[A report requested by a diocese at the end of a Theologian in Residence programme.]
Growth into God is primarily a solitary journey but it is a solitude undertaken also for the sake of community, for as you have heard over and over in the last few weeks, the community is only as healthy as the solitudes that make it up. The role of the community is to be a place where the journey into God is encouraged by creating an environment where silence is more and more preferred, where people do not interfere with one another but help one another by each keeping their own focus on God, and a profound respect for the mystery of God at work in one another. It should also be a place where people can feel safe to be as vulnerable as a life deepening into God will make them.
Each year when I leave the United States I think that the cultural situation cannot possibly get worse, and each year when I return it is worse, much worse. In the last ten years the country has changed beyond recognition and not for the better. Each year I think American culture cannot become more superficial, more artificial, more aggressive, more frightened, more conformist, and, dare I say it, more fascist, yet each year it is, each year it becomes more and more a spiritual wasteland. And unfortunately, instead of being counter to this culture of commercialization, commodification and consumerism, the institutional church imitates it ever more closely, is in fact indistinguishable from it.
Real human choice, real human freedom, is the freedom to be only who we are, the ever-evolving truth of our selves. It is not the false freedom of trying on personalities like Halloween costumes, fed by the illusion of choice in the supermarket when faced with 154 kinds of breakfast cereal. What is most alarming in the culture is the rise in the levels of fear and insecurity exploited by advertising and consumerism: buy more so you’ll anaesthetize your fear, don’t buck the system and buy more insurance, otherwise you might lose everything you have bought and sold your soul in the first place to have the money to buy. Then buy yet more consumer goods to allay your fears about losing what you have. It is a vicious cycle, and the multinationals are exploiting it, creating a new feudal serfdom based on the fear of death, the death of this pseudo-life, which, as the second chapter of the letter to the Hebrews tells us, is the devil which enslaves us.
The church must be countercultural. It must deconstruct the business-career model that is destroying it. It must effect profound and permanent changes of fundamental attitudes. It must keep its gaze fixed on the Lamb who was slain, and the light from the Lamb, so that the vision of the city of God may become a reality. But without the vision of the Lamb and that light, the city is dark and lifeless, and what we do is merely self-serving and exploitive of those whom we seek to serve. As a church, as individuals, we must renounce what the culture holds dear: self-display, self-pity, self-aggrandizement, self-image, self, self, self, summed up by that revolting word, "personal", which of course is not the truth of our self at all but rather a narcissistic construct of our distorted self-consciousness, our unlikeness to God, which mistakes individualism for its opposite, authenticity, which can arise only from self-forgetfulness.
We fear the word "renounce" but if our hungry hearts are open to the Love that is beyond our knowing, if we are allowing this Love to change us as we dwell in the silence of its infinite tenderness and pardon, the word of renunciation loses all its sting, for the things on the list to be renounced fall away of their own insignificance. Our gaze, our focus, is elsewhere, and anything that interferes with or distracts from that gaze is allowed to lapse. If the church is to bear the light of the Lamb, it must be a true sacred sign, and once again, as we have seen over and over and over again in the last five weeks, every true sacred sign effaces itself, even the self-outpouring of the Father, even the person of Jesus, even the Word into silence, even the Eucharist itself. And this effacement is the distinguishing sign of the Holy Spirit and as such, of our deepening life in God.
It is also the model of authority and power: Christian authority has validity only if it is kenotic, and the corollary of this is that the only legitimate Christian obedience is also kenotic, called forth as a free response from the subject by the example of self-forgetful kenosis of the person in authority.
Once again, life in God is so simple, and that is precisely why it is so difficult: because it is so much easier to focus on the complexities of the pseudo-life of our self-consciousness, our own personal soap-opera; on the distractions that are resistance offered by our sloth; on the pressures of the culture; our pretentiousness, our grandiosity, our vanity, our narcissism. Life in God is so simple. And it thus is so difficult, all the more so in a diocese like this one, where there is all that money.
What will your response as a diocese be in this critical moment of your history? Will you answer the call of Christ to plunge ever more deeply into the self-outpouring love of God which is beyond every self-conscious human perception? Or will you be like the rich young man who goes away sad because he can see only what is immediately and sensibly gratifying and can’t bear to give it up? Riches that are not so much the money and possessions as vanity, control, flattery and fawning of sycophants, who cynically decorate their own egos by association with wealth and power.
It should be clear that everything I have written here about this particular diocese is also true of the whole church. To make such fundamental and profound changes in attitude and focus is not an impossible task, but it must be accomplished in the solitude of each heart, in the searing light of God, person by person, heart by heart, with a searching, even a ruthless honesty. To encourage us, we have the example of South Africa: apartheid was defeated like this, heart by heart. It was a more blatant evil and so perhaps simpler to deal with, but the example of its defeat can still help us, we who are trapped in a more subtle but very similar situation, a career- and issue-driven, clerical apartheid that obscures the vision of God and oppresses the people who would seek this vision.
To be true sacred signs that point only to God, both transcendent and indwelling our neighbour, each of us, clergy and laity alike, must un-grasp, unclutch the fingers of the control-freak that is our terrified self-consciousness and pretentious self-regard, relinquish our pseudo-lives to the silence. We must pray to be changed, to be transfigured—how, into what, we cannot know. And we must not presume to know, for what God will give, if we will allow it, if we open our hearts, will be far more than anything we can ask or imagine.
What will result if we are willing to relinquish our lives to this transfiguring Love may well be unrecognizable as the church of today, but it will be far more recognizable as the Body of Christ.
Theologian in Residence, 1995