Thursday, May 11, 2006

Serendipity or Spirituality?

This post was long enough, I decided to add this one.

Entirely by coincidence (the first post was published before the show came on the radio), my local Pacifica station ran a lengthy interview with the Rev. Jim Rigby, pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, and his most famous (or infamous) member for the moment, professed atheist Robert Jensen. (The interview should be available here soon. If you're interested, check their archives occassionally.) Jensen actually did a better job defending his decision to join a Christian church, and his position vis a vis Christianity, in the interview than he did at AlterNet. This decision has prompted concerns within the Presbyterian church, which is entirely a matter of polity for them. Whether or not the Rev. Rigby is, or should be, disciplined is not a matter I will comment on. But Mr. Jensen's comments were particularly interesting.

His defense of his decision was essentially one of "negative theology." He professed a position of humility toward the universe, of the limitations of human knowledge as exemplified both in science and in religion. He put great weight on the mystery of existence, on how much we do not and probably cannot, know (always curious to put so much weight on what might be known sometime in the future. What good does that do us now? We might one day know how to power Hummers with nothing more than air. Does that mean we should simply rely on that hope now?) And basically he sounded almost like a seminary student. With a crucial difference, of course: even a negative theology admits the reality (let's avoid that misleading "existence" debate) of God.

No surprise, I suppose, as he is a philosophy professor at UT-Austin. But it seemed to me the only thing I wouldn't qualify him for would be ordination as a minister. He is certainly more articulate and intelligent about his faith than most Christians, and clearly more committed to Christianity as something lived, not simply professed. In fact, he bases his decision on his commitment to living the Christian faith, not just professing traditional Christian doctrines. I must admit that, whereas I was a critic of the decision to make him a church member when I first read the two articles they published, I've quite changed my mind listening to the interview.

And it brings us back to the central question: what is faith, and how must it be expressed in order to enter the "sacred community"? The interviewer, by the way, used that term, asking Jensen if he hadn't found a sacred community which he decided to join. The phrase made me think of Derrida's insistence on "holy" as that which is marked off, set aside, meant to be kept pure from corruption. Certainly an ecclesiological ideal, but if we insist on it too firmly, who among us is worthy? And do we decide worthiness solely upon profession, (which may or may not be sincere? As Jeremiah records God saying: "The heart is devious, beyond all fathoming. I, the Lord, test the heart...")? Or do we decide based upon action?

Or must it be a combination of the two?

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