Friday, November 2, 2007

Lament

One of my favorite prayers goes something like: "Why, O Lord, didn't you make me Episcopalian?"

It's not that I really want to join an Episcopal church, though I do have kind of a thing for Anglicans; it's just that being Episcopalian stands, in my mind, for being both liturgical and fairly liberal, things that my own tradition is not. Truth is, I'd settle for a church that let women preach and said the Sursam Corda every once in awhile.

It's not really the big-ticket items that get me. Our God-talk gets a little anthropomorphic for me at times, but I understand it. And I believe in God, as long as believing in God is allowed to mean that I believe in justice, in a certain rightness to things -- that I suspect the universe is, if not exactly governed by certain forces and patterns, is at least made manifest in them. And I don't want to take away the Resurrection from anybody. Actually, I believe in the Resurrection -- as an archetype of renewal, as one of those patterns, as a way of attributing a kind of ultimacy to the justice I associate with God.

Our obsession with heaven is problematic, but not because I think people should share the paucity of my expectation in that regard. A parishioner approached me yesterday to commend a song to me: "When I Get Where I'm Going," a heaven-oriented song by some forgettable country singer with some help from Dolly Parton. "After all," suggested, "isn't that what it's all about?" Clubbing him to death with my guitar would have been a violation of my ethical principles, and a sad fate for a nice guitar -- but emotionally satisfying.

I think you can have an earnest expectation that nice things will happen to you when you die, and that you'll somehow be fully conscious of those things, and still not come to the conclusion that any of that is "what it's all about." Most of the passages we associate with Heaven are really metaphorical images of the fulfillment of God's covenant with his people, and whether you think this is something that has already happened but needs to be made manifest, or a future hope of which the ecclesial body is supposed to a foretaste, or (like me), a hyperbolic way of imagining the possible, I think the import is the same. Where I start wanting to club people with guitars is when the attraction of the afterlife lies in the perpetuity of our egos, the projection of our individual lust for significance into the immortal realms.

I could go on, but what really galled me recently was the guest speaker for our Faith Promise rally, and to get there I also have to forgo a jeremiad on all the reasons I hate Faith Promise. Of all the ill-conceived, misguided, manipulative studies in missing the point...

Anyway.

Our guest speaker was the director of our local camp, and a decent fellow. He's a little gung-ho on the literal six-day creation, but we all have our quirks. As part of his keynote address, he played this video. For those of you not likely to take the link and forfeit 3 minutes of your life, the gist of the video is this: there's man in a hole, with no obvious means of escape. Representatives of most of world's major religions (I noticed Buddhism, some kind of New Age philosophy or maybe just bad Taoism, Hinduism, and Islam -- Judaism is conspicuously absent) offer him unhelpful advice for getting out of the hole, or enduring it. In the end, someone finally rescues him -- with a rope tethered to a cross.

I found this offensive. First of all, if we're comparing apples to apples, the Christian representative should by all rights have offered him equally unhelpful advice: to pray and read the Bible, or tithe, or vote Republican. I know, I know; I get it -- the hole is sin, and if you're a true believer then naturally only Christianity is the way out. I'm nothing if not metaphorically literate. But what if I don't think that's really the hole? Or that the whole hole analogy (sorry) is actually misleading on several levels? It plays into the obsession with heaven; apparently any religion that can't get you to the blissful shores -- all of them, naturally -- warrants ridicule.

This, then, is the real poverty of the video and scores of things like it: why do we have to make fun of other world religions to shore up the legitimacy of our own? That's the bit I find offensive, and I'm not sure this has much to do with the peculiarities of my belief. I think you can believe a good number of things quite literally and still come to the conclusion that making fun of people is not in the spirit of Jesus. Granted, we don't have a lot of stories about Jesus in interfaith dialog. There's some speculation in the esoteric tradition that Jesus spent time in India or Asia learning to be an adept, but that's not going to play well in Peoria. We do have the woman at the well, though, which comes close. Being Samaritan, her religion was not wholly different, but despite a culture of animosity Jesus treats her with love and respect.

Jesus reserved his invectives for those of his own religion whom he felt were missing the point -- including his followers. He is even somewhat deferential to Pilate, if not exactly fawning. One might bring up Jesus' exchange with the Syro-Phoenician woman as a counterexample, but I always read that as playful banter. In sum, I don't see where people claiming to follow Jesus can find justification for this kind of pejorative polemics. Then again, people do all kinds of unsavory things in the name of Jesus. "Remember the infamies" was Voltaire's cry against the church.

I don't need a guest speaker to make me feel uncomfortable; plenty of garden-variety church interactions can do that to me. What I find interesting is that my discomfort comes largely from what I think is a legitimate difference in focus -- one this is probably informed by my theological oddities but I don't think is wholly contingent upon them.

I guess I've got work to do.