspective our dogmatic convictions look like pretexts for the assertion of our own egocentric wills. Our certainty that we are right justifies our aggression against our brothers and sisters in Christ. High and low, left and right are all equally susceptible to that partisan spirit. Nor is partisan spirit limited to ideological controversies. I have watched churches divide up and fight over electronic versus tracker organs, wafers versus loaf bread for communion, mulch versus gravel in a corner of the lawn, paper versus Styrofoam cups at coffee hour, whether to put the nametags in the narthex or the fellowship hall – no issue is too small to divide the Body of Christ into factions.
This Fall I am watching my own seminary self-destruct as students are caught in the crossfire of power plays. We prepare for General Convention by drawing battle lines over who gets power over what piece of turf. In any fight, each side marshals arguments as to why it is “right” – when being right may not be what really matters. In fact, the very notion of being “right” is sometimes questionable.
Our church squabbles like all our other squabbles in life are mostly exercises in futility. No one really wins. We have closed fighting churches in Nevada. We have seen Churches dwindle away from conflict. One new priest went around the small town introducing himself as they new priest of the Episcopal Church there. People responded, “Are they still fighting?” Our wrangling over things, especially power, does not make us much of a light of Christ. We don’t bear witness to the Jesus
who humbled himself, taking the form of a servant, and being found in human form, humbled himself even more, even to death . . . on the cross.
Trying to get our way while proclaiming Christ Crucified doesn’t work.
The Church is a crucible in which our egos are ground up and we are over time changed to become like Jesus. That would be the Jesus, “who humbled himself taking the form of a servant.” That would be like Jesus, who we set our differences aside, so that we can be of one mind in him.
The inveterate obstacle to our becoming the Body of Christ is the power of sin to skew our view of the very nature of Truth itself.
We take the irreverent and arrogant view that truth is something we can grasp and use as a weapon to assert our wills over someone else.
The poetry of Jorge Luis Borges, however, celebrates the way ideas bounce against each other striking sparks in the darkness. To Borges, no idea in itself captures truth. Truth is the spark struck when ideas collide. More accurately, ideas are at best partial truths. But when we strike them against each other like subatomic particles in a nuclear reactor, the collision emits a light, the light of Christ..
While reading Goldstein’s very clever book, Plato At The Googleplex,
I finally got it that Plato and Socrates were not Platonists. “Platonists” were subsequent philosophers who didn’t get what Plato was on about. Socrates and Plato did not intend the things they said to add up to a comprehensive system. They were striking ideas off against each other like flint and steel.
This is the axiomatic Epistemology 101 that runs from Augustine and Dionysius the Aereopagite to Marin Heidegger and Paul Ricoeur. Once we get this, all sorts of things fall into place. Religious ideas are linguistic constructs that contain only partial truths. The big truths don’t fit inside our human minds. They sure don’t fit inside any human language and but ideas are made of language. So religious ideas are at best partial truths, but the interplay of ideas sheds a larger light.
There are several simple, straightforward, easy to understand versions of Christianity. We call them heresies. Now I like heresies. I myself am a Pelagian. But let’s be clear what heresies are. In most cases they are not false. They are partial truths pretending to be total truths. The Truth of Christ, the Truth that sets us free, cannot be reduced to an ideology.
That’s why the Hebrew Scriptures do not present a sustained religious teaching but rather, as Walter Brueggemann says, they are an ongoing argument between conflicting visions of God and human life.
That’s why Jesus didn’t come out and say, in some direct, comprehensible way, “This is how it is” – but rather spoke in zinger stories that leave us scratching our heads. If someone can read the even one Gospel – not to mention read all four – and find a coherent ideology that was taught by Jesus, please tell me what it is. But Jesus didn’t teach an ideology. Instead of propositions he gave us parables. His teaching was about jokes, stories, and unexpected gestures like foot washing that expressed people caring for people. Jesus didn’t teach an ideology. He instilled an attitude of appreciation, humor, kindness, and caring. It was an attitude that honored the poor and the outcast more than the rich and the inbred. But it wasn’t something you could reduce to a doctrine.
And speaking of doctrines, the flint and steel nature of religious ideas is why we find eight different doctrines of the atonement in two pages of Romans. The Body of Christ is, to use a phrase from contemporary business leadership, “a learning community.” We learn from the interplay of multiple viewpoints, not from monotonous groupthink conformity
Look at the disciples Jesus assembled -- Zealot rebels and Roman collaborator tax collectors, sinners and Pharisaic moralists, Greeks, Galileans, Judeans, and Canaanites. It was an assembly of the mismatched and wrongheaded, all of whom called Jesus “Rabboni,” “Teacher,” not because he told them how it was but because he made them think fresh thoughts, and see the world through new eyes.
Jesus did not lay dogmas on the backs of his followers like burdens to be borne. He challenged dogmas with his parables, so they killed him; much as Athens killed Socrates for asking too many questions.
We need the cross, the stake, and the vial of hemlock to prevent, at any cost, the interplay of ideas that will light the world up.
The concupiscent partisan spirit that drove Catholics and Protestants to torture and kill each other in centuries past is desperately anxious to keep the subatomic particles segregated in their own safe silos, lest they collide and emit the disturbing light of truth.
You see, friends, the easy harmony of like-mindedness does not challenge our egos. The easy harmony of like-mindedness will not sanctify us. When St. John of the Cross said,
God has so ordained that we be sanctified
through the frail instrumentality of each other.
he meant we are sanctified by learning to love those who are the most disturbingly different from ourselves.
We need each other. We need each other for the sake of our own sanctification. We need each other in order to be the Body of Christ.
I confess I did not always like my seminary class. Most of us did not want to be there. Most of us wanted to be at a different seminary
that was more pure from the perspective of a particular faction of the Church. The liberals wanted to be at EDS. The conservatives wanted to be at Trinity. The Anglo Catholics wanted to be at Nashotah. The Low Church folks wanted to be at VTS. But their bishops had not let them. So there we were – thrown up against each other in my class.
My own bias, having grown up as a Southern Baptist, was against fundamentalism. Sure enough there was a died-in-the-wool fundamentalist in my class, a fundamentalist with all the conviction of a new convert, which she was. Her presence made me very uncomfortable and I don’t think she was any happier to have me around. We did a lot of small group work in those days. And sure enough, “God so ordained” that she was in every single one of my small groups for three years. By the end of the third year, we understood each other a little better and liked each other a great deal. I am glad she is in the Church, not just so we can learn to feed each other, but because she can bring to Jesus people who wouldn’t give me the time of day.
In the 1970s a lot of young Americans became enamored of a Russian mystic teacher named Gurdjiev. He formed communes who followed him, sat at his feet, and studied his teachings. You paid good money for the privilege of hanging out with Gurdjiev. In one such community of disciples, there were a host of sincere amiable young people, but there was also one particularly disagreeable old guy. He was a jerk and a grouch. To make matters worse, he didn’t bathe, so he stank. Eventually, his irritability got the better of him and he quit, stomped out, washed the dust from his sandals. The remaining disciples said “good riddance” and breathed of a sigh of relief. But Gurdjiev followed the old grouch, tracked him down, begged him to return, and finally paid him – yes, that’s right, paid him – to return to the community. The other disciples were appalled and said “What is this?!!! We are paying you to teach us and we behave well. But you pay this cantankerous old SOB to stay here!!!” Gurdjiev answered, “Without him, there will be no enlightenment.”
This is about different ideologies, different opinions about musical instruments and communion bread, and also just personal differences. The differences are difficult but good – more than good – they are essential to the process of our sanctification, essential to turn our Egocentric nature into Jesus “who though he was found in equality with God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but humbled himself” to become the servant of all.
Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is like a great net that catches all kinds of fish I suppose the angels may sort us out some day. But not now. And it will never – never ever -- be our job to do the sorting, either by driving someone out or stomping out ourselves. For us, our calling is just to be all kinds of fish, caught up together in the net of grace -- all of us good, all of us bad, all of us essential to one another.
Church is the place where we are free to speak our minds openly,
but where we don’t get our pride stuck to our ideas. This is where relationships are more important than being right. This is where we let ego take the back seat while love drives.