Gandhi Wasn’t Perfect

I ran across an article this week – well, a sort of meditation, really – that mentioned that Gandhi, the great Indian revolutionary who led India to independence from Great Britain through a remarkable non-violent movement, and who spent his final years as a Hindu holy man, revered by millions, had a problem.   He had, apparently, a weakness for young women, and as he got older, it seemed that the women for whom he had a weakness got younger.     Mother Teresa may also not have been perfect.  There are a number of people who have said that  she refused to provide desperate young women with birth control (in line with the teaching of the Catholic Church) and encouraged them to remain in poverty and not seek to improve their situation.  It has also been said that Martin Luther King, Jr., the great American civil rights leader, was not perfect, also (it is said) being rather vulnerable to the opposite sex.   And we have all recently learned that Tiger Woods is not perfect.  Okay, Woods does not belong in the same category as Ganhi, Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King, but we Americans do have an odd way of elevating and venerating people who are exceptionally good at sports.

The reality, of course, is that no one is perfect.  Deep down, we all know that (or, at least, most of us do).  And yet, when we choose to elevate someone for public veneration, we nevertheless seem to have an expectation that those people should be perfect.  Then, when an imperfection is eventually exposed, we become shocked and disappointed, and then use that imperfection to invalidate anything good that person may have done.  Then, we continue our search for the next perfect person, knowing all the while that it will only be a matter of time before that next hero’s imperfections will be found, and then we can turn our backs in cynicism once again.

I am tempted to think that this fruitless quest for the perfect hero is a function, at least in part, of the way in which religion (or, at least, Christianity) has become synonymous with moral rectitude.  There are many Christian preachers and writers who will tell you that the goal of the Christian life is some form of moral purity.  Interestingly, they will at the same time acknowledge that moral purity is impossible for flawed human beings to attain, and thus we require God’s forgiveness.  Yet, somehow, this admittedly unattainable moral perfection is held up as the standard for which we should all be shooting, all the while knowing that we can never hit the bull’s eye.

Don’t get me wrong:  I’m all for promoting morality and ethics in public and private life.  But if we look at the Bible, we will find that it is populated by a host of people who, in our time and place, would be dismissed as discredited heroes, whose imperfections ruined what otherwise would have been stellar careers.   Think of Abraham, who slept with one of his servants.  Think of Jacob, who cheated his brother Esau out of what was rightfully his.  Think of Moses, who ran away and hid in the desert after killing an Egyptian.  Think of David, who slept with one of his soldier’s wives and then had her husband killed to try to cover it up.  Think of Peter, who denied having even known Jesus not once, not twice, but three times.  Think of Matthew who, as a tax collector, extorted money from people.  Think of the various “fallen women” who were among the circle of Jesus’ followers.  None of these people would survive the tabloid mentality of our current culture.  You can imagine the headlines that would be conjured up.  And I’m sure you can imagine how these imperfections would be used to define each of these people, so that in the end, that was all anyone remembered about them.

Yet, each of these people appears in the biblical text as a servant of God or a worthy follower of Jesus.  Each of these people are depended upon to carry the sacred drama forward in some important way.  Each of them is somehow indispensable to the unfolding of God’s ceaseless effort to get humanity to fall in love with God and, in the embrace of that love, to act on behalf of that love in the world.  The imperfections of these biblical figures are never excused, but they are transcended.  The Bible makes it abundantly clear that we do not need to wait until we have achieved some kind of impossible moral perfection before we can take our place in God’s kingdom.   And the Bible makes equally clear that God does not define us according to our flaws or in terms of the worst thing we have ever done.  The incredible grace is that while God sees these things, God looks beyond them to find and affirm our essential value.

Gandhi wasn’t perfect, but he was a great man who did some amazingly good things.  Martin Luther King wasn’t perfect, but he was a great man who did some amazingly good things.  And Mother Teresa wasn’t perfect, but she is on her way to becoming an official saint.  And her truth is the truth of every saint, and of every one of us:  that despite our flaws, we can indeed do great things for God and for the human family.

What a world it would be if, when we discovered another’s imperfection, instead of focusing on how terrible that imperfection is, we said, “Wow.  Isn’t it amazing that despite that, this person has done some amazing things.”   What a world it would be if we could like through a person’s flaws to see her or his essential value.

What religion can mean….

Philip Goldberg, an author, counselor and interfaith minister, suggests that when we talk about religion, the conversation and debate often misses some of the most important roles that religion has historically fulfilled.  Religion, he argues, has five functions:

1. Transmission: to impart to each generation a sense of identity through shared customs, rituals, stories, and historical continuity.

2. Translation: to help individuals interpret life events, acquire a sense of meaning and purpose, and understand their relationship to a larger whole (in both the social and cosmic senses).

3. Transaction: to create and sustain healthy communities and provide guidelines for moral behavior and ethical relationships.

4. Transformation: to foster maturation and ongoing growth, helping people to become more fulfilled and more complete.

5. Transcendence: to satisfy the longing to expand the perceived boundaries of the self, become more aware of the sacred aspect of life, and experience union with the ultimate ground of Being.

Goldberg argues that most people (and many religious institutions), particularly in the West, tend to focus on the first three of these functions.  If that is true, it is perhaps not surprising that much of our religious conversation revolves around shifting cultural norms, what constitutes acceptable or sanctioned personal moral conduct and issues of doctrine and belief.    Goldberg believes that this helps explain why so many Westerners have turned to “Eastern” religions, because increasingly, he argues, people are looking for traditions that are more experience-oriented than belief-oriented.  In other words, their focus is more on the second two functions – transformation and transcendence – than on the first three functions, which have tended to be the focus of Western Christianity.

It seems to me that the future of the Christian movement lies very much with how successful we are at understanding this shift in the religious landscape from a belief-centered spirituality to an experience-centered spirituality.  I know that many Christian leaders would find this to be a kind of slippery slope, for it would seem to suggest that beliefs somehow don’t matter.  I think that beliefs indeed do matter, for ultimately we will act in the world on the basis of what we believe.  The question, I guess, is this:  what comes first?  Beliefs, which give rise to experiences that can lead to transformation and transcendence, or experiences of transformation and transcendence that then inform the formation of beliefs?

I suppose this is a sort of chicken and egg kind of question.  As I think about it, however, I tend to think that human nature gives priority to experience, and that the Christian tradition in its early history did, as well.  After all, the Christian faith itself was born out of the experience of the first followers of Jesus:  the experience of Jesus’ teaching and ministry and the experience of Christ as risen.  The early Christians worshiped long before they started writing theological papers and tomes, and while worship is always theological, it is primarily experiential.  The word “orthodox”, which we have come to define in terms of believing the right things, etymologically actually means something different.  It is made up of the Greek words “ortho” and “doxa”.  “Ortho” does indeed mean right or correct.  But “doxa” does not mean belief.  It means glorification or worship.  So, going back to the word’s Greek roots, we find that it has more to do with glorifying God in the right way (in other words, the experience of worship).  And over time, the church developed rather rich and elaborate worship experiences which were primarily in the service of fulfilling the last two of Goldberg’s scheme of functions (transformation and transcendence).

Back when I was a student of Russian language and culture, I first encountered the wonderful story about how it was that the Russians came to embrace the Eastern Orthodox version of Christianity.  It may well be an apocryphal story, but even so, it says something important.  The story says that the Prince of Kiev in the 10th century was trying to decide which religion he and his subjects should embrace, and so he sent emissaries to different parts of the world to explore various religious traditions.  Each time the emissaries came back, they were less than enthusiastic.  Until they visited Constantinople, the ancient center of Greek Christianity.  They returned from Constantinople to describe to their Prince in glowing detail the amazing liturgy (religious service) they had experienced there.  They summed it all up by saying, “We knew not whether we were on earth or in heaven.”  It sounds to me that the worship those emissaries experienced did the job:  they walked away from it transformed, and certainly feeling that they had had a transcendent experience.  The Prince of Kiev embraced Eastern Orthodox Christianity without inquiring into what they actually believed.  The effect of the worship service on his representatives was all he needed to know.

I think a lot of people are looking for the 21st century version of this ancient Russian story.  People want to experience the sacred, they want to touch the transcendent, and they want to be opened to the possibility of transformation in their own lives and in the life of the world.  They are more interested in religious experience than they are in religious data.    And when so many Christians have become so accustomed to the idea that salvation involves a correct set of beliefs, that may be a difficult shift to get our heads around.  But it might be helpful for us to remember that Jesus was really all about relationships, and the heart of those relationships – the energy that is supposed to animate them and hold them together – is love.  We can describe love, we can believe in love, we can come up with all kinds of theories about love.  But most people want first and foremost to experience love.  After they experience love, they’ll be happy to talk about it endlessly.

The same is true of God, and Christ, and religion.

The Messy Democracy of the Spirit

Back in December, the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles elected two new Bishops Suffragan (bishops who assist the primary bishop of a diocese), one of whom is a Lesbian woman who has been in a committed relationship for many years.  In March, the Office of the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church announced that the Rev. Mary Glasspool had received the necessary consents from other bishops and from a majority of the Standing Committees of the various dioceses for her consecration as a bishop to go forward on May 15.  Since this announcement, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and several other senior bishops in Anglican churches around the world (as well, we must say, as some bishops and others within The Episcopal Church) have expressed their disappointment with the decision, and have suggested that it will have serious consequences for The Episcopal Church’s relationship with the Anglican Communion (the fellowship of self-governing Anglican churches around the world).

As all Episcopalians know, this is the latest chapter in a controversy that erupted in its fullness when Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, a gay man in a committed relationship, was made a bishop several years ago.  While Bishop Robinson’s consecration was a very public watershed moment, it was really the culmination of a process that had been going on for some time without much attention being paid to it.  What I am referring to here is a shift in the way many American Episcopalians read and interpret Scripture and Tradition, combined with the growing visibility of the gay and lesbian community within both church and society, who have increasingly questioned whether it is appropriate for the Christian community to continue to marginalize both their relationships and their role within the churches as they have asked new questions about what sexual orientation really is.

Understandably, this process was not unfolding everywhere.  Even within our own church and country, there were great regional differences in engaging these issues, and globally, the Anglican churches in many societies exist in cultural climates in which consideration of the status of gay and lesbian people was not even a blip on the radar screen.  And even if it was on the cultural radar, in most places in the second and third worlds that blip was profoundly negative, connected to deep cultural prejudices against homosexuality.

Within the Anglican fellowship of churches, there has historically been room for disagreement, even if that space was sometimes made reluctantly.  Witness, for example, the decision of the American church to ordain women.  While several Anglican churches have since followed suit, the reality is that most of the world’s Anglicans still do not recognize the possibility of an ordained woman.  But, we agreed to live in the midst of our disagreement about that.  The human sexuality debate, however, has seemed to reveal the limits of our ability to do that.

In all of this, however, it seems to me that there is something much more basic going on than differences in culture and biblical interpretation.  And that has to do with the very nature of the church itself, and of who is entitled to have authority within the Christian community.

One of the learnings that has emerged from the debates and conversations that have flowed from Bishop Robinson’s election and consecration is how different The Episcopal Church’s governance is from most other Anglican churches.  Since our church separated from the Church of England in the aftermath of the American Revolution, our bishops have been democratically elected in conventions which have consisted of clergy and elected lay representatives of each congregation in a diocese.  The approval of those elections has also involved a democratic process, in which a majority of diocesan bishops and a majority of diocesan Standing Committees (consisting of equal numbers of clergy and lay people, who are elected) must vote to confirm or, in the words of the canon, consent to the election.   At the time of Gene Robinson’s election, senior Anglican bishops around the world were generally shocked that our Presiding Bishop did not have the power to veto his selection.  Because in most of their churches, the bishops are chosen only by other bishops, and in some places, the senior bishop does have veto power over the selections.

So what we have discovered is that within the Anglican world, we have very different models of who is given a voice in the selection of leadership and in the making of key decisions.  The Episcopal Church embodies the spirit of American democracy in an ecclesiastical mode:  we allow the Spirit to speak not only through our bishops, but also through ordinary clergy and lay people, believing that this great democracy of the Spirit will lead us into a more faithful living of the Gospel.

The developments within the American church that have roiled so many of our sisters and brothers in other Anglican places, and indeed, within our own church, are directly related to this commitment to spiritual democracy.  Our church is the living embodiment of what it means to refuse to privilege the voices and prayerful discernment of just a few and take seriously the baptismal equality of every Christian.

Does this mean that we are right, and those who dissent from the course we have set ourselves on are wrong?  Not necessarily.  The problem is, there is no way to know for sure.   We would like to be able to say openly and clearly that we know the mind of God, especially on the subjects about which we feel strongly.  Yet, if we are really honest, we will recognize that we don’t have that kind of certainty about sacred matters.  That’s why it’s called “faith”.   The fact of the matter is that this messy democracy of the Spirit has governed the life of the church for much of its history.  Initially, the democracy was admittedly limited:  only the bishops had a vote in the ancient church.  But until the rise of papal supremacy in the Roman Catholic Church, the bishops votes were equal.  And we live with the fruits of those votes:  the New Testament was assembled in this way, and the Nicene Creed was adopted in this way (just to name two examples).  In our time, we have enfranchised more people into the democracy of the Spirit, and that has perhaps increased the messiness, but the truth is that the process has always been messy and thus always imperfect.

The dangers of such a wide-open democracy of the Spirit may indeed be many.  But the dangers of a restricted hierarchical model that privileges only a few voices are surely at least equally as numerous.  The former, it seems to me, is more likely to nurture a creative and dynamic engagement with the Gospel, while the latter seems to tend toward preservation and conservation.  At its extreme, a more wide-open democracy of the Spirit can risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater, while in a more hierarchical model, the extreme can lead to the preservation of a Christianity which no longer speaks to the lives of people today and which preserves older human prejudices, enshrining them as sacred truths.   It would be nice to have a middle ground, but the times we live in don’t seem very amenable to middle grounds.  Given the choice, I am glad to take my chances with The Episcopal Church’s wide-open, messy democracy of the Spirit.

It is interesting to note that the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), which has been set up as an attempted alternative to The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada, has created a constitution in which the selection of bishops is restricted to other bishops, disenfranchising lesser clergy and laypeople.  This will undoubtedly make their inner church life a bit less messy — but I’m not at all sure it will help the Spirit to be heard more clearly.

I wonder what Jesus would think……?

McLaren, Milgram and Modern Faith

Brian McLaren is an unpopular evangelical.  He is unpopular because he questions much of what passes as normal or orthodox in evangelical circles.  He is unwilling to go along with much of what the mainstream evangelical movement considers important or a necessary part of Christian belief.  As McLaren himself observes, “It’s not hard to fall out of the good graces of the most conservative elements of any religious community.  And those authority figures often become even more testy under stress.”

McLaren believes that the evangelical movement, and conservative religious movements generally, are under stress because increasingly, many of their adherents are questioning some of the very things that McLaren himself is questioning.  McLaren sees this in terms of a clash between the consciences of many people of faith and the religious authority figures whom they respect.

Here are some of the places where McLaren sees this clash taking place:

Many find it increasingly unconscionable to believe that they are among the elect when their non-Christian neighbors (and in many cases, their doctrinally-different Christian neighbors as well) are damned, awaiting eternal torment in hell for their failure to convert to the Christian faith.  They realize that this belief has a wide range of negative psychological, social, and political impacts, and they have questions and doubts about the whole system, but they remain silent.  Many have lost confidence in a violent God who punishes people for the sins of their ancestors, who uses tsunamis and earthquakes to visit wrath on the disgraced, who blesses wars of choice, and so on.  But they publicly defend this view of God in spite of their private misgivings.

Many are afraid to admit that they … believe in evolution, or are concerned about global climate change, or are OK with their friends being gay or priests being married, or use birth control, or wish women could be treated as equals in their church, or don’t take every word of the Bible as having equal authority and historical accuracy.

McLaren compares this divide between people’s private thoughts and the public positions of religious authorities to the Milgram experiment that was carried out at Yale in the early 1960s.  In that classic trial, people were asked by a researcher to “administer electric shocks of increasing intensity after each wrong answer given by a stranger (who was actually an actor cooperating with the test).”   While the actor pretended to receive shocks of increasing intensity, and responded in a way that convinced the person administering the “shock” that they were actually causing pain, people nevertheless complied with the researcher’s request to continue shocking the other person at an alarming rate.  In discussing the conclusions reached through this experiment, the researcher explained:  “The extreme willingness of most adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding an explanation.”

McLaren believes that the same psychological tendency is operating among many people of faith today, who despite their private misgivings, continue to push the same theological buttons that certain religious authorities have insisted must be pushed.  Not because they believe these are the right buttons to push, but because they have been told to push them, and they can’t yet see an alternative.  Of course, it is also true that many people are turning their backs on faith communities because they have decided that the buttons being pressed by religious authorities have worn out.

As I reflect on McLaren’s thinking and observations, I am brought back to an idea that has become central to my own theology, and was also, I think, central to the Protestant Reformation.  And that has to do with the authority conferred upon each of us at our baptisms, an authority that flows from our personal relationship with the living Christ.  The Protestant Reformation was built in large part upon this very principle:  that each Christian had been given the gift of the Holy Spirit in baptism, and that each person could read Scripture for him- or herself.  It is sad, but historically not that surprising, that a movement that began by uplifting the individual liberty of each Christian person should ultimately give birth to forms of Christianity that limit and dishonor that liberty.

I am convinced that if the Christian movement is to continue in modern society, we must make room for this liberty within our communities.  Churches should be places that provide space for the kinds of questions and misgivings that McLaren has pointed to, because modern faith needs the freedom to explore.  Churches should empower people in their relationship with Christ, not encourage them to transfer their authority to someone else.  And Christian leaders should not be in the business of pretending that they have unique access to and understanding of God’s will, but should rather see themselves as leaders of sacred conversations, in which we all seek together to understand where we are being led individually and as a community.

If our churches indeed become communities of empowerment rather than places of cognitive dissonance, then perhaps the Christian movement will indeed experience new life.

Quotes above from Brian McLaren and about the Milgram experiment are taken from in article in Huffington Post Religion, written by Brian McLaren.