Saturday, October 25, 2014

"We shall not cease from exploration...."

"and the end of all our exploring..."

The pastors I met in my active parish ministry were, for the most part, good people trying hard to do an almost impossible job.

Some, of course, were the man in the grey flannel suit:  simply trying to get to the end of the day and earn a paycheck the best way they knew how.  Older pastors, retiring as I came on, seemed especially comfortable in their role:  they had served congregations which had served them well in return, and as that generation (which as not really defined by a calendar, or by their numbers in society) was coming to and end, their ministries were, too.  By and large they knew that, they accepted that, they went gracefully and gratefully into retirement, often nursing some notion of what congregations should be based on what they had learned as young men.  But we all learn lessons in youth that form our outlook ever after.

The worst pastors I met were the ones too zealous in their protection of "their" church.  There was the Conference Minister who told me he voted against my ordination, because he didn't think I was fit for ministry.  A few months after I left that Conference to pastor a church in another, he was forced to resign after exposing himself to his neighbors.  He stood naked in his back door in front of a teenage girl next door.

That was preceded by the Conference Minister who was forced out of his position by the Conference I had left to go to seminary.  He came to my seminary to finish out his career so he could reach retirement age with as much in his pension as possible.  On his way out, as he finally retired, he told my teachers I was unfit for ministry.  It was because I had tried to represent my pastor as his lawyer in a church investigation that almost led to his being stricken from ministry (the details of the UCC ordination and standing would take too long to explain).  It was a kangaroo court.  The Conference, through its lawyer, presented me with a document purporting to show the UCC allowed Conferences to exclude lawyers from the actual hearing.  I later learned that language had been rejected by the National Conference in favor of language encouraging a pastor to have representation in such circumstances.

And then there was the Conference Minister who cost me my pulpit; who came, without telling me ahead of time, to a Church Council meeting and denounced me in no uncertain terms.  He left for a conference on the west coast almost immediately after that, and retired within a year.  We had had, I had thought, a good relationship prior to that night.  He wouldn't speak to me that night, and I never spoke to him again.

I won't go into the church officials I dealt with trying to transfer my standing to another denomination, all of which, on paper, are quite open to such movement.  Suffice to say I have reasons to despise the institutional Church; far better reasons than Chris Hedges sums up in his article on the occasion of his ordination.

Ordination is a tricky thing.  It is determined by each denomination, based on its own determination of what validates an ordination.  I understand that in some Baptist denominations, for example, the congregation can ordain those they deem fit, and the deed is done.  The UCC is supposed to require a seminary education, but that's not the rigid requirement you might expect it to be.  I don't know what standards other denominations impose, but the idea is to determine that you have a calling to ministry and a reason to be set aside as a pastor or priest.  It is not automatic, granted upon your graduation from the right school, or based on your winning personality.  Most churches require some call to ministry; not just the mysterious "inner" call, but an actual offer of employment in what the denomination recognizes as a ministry.  A call to pastor a church is the obvious choice (it was how I was ordained; I couldn't even ask for ordination until a church wanted me to be their pastor), but there can be other calls.  There is always a lot of discernment involved, and a lot of consideration as to whether the candidate can simply handle the job of being a priest or pastor.

It ain't no golden staircase.

It can be, for the right kind of pastor.  I've known them, envied them their ease in ministry.  I couldn't emulate it.  I've known pastors, too, just trying to shepherd their flock; but their flock was more wolves than sheep (and I'm not hiding my story in this example.  I'd use the metaphor of snakes if I was doing that.)  Pastoring is a hard task, and the idea that the church and congregation should be "called" to the "Cost of Discipleship" is an engaging one for some members of the laity, but it is an absolute nightmare for members of the clergy.

Hedges cites Orwell, an atheist, and James Baldwin, the son of a pastor, for support in his analysis of the community of believers as a community of hypocrites.  Orwell despises institutions that become corrupted into the mirror opposite of what they were meant to be; Baldwin condemns the church for not being, as we learned to say in seminary, "prophetic."  The church seldom speaks truth to power because, too often, the church is the power; or wants to stay close to the power, at least.  It puts me in mind of several stories, not the least of which is Kierkegaard's description of his famous "Knight of Faith".

The moment I set eyes on him I instantly push him from me, I myself leap backwards, I clasp my hands and say half aloud, "Good Lord, is this the man?  Is it really he?  Why, he looks like a tax collector!"  However, it is the man after all.  I draw closer to him, watching his least movements to see whether there might not be visible a little heterogeneous fractional telegraphic message from the infinite, a glance, a look, a gesture, a note of sadness, a smile, which betrayed the infinite in its heterogeneity with the finite.  No!  I examine his figure from tip to toe to see if there might not be a cranny through which the infinite was peeping.  No!  He is solid through and through.  His tread?  It is vigorous, belonging entirely to finiteness; no smartly dressed townsman who walks out to Freberg on a Sunday afternoon treads the ground more firmly, he belongs entirely to the world, no Philistine more so.  One can discover nothing of that aloof and superior nature whereby one recognizes the knight of the infinite.  He takes delight in everything, and whenever one sees him taking part in a particular pleasure, he does it with the persistence which is the mark of the earthly man whose soul is absorbed in such things. He tends to his work.  So when one looks at him one might suppose that he was a clerk who had lost his soul in an intricate system of book-keeping, so precise is he.  He takes a holiday on Sunday.  He goes to church.  No heavenly glance or any other token of the incommensurable betrays him; of one did not know him, it would be impossible distinguish him from the rest of the congregation, for his healthy and vigorous hymn-singing proves at the most that he has a good chest....And yet he is no genius, for in vain have I sought in him the incommensurability of genius.....And yet, and yet--actually I could become furious over it, for envy if for no other reason--this man has made and every instant is making the movements of infinity.

Johannes de Silentio, Fear and Trembling, tr. Walter Lowrie.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1973, pp. 50-51.

What truth would you speak to which power to effect the result of Kierkegaard's description?

de Silentio's insistence on the absolute normality of the character of the Knight of Faith is instructive, but it is little commented on.  Most people know this book at all for its title (which inspired Hunter Thompson's "Fear and Loathing" in both Las Vegas and on the 1968 presidential campaign trail) and the concept of the "leap of faith."  Almost everyone gets both ideas wrong.  It was Paul who advised his churches to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling," because they were dealing with the living God in their perfectly ordinary lives (when Paul wrote the priest was still going into the Holy of Holies one day a year with a rope tied to his ankle so his lifeless body could be dragged out if the Creator of the Universe cast a glance in the unfortunate mortal's direction).  And the "leap of faith" is not a leap across reason into fantasy; it is absolute trust in the Absolute (de Silentio's term), producing, as Eliot would later say, "a condition of complete simplicity, costing not less than everything."  But the price paid is one's life gained; else there is nothing to Christianity but endless sacrifice.

And what fresh hell is that?

I'm a bit non-plussed, having read Hedges' essay, why he wanted to be ordained.  So he could purify the church?  So he could prove himself holier than them?  So he could finally get what he had wanted so long ago, no matter how bitter he is now?

It's not that I directly disagree with this quote from Baldwin:

Life is tragic simply because the earth turns, and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death—ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life.
I mean, you could make a fine sermon from Ecclesiastes on that.  But you can't preach the gospel, the "good news," from it.  You can't preach on a weekly basis against "the self-love in American society," at least not without first examining your own self-love that convinces you you have the voice and position of the prophet, with none of the disabilities appurtenant thereto.  The prophets who most vehemently denounce Israel also argue with God about the truth they are called to testify to, and the price they pay is high:  Jeremiah wails, Ezekiel suffers from hallucinations and has himself bound and rolled in ashes, Hosea marries a prostitute, Amos objects that he is just a dresser of sycamore trees.  Few of the prophets enjoy privilege and comfort and the pleasure of telling everyone they are wrong.  The prophets speak to the community and speak from the community, and like Jeremiah, whose head should be a fountain so it could produce all the tears he wants to shed for Israel, they suffer for the community.  They don't get to stand apart from it.  Baldwin and Orwell may have felt compelled to lead their lives; but it is the community that pronounces their proclamations valid or invalid.  No prophet gets to self-verify their truth.

We call those people mad; not prophets.

Hedges chooses a ministry that puts him on the edge of society, among people perhaps more willing to give up their "totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations" because those things have been taken from them already.  It is a valid ministry; I am glad he has found it.  But it isn't the only ministry; and the irony of denouncing the institution even as it ordains you, even as it publicly approves of your ministry and formally recognizes it as a ministry, as something set apart, as something valued by the community, is not to be ignored.

It is easy to snipe at the community of believers; to call it a community of hypocrites and lukewarm believers, to condemn it as the problem rather than the solution.  It is even easier to think your convictions alone are valid, and are validated the more they are not commonly accepted and widely enacted.  That is the Romantic illusion; the notion that every man and woman is her or his own Byronic hero.  de Silentio's Knight of Faith is neither Byronic nor a hero; he is presented, in fact, as the exact opposite of the Romantic ideal.  He is bourgeois to his toes, the better to humble himself and be servant of all, if not truly last of all.  But then again, playing the 19th century Danish version of the man in the grey flannel suit, perhaps the K of F is last of all, after all.  Certainly he has achieved what the prophets could not (well, what some of them could not; every person's path is different, isn't it?).  Kierkegaard himself would denounce "Christendom," but he still had planned to take a country parish in Denmark, and live a quiet, non-public life.

I've struggled myself with the legitimacy of the church.  I finally realized any legitimacy in this world must lie outside of me, otherwise it is mere solipsism.  I cannot claim myself validated against the opinion of the world, no matter how enticing that stance may be for those of a Romantic turn.  Even in my defiance I choose for humankind;  Sartre was right.  Defiance is not liberating; it is a burden.  If I see all church members as hypocrites, then hypocrites they are, and I lose the memories of the good people I've known in churches throughout my lifetime, some of them family members, some of them long-lost friends.  No, I will not condemn.  I will seek to avoid the reflex that makes me right and those who disagree with me, wrong.  I am not holy; you do not need to stand apart from me.  If I abandon the church it is not because the church is not good enough for me; it is because I am too vain to allow myself to enter into the life of the church.  Or it is because I am not ready, again; it is because my journey takes me on a path that crosses and recrosses the path of the church, but doesn't let me settle there.

It is because I am who I am, and I don't know how to change that fundamental.

But that fundamental doesn't make me right or wrong; it makes me difficult.  Perhaps Chris Hedges is not as angry as he seems to be.  Perhaps Chris Hedges has finally found his calling and is serving the Living God and the Risen Lord in the best way he can.  Perhaps.  In fact, I'm sure of it; who am I to sit in judgment?  Neither of us can sit in judgment on the church, either.  It is what it is, as we are who we are.

The marvel is that God works through us all, in spite of everything.  Thanks be to God.


  1. Whoa! So much to think about. More or less random thoughts:

    In church or outside, except for the destitute, who among us who cries out for justice is not a hypocrite, if we have not given all to the poor?

    Unless a person is called to lead a congregation as a pastor or priest, ordination is not necessary to pursue one's call. I don't quite understand why Hedges felt such a need for affirmation by ordination.

    "I won't go into the church officials I dealt with trying to transfer my standing to another denomination..."

    If you had asked, I could have told you that the person who attempted to guide you along the way was on the wrong path. Perhaps, it all worked out for the best for you in the end. I hope so.

    My default position in any struggle is with the powerless against the powers, and there must be a compelling reason for me to choose otherwise.

  2. His ministry is in the prison, among other things, a writing program, something he's been doing for a while now. Perhaps he found the ministry and then felt moved to seek ordination. He tells the story of how, after he graduated from seminary, he went to El Salvador during the dirty war there to report and the other wars he covered after that. How the Presbyterian church refused his ordination then because they didn't recognize that as a valid ministry and how his minister father said that he was ordained to write.

    James Cone, giving a homily at C.H's ordination, the first he's ever given in four decades of teaching seminarians, he was hardly what could be considered encouraging, noting what a deadly serious thing it was, saying that a call to ministry was a call to die, noting Bonhoeffer.

    I found it encouraging, though I'm certainly not a member of a reformed church or a protestant - which is part of the post I started writing last week and which I might finish yet. I think part of it might have been that it rather confounded a lot of his journalistic colleagues for him to be ordained at this time in the collective history of American journalism of the left. Maybe that's a witness if not a ministry, too.

  3. TC, after thinking about why I said I didn't understand Hedges, I think that perhaps my usually latent, mild anti-clericalism may have come to the fore. Not that there's anything wrong with clerics.... Some of my best friends are clergy. :-) In fact, some of my clergy friends are anti-clerical.

    As humans, we all seek affirmation of one kind or another, so it's not for me to question Chris' motives for wanting to be ordained.

  4. I didn't mean to critique Hedge's call so much as his predilection for the "prophetic" witness. I find that an enticing but dangerous vision. The prophets spoke the anger of God to the people, as well as God's love, and they suffered the punishment with the people.

    Modern versions tend to be "holier than thou" postures where the prophet stands apart and condemns a community. When Hedges gets that stance started, I start getting critical about him.

    YMMV, of course.

  5. Adding: I did like what Cone and West had to say.