Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Church Times - Never lonelier, never more blessed

Who's Minding the Store?

Church Times - Never lonelier, never more blessed

Why is sexuality such a big issue?

First of all, I think it shouldn’t be such a big issue. For all kinds of complicated reasons, it has been raised to a level higher than it deserves. We should be talking about the gospel, feeding the poor, caring for the HIV-infected, solving the ecological crisis.

The Church most certainly should not be talking about feeding the poor, caring for the HIV-infected, solving the ecological crisis--or about sexuality. It should be talking about the doctrine of the Trinity, the Real Presence doctrine and post-mortem survival, about liturgy and sacred music, about how to drum up business for the church, maintain buildings and keep services going. Politicians and NGO-administrators should be talking about feeding the poor; doctors, nurses and epidemologists should be talking about caring for the HIV-infected; scientists should be talking about the ecological crisis.

The whole business of the Church is doing church. Once the clergy were virtually co-extensive with the educated professional class. Now they are not. There are secular experts who have taken over all the secular tasks that once fell to clergy by default, including professional ethicists who do ethics. But still these priests have the arrogance to imagine that they are qualified to talk about everyone else's business and the vanity to imagine that people will take them seriously. The Church is no more qualified to contribute to a solution to the ecological crisis than it is to do dentistry or plumbing.

Meanwhile, as these priests spend their time in bull sessions discussing all the world's problems, church buildings are being sold off, becoming derelict and being demolished, and in the US, the last bastion of religiousity in the First World, secularism is proceeding apace: the fastest growing "religious group" in the US is the unchurched. No one's minding the store. And the problem, as the old poster had it, is obvious: the priests who run the Church don't believe in God, or think that religion is either important or interesting. Or maybe more aptly, they think they're too important to do religion.

I went on a field trip to a Hindu temple in Los Angeles a few years ago for a course I was taking in Asian Spirituality. The president of the temple was a layman, predictably an engineer with a dozen or two pens in his shirt pocket. He showed us around and introduced us to the priests, whose job I gathered was strictly liturgical and janitorial: they maintained the facility, washed and dressed the idols, and did pujas. There was a menu of pujas on the wall, with prices: you paid your money and got your puja. As far as I could see these priests didn't think they had anything to say about solving the ecological crisis or imagine that anyone cared about their views on much of anything. Their job was menial: they were servants.

Christian clergy claim to regard themselves as servants too: they make a fuss about washing people's feet on Maundy Thursday. Of course, they don't believe it. They regard themselves as professionals, entitled to "professional-level" salaries, qualified to exercise leadership, to teach and to set us straight about everything from global warming to sexuality. So the outcome should hardly be a surprise: the Church flourishes, for the time being, in circumstances comparable to the Dark Ages, where the clergy are a relatively educated semi-elite amongst clueless peasants--in the Third World and in the American working class. Educated people drop out, not because Christianity is intellectually bankrupt but because they do not see any reason why they should look to the Church for wisdom or guidance.

I don't mind it so much that they're arrogant jackasses: who has ever listened to them? What I mind is that they're not minding the store, that they are not committed to maintaining the buildings and doing the pujas to suit us.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well, if it's theatrics you want, nothing simpler. Do what the Hindus do -- purchase/rent a space, hire your actors/celebrants, and have at it.

Naturally, this can be expensive ... particularly if you want the Gothic cathedral, bishop and choir in full fig, etc. Even a relatively simple Percy Dearmer country church production can be pricey if done just right.

Of course, if you're not up to producing your own show you'll have to find backers, or someone else who's putting one on and buy a ticket like everyone else ... but that's the market for ya.

H. E. said...

So, Anonymous, you're suggesting that I reinvent religion because the Church has decided to get into another line of business. And because the priests are too busy finding solutions to global warming and teaching medical personnel how to deal with AIDS to bother with buildings and pujas.

I do think it's a little offensive to Hindus to suggest that what they do is "theatrics."

And, well, if you don't want "theatrics" but are interested in Wisdom, and moral guidance, nothing could be simpler. Take philosophy courses. Of course, this can be expensive--particularly if you want a degree from a fancy university. But you can always just read books--available for free at your local public library. Or figure things out for yourself. Or go to the agora and engage in dialogue as Our Founder did.

Anonymous said...

Sorry about the "anonymous". Call me Tom.

> ... you're suggesting that I
> reinvent religion ...

Not at all. "Religion", regardless of what you mean by that, is already here, and varieties abound. I understood you to be talking about churches and the servants who ran them.

America has quite a vibrant tradition of people starting their own churches, of every kind. Many of your fellow Episcopalians/Anglicans are doing it right now.

If the one you're nominally in right now isn't working and shows no signs of changing to your satisfaction, it's certainly an option to try to start another. But it can be a lot like putting on a show.

> ... I do think it's a little
> offensive to Hindus to suggest
> that what they do is "theatrics".

Well, strictly, I didn't suggest that, though you may have. Though since I don't believe in the Hindu gods, that is more-or-less what I think they're doing ... though "sacred theater" might be more polite, and I would never say either to or around a Hindu.

Have I misunderstood previous posts of yours, that the purpose of religion is to provide that scary, metaphysical thrill that comes with a good service? And that the church/Church should get out of the ethics/morality business?

If I have misunderstood, I'll gladly accept correction. If not, then "theatrics" may be a bit abrupt, but what do you call the hiring of servants to enact scripted roles (with or without music) for the thrill of the audience?

> And, well, if you don't want
> "theatrics" but are interested
> in Wisdom, and moral guidance,
> nothing could be simpler. Take
> philosophy courses.

Makes perfect sense to me ... though I agree that the other options you list are at least as good, maybe better, for most people.

But there's still that metaphysical thrill, though. Where to get that? By your own testimony, philosophy doesn't seem to work well.

Tom
aka Anonymous Nr. 1

H. E. said...

Have I misunderstood previous posts of yours, that the purpose of religion is to provide that scary, metaphysical thrill that comes with a good service? And that the church/Church should get out of the ethics/morality business?

Correct.

If I have misunderstood, I'll gladly accept correction. If not, then "theatrics" may be a bit abrupt, but what do you call the hiring of servants to enact scripted roles (with or without music) for the thrill of the audience?

I call it "religion"--assuming that the intent of the performance is to make contact with some transcendent being, with the supernatural, and that the sense of being in contact with that is precisely what is thrilling.

But there's still that metaphysical thrill, though. Where to get that? By your own testimony, philosophy doesn't seem to work well.

That's not the job of philosophy. Quite a few undergraduates do get into it looking for metaphysical thrills but soon learn it's really about argument and analysis. Most then drop out. But some, like me, discover that they like argument and analysis as much, or more, than metaphysical thrills.

Where to get metaphysical thrills? Church. Last winter break I realized one of my life's ambitions--a pilgrimage to Hagia Sophia with stops at all the great domes along the way. By dumb luck we got to Venice St. Mark's just in time for Sunday high mass. The choir sang the ordinary of the mass a cappella from the split balconies Gabrielli exploited, in Latin which blended seamlessly into the Italian. We ate it up while gazing at the 42,000 square feet of mosaics. That's religion.

The Enlightenment was a crisis for the Church. Kant "proved" that metaphysics was a game without rules and that mysticism, the experience of something(s) beyond the phenomenal world, was impossible. Churches had a choice: reject Kant's conclusion or find something else to do. Crudely and simplistically, most churches took the latter tack on the assumption that ethics, unlike metaphysics, was respectable. And as secularization progressed, and churches became even more embarrassed about metaphysics and mysticism pushed the line that what they were really all about was "values" or guidelines for successful living or political activism or social improvement or therapy or just providing all purpose community facilities where people could socialize, keep occupied, get a little uplift and have their hands patted when needed. And recently discovered that there were few takers for any of these products.

But why reinvent the wheel anyway? The Church still has the stuff, the infrastructure, to produce that magical mystery tour. Not just the aesthetic surface, but the romance, the history and myth through which some experience what they regard as a transcendent reality? It's admittedly a niche market--probably no more than 5% of the population. But the other 95% or more will inevitably fall away because the secular world provides everything else.

What I find disheartening when this comes up in classes is that students, as one put it, "don't associate Christianity with mysticism." The 5% who have an interest get into Buddhism if they're smart and lucky or, more often, into New Age crap because the Church has failed them.

Anonymous said...

> But why reinvent the wheel
> anyway?

I don't mean to split hairs, but it needn't be reinvented. As you yourself say, it's all there already. Except that the people in charge are not doing their job.

> It's admittedly a niche
> market -- probably no more
> than 5% of the population.

And there's your problem. Back to "putting on the show", though I do regret that flip characterization of it.

Consider for a moment the economics of niche markets, and the motivations of people who become church leaders. I don't need to spell that out, I'm sure.

> The 5% who have an interest get
> into Buddhism if they're smart
> and lucky or, more often, into
> New Age crap ...

What makes Buddhism the smart and lucky choice? The fact that Buddhism's historical/cultural accretions are less self-evidently fake than those of the New Age? "Fundamentalist" Buddhism is pretty spare stuff, you know.

This fellow has done medical research on brain function during religious experiences (google him and his books). Basically, religious experience lights up certain parts of the brain, pretty uniformly, regardless of specific belief or culture.

Whether one considers that turning on a lightbulb (materialist) or tuning in a receiver (metaphysical), there's a technology involved in doing it. If you want the experience, however you interpret it, you don't have to wait for some religion-oriented business to provide the technology for you. Certainly the larger concerns can provide better aesthetics, but are you really doing yourself a service by waiting for some business to provide -- and to a niche market, at that -- what you can do, if not on as grand a scale, for yourself?

Just some thoughts.

Tom
aka Anonymous Nr. 1

H. E. said...

Consider for a moment the economics of niche markets, and the motivations of people who become church leaders. I don't need to spell that out, I'm sure.

IMHO attempting to appeal to the broader market is a losing strategy for most churches. Secular facilities increasingly supply the non-metaphysical products churches have traditionally provided--social contact and "community", "guidelines for successful living," opportunities for volunteer work, activities for children, etc. and there fewer and fewer people who are looking for one-stop shopping for these products under religious auspices.

More importantly, the decision to aim at a broader market without specifically religious interests never had to be an either/or proposition. Even with limited resources churches could have continued to serve the niche market. A few did in fact try, but in my experience the prevailing view was that metaphysics/aesthetics/mysticism was either a bad thing (for reasons with which I'm sure you're familiar) or that it would "scare away" most people

What makes Buddhism the smart and lucky choice? The fact that Buddhism's historical/cultural accretions are less self-evidently fake than those of the New Age?

Exactly so. The New Age packaging is contrived, vulgar, childish and often highly commercialized.

There are really 2 jobs: turning-on/tuning-in and providing the packaging--the historical/cultural accretions. Hallucinogenic drugs will do the first job but if you trip you also want music, poetry, natural beauty and architecture to enjoy. Also (unfortunately) recreational drugs are illegal. Some people apparently can get turned-on/tuned-in through meditation but I never could--I'm just not wired for it. I can't do it for myself--at least not legally.

The Church historically has had both the technology and the packaging but has in effect chosen to restrict or prohibit access. And maybe even worse, to the extent that it concerns itself with "spirituality" it's chosen to ignore its own very robust tradition in favor of contrived, vapid, sentimentalities. You're overly optimistic about the possibilities of do-it-yourself. What exactly were you proposing? Meditation? Reading devotional literature? Getting stoned and listening to Bach? Getting one of those magnetic-wave-generating helmets to stimulate the appropriate spot in the brain?

Anonymous said...

> The New Age packaging is
> contrived, vulgar, childish and
> often highly commercialized.

Quite true for the most part. But isn't part of the religious experience based on some kind of "faith" (understood very loosely) or at least a temporary and slight shift away from critical reasoning?

Was your experience at St. Mark's any the less because you (as I presume, feel free to correct me) don't believe in the doctrine of the Real Presence?

And if you're saying that the New Age is aesthetically offensive, well ... most of it is, but so is much of "church".

> The Church historically has had
> both the technology and the
> packaging but has in effect
> chosen to restrict or prohibit
> access. And maybe even worse, to
> the extent that it concerns
> itself with "spirituality" it's
> chosen to ignore its own very
> robust tradition in favor of
> contrived, vapid,
> sentimentalities.

Agreed. But what to do?

> You're overly optimistic about
> the possibilities of
> do-it-yourself.

Perhaps. I only said that it could be done. From what I can tell it is much more work to do it properly without the institutional support. But if there is no institutional support anyway, the choice seems to be DIY or giving up.

> What exactly were you proposing?
> Meditation? Reading devotional
> literature? Getting stoned and
> listening to Bach? Getting one of
> those magnetic-wave-generating
> helmets to stimulate the
> appropriate spot in the brain?

Whatever. I'm not actually in the business, so I have no particular product to push (though I have to say I'd be surprised if the helmet worked). I'm partly thinking aloud about a similar dilemma of my own.

As you point out, people are wired differently, and what works for one won't work for another. It may be that you need the cultural context of the Church. Only you can determine what will work for you, though experience across time and culture suggest some things over others.

I only say that if you can't make religious experience work within the context of the business that church has become, DIY options may be good alternatives.

Tom
aka Anonymous Nr. 1

Anonymous said...

> Correction. I do believe though
> I can't defend it.

I see that I have made some unwarranted assumptions that have caused me to misperceive your position. My sincere apologies.

> Full disclosure: I tried,
> unsuccessfully, for 7 years
> to get ordained and was trashed.

IIRC you've mentioned that before. I myself spent some time once getting a (very non-religious) position that I thought I wanted, but for which I was actually rather unsuited. It will be cold, if any, comfort, but you may be better off -- not that the treatment you surely received was justified.

> For myself at least I don't
> think it's DIY or give up.
> It's really just biting the
> bullet, getting on with life
> and work, ...

Time in the wilderness can be well-spent, if not always pleasant. And I suppose not all religious experiences are thrilling, brain-illuminating ones.

Keep yelling and screaming and blogging. You're good at it (and I mean that in a positive way).

I don't pray much, nor do my prayers seem particularly efficacious, but I'll say one for you.

Sorry again if I came off too flip initially.

Signing off,

Tom
aka Anonymous Nr. 1

H. E. said...

Likewise and vice versa. And don't worry about flip--it's something of a specialty of mine. I've even zapped my last comment because I don't want my piety hanging out in public.

Thanks for your comments.

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