Sunday, July 28, 2002

No Spiritual Home

"Sheep that to the fold did stray
Pastor Ingqvist ran away."
(A Prairie Home Companion)

Recently, while visiting my daughter and new grandchild, I noticed that the Noah's Ark picture had disappeared from the wall of the children's bedroom. In addition, the children's Bible and her own Bible had disappeared. I was saddened, but not very surprised. She has had quite a struggle with religion and has been hurt badly by some very ignorant people from the church including a couple of pastors. She has chosen like many people, at least for now, to disengage from all of it.

A friend calls occasionally to keep in touch. We've had many long discussions about religion and spirituality, but he has not attended church in decades. He was deeply hurt by the church as a youth when his pastor made sexual advances to him. Another friend stopped attending mass after being denied communion because of her divorce. The news has been full of heartbreaking stories about sexual abuse by pastors and priests who played the part of predators instead shepherds. My parents were agnostics because they were unable successfully to reconcile their conservative religious upbringing with their vocation as doctors. Meanwhile, all denominations report plunging attendance and baptism statistics.

That the church is in deep distress and crisis is no news and not anything new. Throughout her history, the church has experienced many periods of dissension, division, scandal, abuse and failure to live up to her ideals. She has been found in the role of persecutor at least as often as she has been the one persecuted. In spite of noble intentions, the institutional church is, after all, a human institution and at best a reflection of the world in which she exists. A failure of the institutional church is a failure not only of her leadership, but a failure of culture as well.

It isn't only the Christian church that is experiencing crisis, but all religious institutions are in crisis. At the root is the enormous paradigm shift that has been taking place in the past couple of hundred years and that has escalated to warp speed in the past fifty years or so. We still are emerging from a world ruled by myth and magic into a world dominated by history and science, but we are not fully there yet. There are great discontinuities between the developed world and third world countries, between eastern thought and western thought, between the educated, less educated and uneducated, even in our own society. There is no consensus in America or elsewhere in the world about questions that go to the heart of what it means to be human and spiritual; questions about sexuality, environmental concerns, sociological concerns, abortion, economic concerns, ethics and science. Is it any wonder that religion is also in a state of confusion, especially since, as commonly practiced, religion is usually called upon to justify prevailing cultural norms? So our religious institutions are in as great a disarray as everything else. And the church moves at a glacial pace. Don't expect things to get any better anytime soon.

In the meantime, there are many people who no longer feel like they have a spiritual home much less a spiritual guide or shepherd. The seminaries that train our churches' leaders have failed in large part to identify a pathway through the labyrinth of conflicting cultural claims or to produce spiritually grounded and theologically sound priests and pastors. The biblical concept of a humble, sacrificial and spiritual leadership has almost been lost in the ego-centered, materialistic, corporate style of ministry that is the norm in the church today that is in itself a response to unspiritual, consumer-oriented congregations. Fifty years ago Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk asked in response to the assertion that the church was in the midst of a revival, "Where are our saints? Who keeps the fasts of the Church? Who does any penance? Where is the poverty of the religious? and what about our comfortable, well-fed, easy-going priesthood?"

I have taken pains to specify "institutional" church in my criticism because that is where the failure lies. Religion always has recognized that the popular manifestations of institutionalized religion are not the "thing in itself". From the very beginning, the sacred texts of all religions have warned against mistaking form for substance. (II Timothy 3:1-5) Jesus himself was
somewhat anti-religious and accused the religious leaders of his day of failing to serve their people, of placing on them burdens too heavy to bear and misusing their office. The concept of the "faithful remnant", the true church as the "mystical Body of Christ" and that the spiritual journey finds people in many different stages of advancement along the way helps us to understand that human failing is the reason we need religion in the first place.

What we need to do is to demythologize the church. An old joke holds that "Jesus promised us the Kingdom and what we got was the Church." In former times, people believed that the emperor or king was divinely appointed by God and owed unquestioned obedience merely by virtue of his office. This concept of divine appointment was taken over by the Christian church in the concept of a divinely ordained clergy and institutionalized in the concept of "apostolic succession" and the "magisterium", the teaching authority of the church claimed to be divinely inspired. Although different denominations hold varying views on just what is meant by an ordained clergy, the public at large has regarded pastors and priests as somehow divinely set apart and in possession of special charisms or powers inspiring allegiance and devotion. But pastors and priests are only human and as fallible as anyone else. In fact, the concepts of ordination and magisterium not only are not biblical concepts, but may even be contrary to the spirit of community and praxis Jesus sought to convey to his disciples. The primitive Christian community itself most likely was more a fraternity of equals rather than a hierarchy of power and privilege.

In his letters to new Christian communities, the apostle Paul was well aware of the fragility of popular religion and the ease with which church communities could fall into dissension and fail to foster faith. He admonished his disciples to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling." It may be that the best stance many people can adopt for the forseeable future is a kind of hopeful agnosticism as far as the church is concerned. In the meantime, the great gift of the Reformation was to put the sacred scriptures into the hands of the people in their own language so they could read and study for themselves and seek spiritual guidance on their own without a priestly mediator. In fact, home based study and worship groups are on the rise as more and more people are discouraged by institutional religious power struggles, conflict, lack of a spirituality in clergy and the failure of the churches to teach its own scripture.

It is a testimony to the power of the Spirit and deep human need that there continues to be such a great hunger for and interest in spirituality in spite of the miserable failings of the church. Of course, because people are so vulnerable over spiritual issues and because of human weakness, the chance of being misled by self-serving prophets and self-appointed gurus who seek to take advantage is great. Religion is as vulnerable to quacks as medicine, but we aren't going to stop going to the doctor because some prescribe snake-oil. So we always will need our religious institutions just as we always will need our institutions of medicine, education, commerce and politics because that is the way complex societies operate and keep order. We just need to oversee them diligently and keep them in their proper place, ontologically speaking. Instead, if we remember that Jesus himself taught that love of neighbor was the essence of the gospel and that love itself is the test of true faith, we won't go very far wrong. Anything else doesn't really matter much.