Saturday, June 30, 2012

Two Forms of Certainty

Here is another excerpt from Richard Holloway's scathingly honest memoir:

The ordained state seemed to represent for others two forms of certainty I did not possess. Moral certainty was the more embarrassing one to cope with. I hated being thought of as a moral policeman keeping an eye on humanity's Ps and Qs. Part of this was embarrassment at the knowledge of my own weakness. Because I was a priest, it was assumed that I was a fully fashioned moral individual of steadfast and immovable rectitude. Maybe clergy ought to be like that. Incorruptible policemen. How could I explain that what attracted me to Jesus was his acceptance of those who saw themselves as failures rather than moral successes? There was a subversive tradition in Christianity that claimed it was sinners who got Jesus, people who couldn't mind their Ps and Qs, not the righteous. It was the hopeless prodigal who understood, not his upright and disciplined big brother. Where to start trying to explain all that? But the dissonance went even deeper. It may have been fear of being found out myself, but I actually felt a strong revulsion against the morality-policing aspect of religion that was such a strong element in the Scottish tradition. I was attracted to the prophetic voice of faith that spoke against structural or institutional sin and the way the powerful ordered the world to suit themselves. I hated the prurient kind of religion that pried into personal weaknesses and took pleasure in exposing them. Yes, to the eyes of many, the ordained ministry was freighted with this reputation, which was why people felt they had to guard their reactions when they were around us. No wonder clergy sometimes fell into the trap of overcompensating for this misunderstanding by embarrassing demonstrationss of their worldliness and humanity.. The whole business was so tainted with false expectations that only the saintly seemed impervious to the treacherous currents that pulled us along. And I was no saint.
If moral expectations were the more painful projections to deal with, theological expectations were intellectually more frustrating to handle. The inner disconnect between the Church's official theology and my own version of Christianity was one I did not fully comprehend at first. As a boy in the Vale, intoxicated by movies and the longings the hills had provoked in me, I had been propelled into religion in search  of a great love to which I could give myself away. I was in pursuit of an object ever flying from desire, but I had stumbled into a complex institutional reality whose own relation with that object was highly ambivalent. The ambivalence lay in the difference betwen the modes of pursuit and possession. The romantic is always in pursuit, while the realist wants to possess. All institutions over-claim for themselves and end up believing more in their own existence than in the vision that propelled them into existence in the first place. This is particularly true of religious institutions. Religions may begin as vehicles of longing for mysteries beyond description, but they end up claiming exclusive descriptive rights to them. They segue from the ardour and uncertainty of seeking to the confidence and complacence of possession. They shift from poetry to packaging. Which is what people want. They don't want to spend years wandering in the wilderness of doubt. They want the promised land of certainty and religious realists are quick to provide it for them. The erection of infallible systems of belief is a well-understood device to still humanity's fear of being lost in life's dark wood without a compass. "Supreme conviction is a self-cure for infestation of doubts." That is why David Hume noted that, while errors in philosophy were only ridiculous, errors in religion were dangerous. They were dangerous because when supreme conviction is threatened it turns nasty.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Church Is Like a Table

A friend recently sent me these words from a hymn he remembered:
The church is like a table,
a table that is round.
It has no sides or corners,
no first or last, no honours;
here people are in one-ness
and love together bound.

The church is like a table
set in an open house;
no protocol for seating,
a symbol of inviting,
of sharing, drinking, eating;
an end to them and us.

The church is like a table,
a table for a feast
to celebrate the healing
of all excluded-feeling.
While Christ is serving, kneeling,
a towel around his waist.

The church is like a table
where every head is crowned.
As guests of God created,
all are to each related;
the whole world is awaited
to make the circle round.

Fred Kaan
Words © 1985 Hope Publishing Company

"The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath"

I have just finished reading Richard Holloway's memoir Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt, a brilliant and troubling reflection on his struggle with faith and the way in which that struggle affected and ultimately ended his career as a priest and bishop of the Church of Scotland. I would like to quote a few thought-provoking passages, the first of which comes in the chapter in which Holloway describes and reflects upon some of his major transgressions of the rules of the Scottish Episcopal Church, such as performing the Eucharist according to the Presbyterian rite, marrying divorced couples, and marrying gay couples:

What I did not reflect on at the time was that this untroubled capacity for ignoring rules that struck me as inhumane or silly defined me as an anarchist. I am not using the word  in the organised, programmatic sense normallly associated with the term. I no more believe in anarchism than I believe in any other kind of ism. I am using it in a temperamental sense, which is probably why I did not think too much about what I was doing at the time. Anarchic, in the sense in which I am using the word, means that one treats rules and regulations as having only a relative or provisional status, not as being immutable. Sitting in a car at a red light on a pedestrian crossing on a Sunday morning with not a soul in sight is daft, as are most regulations applied without reference to the context. Yet the minatory power of that red light paralyses us into stupidity and acquiescence. This is one of the faultlines in debates about human value, and it puts the role of institutions and the good of the individuals in unnecessary contention. We need institutions, but they are always instrumental goods, good for something else. That something else is human flourishing, which is an intrinsic  good, good in itself. Religions are a famous battleground in this debate, because they imagine their rules and regulations are not just another variant of human arbitrariness, but have immutable transcendental authority behind them, a delusion Jesus challenged. He skewered the issue wiith a single saying: "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." The saying can be universalized: The State was made for man, not man for the State.  The Law was made for man, not man for the Law. Traffic lights were made for man, not man for traffic lights. Religion was made for man, not man for religion. Jesus's saying fixes the status of all institutional rules as useful but never absolute.