"I'm what the world considers to be a phenomenally successful man. And I've failed much more than I've succeeded. And each time I fail, I get my people together, and I say, "Where are we going?" And it starts to get better." - Calvin Trager
Thursday, October 04, 2007 The numbers game, all of our fundamentalisms and being unafraid
If you stay awake in the Episcopal Church long enough, the same conversations repeat themselves over and over ... and the causes of the numerical decline of the Episcopal Church and other mainline denominations is one that's made the circuit several times.
Besides people of every theological/political bent succumbing to the "post hoc ergo propter hoc" fallacy, which assumes that just because something preceded an event it caused that event (i.e. -- the church has declined since GenCon 2003 so that's what caused the decline), the debate is generally confined to finding "THE cause" for the decline. The world is much more complex than that (praise God!). And as much as we might not like to think so, individually and corporately we are all heavilly influenced by many societal factors. There is no ONE marker event cause for the decline. There are enormous global forces at work.
So given this ... a few not-so-brief thoughts and reflections:
We want reality to be predictable and controllable. We don't like feeling out of control, because that makes us feel powerless and believe that others will see us as powerless and insignificant, which in turn will make us even more powerless and insignificant (a pretty vicious circle). This is pretty basic -- systems of all sorts seek equilibrium. Chemical reactions will tend toward stability. Same thing with humans. So given a situation where things are out of control and chaotic, human nature is to try to establish control.
One way we establish control over our environment is to establish rules and absolutes. One way we do this in a chaotic universe is through the scientific method -- testing hypotheses to see which are trustworthy enough to make the transition from theory to fact -- things we can count on that allow us to predict (and control) reality.
As people of faith, we are no different. Part of what we love about God is the assurance the divine gives us. "Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus" is the height of comfort for me. I think and hope I believe it for reasons that go beyond that desire for comfort, but I also more quickly flock to that assurance during points in my life where I need that comfort, where I feel unloved or like all the rugs in the world are being pulled out from under me. As Christians, communally we take vows at baptism that give structure to our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ. Those vows, and the scripture, tradition and reason from which they spring are a polestar for us that help us navigate the chaotic seas of life.
We live in an age where the pace of global change is faster than perhaps at any point in human history. Much of this has to do with increased global connectivity and that we are now face-to-face with the diversity of this planet in ways my grandfather never dreamed of.
A mere hundred years ago traveling to Africa was unheard of for all but the most adventurous Westerners. Last March, I sat in my friend's living room in Kigali, Rwanda and video-chatted with my wife and kids back in St. Louis on my laptop! As we become increasingly interconnected, the boundaries which once gave structure to our lives are becoming more permeable (or disappearing altogether!) and we are becoming truly a global community.
We see this perhaps most clearly in immigration and economic/trade patterns but also in the evolution of political structures. The nation-state, the primary locus of power for centuries, is rapidly taking a backseat to other confederations of people -- be they Al Qaeda for Microsoft or even Facebook and MySpace! Even the nation-state is not autonomous anymore, as more than $2 trillion of our national debt is owed to foreigners ... $1 trillion to Japan and China alone!
Much of this change has happened in the past 20 years -- the two watershed moments probably being the dawn of the internet age (which broke down geographic walls of global separation) and the fall of the Berlin Wall/end of the Cold War (which opened the world up economically and also for the first time -- in the West at least -- created a world without clear definition of who was "enemy," a core unifying principle for any society).
Going back further, the biggest marker event was 50 years ago today when Sputnik's beeps signalled the opening of a new frontier previously untraversed by humanity.
For most people whose formative years were before those watershed moments and for whom "home" is a place of relative isolation, safety and predictability (particularly those who were the "haves" and not the "have nots" oppressed under the old, predictable reality and for whom change is welcome!) these changes are incredibly challenging, stressful and anxiety producing. For those people, there will be a natural longing to go back to the way things were. For EVERYONE, there will be a natural longing to establish SOME sense of control over and predictability of reality.
History has shown us that periods of intense change inevitably bring about rise in fundamentalisms. Fundamentalism can be broadly defined as a single-minded devotion to a guiding principle or principles. There are fundamentalisms of all sorts -- not just the conservative right with whom the term is usually identified. This is also not just about having standards ... it's about living by absolutes that cannot be challenged -- to the extent that everything has to be black and white.
And it's all perfectly natural.
Because fundamentalism is all about establishing control or at least enough of an illusion of control to bring comfort and ease the stress and anxiety of the rapid pace of change. It's about taking the unpredictable and confusing grey and separating it out into black and white. That is what is happening in the world today. There is a rise of fundamentalism of all stripes, and it is a direct response to the rapid pace of change and how those things that we used to count on are becoming less and less trustworthy. We need to feel safe. We need to feel in control and powerful.
Fundamentalism gives us that control. It helps us know right from wrong, and even more, know that we are right and our enemies are wrong (and even gives us enemies over and against whom we can define ourselves).
It's very predictable and very human.
Does this mean that the "fundamentals" to which people are clinging are wrong? Not necessarily. It DOES mean that the reason people are clinging to them probably has a lot more to do with many, many other factors than whether they are right or wrong. Fundamentalism is attractive because it makes us feel powerful and right. That is completely apart from the truth of the "fundamental" in question. But we cannot determine the truth of any principle unless we are willing to test it. So we can't claim numbers of followers as proof that our particular fundamentalism is right or that "God is on our side!"
Fundamentalism is a natural reaction to a changing world. Because of that, and because the power of fundamentalism as a whole is completely apart from the question of truth of any "fundamentals" it is an external societal force that has us in its grip and prevents us from determining what Truth really is. And until we get in touch with and name the anxiety and fear that grips us. Until we acknoledge that a part of what makes any of our fundamentalisms attractive is the sense of power and control they give us -- and that's human nature and nothing of which to be ashamed. Until we can step out in faith away from that fear and anxiety, we will not be able to discern Truth because we will be too heavily invested in one answer to that question to give alternatives any possibility of emerging.
This is where our faith comes in. And this is where Christ, as always, is our best and truest model.
If there was ever a time in human history where an event happened that shook the foundations of everything people had thought was reality, it was the resurrection. People who died stayed dead. OK, there were a couple examples of Jesus disproving that ... but he had to be around to do the job! Now Jesus had died. They saw it. They laid him in the tomb. And then there he was appearing behind locked doors and having fish breakfasts with them. And what were his first words to them every time?
Don't be afraid.
Be at peace.
Jesus knew he was blowing their minds and rocking their worlds, that he was taking everything that had ever made their reality seem predictable and controllable and shattering it ... and he knew when that happened the natural human reaction was anxiety and fear. And he also knew that they couldn't enter into this new reality he was revealing to them ... they couldn't become resurrection people themselves ... if they were in the grip of that fear, if their actions were in reaction to that fear, if their need for control superceded their capacity for awe and wonder.
He needed to give them a safety zone where they could deal with this ... and that safety zone was his love and the promise "lo, I will be with you always until the end of the age."
In this time of intense, foundation-shaking, boundary-permeating change, Christ is standing in our midst still -- even when we have locked ourselves behind the doors of the "safe" realities our fundamentalisms create for us.
And he is saying "Don't be afraid! Be at peace! Yes, lots of things are changing, but what will never change is my love for you and my presence with you. And because of that, you can face anything. Because of that you can burst through those locked doors and go out to the world beyond them. Because of that you can be freed from your need for control ... and you can even celebrate your lack of control because that is the life of true faith ...because all the control the universe needs is me. And you can rest in that ... and be loved ... and not be afraid ... and be at peace That is the resurrection life!"
And so, being freed from anxiety and fear, being freed from the need to control reality, being freed from the NEED to cling to fundamentals to give us the illusion of control, we are free to engage with God in the wonderful discernment of what Truth is. We are free to be open to revelation -- not one of absolutes that speak of a universe that is black and white with nothing in between, but of guiding principles of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ through which God will reveal to us tiny pieces of a Truth that is far too big and wondrous and complex for us to apprehend fully, that certainly can NOT be controlled by us, that is far more interesting and beautiful and kaleidoscopic than the dull black and white world of fundamentalism.
A Truth that we approach kneeling in awe not stiff-necked in certitude.
The principles are ancient and simple and they permeate the writings of our faith. We find them in the parables-- the talents, the Good Samaritan, the lost coin, and on and on. We find them in Jesus' teachings on the greatest commandment -- love one another as I have loved you! We find them in the Christ hymn in Philippians -- where Christ sees ultimate power -- divinity -- not as something to be grasped but empties himself ... choosing self-giving love in relationship over grasping power.
I'm a big believer in the truth behind Psalm 127 -- "Unless God builds the house, those who build it labor in vain." There is truth, but that truth must be tested -- and Paul recognized this, too, when he talked about recognizing the "fruits of the spirit" (Galatians 5:22-26) and also exhorting the faithful to be "guided by the Spirit" and "not become conceited, competing against one another." but rather "crucifying the flesh with its passions and desires." -- words that to my ears are about humble submission to the awesome wisdom of God which we can NEVER fully apprehend nor control and not about feeding our addiction to control and worshipping absolutes that we believe we have fully apprehended and thus can use against one another.
1John 4 talks about "testing the spirits" and immediately exhorts his listeners to love one another. How do we determine truth? By following Jesus. By following the greatest commandment ... the law of self-giving love. The law that was made flesh in Christ incarnate, crucified and risen again. And in practice is there anything less black-and-white, anything more difficult to control, anything more wondrous and complex and messy and less prone to fit into the neat and tidy controlled categories of fundamentalism ... than love?
It is incredibly human that we as Christians -- like the rest of humanity -- are so prone to cling to the illusory safety of fundamentalism. But it's ironic, too. Because while very human and understandable, it's a reaction of fear in the name of one who stands among us saying "don't be afraid!" It's a vain attempt to control and predict reality in the name of a Christ who showed and shows us that reality is anything BUT controllable and predictable by anyone but God (Forget the resurrection ... do you think the people of Israel saw God choosing Moses? or David? or a young nobody girl named Mary? Think they saw that coming?). And it's more than ironic ... fundamentalism is an enterprise that is doomed to failure for two reasons.
First, because God is bigger, and "unless God builds the house, those who build it labor in vain." We can cling to all the fundamentals we want and pretend we have absolute control over Truth and an absolute corner of the market on it. But that will be a house of our building ... and it will not stand. Have fun.
Second, because the generations that are coming of age in these times of intense change are natives to that landscape the rest of us find so alien. And they aren't afraid. In fact, they're having a blast with it! Do they have the same needs for control over their environment and predictability of reality that the rest of us do? Absolutely! But change is relative and human beings are remarkably adaptive (that great "image of God" thing again, I suppose!), and the generations that are coming of age and will come of age in the decades to come are generations whose foundations are rooted in the same things that give the rest of us the heebie-jeebies! That's why they are able to have strong diverse and even contrary opinions about many things (human sexuality being but one) but largely don't feel the need to re-enact Sherman's March to the Sea OVER them.
Why is the Episcopal Church and other mainline denominations declining? Well, one reason among many is that younger people -- raised in a generation with permeable boundaries all over the place -- aren't naturally creatures of brand loyalty the way the rest of us were raised to be. Maybe it's because just as we're moving into an age where nation-states will have less and less power, we're also moving into a post-denominational age as well.
And while that makes many of us older folks anxious and fearful, it's going to seem perfectly natural to my 8- and 5-year old.
The Good News is that God is doing what God always does ... sticking with us! If we have ears to hear and eyes to see, God is raising up a new generation of leaders who will sustain the Body of Christ -- ever changing and ever changeless -- into this new world. A new world that seems to many of us as radically different from our old lives as the one those women encountered at the empty tomb that Easter morning seemed to theirs.
We all have our fundamentalisms -- or at least most of us do ... or at least I know I do. They are seductive because they feel like they're about righteousness ... only they're inevitably about our righteousness and not God's righteousness. It's so, so tempting to get into the battle of my fundamentalisms vs. your fundamentalisms -- and to treat each other with limiting definitions that deny the beautiful complexity of one another and our lives as images of God. It's so, so tempting to cling to that which makes me feel right in part because it means you are wrong ... and it's so, so scary to step out from that into a reality that I cannot control or predict ... where that which is most dear to me is bound to be challenged or even stripped away.
But if that isn't the Christian life ... what is?
If that isn't the Way of the Cross ... what is?
If we're not about taking that radical leap of faith -- not individually but together as Christ's Body bound together in all our frustrating and wondrous diversity by his infinite love -- then what exactly are we about? And what purpose does this bizarre enterprise we call the Church serve other than to make us feel powerful and safe and RIGHT just as we are no change needed (a way of life I challenge anyone ever to find Jesus embracing!)?
And so if we are to be the Church, if we are to be worthy of the honor of being called the Body of Christ, we have to at least try to act like Christ. And that's not about easy answers. It's not about black and white and "I'm right and you're wrong." It's about being fools for Jesus, and loving those who hate you, and "give us this day our daily bread" and no more and tomorrow I'll pray it again and trust you'll give me enough for one more day, and meeting Christ in the unexpected eyes of the person living on less than a dollar a day, and being nailed to crosses all the while forgiving the guy with the hammer and trusting that even that is not the end but an amazing new beginning.
The problem with searching for THE reason for the church's decline is that the seeds of the decline lie in the very asking of that question! Our task is not to answer the question but to discard it and the search for absolutes it shrouds and instead to embrace the wondrous new, uncontrollable, unpredictable reality the shrinking of our church heralds. A new age in which God will shape us in new ways.
Scary? You bet! But we are up to the challenge. For we do not stand alone. For even as we hide behind the locked door of our fundamentalisms, Christ breaks through and stands among us saying.
EGR resources and connects the church to embrace what one person, one congregation, one diocese and one church can do to make this mission of global reconciliation happen.
Want to find out more ... check our our website at www.e4gr.org.
"Christ's example is being
demeaned by the church if they ignore the new leprosy,
which is AIDS. The church is the sleeping giant here.
If it wakes up to what's really going on in the rest
of the world, it has a real role to play. If it doesn't,
it will be irrelevant."