Sunday, August 28, 2011

Vulture Theology

Sherri said...

I keep seeing that study headlined 'Less-educated & poor abandon religion.' Seems like to me it should be 'Religion abandons less-educated & poor.'

I actually meant to start this discussion here:

The study also shows that Americans who make more money attend religious services more frequently, and that Americans who have been unemployed at any point in the past 10 years attend services less frequently. The study found that people who are married, who do not approve of premarital sex and those who lost their virginity later than their peers also attend services more often.

“While we recognize that not everyone wishes to worship, and that religious diversity can be valuable, we also think that the existence of a large group of less educated Americans that is increasingly disconnected from religious institutions is troubling for our society,” says Andrew Cherlin, co-author of the study and a professor of sociology and public policy at the Johns Hopkins University. “This development reinforces the social marginalization of less educated Americans who are also increasingly disconnected from the institutions of marriage and work.”
And then Dean French and Walter Russell Meade intervened in ways comical and grossly ignorant. Events changed, too, so where I meant to start is no longer the place I would start from. But I can't toss that aside either, because it is prologue to what I have to say now. So let's begin with prologue and see where we end up.

Probably this problem is a matter of economics, not just individual finances: in a 24/7 economy, Sunday has been squeezed out as the "day of rest" (whether it ever should have been a day the stores were closed is another matter, but it ain't that day anymore!). And if you are working a minimum wage job, especially (which I assume is the best you can do these days, with just a high school diploma), you're probably working more than one job just to pay for the gasoline to get you to work. Doesn't leave much time for Sunday morning services, which is still the preferred hour of worship for most Protestant Christians.

And why is that? There's a curious cultural vestigial practice right there. Why must church be open for worship between the hours of 9 and noon on Sundays? Frankly, Sunday morning is the only morning I can even THINK about sleeping in (past 6 a.m.) or having time to make breakfast something other than what comes out of a box ready to eat (more and more I think of the foods of my convenience foods childhood as MRE's). My sympathies lie with people who would rather be elsewhere on Sunday morning. Of course, my sympathies lie more strongly with people who understand worship as a discipline, not just a social duty. But those sympathies are more befitting of the monastery than the modern world, so I'm left wondering why Protestantism is so determined to "market" itself, and yet also so determined to cling to practices that are long outworn.

Or maybe they aren't so outworn; I prefer the calm silence of Sunday morning for worship, to the dull quiet of Saturday evening in church, when everyone else in the world is heading out for Saturday night. I can see where that kind of discipline for worship is as hard as the discipline of the monastics. But that's a memory from childhood, when the world was calm on Sunday morning. Today it is still calmer than the rest of the week, especially in the city; but it isn't exactly calm. But there is a discipline involved in worship, a "Du muss gehen!"* that has to be maintained, since worship has stopped involving families in their homes sometime shortly after Paul died. Instilling that discipline, or overcoming that inertia, has been a problem plaguing pastors since at least the incoming tide of the post-war church boom began receding.

One answer to the problem prominent among pastors when I used to hang out with them was what I came to label "vulture theology." Nobody really liked the sound of it (the idea, not my label), but they were also rather comforted by it. The idea was that children came to church as a captive audience, and parents brought them because they felt compelled to do so, so the children would learn good lessons about life (and maybe discipline. Whether any of that is true or not is another matter. Certainly they learn about power and how many people like to wield it, no matter how small the arena.). When those children reached the age of consent (which varies in Christian churches, but usually the age of confirmation) parents generally gave up forcing them to attend, and the children usually stopped. (The blessing/curse of the church. In Protestant denominations, confirmed children became voting members of the congregation. I liked it; the one place I was an adult, like my father, although I was still young in the world. But most confirmands vanish after the confirmation service, glad to be able to choose not to stay.) They would return, vulture theology theorized, when they had kids, or when the chips were down and they needed the church for comfort and support.

In other words, at a time of spiritual crisis, or spiritual (or real) death. Vulture theology. We pastors were like undertakers; all we had to do was be patient; sooner or later you'll come to us.

Funny, that isn't happening: "The study also shows that Americans who make more money attend religious services more frequently, and that Americans who have been unemployed at any point in the past 10 years attend services less frequently." I would first compare this to the theories that Islamic terrorism was bred in ghettos and poverty and powerlessness, because who else would become a suicide bomber except someone with no material prospects to look forward to? And it turned out the most likely terrorist was a child of wealthy parents. To speculate why it was them, and not the poor, whom Al Qaeda and others were more likely to recruit, one cannot ask the first question without making presumptions that exclude other possibilities. Were they, for example, driven by a lack of direction in their lives? By the emptiness of material possession? By a need for meaning that property ownership couldn't provide? Such questions presume conditions which may, or may not, exist. Such questions presume there is a spiritual dimension to human existence and frankly, I don't hear too many people talking that way anymore.

I don't hear people making those presumptions unless I read old books that already sound like they come from a pre-Enlightenment era, books like Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Ultimate Meaning. No one today considers humanity in the "Old World" way Frankl does, and his language is so pre-21st century empiricism (which borders on logical positivism, another irony), it almost seems pre-Cambrian. But if there is an explanation for things like wealthy children becoming suicide bombers, and for riots across England, for the decline of the unemployed in worship in America (and the rise of the well-off, who obviously feel more comfortable in church, or have more time to take some comfort there), then perhaps the explanation is not in simple terms of a hierarchy of needs. Maybe we have needs that don't arise only at the top of that hierarchy. Maybe what keeps mankind alive isn't bestial acts alone, after all.

And maybe the vulture is not our best selection from the ancient Christian bestiary.

Before you say that the decline in worship of the poor is clearly an affirmation of Maslow's hierarchy, let me point out the church started among the poor ("Foxes have holes, and birds their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head...") and stayed there almost up until the time of Constantine. And the concern of the church is always supposed to be the poor, although the eye strays from that goal from time to time:

"My church comforts the sick and the dying. My church feeds the hungry. What does your church do? Oh, that's right, you don't have a church!"
And certainly the church can do that without too much affliction to the comfortable (affliction which would make the feeding of the hungry and the poor almost impossible, if carried too far, so let's be reasonable), but should the church itself be so comforting a place the poor should feel uncomfortable there? That's a problem as old as Protestantism itself, and one reason new churches, like the Pentecostal movement, spring up from time to time. They begin in marginal communities and can promise dramatic changes (Harvey Cox has pointed out, over and over, that the Pentecostal movement was one of the first truly interracial churches in America). Then, of course, the institution becomes established, and has to look to its own concerns, and the pastors become personalities, and they need TV cameras to "spread the message," and soon the message is them, and then....

Well, that's one way it happens. The other is that the poor and marginalized move up the economic ladder and take their church with them, and pretty soon the church is as much an institution of society as any "mainstream" denomination. And that brings blessings and curses, too.

But the results reported in this study are interesting and sad. The church, respondents say, is a place of judgment, especially about sexual matters ("The study found that people who are married, who do not approve of premarital sex and those who lost their virginity later than their peers also attend services more often."), and it is a place associated with monied interests. That should comfort Dean French, but it is cold comfort to the rest of us who take the parable of the sheep and the goats at least somewhat seriously. Given the few mentions of the Temple in the Gospels are about the iniquitous influence of money (the cleansing of the Temple; the widow's mite; even the impermanence of the seemingly permanent structure), you'd think the institution would have gone a different route, attracted a different crowd. Then again, what would it be if it had? Would it even be, at all?

We prefer either/or answers. We prefer solutions which eliminate problems or, at worst, create new problems. We like, in other words, Hegel; but we get Derrida:

“In our ‘wars of religion’, violence has two ages. The one…appears ‘contemporary’, in sync or in step with the hypersophistication of military tele-technology—of ‘digital’ and cyberspaced culture. The other is a ‘new archaic violence’, if one can put it that way. It counters the first and everything ir represents. Revenge. Resorting, in fact, to the same sources of mediatic power, it reverts (according to the return, the resource, the repristination and the law of internal and auto-immune reactivity we are trying formalize here) as closely as possible to the body proper and to the premachinal living being. In any case, to its desire and to its phantasm. Revenge is taken against the decorporalizing and expropriating machine by resorting—reverting—to bare hands, to the sexual organs or to primitive tools, often to weapons other than firearms. What is referred to as ‘killings’ and ‘atrocities’—words never used in ‘clean’ or ‘proper’ wars, where, precisely, the dead are no longer counted (guided or ‘intelligent’ missiles directed at entire cities, for instance)—is here supplanted by tortures, beheadings, and mutilations of all sorts. What is involved is always avowed vengeance, often declared as sexual revenge: rapes, mutilated genitals or severed hands, corpses exhibited, heads paraded, as not so long ago in France, impaled on the end of stakes (phallic processions of ‘natural religions’). This is the case, for examples, but it only an example, in Algeria today, in the name of Islam, invoked by both belligerent parties, each in its own way. These are also symptoms of a reactive and negative recourse, the vengeance of the body proper against an expropriatory and delocalizing tele-technoscience, identified with the globality of the market, with military-capitalistic hegemony, with the globalatinization of the European democratic model, in its double form: secular and religious. When—another figure of double origin—the foreseeable alliance of the worst effects of fanaticism, dogmatism or irrationalist obscurantism with hypercritical acumen and incisive analysis of the hegemonies and the models of the adversary (globalatinization, religion that does not speak its name, ethnocentrism putting on, as always, a show of ‘universalism”, market-driven science and technology, democratic rhetoric, ‘humanitarian’ strategy or ‘keeping the peace’ by means of peace-keeping forces, while never counting the dead of Rwanda, for instance, in the same manner as those of the United States of America or of Europe). This archaic and ostensibly more savage radicalization of ‘religious’ violence claims, in the name of ‘religion’, to allow the living community to rediscover its roots, its place, its body and its idiom intact (unscathed, safe, pure, proper). It spreads death and unleashes self-destruction in a desperate (auto-immune) gesture that attacks the blood of its own body: as though thereby to eradicate uprootedness and reappropriate the sacredness of life safe and sound. Double root, double uprootedness, double eradication.
Jacques Derrida, “Faith and Knowledge,” Religion, ed. Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo, tr. Samuel Weber (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1996), pp. 52-53.

I've highlighted the bits that are of most interest to me, but to begin with Derrida identifies a double origin which struggles with its "twin" (let us say) but cannot destroy it; not without destroying itself. It can't synthesize it, either. They are too much alike, too much different, and irreconcilable without the destruction of both. There is no "third way" here. There is only the struggle.

Israel, the scholars tell us, means "struggles with God."

It is notable, of course, that this study doesn't highlight a violent response to the situation, but something more akin to a resigned shrug. Life, after all, is supposed to be hard (Puritanism, at least as remembered in modern America) and only the blessed are supposed to be rich (Calvinism, again as vaguely remembered in modern America), and if the church is so concerned with either why I should be rich (Joel Osteen) or social justice for some other group besides mine (liberal mainstream churches), then where do I go?

I honestly don't know how quickly the mainstream churches have turned on this dime, but my experience is they are more like aircraft carriers than small and agile boats. Reinhold Niebuhr tells a wonderful story from his days as a Detroit minister. He took the pulpit one morning to rail against the heartlessness of the automakers who were laying off workers in the Depression at a record rate. Niebuhr spoke passionately for the unemployed, and furiously about the companies who would discard them so callously. After the service, a church member approached him to say he, the member, was in management at an auto worker, and was suffering great torments calling in employees to hand them their last paychecks. Niebuhr realized then that no problem is a matter of the abstract "they," but is always about "us." And when you have to rail against "us," it's suddenly a much harder thing to do.

I have a friend who has been in ministry most of his adult life. When there were attempts to boycott Taco Bell because of the labor practices used to harvest the tomatoes the corporation used, attention fell on an employer in his town. A representative from the national church came to town to "educate" the pastors in town about the issue. When they tried to point out they had church members who worked for the company Taco Bell bought produce from, their words fell on deaf ears. The matter was one of ideas, not people, and the pastors were failing to hold up their end for the good of the goal.

Churches have a hard time avoiding such conclusions. Institutions have a hard time with nuance, and the church is, by and large, an institution. So if the churches are not tackling the problem of unemployment in a coherent or even useful manner, I won't be surprised. There is precious little they can do besides rail against the system, perhaps in the manner of Jesus cleansing the temple of merchants. But the church is not Jesus, and the free market is not the Temple; so there's that. There's also the obvious problem: wealthy people support the church, unemployed people don't. The first rule any pastor learns in a modern church is: don't bite the hand that feeds you; not if you want to eat.

I don't think those hands need to be bitten anyway, but any discussion of money from the pulpit makes people squirm; and any discussion that goes against the grain of modern understandings of poverty might well make those who aren't poor or about to be poor due to job loss, more than a bit uncomfortable. And I don't know how it would make the poor and unemployed any more comfortable, either. So we're back at the pastor's problem: what do to, and how to do it.

One problem is the language we feel compelled to use. I still remember speaking up in a meeting of clergy and interested laity on a church response to a scientific subject. When I pointed out the statement being crafted made precious little reference to God, I was berated by a lay person for "beating up" on science. I was doing no such thing, but no one in the room, laity and clergy alike, supported my position, so I learned when to shut up (basically, always) and when to speak up (basically, never) and thus got through the rest of the process without incident. We don't like talking about spiritual matters, at least not as Protestants, because we sound too much like religious know-nothings. Or we are religious know-nothings who understand science only as it makes us materially comfortable, and abandon it to pursue rather silly spiritual ideas that are really no more sound than triskadekaphobia and other superstitions, so as to keep our science and our religion comfortably separated. I've seen many examples of both. Until we can find or appropriate a language that expresses our confessions of faith without expressing our credulity about the physical universe, we'll have quite a struggle with this issue. That language is available; but we have yet to do the hard work of appropriating it to our use.

Another problem (although almost all our problems, thanks to Hume, come down to problems of language), is our problem of identity. After Freud and the Viennese school of psychology, we all assume human beings are primarily sexual creatures. After menarche and puberty, we are all driven by sexual desire, so much so that we must be identified, first and foremost, as heterosexual or homosexual, or even bisexual and transgendered. Again, the modern liberal church has nobly taken up this cause, reinforcing the idea that we are not first creatures of spirit, but creatures of our genitalia and what we want to do with them. What would happen, though, if we thought of ourselves first as spiritual beings, and secondarily as material beings? We might try to disappear into the ether, I suppose, trying to become as diaphanous and "pure" as possible. But I don't think so; I don't think we'd have to abandon the world to be spiritual beings in the world, though we might have to stop thinking Maslow's hierarchy (which I first encountered in seminary; three college degrees, and I had no use for that pyramid until I was training to be a minister of the gospel) is the baseline for human needs, and spirituality comes in fourth or fifth or sixth in line. What if we simply turned that around? What seismic shifts in human consideration might arise?

Yet another problem is the problem of the holy.

This archaic and ostensibly more savage radicalization of ‘religious’ violence claims, in the name of ‘religion’, to allow the living community to rediscover its roots, its place, its body and its idiom intact (unscathed, safe, pure, proper). It spreads death and unleashes self-destruction in a desperate (auto-immune) gesture that attacks the blood of its own body: as though thereby to eradicate uprootedness and reappropriate the sacredness of life safe and sound. Double root, double uprootedness, double eradication.”
Derrida is concerned with violence, but we need not follow him there to appropriate his language and understand it correctly. What about the claim, in the name of 'religion,' to rediscover the roots, the place, the body and idiom, of 'religion.' Isn't that what Dean French is doing, and to a lesser extent Walter Russell Meade? They come closer to speaking the language of violence on the subject of poverty than anyone else I'm hearing. And that is an interesting thing about the discussion of poverty: the very discussion of it usually makes us very nervous.

In Ursula LeGuin's Omelas, even a kind word to the child in the basement is enough to end the perfection of the too-true-to-be-good city. I find that whenever a kind word is spoken about the poor, almost-violent reactions often ensue. I knew a kind and good man, a church member (not of my church) who insisted that panhandlers on the streets of Houston, obviously destitute and broken people, in fact made $30,000 a year (apparently a princely sum; I think his age was showing in that calculation) by begging, which proved, PROVED!, they were not, indeed, worthy of our compassion. He meant well, but while the poor may always be with us, it seems to most people that we don't always have to care for them. Meade and French stand in a long line that I remember from my childhood, when anecdotes about color TV's in tar paper shacks proved that the poor weren't really victims of a system, but simply profligate and poor managers of their admittedly meager incomes. We seem to feel, somehow, that the poor indict us in our comfort, and any kind word delivered to them or even about them, that isn't tempered with some kind of rebuke for the group as a whole, is enough to afflict what makes us comfortable. Speaking harshly of the poor is our own way of trying to "eradicate uprootedness and reappropriate the sacredness of life safe and sound." But, of course, what we end up with is: "Double root, double uprootedness, double eradication."

We always have the poor with us because we are always committed to systems that make sure some one else is poor, that someone lives in the basement so we can enjoy the sunshine and festivals of Omelas. That is the double root we always strive to uproot and eradicate. But we uproot and eradicate ourselves, in the effort, as well. Is it any surprise that: “This development reinforces the social marginalization of less educated Americans who are also increasingly disconnected from the institutions of marriage and work.” Disconnecting people from institutions we don't really want them to be a part of is the primary work of an institution.

So, do we abandon the institution? If we do, where do we go? And after all, is the Church really Omelas? Do we really have no alternative but to accept it, or walk away?

Who is the church, anyway? The priests, the bishops, the pastors and judicatory of whatever form and function? Or is the church the people in the pews? Is the church you? Which is not to say that you are the Body of Christ, but is the Church so apart from you that it, too, is an abstraction, a thing to which you have nothing but an unfortunate connection? If pastors are waiting like vultures for parishioners to come along in the end, in the last resort, are you waiting for the church to act like the church you imagine, in the end, in the last resort? Maybe it is time, again, to ask the passionate questions (on another subject, but again, we can disregard that) of that passionate Roman Catholic, Walker Percy:

What happened to marriage and family that it should have become a travail and a sadness?...God may be good, family and marriage and children and home may be good, grandma and grandpa may act wise, the Thanksgiving table may be groaning with God's goodness and bounty, all the folks healthy and happy, but something is missing...What is missing? Where did it go? I won't have it! I won't have it! Why this sadness here? Don't stand for it! Get up! Leave! Let the boat people sit down! Go live in a cave until you've found the thief who is robbing you. But at least protest! Stop, thief! What is missing? God? Find him!
Maybe that's what we should do. It is clear Meade and French and their ilk are wrong, and worse, dangerous. But knowing that doesn't tell us what to do, only what not to do. So what do we do? We get up. That's right, nothing more than that. Get up! Protest! What is missing? Who is robbing us? God? A thief? Find him! Find the thief! Find God!!!!

Sorry, no answers here at the end of the book. Just more questions:

If you're looking for an answer,
If you're looking for a way,
If you're looking for directions,
Or a lesson how to pray,
Then there's nothing for you here,
You'd better go.

"Song for Maybe Christians," as best I can remember it 40 years later. Something I learned in high school. Some things stick with you longer than they should.

UPDATE: There is, by the way, a response to poverty in this country from major religious organizations. The membership of this group is really quite impressive. On the other hand, they are not the Tea Party (or Tea Parties), and they don't attract the attention of the DC media crowd. There is also the distinction between poverty (a concept) and the poor (people). But it is a response. A candle in the darkness, as it were.

*(try as I might, I can't find the German double "S" on my computer. Apologies!)

1 comment:

  1. Atrios was discussing 10-lane highways this morning and I thought of you ;)