Friday, October 9, 2009

Just Imagine

The great blogger Toujoursdan recently posted on a question that comes up a lot for gay people who are religious, Why bother? Why do we trouble ourselves with religion at all, least of all with the Christian religion whose leaders go out of their way to proclaim their hatred and enmity for us and for our friends?
This is a perfect follow-up to Bishop Selby's splendid essay where he notes that contrary to all expectation and in the face of so much persecution and hatred, gays and lesbians remain faithful conscientious Christians and even devoted servants of the Church. It goes right to the heart of what we hope to be as a church, and what we believe the "good news" is supposed to be to the world.

In the wake of the events of 9/11, a lot of people found or renewed their religious faith. I was not one of them. The religious motivation for the massacre horrified me. I remember reading selections from the devotional counseling provided for the hijackers, found in their belongings after the event, with revulsion. Pascal's famous quote that men do their worst evil in the service of conviction sprang to mind. In the wake of the catastrophe, I did not read religious literature, but Camus' The Plague. I read it not to make sense of the disaster (it was senseless), but to make sense of how people respond to catastrophe. I remember seeing a lot of Camus' optimism about human response in times of crisis played out right in front of me in this most famously brutal and cynical of cities. Normally very self-protective and selfish people went out of their way to help their neighbors in the crisis: people opened their apartments for complete strangers stranded by the suspended public transportation to spend the night; people cooked and cleaned for bereaved firehouses for weeks and months as dead firefighters were recovered and buried; donations of everything from blood to boots poured in within minutes of appeals on radio and TV.
I was angry. But I was not angry at God. God didn't hijack planes and crash them into buildings. I've never believed in God the Great Puppeteer who makes everything happen that happens. I more agree with WH Auden who said that "The God of Love will never withdraw our right to grief and infamy." We're on our own to make things happen for good or evil.
I was angry at religion. I remember reading a piece of graffiti that appeared downtown within weeks of the attack, "Religion is the problem, not the answer." I still feel a large amount of sympathy for that sentiment. I saw religion as nothing more than an infernal incubator for the hatreds, bigotries, and superstitions that motivated so brutal and cynical a crime.

There is another part of me determined not to let the haters take the Gospel away from me. That part went into eclipse for awhile, but never really left me. I thought long and carefully and eventually put things into a certain measure of perspective. The whole business of religion is ultimately very human, as human as politics and culture. Creeds, scriptures, doctrines, dogmas, theologies, and institutions are all very limited and flawed instruments for approaching that immense mystery that we call God. They are as flawed and as mortal as we are. Bishops, priests, hierarchies, conventions, churches, megachurches, bishops' councils, religious broadcasting, church funds and properties, are all very worldly and very political things fated to pass away with the rest of the world. As a priest friend once remarked to me many years ago, "there are no collars in heaven."

When we say the Lord's Prayer, the Our Father, the Pater Noster, or whatever you want to call it, we pray for the world to end. We pray for that whole world that we know, that is the arena for all of our successes and failures, to end. We all know that what we say in that prayer is at odds with what we really want in our heart of hearts, "not universal love, but to be loved alone." And yet universal Love is what we pray for and what we hope to see in the end. Everyone will fall madly in love with everyone else. Fear, resentment, and hatred will be forgotten. And in that moment of blissful awakening, everything that we set up to divide us all one for another, every marker we use to find our way in the world will end: nations, religions, tribes, races, genders, etc. The life and death of God incarnate as one of us, among the least of us, in a young Jewish carpenter 2000 years ago, is a radical rejection of all of our measures of success and failure in this world. Power vs. powerlessness, success vs. failure, "who may" vs. "who must," all of our measures of success, political, financial, physical, sexual, moral, and spiritual were picked up and thrown out the window in the death and resurrection of Christ. That is liberating. We can take that whole burden of obligation and striving and just throw it off our backs. Our salvation is already accomplished on our behalf. Why should I abandon that supreme hope of liberation because of someone else's petty fears and prejudices?

I have had the good fortune to see this lived out. Father Charles Bewick was one example among many. He was an Anglican priest who found himself stranded and dying in St. Louis where I happened to live. He was part of the staff of an English bishop invited to start an institute in St. Louis. While there, Charles was diagnosed with AIDS. The bishop immediately dismissed him and left him stranded and destitute. A local parish hired him on as an assistant priest. This was the early days of the AIDS crisis in St, Louis, and the treatment of the afflicted was appalling and shameful. Charles immediately went to work to create a pioneering service to find housing for AIDS sufferers who were evicted from their homes. He faced torrents of verbal abuse from hostile religious and state agencies, and from landlords, but he never lost his cool and never responded in kind. He persisted, and managed to find housing for people who were in no shape to find it themselves. When he died, the bishop who dismissed him was very sorry for what he had done. He had the good grace to accept Charle's forgiveness. The bishop accepted Charles' dying wish that he celebrate at the funeral mass.

Could someone who was not religious have done work that was this noble and selfless? Probably so. I wonder though, if they could have done this work with the same courage and joy that Charles showed. I don't know. I know that there are a lot of non-Christians who live out Christian hospitality and charity much more fully than most Christians. Charles was not a typical Christian, but he was an exemplary one. Charles Bewick remains one of many witnesses to that liberating power of the Gospel that I have seen in my life.

The great theologian Paul Tillich once said that the burden that Christ promises to lift from our shoulders is not the burden of sin and death. We still have those, and always will. That's a consequence of free will, and of sharing a world with others whose will is free. God could bend us to His will if He so wished to do. Instead, He wants us all to come to Him freely and willingly. The burden that Christ lifts from our shoulders is the burden of religion; all of those rules of clean and unclean, all of those measures of holy and unholy. In the end, religion is another race, another test that this world requires of us. Christ took our tests and finished our races for us.

Just imagine, a world with no religion.

My inner Protestant believes that no one can be argued into religious faith. Faith is either something you have or you don't. I don't believe in "natural law" theology. I don't believe that there are any compelling arguments for the existence of God or for the truth of any part of the Christian religion. Any first year graduate student in philosophy or mathematics can make quick work of the old "first cause" arguments. It was testimony to Aquinas' greatness that he said that all of his elaborate arguments were not iron-clad proof of anything, but only concessions to human weakness. Arguments, in the end, are another means of compulsion. A relationship with God compelled by arguments is as hollow as a shotgun marriage. Religion is our imperfect instrument for approaching God, as imperfect and as mortal as we are. Just as there is no compelling reason to believe, I see no compelling reason to abandon my faith.


Katy said...

All wonderfully said. Thank you for this post.

rick allen said...

"Religion is the problem, not the answer."

Vis-à-vis the September 11 murders, I find it helpful to keep in mind that, after that horrific event, the survivors were taken to three institutions named “Mount Sinai,” “St. Vincent’s,” and “Presbyterian.” The killings in the name of religion still strike me as far enough outside of the mainstream to honestly characterize as deviant or pathological. The impulse that not only heals, but also cares enough to institutionalize such healing, to the extent that we take for granted that it goes on every day, strikes me as the more genuine social effect of religion.

(Not that I’m intending to argue….)

Counterlight said...

rick allen,

Sometimes it is necessary to remind the hostile anticlericals that hospitals began as religious (and specifically Christian) institutions.

it's margaret said...

"When we say the Lord's Prayer, the Our Father, the Pater Noster, or whatever you want to call it, we pray for the world to end."

Oh. Really? Doug, I don't understand.... where in the prayer do we pray that?

And, in earnest, I think Jesus wanted to end religion. He never had much good to say to those who wanted to put religion first....

Blessings. Thought provoking and searing essay.

Counterlight said...

"Thy Kingdom come..."

Rick+ said...

Dear Doug,

     Thank you for the story of Father Charles Bewick - I cried.

     I'm glad your faith stayed with you. Your faith in your writings and in your art has certainly been a blessing to me.

     Sometimes I think my soul gets overwhelmed by the 9/11's and schisms and Anglican councils and evening news. Some days I rekindle my faith by recognizing these things are just too big for me. On those days, it is enough to understand that I love people, that I can personally do some good in my own little corner of the world today, that I am grateful I have food and shelter, and that I need to remember to refill the bird feeders. Faith in small letters, not caps, is where I have to sometimes take refuge.

john iliff said...

Why I came back ...

Thanks, Doug. Thanks for articulating some of my feelings. I'm still grievously angry with/at the institutional church (the Orthodox Church in this case) for ignoring - and yet aiding and abetting the death of a wonderful young gay man - our son, Eric. You know the story. I'd be dishonest if I didn't admit to being mad at God, too. Maybe a little less these days. Things are particularly raw just now, as Sunday would be his 28th birthday - and it's national Coming Out Day, as well. Damned ironic for sure.

After Eric's suicide, I left Eastern Orthodoxy and my wife her life-long Catholicism. We never expected to be "churched" Christians again. Ever. But, I've always said the bastards couldn't take my faith away. I'd also always been a believer in 'answered prayer'. The most fervent prayers I'd ever prayed were unanswered or ignored by God. (That we or someone could have saved Eric's life.) I have a very hard time with the third option that my prayers "were" answered. [I'm a recovering alcoholic, 22 years this month, and still need to "keep it simple".]

I'm no theologian, and have never been, just studied it here and there on my own. Back in the mid-90's when the clergy sexual abuse crisis started to become an issue, we became alienated from our local Catholic parish and spent a period of time at one of the local TEC parishes, (to the point of being 'received'). Then the TEC priest wierded out and became obsessed with the evils of TEC blah blah. That's when Monica went back to our Catholic parish (where there was a new priest). Also that's when I was chrismated Orthodox, and Eric followed.

I've read that in the decade before the Boston Globe blew the lid off the clergy sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic church, there was a rash of (though nothing like the #'s among the R.C.'s) sexual abuse incidents in the mainline churches; TEC; ELCA, UCC, and United Methodists etc. etc. What had been wimpy and slipshod policies among them were replaced with policies with some "teeth" and oversight. [Several lawyers from my current parish have told me that TEC's is now one of the best (though imperfect, no doubt)]. Unfortunately, the Catholics and Orthodox ignored the clear warning signs of trouble ahead. The Catholic hierarchy's incompetence and deceit is legendary by now, though the Orthodox have flown under the radar of public scrutiny. As the parish council president of the local Orthodox mission, I recall signing off on the OCA's policy; which largely consisted of making clear that no bishop would be held liable for any abuse on their watch.

The long and the short of it is, we're back in a local moderately liberal TEC parish, in a so-called 'orthodox' diocese [I've been Orthodox, so don't give *me* this 'orthodox' Anglican spin]. I'm going to Synod in a couple of weeks. I'll probably shoot my mouth off when one of the diocesan leadership goes off on a 'gay is a sinful lifestyle' jag. They've done it before and I'm sick of it. I'd just like one of these holy homophobes to hurt half as much as *the people they hurt* do. You for one. My wife and me for another. And all the LGBT people we know, love and respect.

Perhaps you also find it ironic that the "wicked, apostate Episcopalians" have a sexual abuse policy second to none. That sure as hell can't be said for our key "ecumenical partners", which the self-styled 'orthodox' Anglicans seem so keen on aping a-n-d placating.


Thanks for all the good work you've put into your blog. It's much appreciated.

yours in X-C,

John Iliff

Never for the sake of peace and quiet deny your own experience or convictions -- Dag Hammerskjöld

Counterlight said...

Thank you John.

That is very powerful.