Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Rethinking God VIII

York Minster
Years back I heard the story of a Catholic priest who was studying at Cambridge under the famous New Testament scholar, Bishop J.A.T. (“Honest to God”) Robinson.  This particular priest was quite an Anglophile (and Anglican-ophile), often affecting Anglican styles in dress and liturgy, and Bishop Robinson allegedly said to him one day: “Joe, why don’t you just become an Anglican.”  The priest’s response was: “Your Lordship, I am not one to jump from a sinking ship into a sinking lifeboat.”  Wise answer.
Last week I heard an Anglican bishop charge that the Church of England had a lot of explaining to do to contemporary society in the refusal to consecrate women as bishops.   The Church was in danger of becoming “outdated.” 
Now I am not opposed to the Church of England—or any religious body—ordaining whomever they please to whatever ministries they are called.  But this particular bishop is delusional if he thinks that the Church of England is outdated because they won’t let women be bishops.  The Church of England is outdated for many other—and I believe more pressing—reasons than an all-male-episcopate.  It has been outdated for a long time now—long before the question of women’s ordination ever came up.
I remember being in York about five years ago for a ceremony at the famous Minster (cathedral)—one of the splendors of medieval Christian faith.  That particular Sunday morning I wandered through the medieval city to see the ancient churches.  But most of the churches were now community centers or museums and only two or three were open for worship.  And those who were open for worship had maybe twenty or thirty worshippers attending Sunday services.  Less than 5% of the Anglican faithful attend Church regularly in England.  Of course that is not much different than the percentage of Catholics attending Mass in Spain or France or Austria or the Czech Republic.  And the number of Lutherans attending Church regularly in the Scandinavian Kingdoms is about the same.  The Church—Catholic and Protestant—has become irrelevant to the lives of many in Europe—and what is frightening, to increasingly more Americans as well.  But we should not be surprised.  The way God is talked about in churchy circles is simply peripheral to the lives of an increasing segment of our population.
When people say: “I’m not religious—I am more, well, ‘spiritual’,” I have to laugh.  Ninety-nine times out of a hundred this translates as “I’m too lazy to get out of bed on Sunday morning  but I do like the occasional warm fuzzy I feel when I think of some cosmic power that beats the heart of the universe for me.”  Not that I don’t think that one can be spiritual without being religious: I do.  I know deeply spiritual people, holy people, who don’t cross the threshold of a church except for the social obligation of an occasional wedding or funeral.   I just meant that most of the people who make this claim have no idea of what it means to be “spiritual.”  What they are is colossal narcissistic ingrates who think everything is for them and about them.  But what is there that does draw emotionally and spiritually healthy people to Church?  It certainly isn’t the preaching in the average Catholic Church.  The god we hear about from too many pulpits is no more than an embalmed dogma dressed up in the rags of old religious pieties and tricked out to rule over the fears of those who have never been taught to think critically and for themselves.    
Liberal Protestantism has its own issues and they have been a long time a-breeding.  A half century and more ago C.S. Lewis described the deity that was to kill Liberal Protestantism by irrelevance:
We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they say, “liked to see the young people enjoying themselves,” and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, “a good time was had by all.”
Who wants to go to Church to be patted on the back and be given the insufferable pabulum of happy-clappy religiosity that makes no demands for critical self-reflection?  The Church of England and other liberal Churches have had their guts sucked out by an insipid moral relativism that is afraid to hold up the mirror of truth for us to look into and see what disfigured creatures we who once were the image and likeness of God have become. 
On the other hand, in so many Catholic churches today a neo-Jansenism has taken over where the Good News of Salvation has been corrupted into the Bad News of judgment.  God is the insufferable parent whom there is no pleasing except for a rigid and unquestioning crushing of the will.  Heavy burdens are tied up and laid upon the shoulders of men and women too fearful to resist by men who arrogantly suppose themselves to be the arbiters of the Divine Will.  The priesthood that once preached the Gospel of setting captives free is being turned into a race of orcs that seek to enslave the minds and souls of the faithful by a petty legalism that would embarrass the Pharisee and stupefy the scribe.  I am not surprised that religion is losing its hold on people who seek spiritual health as too often what we find in church is nothing less than toxic.
And it doesn’t need to be this way.  We Christians—and Catholics in particular—have a rich history of spiritual writers that point the path to a healthy religious practice.  Ignatius Loyola and John of the Cross and Francis de Sales and Teresa of Avila and Thérèse of Lisieux all point the way to spiritual paths that bring people to spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and mental maturity.  But we rarely hear of such in the pulpit because few of the clergy, and the secular clergy in particular, know the spiritual tradition of our own Church.  We need a spiritual revival that begins with recovering not the legalism and pomposity of the pre-conciliar Church but the genuine Tradition that has been handed down as our heritage and birthright.   

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