The Taser's Edge


(Yet) A(nother) Response to Ross Douthat

Part I: A Furious Few Days in One Small Corner of the Interwebs:

The article that kicked it off:

The responses that rolled in:

And finally, far less Facebook-ed:

 

Part II: My Own Response

The worst of the responses to Douthat have failed to hear his argument. To be clear, contra Uffman and Butler Bass, he is NOT making the decades-old evangelical argument that the American mainline churches’ drop in attendance since the Cold War era is due to those churches’ lack of Christian conviction, values, faithfulness, etc. Not even the Southern Baptist Convention (shrinking symbol of American evangelicalism) leads with that argument any more.

The heart of Douthat’s op-ed instead comes at its end:

What should be wished for…is that liberal Christianity recovers a religious reason for its own existence…the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism.

The only response that I have read that really hears this final point is AKM Adams. And it’s on this point that Douthat is completely right.

Part III: An Oddly Illustrative Juxtaposition

During my time at Duke Divinity, I served a year-long internship at a rural North Carolina United Methodist Church. Other populations have their Rotary or Kiwanis or Knights of Columbus, but rural North Carolinians have the Ruritan Club. Members get together a couple times or more each month, eat well, raise funds for various causes, sometimes join together in volunteer opportunities.

Almost every active member of the church was a Ruritan (or the spouse of a Ruritan), and almost every active Ruritan was an active member of one of the local churches. The two populations were virtually interchangeable, but what this meant is that the church could have no discipleship-oriented activities, service projects, classes, small groups, Bible studies, or worship services while the Ruritans were meeting or having an event.

For the lay and previous pastoral leadership of this particular congregation, this was not a problem. My own read is that this was not a conflation (as one might want to assume unfairly of rural North Carolinians) of being a good American and being a Christian. The conflation was between being a person who cared for others and being a Christian.

They are not the same.

Part IV: An Old Hope
The Episcopal Church in particular, but also other mainline denominations such as the UCC, as well as parts of the PCUSA, the UMC, and the ELCA (and sorry if I’m leaving out any) are just like the Ruritans. There are plenty of good things to be said about Ruritans, and there were plenty of good reasons for liberal Christians to be a non-violent witness at the Chicago G-8 Summit this year.

But because I’m a Christian, I am fool enough to believe that by the Holy Spirit, when a Ruritan serves a pint of Brunswick stew to another Ruritan, it can be Christ serving Brunswick stew. And when an Anabaptist Catholic Worker refuses to return the blows of an overzealous riot policeman, that can be Christ loving the world once again.

There is a difference in the Christian’s way of being in the world, because of what we believe about the triune God in the world, and because of the particular way that particular God has sought out our particular selves. This particularity is called the Gospel of Jesus Christ. God help us if we lose it, no matter how much our churches may shrink or grow.



“O admirable heights and sublime lowliness!”: A Eucharistic Prayer of St. Francis
Let the whole of mankind tremble
     the whole world shake
     and the heavens exult
when Christ, the son of the living God,
     is [present] on the altar
     in the hands of a priest.
O admirable heights and sublime lowliness!
O sublime humility!
O humble sublimity!
That the Lord of the universe,
God and the Son of God,
so humbles Himself
that for our salvation
He hides Himself under the little form of bread!
Look, brothers, at the humility of God
and pour out your hearts before Him!
Humble yourselves, as well,
     that you may be exalted by Him.
Therefore,
     hold back nothing of yourselves for yourselves
so that
He Who gives Himself totally to you
     may receive you totally.

from “A Letter to the Entire Order” in Francis and Clare: The Complete Works (Paulist Press: The Classics of Western Spirituality), trans. by Regis J. Armstrong, OFM and Ignatius C. Brady, OFM



And the Essential Ingredient…

We are now able to see the essential ingredient that makes psychotherapy effective and successful. It is not ‘unconditional positive regard,’ nor is it magical words, techniques or postures; it is human involvement and struggle. It is the willingness of the therapist to extend himself or herself for the purpose of nurturing the patient’s growth–willingness to go out on a limb, to truly involve oneself at an emotional level in the relationship, to actually struggle with the patient and with oneself. In short, the essential ingredient of successful deep and meaningful psychotherapy is love.

M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled

This quote was striking to me because of how true it is for so many relationships, personal and professional: spouse and spouse, parent and child, teacher and student, doctor and patient, pastor and parishioner. It’s also a very characteristic quote for Peck, with its existential overtones as he defines love.

Love is “human involvement and struggle,” which sounds like a good definition for human life, at least as we experience it.



I Pray that You Will Fall Out of Love

M. Scott Peck, in The Road Less Traveled, doesn’t believe that “falling” in or out of love is really love at all. And he’s convincing (although it didn’t take much for me). Here, he makes an analogy between a couple continuing in love and a young child’s slow developmental discovery that it and the world are separate beings:

Just as reality intrudes upon the two-year-old’s fantasy of omnipotence so does reality intrude upon the fantastic unity of the couple who have fallen in love. Sooner or later, in response to the problems of daily living, individual will reassert itself. He wants to have sex; she doesn’t. She wants to go to the movies; he doesn’t. He wants to put money in the bank; she wants a dishwasher. She wants to talk about her job; he wants to talk about his. She doesn’t like his friends; he doesn’t like hers. So both of them, in the privacy of their hearts, begins to come to the sickening realization that they are not one with the beloved, that the beloved has and will continue to have his or her own desires, tastes, prejudices and timing different from the other’s. One by one, gradually or suddenly, the ego boundaries snap back into place; gradually or suddenly, they fall out of love. Once again they are two separate individuals. At this point they begin either to dissolve the ties of their relationship or to initiate the work of real loving.

To me, although it might be depressing to some, it is incredibly hopeful that “falling in love” is not love, and that “falling out of love” is actually a requirement along the way to “real loving.” This makes love about growing up, not about being “young [and stupid] at heart.” It also makes love about taking personal responsibility. If love just “happens,” then we bear no responsibility, take no ownership, and neither are we responsible if we never love or fail to love. But if love is work, a taking up of responsibility, a part of maturation and growth and human adulthood, then it is the greatest work of our lives, worth every ounce of sweat and tears along the way.

If you are in a relationship right now, I hope and even pray that you fall out of love soon.

Finally, what about that “ego boundaries snap back into place” line? Surely (you may be thinking) the ego is exactly what’s getting in the way of so many relationships, with self-centeredness and all that. While selfishness is indeed a problem, the reality is also that you cannot love someone until you recognize them as an other. If you do not recognize their otherness, then you are not loving them as yourself, but only as if they were yourself, and you will inevitably try to control them, to assert your power over them. That is, you will be “loving” a lie; to see the other as yourself is an unreality. The other person is an other person, and only when you see the space between you can you embrace.

Ten out of ten people agree, sex with someone-not-yourself is just better.



My own emptiness to report

I am not able to distill from either my
mother’s encounter with death or my own exposure to desert-mountain terrain any universal insights about the wonder-evoking power of fierce landscapes. I am left, ultimately, at an end of language, having nothing more than my own emptiness to report, although gradually coming to recognize emptiness itself as a profound and wonderful gift.

-Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes



The Moral Theology of the Devil

Thomas Merton, in his Seeds of Contemplation (the contents of which much more easily found in a greatly expanded version as New Seeds of Contemplation), has a fascinating chapter from which this post took its title. The main body of the barely two-page chapter is a harsh condemnation, without ever using the specific theological terms, of TULIP– and Puritan-style Calvinist (which are NOT, as that Wikipedia link fails to make clear, the only Calvinisms out there) soteriology.

(To make one comment on that, while I appreciate Merton for never pulling his punches in naming evil “evil,” his view toward these folks is uncharacteristically uncharitable, attributing evil intentions rather than just good ol’ being-really-wrong-about-some-things-ness to them.)

What struck me most personally in the chapter, however, is how it ends. While I would have tended to think of the following as the cardinal sin of evangelicals (like me), Merton helps me to acknowledge that it’s more widespread than just in my tribe.

I don’t need to try to name it, as Merton already has: “The Moral Theology of the Devil”:

The devil is not afraid to preach the will of God provided he can preach it in his own way.

The argument goes something like this: “God wills you to do what is right. But you have an interior attraction which tells you, by a nice warm glow of satisfaction, what is right. Therefore, if your Superiors try to interfere and make you do something that does not produce this comfortable sense of interior satisfaction, quote Scripture, tell them that you ought to obey God rather than men, and then go ahead and do your own will, do the thing that gives you that nice, warm glow.”

Christ, have mercy on your followers.



My First Novena

Knowing no Latin, I knew a novena had something to do with prayer, but my assumption was it was connected to nova, “new.” Nope, Dorothy Day teaches me:

Every Catholic faced with a great need starts a novena…Novenas are started nine days before the feast of some favorite saint or they can be made at any time. My favorite novena is the rosary novena, a devotion during which one recites three novenas in petition and three in thanksgiving. If you don’t get what you need by the end of the thanksgiving of twenty-seven days, you begin another series–continuing in prayer with perseverance, with importunity. “Ask and you shall receive,” “Knock and it will be opened to you,” and Our Lord tells the story of the unjust judge and the widow, and the weary friend and the neighbor who comes to get a few loaves, to show how importunity and perseverance are rewarded.

I know that we all prayed, coming and going, night and day, sleeping and waking.

(The Long Loneliness, this edition, p. 283)

I found this to be a beautiful idea, even if I’m not sure if I’m doing it right. Around the edges of my interest, there is the fact that it’s a Christian spiritual practice that has been done by literally billions of followers of Christ in history, but which I have basically never heard of, beyond its name. (Yay for growing up Protestant in the US!)

Then there is learning about all the numbers at play here. Sevens and tens, in Jewish and Christian numerology, are symbols of perfection. Nine, however, is incomplete, just as all people are incomplete, just as I am incomplete. The nine is also important because, especially at the novena for Christmas, the nine days represent the nine months of Jesus’ gestation in Mary. Christmas Day is the tenth day, perfection, the birth of God as infant.

Finally, because I’m doing six novenas (three petition then three thanksgiving, as described above), it’s a work of creation. God created for six days and then God rested on the seventh. Pray six novenas then rest in what God has created.

At dead center of making my first novena, however, is that while I’ve prayed for and about people, situations, etc. regularly and/or over long periods of time in the past, I have never determined to persevere in prayer every day for anything approaching 54 days. Now I’m really asking…What if Jesus actually meant it when he said to keep knocking, to keep pestering the unjust judge, to keep bothering the neighbor for what you need?

Traditionally, the major novenas were the nine days leading up to particular holy days. My 54 days happen to end in a novena to Saint Joseph, whose feast day is March 20th, whose name is my middle name. What’s more, Joseph is the patron saint of the Universal Church, of the family, and of workers. My petitions are about my place and calling in the Church, about family as I experience the end of my marriage, and seeking vocational clarity for the future (as well as…a job).

I had really wanted to write a prayer to memorize and meditate through each day of this time, but a week in, I basically have a theme, and it is Light. One version of the prayer I am praying:

Lord Jesus Christ, you who are Light, push back the darkness, bring vision to my eyes, and guide me into your brilliant future for me. Amen.