Thursday, June 7, 2007

To Believe or Not

The flip side of some of the issues raised in ”Have You Given Up Hope And Reason”, is the notion that Modernism (or whatever one wants to call ideas that emerged in post-World War I Western culture) that questioned conventional belief in and understanding of God, is somehow dangerous, that no one before or since ever doubted God’s presence or love for humankind or bore fruit as a result, and that the same “old familiar Christian words” have at all times in all places have had a single fixed meaning. Instead of trying to understand the context for the questions that arose and the various kinds of provisional answers that emerged in those contexts, some would simply reduce them all to a terrifying specter of non-belief, which somehow is responsible for all the current woes of the world.

The fact of the matter is that both the troubles and the doubts are much the same as those that have been with humankind from the beginning. Every generation has had different ways of dealing with them, different ways of approaching and seeking to understand who or what God is, and different views of how those understandings should shape our individual and communal lives. Each and every one of them have been “wrong” in the sense that none have gotten it all “right.”

How do we ever sort it all out? I don’t think we do, at least not in our time or on our terms. Rather than obsess over who has it “right” or “wrong” and blaming humanity’s woes on those who fail to pass their theological exams, why can’t we keep it simple and focus on hope, charity, and love? God doesn’t need our “belief” to either be or to work wonders in our lives and all of eternity. God will help us believe what we need, as long as we ask and listen. The only true test of belief is embodied in "credo" -- whether we have turned our whole hearts over to God. Once we have that, I don't think God will quibble over our words, since his Word subsumes them all.

We Like Sheep

Episcopal Café recently featured an article entitled "Have You Given Up Hope And Reason", which raises questions about statements made by Rev. Dr. Leslie Fairfield in an interview posted at the Diocese of Pittsburgh website. Dr. Fairfield's remarks generally propound the worn myth that the Episcopal Church is divided into two “camps” – one that believes in the true Triune God and one that does not – rather than the real division between those who want to stay within the Episcopal Church (the majority, which encompasses a wide variety of theological views) and the those who wish to leave (a group apparently united on their views of homosexuality but diverse in most other respects).

Two features, however, were noteworthy. First, as John Chilton pointed out at the Café, was Dr. Fairview’s assault on scientific understandings of certain aspects of human behavior, thoughts, and emotions. I find it fascinating both in the context of the larger debate about religion and science and as an odd fish plopped into the pond of the current troubles within the Episcopal Church. I hope to discuss it further at some later date, but for now, I'd like to simply point out the second thing that struck me in the interview, which was this throwaway line from Dr. Fairfield:

“To sum it up, Modernism uses all the old familiar Christian words, but changes all the meanings. And it neglects to tell the laity.”

What was interesting to me was not the usual charge that They (for Dr. Fairfield, the “Modernists,” who apparently are all those who do not share his theological views) do not “truly” believe in Jesus Christ or a personal God, but rather that They are an “It” who “neglects to tell the laity.”

Bullseye. So the supposed divide between the two opposing “camps” in TEC is clergy- (and bishop) driven and we dumb sheep, the laity, have had the wool pulled over our eyes.

Well, it comes as no surprise that there are theological words being tossed to and fro and that most of the current unpleasantedness has been driven by clergy. However, it is news that at least some of the self-proclaimed righteous think that the heart of the problem is that we in the pews are woefully ignorant of what our clergy and fellow pew-sitters “really” mean when we gather for worship, speak, stand, kneel, and sing all the words of Book of Common Prayer, partake in the Eucharist, meet in Bible study and fellowship, and seek to serve the poor, the sick, and those who are distress. Apparently what people like Dr. Fairfield can see, and we cannot, is that the root cause of the troubles is that our clergy have swallowed Modernist theology hook, line, and sinker in seminary and ever since have been bound and determined to sneak it into our chalice cups, on the sly. It looks, sounds, and feels like the real thing, but, of course, it couldn't possibly be.

Aside from the fact that many of us in the pews have not only critically read some so-called Modernist theologians, but know more than a little about the history of and trends in Western thought, pro and anti-Modern, Post-Modern, etc., the real insult here is what it says about all the clergy who are not joining the charge to leave TEC. Those clergy (no doubt like many of their colleagues in the other "camp"), spend virtually all their time doing the same things – leading traditional worship, visiting the sick, caring for the needy, burying the dead, baptizing, marrying, and pastoring, all the while puzzling over budgets, staff problems (if, in fact, there are any staff to worry about), how to pay the heating bills the next winter, what to do when person A and person B clash, as they have been for the many years they have been in the parish together, etc., etc. Most clergy have also made great sacrifices in deciding to accept a calling to ministry, financial and otherwise, whether it is a first or second “career” for them. They work hard, have little time to relax or care for their own needs, pray, read, and speak the same "old familiar Christian words" day in and day out and do their best to live by them.

So what’s the difference? Some believe it’s imperative to preach and practice that GLBT persons should be fully included in the life of the church and in society in general, and some believe that they cannot share the same church with those who do. As far as I can see, that’s it, give or take different emphases on mission, different worship styles (low, high, contemporary – all of which flavors are practiced by persons on the conservative and liberal sides of the church political spectrum). It goes without saying that this difference has become the fault line in the church, over which deep divisions have and may continue to occur. But it’s got nothing to do with clergy “neglecting” to tell the laity about their seminary training in theology. Nor is it credible that legions of clergy are out serving in parishes just “pretending” to believe in God, secretly crossing their fingers, and not “meaning” any of the words they stand at the altar and say in the name of Jesus Christ, feeding his body and blood to his sheep before them.

Maybe it's time for us sheep to speak up and call off the real wolves who seek to herd and divide us. We are not "pretending." We are not coming to church, working in mission, or sharing in the Eucharist for the sake of the god of Modernism. We believe and we're not going away.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

For Cheryl, John, and Matthew

Funeral held for student killed in car accident

Police: Vehicle in fatal crash exceeded 85 mph

This is the news that currently is gripping our community. Of course it can happen anytime, anywhere teens and cars can be found together. And it often happens around this time of year, now that school is almost over and seniors, in particular, have little to do between AP exams and high school graduation, which does not occur for another three weeks.

What makes this accident most tragic is the fact that it was clearly avoidable. The teens were driving along a rural road and decided to speed up and “hit the bumps” as apparently they had done before. All had seat belts on, but the car went out of control and hit a tree, causing severe head injuries to Cheryl, who died hours later.

We did not know Cheryl or her family, although our son was in her senior class. Nor do we know either of the boys, John, the driver, or Matthew, the other passenger. My son and his friends attended the wake, and many also attended the funeral, held yesterday.

I cannot imagine bearing the grief that Cheryl’s family and friends must be suffering now on these sun-drenched days before all her friends will graduate and most go off to college, as she had planned to do. Their loss must dig deep into their every waking moment.

But my heart also goes out to John and Matthew, who survived and must not only live with the knowledge that they might have prevented the accident, but also must face the anger and bitterness of those who blame them for what happened. Feelings must be running quite high, since at the funeral Cheryl’s pastor warned, “Anger is a poison that kills us if we don't find healthy ways to deal with it. We need to find a way to forgive.”

I’m all for accountability for wrongdoing and the kind of sanctions that establish standards for conduct and deter violations of those standards. But while actions must have their consequences, I cannot help but empathize with the wrongdoers.

In this particular case, I must confess it could have been me. No, I did not drive recklessly as a teen in the sense of speeding or trying to perform stunts. I was the proverbial “good” kid, the kind who studied tirelessly, never skipped a day of school, let my parents know where I was going and when I would be home, worked diligently at part-time and summer jobs, and saved almost all my money for college. But… unknown to most everyone but my close friends, I did drive recklessly in that I, whom my parents trusted, let me take our second car (actually my grandmother’s who had quit driving) just about anywhere I wanted. That meant that I was the one who drove whenever my friends and I went to parties or just drove around the country roads at night while under the influence of one substance or another. The joke was that I drove more carefully and attentively when I was stoned. Some joke.

It didn’t last long – just a couple of seemingly idyllic months after my senior in high school until I came to the conclusion that I had better things to do with my time, and started hanging out with some friends who didn’t drink or smoke. But, needless to say, it has struck me many times over since then, especially now that I have teenagers of my own, how easily I could have ended up like Cheryl or John.

It would be easy to chalk up this behavior as youthful indiscretion, as a brief experiment trying to act and be “cool.” It wasn’t, it just was an early example of one of the many things I’ve done in my life just because I felt like it, because I didn’t think or care enough about the harm that it might cause others.

The sad thing is that I continue to behave that way, at times, even though drinking and driving is not one of them. Like most people, I think of myself as basically being “good” and always wanting to do the right thing. But what an awful trap that can be because it can keep me from seeing ways in which I can and must do better and can keep me from finding love and compassion for those who do not seem to be as “good” as I think I am or try to be.

I weary of the kind of sin-talk I see from time to time on conservative religion forums, the kind of discussion where everyone seems to be bending over backwards to claim that they are more thoroughly and painfully cognizant of their own sinful nature (not to mention humanity’s depravity in general) than others, and that the more one contemplates the blood oozing out of Christ’s wounds, each drop bearing witness to the horrific punishment we all deserve, the better everyone will be. That just seems to me to be a grim way of asserting (and endlessly reasserting) that someone or someones are better than everyone else.

But it is, indeed, true that we are all sinners, that we sin out of both carelessness and design, day in and day out. That realization, however awful, does not leave me in a dark dungeon of despair or self-flagellation. It makes me think with love of Cheryl, John, and Matthew, whom I pray will live on, in heaven and on earth, in grace and humility. We all make mistakes, some with horrific consequences, and none of us is truly better than anyone else. Thank God who forgives, gives us joy as well as sorrow, and helps bring us back, time and time again, into his loving arms.