Tuesday, May 23, 2006

On Faith and Language

Further reflections on the Writing as Pastoral and Spiritual Practice seminar:

I survived my time of scrutiny, but barely. Actually, it went much better than it might have given the tone and tenor of comments made there throughout the week. I speak the language of Zion, and around me are many who while retaining their orders and their pulpits are not themselves, so far as I can see, nourished by the worship life of the church or the liturgy or even the gospel. I have heard Gary Wills say something to the effect that much professional theological scholarship is a clever attempt to say Jesus didn’t really mean it. He, meaning Wills, encouraged us to read the text as is. Having said that, of course, he went on to dismiss the doctrine of Hell in the same way we have dismissed the supposed biblical justifications for slavery which were ascendant in the 17th and 18th centuries. Or, though he did not mention it, the exclusion from ordination of women based on the gender-valued patriarchy of the scriptures.

I would say that some of what is going on here is the same… a clever, erudite, sophisticated attempt to reinvent or reimagine or reconfigure the language in such a way that it does not mean anymore what it says. Or something. I have gone to lengths this week to argue, and especially with Tracey and Rochelle, that just because the application of a text is bad, that does not mean the text itself is bad. Just because patriarchy has been used against women does not mean that “Father” is immaterial to the New Testament understanding of God.

I finally said today, “I understand and well that there are times when invoking God as Father may be problematic or oppressive; I guess I want to know if there is ever a time when that term does more than make you quit listening.” I did not say it that harshly and I do not think they took offense. It is a genuine problem.

Rochelle was more nettlesome, though not so much to me. She actually blessed my prose in places, though she took issue with the abundance of biblical and scriptural words with which I salt my writing. She was fairly condescending, though, to one of our colleagues who was writing about the various historical Atonement theories, dismissing him with the wave of a hand: “It would help you to read Proverbs of Ashes which explores how traditional theories of the Atonement are irrelevant at best and oppressive at worst…” (and wherein, I must say, "sacrifice" and "victimization" are hopelessly and uncritically confused and admittedly tragic personal experience always trumps the various traditions and best understandings of doctrine). "It would help you to read…” As if he is unschooled or unaware. Maybe he and I are just the ignorant old bald guys in the group, the Neanderthals, the symbols of what is wrong with the church.

But what is interesting is that in the name of inclusion those of us in the “center” and not on the edge are marginalized as the edge becomes the center. I guess this theological solstice helps me to understand a bit better how these and other women have felt for a very long time, and also some of the battles to be heard they have had to fight through the years. I think, though, that the abiding irony escapes them—there is a sense in which they are now the power-brokers, the magisterium, the truth-tellers and guys like Michael and I are consequently silenced.

I am sure that is an overstatement and unfair.

I did manage to speak a word to the wonder of John Baillie’s prayer language--which is also featured in my writing here and there, to many as unintelligible as glossolalia and to me just as miraculous, which saved my life, in fact. I said all of that when another participant opined that my prose seemed forced and affected and stilted with Elizabethan biblicisms. The word Byzantine was used in there somewhere, too. I told the group that it was the power of the rhetoric itself which helped me think of something old in a different way, that helped me learn to pray. Lauren said that for the last ten years the mode of spiritual memoir has been that of a fellow pilgrim, but that she felt like we needed someone at least to teach us, at least sometimes. I am sure she was not talking about me, of course, but I felt a bit of vindication.

I heard Michael Wyatt again, and managed to have some conversation with him afterwards for almost half an hour. I really like him. He is the priest who presided at Tuesday morning Eucharist. Anyway, we talked about the conference, my frustration with the segregated nature of it and the fact that we are not really talking about spiritual practice or formation but only about craft and publishing (important, of course, but there should be some room for the other given the fact that that is what it is called!). I told him I could see a program built around Writing as Prayer: Writing as Confession, as Praise, as Intercession, as Petition and Thanksgiving. He seemed to like the idea a lot and thought that he might mention to Bill our doing something along that line in the next couple of days. I told him of my book, he was interested and so I gave him one of the sample chapters (in which I today found three typos!). I also gave a copy to all my colleagues, for better or worse.

I do need to explore this sense of not fitting. I did not fit as a Baptist--was in many ways too liberal and liturgical. Now, I do not seem to fit as a United Methodist--am in many ways too conservative and too biblical, too evangelical (it coule be argued that Wesley himself would no longer fit in our church, but that may be self-congratulatory). I only mean that I do not seem to fit with, nor can I echo, the prevailing voices of the church right now, or at least the voices that prevail around the table in our seminar. I am too emotional, too pious, too churcy, too Byzantine, whatever. I don’t seem to fit anywhere. I only hope I am fit for the kingdom.

At dinner the last night, Lauren said that the hour when my material was considered was the most uncomfortable hour in the week as far as she was concerned. I suggested the irony that in the name of inclusivisity Michael and I had been excluded because of our traditional understandings and appreciations of the faith. I suggested that while there were many at the table who were running as hard as they could away from the language and heritage of faith, I was one who was trying to learn more of it and immerse myself more deeply in it. I told her that I was the only one, as near as I could tell, who was told their writing was off-putting--and that from a writer who said she had the "beauty of the whole universe flowing in her heart"!

Anyway, that conversation proved quite cathartic—I had to leave the table, crying—but I also mentioned how powerful Evensong was for me just before dinner, when the Gospel reading said, “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this evil and adulterous generation, of them will I also be ashamed.” I am not ashamed of the word Father, or Lord, or King or kingdom, because those are Jesus’ words! I do not want to be condescending or elitist, but I am not ashamed of the traditional language. I am not ashamed of Jesus or his words in this confused and "tolerant" (!) generation. Luther started a Reformation not because he hated the church but because he loved it, felt it was in error. That is different, I think, than saying the church is erroneous.

Evensong, dinner, where Lauren told me she had agreed to blurb my first book. She is also very interested in my second book, and I think her comments tonight will help me frame my proposal. After dinner we had an informal conversation in one of the lounges where Lauren took on one of the women who had been unkind to me. I do not think she did it for any reason—she wasn’t trying to hold my hand or anything—but she did say earlier that she had been more in agreement with me than with my critics and I think she just wanted to stake-out her own territory.

1 comment:

R.G. said...

Tom, this is an AWESOME post. I do not have time to put down all my thoughts right now... suffice to say I REALLY appreciate what you're saying here. I'm on the same page.