Monday, July 02, 2007

Forced Choices

It has been interesting to watch The Episcopal Church confronting the sort of forced choices that its reluctantly departing and deeply committed liberal members have been making for decades: to serve the institution or to try to live the gospel. Can this be a sign of hope for the future? Is it too much to think that the institution is finally waking up to the fact that its structure in this day and age is untenable, and that the whole thing—including its educational practices and its internal policies—needs to be re-thought from the ground up?

The Executive Council has declined to play the Akinola game, summed up by the Austin Lounge Lizards' trenchant song, "Jesus Loves Me But He Can't Stand You", even if it risks fracturing the Anglican Communion. And rightly so: who wants to belong to an Anglican Communion that is more interested in the prestige of its members than the truth of the Gospel?

As time passes and the battles escalate and everything stays the same within the hermetically sealed hierarchy, more and more devout, ordinary people are confronted with the forced choice of focusing their life in God or the institution. There should be no division. A focused life in God is based on a wellspring of silence from which all activity in the church should proceed, and without which it is merely one more dysfunctional group. The world of dialectic has no place in the life of contemplative union to which we are all called, which the church is supposed to enable, from which all "ministry" (a word that needs to be dropped) should proceed, and which is the sole reason for the church's existence.

It is in realized contemplative union (a realization of our shared nature with God) that we receive the risen life that informs all the rest of what we do and gives the impetus for serving others. The role of the church is to teach us to carry the silence and the holy into the kingdom of noise; but if the institutional church itself has become noise, then it no longer has reason for existence.

This approach does not admit laissez faire; far from it. But it does understand Jesus as the Way into the silence where that union is realized and en-Christed, and it understands that the teaching, life and ethics of Jesus evolve out of his own understanding of the demands of the Way of Silence, which, among the many lessons it teaches, are a humility about the limitations of human knowledge and judgment, and a limitless compassion.

Garry Wills' recent book, "What Jesus Meant," reiterates the problem from a Roman Catholic perspective that resonates far beyond a single institution. For anyone interested in the questions facing the Anglican Communion (or any religious institution that calls itself "Christian"—the fundamental problems are the same) this book is a must read.

Jesus himself is among the marginalized, and his message is for the marginalized. He preached against religious structures and the "law" that issued from them, cast invariably in terms of the self-interest of the clergy. There is no excuse and no justification for the sort of institutional church structures we have today, which were developed during the Middle Ages, reiterated during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, devolved into a business model in the 1950s, and which are still based on power and preferment, the infantilization of the laity, and loaded with magical thinking.

In the last few days, some of the African bishops have declared, like petulant children, that they will not attend Lambeth. If they can't get everything they want right now, they won't play. If the Communion at large will not be hostage to their bullying intrusiveness into a jurisdiction that is not theirs, they will hold an alternative meeting. This decision is bent on shoring up the vanity of the self-certified, and justifying the arrogance of their condemnation; it is cutting off the nose to spite the face. It is the antithesis of the relational communion based on shared contemplation (whether or not it is recognized as such) which binds Christians together.

Old habits die hard, and the "aren't we wonderful" mentality needs always to be challenged, whether in the Akinola camp, or the mainstream Anglican Communion. It might be salutary for the next year, if, instead of splendid self-affirming liturgies, every diocesan clergy conference and convention, and certainly the next House of Bishops and Primates meetings, not to mention Lambeth itself, were to commence their proceedings with these cautionary words from the Austin Lounge Lizards:

I know you smoke, I know you drink that brew
I just can't abide a sinner like you
God can't either, that's why I know it to be true that
Jesus loves me--but he can't stand you.

I'm going to heaven, boys, when I die
'Cause I've crossed every "t" and I've dotted every "i'
My preacher tell me that I'm God's kind of guy; that's why
Jesus loves me-—but you're gonna fry.

God loves all his children, by gum
That don't mean he won't incinerate some
Can't you feel those hot flames licking you
Woo woo woo....

I'm raising my kids in a righteous way
So don't be sending your kids over to my house to play
Yours'll grow up stoned, left-leaning, and gay; I know
Jesus told me on the phone today.

Jesus loves me, this I know
And he told me where you're gonna go
There's lots of room for your kind down below
Whoa whoa whoa
Jesus loves me but he can't stand you . . .


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I want to thank Martha for her thoughts and for inviting conversation this way.

It is so heartening to hear the words:

"The world of dialectic has no place in the life of contemplative union to which we are all called, which the church is supposed to enable, from which all "ministry" (a word that needs to be dropped) should proceed, and which is the sole reason for the church's existence.

It is in realized contemplative union (a realization of our shared nature with God) that we receive the risen life that informs all the rest of what we do and gives the impetus for serving others."

I would observe that not all the worldviews in which we see the Christian faith expressed -Traditional, Modern and Post-Modern - share the view that "union" is the goal of the Christian life. Somehow this has been lost.

I had the opportunity to moderate a panel discussion on religion at my daughter's public school recently. On the panel was the President of the "liberal" Jewish Synagogue, a Hindu teacher, a Zen Master and the Chancellor from the Russian Orthodox Diocese. I asked them the question: What is the goal of the spiritual/human life in your tradition. Their responses were what one would expect from their traditions. The only surprise for the students (and pleasantly for me) was the Orthodox priests' reply. He said the goal of the Christian life is "theosis" - union.

I suggested to the students that that might not have been the response they were expecting to hear, and one student commented that they thought the goal Christianity taught was to be good and go to heaven when you die.

Which tends to be the typical response of the Traditional worldview - in whatever religion you are talking with. The Modern response, with a characteristic focus on action and lack of transcendence- is often some version of "Do justice, love mercy...". And the Post-Modern response - at least in the Christian versions I have heard - tends to be a conglomerate: Do justice, love mercy, celebrate diversity and THEN go to heaven when you die.

From our perspective in time we can see that all of these are appropriate responses for particular developmental stages. But what seems to have been lost in much of Western Christianity - but evidently not in the Eastern tradition- is the mystical core of the Tradition, the teaching of Jesus that "I and the Father are One" AND, perhaps most significantly, an emphasis on the practices - the paths - to reach theosis.

What can be accomplished - what fellowship can be maintained - when the ultimate goal or destination is not commonly held? And even if the goal is agreed on, where will we end up if the maps and methods of reaching the goal are not being consulted or practiced - especially by the clergy - those who have taken vows to Orders! Those others are following.

Reading Martha's piece, I am also struck by the realization that the experience of Divine Union gives me a sense of connectedness to all sentient beings, including Archaic, Traditional, Modern, Post-modern, Enlightened humans. I realize that within myself and my own development I am Saddam Hussein, Bishop Akinola, John Shelby Spong, Katherine Jefferts Schori, and Jesus of Nazareth (though quite without the same importance, influence or opportunity for impact in human history obviously). And I am in God, and God is in all. Ultimately, there is no separation - no boundaries. How do I keep from dissociating these parts of myself that I have grown beyond, find uncomfortable, or would rather not see in myself?

We embodied spirits live in a manifest, boundaried world, even with the realization of our oneness in God. And we bump up against - can be torn and wounded by - the sharp edges of the boundaries we encounter.

Martha, in her work, has been continuously calling Christians to live into the core of our tradition, which she identifies - rightly I believe - as a contemplative life actively expressed in "kenosis" - self-giving love.

So how do the Moderns and Post-Moderns - and Contemplatives - express self-giving love to the Traditionals in the current situation the Anglican Communion finds itself in as these worldviews collide?

I would say to the Moderns and the Post-Moderns that the core of the Jewish (and other Traditions) may be justice -and the Christian Tradition also embraces this value as God-given - but the unique witness of the Christian Tradition is to love that empties itself in the service of the other- is it not? Love transcends justice.

So how do we live that? What do we do with St.Paul's advice about the weaker brother? Can we expect folks to embrace realities they have not yet seen?

How do we all get back on the same path, heading for the same goal?

How do we do what Martha is suggesting?

Gary Steele
Anchorage, AK

5:20 pm, July 18, 2007  

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