Wednesday, August 12, 2009


And all of you
have seen the dance
That God has kept
from me.--Leonard Cohen
The Archbishop of Canterbury roiled the waters in the Anglican Communion recently, an event that would have meant more to me a year or so ago than it does now. If you are curious about how Anglicans are reacting to it, you could do worse than follow the conversation at The Wounded Bird, which is where I take note of it. It's simply a hunt I don't have a dog in now, and a hunt I don't ever want to have a dog in again. And my feelings on this have to do with Pennsylvania and Simone Weil. Let me explain.

Part of the recent travels were spent in the home of a friend from seminary. She's been at the same church since leaving seminary, a feat I am openly and shamelessly envious of. Clearly she has the gifts needed for the pastorate, and she has been blessed with a good congregation. Several years ago, her congregation decided to leave the UCC, a denomination she was ordained in (as am I), and which the church had been a member of since the denomination started in 1957 (it's a very old German church, though whether it started as E or German "R" I don't know). The decision to leave was a carefully considered one, and a painful one, but it wasn't a defiant one. Or at least, not from their point of view.

Here I should explain that my friend and I are great, good friends; but we disagree on almost all points of theology. We went to the same seminary, studied under the same teachers in the same classes, but came to different conclusions about all the issues now dividing churches, issues like Biblical authority and homosexuality (should gays and lesbians be allowed in the pulpit?), etc. We differ strongly on these issues, though we agree on others (like the basic tenets of Biblical interpretation. She's far more "conservative" than I am, but she learned the same exegesis and hermeneutics I did.). We differ, but we simply agree to disagree. It's really no great matter between us; we can discuss our disgreements freely, but I really don't care that she differs from me. She's my friend. She's a good person, a fine pastor, an admirable Christian. What are issues of theology in such a situation?

But it mattered to the UCC in her area. As she tells the story (let's be fair here, I know only one side of the story), she didn't leave the UCC, they left her. Ah, you say, we've heard that before! And especially if you come to this from the context of the troubles in the Anglican Communion and The Episcopal Church, you will think you have. I invite you to think again. My friend told me of events she might have told me about before, at the time they happened; but I'd forgotten them. She reminded me that, before she and her church broke with the UCC, the pastors in her area, her colleagues in the UCC, broke with her. They treated her as a pariah, as "invisible" in the terms of that new Twilight Zone series, "To See the Invisible Man." At meetings of the local UCC, pastors would shun her, would avoid her table, would openly turn away from sitting with her at meals.

You will say this is very human conduct, and it is. It is also very shameful conduct, especially for a religion which bases its primary sacrament on an open table to which all are welcome. The very heart of Paul's eucharisto was a table that welcomed everyone, but especially believers. Was my friend less of a Christian because her theology was not the theology of the denomination? Because she did not agree with the other pastors on one or two points? I will not call those points major or minor, because my interest is in the boundaries question: when do we get to draw them, and against whom, and on what basis? When do we get to decide, as followers of a God who taught us hospitality was important above all things, that someone is undeserving of welcome? How can we live with ourselves when we do such a thing?

As I say, I disagree with my friend on the issue of homosexuals in the pulpit (we have no bishops in the UCC, so that can't be the issue here). But I respect her, love her, and find room in my church for her church, even if they find no room for me. I'm not sure they would reject me, ultimately. I'm not sure they'd reject me if I didn't reject them, but that would be their choice, their decision. That's the paradoxical dark/light heart of Protestantism: the matter of choice. But I would not force that choice on them by demanding adherence to a protocol on how to treat homosexuals. Perhaps they would insist on it; I don't know. But I am ashamed of my colleagues in Pennsylvania who insisted on it against my friend.*

Which brings me to Simone Weil. She was, as Verbis et Operibus says, a paradox:

She came from a secular Jewish home and was never baptized, but she considered herself a Christian — a non-committed Catholic, to be more precise. She was a pacifist, but fought in the Spanish Civil War. She was an intellectual, but was known for her anti-intellectualism. She was a member of the bourgeoisie, but worked on a French assembly line for a year. She loved life, but yearned for her death.
What I know of her I know from the introduction to the book I picked up, Waiting for God. Leslie Fiedler says of her there:

Since her death, Simone Weil has come to seem more and more a special exemplar of sanctity for our time--the Outsider as Saint in an age of alienation, our kind of saint. In eight scant years, this young French woman, whom scarcely anyone had heard of before her sacrificial death in exile at the age of 34, has come to possess the imagination of many in the Western world. Catholic and Protestant, Christian and Jew, agnostic, devout, we have all turned to her with profound conviction that the meaning of her experience is our meaning, that she really is ours....

She speaks of the problems of belief in the vocabulary of the unbeliever, of the doctrines of the Church in the words of the unchurched. The askesis, the "dark night of the soul," through which she passed to certitude, is the modern intellectual's familiar pattern of attraction toward and disillusionment with Marxism, the disciple of contemporary politics.

...To those who consider themselves on the safe side of belief, she teaches the uncomfortable truth that the unbelief of many atheists is closer to a true love of God and a true sense of his nature, than that kind of easy faith which, never having experienced God, hangs a label bearing his name on some childish fantasy or projection of the ego. Like Kierkegaard, she preached the paradox of it being easier for a non-Christian to become a Christian than for a "Christian," to become one....For those to whom religion means comfort and peace of mind, she brings the terrible reminder that Christ promised not peace but the sword, and that his own last words were a cry of absolute despair, the "Eli, Eli, lama sabacthani!" which is the true glory of Christianity.
Obviously at that point I swerve away, since I think hospitality is the true glory of Christianity, because then it isn't about me, but about the other. However, the idea of alienation is a powerful and alluring one, even though it leads, in this post-Romantic era and interregnum between the end of the Romanticism and the start of whatever will finally replace it, rather quickly and easily to navel-gazing. Weil, from Fiedler's introduction, would simply flagellate herself to avoid that, but we needn't be sidetracked by that. It is the sense of being required to be perpetually outside as an insider, that interests me.

Weil, it seems, tried to play a balancing act, which much of this book reflects in the letters she wrote to the Reverend Father Perrin. One of her prime concerns appears to have been whether or not to accept baptism; her reasons for always lingering at the baptismal font, but never stepping through it into the realm of those accepted for the eucharist, are complex and convoluted. For many reasons she felt compelled to remain always at the threshold, and never to cross over or step back.

I have a similar feeling about my call to ministry. I am not devoted to my denomination, although as a pastor I'm expected to be. My friend got in trouble, even with old friends of hers (who were also ordained), because she displayed insufficient devotion to the generally accepted tenets of other UCC ministers. She says today that one reason her church left the UCC is that she and her congregation believe in the authority of scripture; sola scriptura, as Luther famously put it. I think that's a bit of a dodge, and an attempt to assert some higher ground for their congregation against the larger church. I don't think the UCC has abandoned the authority of scripture, but that they understand it differently than my friend and her congregation. That should be fundamental, in a tectonic plates kind of way, but it isn't, for me. I don't interpret scripture in the same way as the larger UCC on many topics. I certainly don't interpret scripture as giving me an excuse, or even a duty, to shun people at meals, or otherwise. "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, diversity; in all things, charity" is apparently a nice thing to say, but really too much trouble to live up to. But if I give authority to scripture, I think I have to live up to it, because I think scripture teaches what those words say. You see the problem with scriptural authority, or any authority: there can be, Robert Browning, but one "Sordello." But "Sordello," and my "Sordello"?

Which does not leave me on the outside, throwing rocks at everyone. I'm an ordained minister, I gave up any pretense to "outside" status when I knelt down and let hands be laid upon me. I gave up any allegiance to "outside/inside" when I first professed Christianity. That's why I put hospitality at the center of my understanding of Christianity: without the radical understanding that we are all strangers who should welcome each other as strangers, even as we are all hosts who are obligated to welcome the stranger, what is the point of professing a faith? If that faith is simply faith in and of the world, then what need is there for God at all? If it isn't, then what confession is it without God? And if a confession of faith in God doesn't radically relocate my life, what need is there for God or confession? In other words, if religious practice cannot lead a group beyond ordinary sociological practices, of what difference is a religious community?

Elaine Pagels makes an interesting point in The Origin of Satan:

Mark does not see himself as separate from Israel, but depicts Jesus' followers as what Isaiah calls God's "remnant" within Israel (Isaiah 10:22-23). Even the images that Mark invokes to characterize the majority--images of Satan, Beelzebub, and the devil--paradoxically express the intimacy of Mark's relationship with the Jewish community as a whole, for...the figure of Satan, as it emerged over the centuries in Jewish tradition, is not a hostile power assailing Israel from without, but the source and representation of conflict within the community.
Aye, there's the rub. It strikes me as an answer, too, to people who challenge the very idea of the God of Abraham because that God fails to save us from ourselves, or reveal the absolute truth to us which none of us can deny. Even in communities where that revelation is claimed, even in communities built on that asserted revelation and a claimed special relationship to the deity, even there, falls the Shadow. We imagine perfection, and then we imagine the perfection is one that suits us best; which means we just need to cast out enough strangers to make everything perfect. If we can just remove them, then we can end the conflict within the community. And if that doesn't work, well, obviously, we just need to remove a few more. Which is the very opposite of hospitality; but we're sure we can make this hospitality thing work, just as soon as we've got the blessed community in order; and then we can determine who we need to be hospitable to.

As Melissa Harris-Lacewell's father reminded her: the struggle continues.

It's an interesting thing that theology does matter in the world. Sadly, it matters for all the wrong reasons. Like anything else given to us by God, theology is supposed to be a tool to guide us, a light on our path, a resource and repository of wisdom for abundant life. Instead, we use it as a club, as denominator, as a chalk spreader for making lines in the grass, marking off what is mine and what is not mine, and who is mine and not mine.

Where does that leave me? Right alongside everyone else trying to make the ethical decisions of how to live in this world. But contrary to the teachings of Aristotle and Robert Wright, I don't think the world has the answers to those questions. "How should we then live?" Every person, unfortunately, has to answer that question for themselves. To that extent, Sartre was right. Whether we are all existentialists now is a more dubious proposition. The main difference between me and everybody else is that I've made a public commitment to a religious confession, made it in a way that is literally life-altering, as measured by the world, not just by theology. Simone Weil-like, I feel outside even as I am inside; but it would be a mistake to make too much of this. It gives me less comfort than I deserve (I've tried wearing hair-shirts; they aren't my style), but certainly no position of privilege, either. If I look upon the divisions in the Anglican Communion and The Episcopal Church, I do so in sorrow and recognition: all God's children need shoes.

Unfortunately there is something about us that does not love to share, or even to admit how many unimportant differences we have. We need distinctions (somebody has to be the pastor!), but we can't make them without making too much of them. I claim no distinction as either Outsider or Saint, but only that of a teacher about the virtues (if not the practice!) of humility, which makes it easier for the struggle that continues.

*There is an important distinction to be drawn on this point, between the UCC and The Episcopal Church. The polity of the UCC makes it far easier for the denomination to accommodate differing points of view, since the basis of the denomination is the congregation, not the bishopric. This means the larger church cannot speak for the local congregation, and the local congregation can only speak for the larger church when it chooses to ordain a pastor. However, no church can be forced to accept a pastor it thinks should be ordained (which would be foolish anyway, in any polity), so the ties that bind are loose enough, conceptually, anyway, to allow a wide diversity in a larger church that proclaims its purpose to be: "That they may all be one." "One" what, as ever, is the sticking point.

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