Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers

"If there when Grace dances, I should dance."--W.H. Auden

Another fairly silly article about the "rise" of "nones" (I honestly expect better than this from Vox) which presumes the post World War II "boom" in church attendance (which predated, barely, the "baby boom," make of that what you will) and subsequent rise in evangelical churches and non-denominational "mega-churches" (quick, what denomination is Joel Osteen?) in the '80's (no love for the "Jesus Freaks" of the early '70's?), was the norm in America, and the change was because mainline churches were too "liberal", donchaknow?

Such numbers speak to the relative theological liberalism of white mainline churches — many of which have traditionally been associated with progressive politics — as well as the tricky needle many mainline Protestant churches must thread. While they are often more socially as well as doctrinally more liberal than their evangelical counterparts, placing less of a public emphasis on dogma, such a “middle ground” has often left them short of members: Another 2015 Pew study found that, nationwide, mainline churches hemorrhage 1 million members annually. Other religious groups were not polled for this particular part of the survey.

Yes, mainline churches are losing members, I'll take the Pew study as a fact on that issue.  But why?  The rest of that paragraph is remarkably fact free, but "everybody knows" what caused it, so why argue the point now?

That assertion is not exactly "fake news," but it is blithering ignorance.  Mainline churches formed their identity in a culture that no longer exists.  Non-denominational churches were "counter-culture" for the Jesus Freaks.  They became a bastion of conservatism as American society began to change from the roots (or appeared to do so) with the waves of feminism and then "homosexuals" who became "gays" who became "lesbians, too!," who became "LGB" and later "T" (I list it for chronological purposes, lest some think it all happened at once), and there were even movements to recognize the legitimacy of Native Americans.  Whatever happened to them, anyway?

In any case, everyone was clamoring for a new definition of "American" and "human" and demanding a "place at the table" and, sadly, most mainline denominations were not too anxious to go with these cultural changes.  For example, men had always been pastors, and always should be, and women shouldn't presume to be.  My last church had its final rupture with a called pastor (after me) largely because she was a woman.  The congregation was mostly old (older than me by 15-20 years, at least, many old enough to be my parents), and they weren't having it.  And that was a UCC congregation, one of the most "liberal" denominations in the country!  So, no, it isn't that denominations became more "liberal," it's that the world changed around those churches, and most of them became enclaves of "we've always done it this way!"  An attitude that didn't exactly attract younger generations, who left as soon as they were old enough to be allowed self-determination, or stayed away in the first place.

And for people who like the world the way it was, there are plenty of denominations to accommodate them; but somehow, even if they are the Southern Baptists, they are not "mainline" because they are not "liberal," and any losses in their membership skews the narrative, so let's just set them aside, shall we?

Then there's the rise of the "nones," which may or may not be a rise at all.  But you can't simultaneously fault mainline denominations for being too "liberal" and ignore the fact more and more people find themselves able to do without church altogether.  Much as most Americans did in 1906, when nearly 60% reported they didn't attend any church whatsoever (although they probably snuck in for Christmas and Easter).  So where does this leave us?

A series of Pew Research Center polls released last week shows how ideas about religious belief and morality are increasingly falling along racial and political lines. Fifty-six percent of Americans now say that belief in God isn’t a necessary component of morality, up from 49 percent in 2011. The uptick reflects the wider prevalence of the spiritually unaffiliated, or “nones,” as nearly a quarter of Americans identified as atheist or agnostic in 2011.

"Nones" are all atheists, now?  Or were in 2011.  Yeah, I don't think so.  And even if it's only people who don't go to church, nearly 25% is not nearly 60%.  Call me when we get back to 1906, then you'll have some news for me.  As for people thinking God isn't necessary in their lives:  do tell.  Ask any pastor to honestly say God is important to his congregation's life, and that pastor, in honesty, will tell you God isn't. Not really.  Even the Hebrews didn't think God was necessary for morality.  Go listen to Walter Brueggemann again, and tell me where he talks about morality.  Justice, yes.  Wisdom, yes.  Right living, I suppose we could call it:  yes.  Morality?  Not really.  I would not casually divorce God from morality so much as I would say:  what does morality have to do with justice, with truth, with caring for my neighbor?  If I say I do care, in my heart, in my conscience, in my public speech, but do nothing, what is my morality, anyway?  What most people mean by "morality" is that they mean well, they try to be nice, they have "good hearts."

What they don't mean is that they do very much about it.  If that's your "morality," God clearly doesn't mean anything to it.  So what was it we were talking about again?

The poll suggests, too, that the increasingly political polarization of American society over the past decade and a half has resulted in a much more secular contingent of the American left, something that is often left undiscussed when we talk about the radicalization of the religious right under the recent political climate.

Which also suggests there was no love for the Berrigan brothers, Catholics to the end, but not models for how to do "radical" Christianity, for some reason that didn't have a lot to do with them (although maybe a lot to do with the denominations that refused to honor such men and women; and we're back to Brueggemann and the world that hates us).  Or really for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  That first title is often snipped off of him, now, and the sermons he gave and the reasons and faith that founded his movement leadership are ignored because his famous Letter from jail still makes us uneasy, and because "First Amendment" and we really don't want to mix religion and politics now, do we? (Anymore than we want politics in our football, our secular religion in the fall).  Yes, there are lots of cultural reasons why a "liberal" church, either theologically or politically (see., e.g, the UCC) is neither popular nor influential in America.  And we still don't trust Catholics, and the new Pope talks too much about the poor, and not enough about punishment and abortion (evils thereof, that is).  Then again such churches, such pastors, such people as the Berrigans, have never been popular; and when they have, like the Rev. Dr. King, we re-make them in our images so we can be more comfortable around them.

Maybe the Desert Fathers were on to something after all:

In those days [the 4th century C.E.] men had become keenly conscious of the strictly individual character of "salvation." Society--which meant pagan society, limited by the horizons and prospects of "this world"--was regarded by them [the Desert Fathers, living as hermits in the Egyptian desert] as a shipwreck from which each single individual man had to swim for his life. We need not stop here to discuss the fairness of this view: what matters is to remember that it was a fact.

Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert (New York: New Directions 1970), p. 3

I mean, is our society really any less pagan today?


  1. When I heard the description of Stephen Paddock as having no political or religious affiliations the first thing I thought was, oh, he's a "none".

    I'm always fascinated at how the religious ideas of people of color, racial minorities are considered as not counting, the reporting on the voting patterns of Catholics in the Pew survey on the last election, dividing them between "Hispanic" and "white" was an extreme example of that. The use of sociological categorization to not only fudge data but to make it to fit your own desire is one of the first things that made me entirely skeptical of anything that relies on responses to surveys. That polling firms could have developed a political identity, such as Rasmussen has, reliably favoring Republicans should be enough to dump the superstition that what they do is science. I only use Pew surveys with the notice that I don't believe that they reflect any kind of reality. I'm not even sure you could define what such a reality is supposed to be.

  2. There is an implication that non-whites are more emotional and less rational, isn't there?

  3. Merton is like a harmonic note, ringing out and amplifying forgotten truths from further down the scale about the contrast between the contemplative potential of monastic life and the chaotic, stressful nature of the world. His work and insights are a bridge between those two worlds and open up possibilities of a different interior life for those of us mired in the endless distractions of daily existence.

    Another individual offering a bridge and a praxis for us to enjoy some of the fruits of contemplative life is Robin Amis, who spent time studying under Greek Orthodox monks and inculcating their knowledge of the techniques and understanding of the Desert Fathers. I recommend his work "A Differerent Christianity" as a kind of introduction and primer to their approach. It offfers a path for people to begin to experience and develop an interior, devotional life flowing out of the Liturgy based on the results of men spending lifetimes working on improving themselves morally and seeking ways to not only connect with the Divine Presence but to be in constant connection with it.

  4. Thanks, trex. New sources of wisdom are always welcome.