06 June 2008

The Chasm

I could say that I am an Episcopalian, but in most conversations I would not. The last time I went to church it was for my father's funeral, and before that I really can't remember. Notwithstanding, I was baptized (or so they tell me) when an infant, and confirmed as a very young fellow (age 12, I think), into the Episcopal Church.

Growing up with my parents, I was taken to church nearly every Sunday. I seem to remember that our attendance intensified as I grew older. When I left home, I left that habit there.

Belonging to, and attending a church, does not attract me, but religion as a human phenomenon is interesting. The desire to place a structure over reality; to explain the unexplainable; to summon forces greater than our own to protect, defend, and guide us -- these desires are ingrained in some subconscious level of the majority of human minds, if not all. The rituals of religious celebration or worship that I found stultifying and intolerably boring as a youth sometimes don't seem so bad to me when I remember them today. Of course, should I actually go and participate in a service of Morning Prayer or Holy Communion, I might have a different attitude. Nevertheless, the words of the services do come back to me at times, and the tunes of the hymns, anthems, and chants that we sang are permanently recorded in my mind.

The first priest that I remember was Father Moss, a Scotsman who had probably lived in the United States of America for a long time, because his speech was quite Americanized. Later in life when I have listened to, and attempted conversation with the citizens of Scotland, I have had to make a much more concerted effort to understand them, and to make myself understood, than was ever necessary with Father Moss. But his voice and his pronunciation were glorious, partly due to his innate gifts, and partly to the traces of Highland mists, rainbows, and bagpipes that clung to his syllables and influenced his choice of words.

May their souls, and the souls of all the faithful departed, rest in peace, and may light perpetual shine upon them."

When I read those words, I hear the voice of Father Moss. There was a lot of beauty in our priest's speech, and in the liturgical music, and there was a lot of decent English poetry in the Book of Common Prayer. (It is worth noting that my church attendance as a child was well before 1979, the year when the Book was revised, and much more modern English was included. This no doubt was intended to make the service more understandable -- "accessible" would be the term today -- to the average reader, but to my ears trained to the King James words and meter, it sounds flat and fake.) One of the most memorable passages (and this may say more about me than is desirable) is the General Confession from the Order for Morning Prayer:

and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us..."

I love the cadence, and the tone of "We have left undone ..." etc. I've never forgotten it. It's so true. "...there is no health in us..."

I really am not religious. I don't believe what one must, or should, believe: "All things visible and invisible, " in order to qualify. I regard the art, poetry, and music that I was exposed to as a child in church as just that: art, poetry, and music. I can admire the Tjängvide Image Stone without believing in Odin. Myths are a beautiful and integral part of our culture and psychology, and the lack of subscription to belief need not inhibit one's appreciation of their beauty, and mystery.

The reason I've started thinking and writing about all this is that I picked up a copy of the May 2008 Harper's magazine in the airport Wednesday, and read (among other excellent things) an article entitled "Turning Away From Jesus, Gay Rights and the War for the Episcopal Church," by Garret Keizer. (Page 39) I'll not attempt to restate all of Mr. Keizer's work here. He did a very thorough job of exploring what's been going on since the ordination of New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson, "the first openly (and without the word openly you must lose the word first) gay and domestically partnered bishop in the Anglican Communion..." Much has been written and said about this, and about many other parts of society to which, of late, gay people have been trying to gain acceptance. It is not my purpose to explore these phenomena. [p39]

In the second paragraph, Keizer got my attention with this:

"...what might strike you as an irrelevant story about a religious dispute is in some ways your story, whether you are religious or not. The story invites us to ask if what we see happening to the institutions we love is not at least partly the result of our having loved them less attentively than we supposed."

And then, what I found particularly interesting about Keizer's article, the last page. After telling many stories about the controversies and arguments in the church all over the world, and about how the power structure of the Anglican church is changing both as a result of and coincidentally with this issue, he takes a new tack. He remarks that his non-religious readers are probably thinking that this is all very interesting, but what of it? Isn't all this church-related brouhaha pretty irrelevant to the "real" world? In the so-called "developed" countries, isn't church attendance at a new low? What do we care about the arguments of a bunch of superstitious men and women ?

"My non-Christian readers are likely to see this disquisition on sacraments as a bit of obscurantist trivia having little to do with them or with the subject of this essay, and if they do, my trap is sprung... The consecrated wafers placed on the tongues ... of the faithful, one per person and all the same size, have a secular equivalent in the basic allotments of health, education, and welfare -- of life, liberty, and the off chance of happiness--that every citizen at the common can expect as his or her due. " [p50]

His trap, indeed. He makes his church a metaphor for our society, and our economic structure, describing a church in a very poor area:

"...the most isolated places need the ... greatest skills. But the system works so that the priests with the greatest skills go almost always to the places that are well-resourced already ... The deployment system is basically a free-market system... it's part of the same system that distributes the rest
of our goods and services and that most middle- and upper-class electorates ... are quite happy to leave exactly as it is."[p50]

The chasm deepens and widens. More is distributed to those who have the most. 35 million people in the USA were described as "Food Insecure" by America's Second Harvest food bank network's Hunger Almanac 2007. About 47 million had no health insurance in 2006, according to the US Census Bureau.

"If we divide the wealth of the US into thirds, we find that the top one percent own a third, the next nine percent own another third, and the bottom ninety percent claim the rest. (Actually, these percentages, true a decade ago, are now out of date. The top one percent are now estimated to own between forty and fifty percent of the nation's wealth, more than the combined wealth of the bottom 95%.)" [From
After Capitalism, by David Schweikart,
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. (June 2002), ISBN 978-0742513006.]

That was written in 2002. Do you suppose that it has changed in the last six years, and in what way?

(Incidentally, here is another analysis, using the mathematics of physics to describe income distribution in the USA from 1983-2001. The authors define a two-class structure, "thermal," (97-99% of the population) and "super-thermal" (1-3%). This paper is not for the mathematically inhibited.)

Gene Robinson, according to Keizer, has remarked that he knows that those who oppose him are suffering, experiencing an unwelcome pain and controversy in the part of their lives that they probably thought would be a source of solace and comfort. Robinson "takes inspiration from the example of their faithfulness." In other words, Robinson is capable of loving and respecting those who oppose him. "[He] is showing us how our secular debates might bear the image of divinity." [p50]

Keizer exhorts us to pay attention to the "major sacraments," instead of debating the minor ones. He asks us to take care of women, children, and youth before we argue over gun ownership, politics, religion, or morality; to "feed my sheep."

Whether we are Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, or atheists -- no matter what minor sacraments we celebrate -- we all know that we are going out of this life the same way. While here, in the little time we have, we can fight over unimportant points, or we can do what we can to help each other. We might try harder to emulate "the gentleness of a shepherd than the imperiousness of a shop boss." [p40]

However we may feel about someone else's behavior or style of life, and no matter what we may believe or not believe, when we dismiss the needs of another (whether spiritual, nutritional, or otherwise) because of his or her difference from us, we fail as human beings. Whether we are religious, moral, or simply trying to be good, it seems to me that we are called upon to recognize how we are the same. Garret Keizer has done an excellent job of framing this argument in conclusion to his very thoughtful article.

©Eric F. Lester 2008
Posted at http://www.thisisby.us/index.php/content/the_chasm 2250 6 June 2008 PDT

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