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Why I Don’t Share Some Episcopalians’ Bias toward Uncertainty

Andover Hall, Harvard Divinity School

Today I received a very thoughtful comment on an earlier post (“Episcopalian Demise, or Love Unknown?” on May 9) from a Gay Australian, Col Thornby. He says Christian denominations are slowly dying there, the Anglican hierarchy spends all its time on the wrong things and the Church is becoming irrelevant. It sounds a little familiar.

Worse (to me), he writes,

In Australia people like me (gay) live in an uncomfortable situation. We are neither rejected nor accepted, continuing to exist in a kind of ecclesiastical limbo, subject to the whims and goodwill of those in power (I use the term advisedly). There is no other group like us, there are no other individuals like us. But we actually have something to say to the church – a church which is now outside the mainstream culture. Being outside is not a disaster – it allows you to say to the ‘inside’ that there is something rotten about your society, something that does not accord with the law of love. I think that is our call, really. To help those who now find themselves ‘outside’ to understand what that means, to help them to find ways of critiquing the dominant culture, and to help them to understand that it takes a mighty choice, and a sort of bravery.

Being outside is not a disaster: so true, no matter what cultures LGBT folk find ourselves in.

Col writes and thinks so well that I scrolled up to see what it was that I wrote that provoked his response. Turns out it was a semi-polite argument I was having with Episcopal Café, a website, in general and J.C. Fisher in particular. I don’t want to rehash it now, but to write some new thoughts on the topic.

A lot of Episcopal clergy and other opinion leaders believe in nurturing (and publicly proclaiming) their doubts about the Christian religion – in other words, they have a bias toward uncertainty. Perhaps they think that this attracts other people with doubts and makes the Church a safe place for them – though I don’t know why it would; if they have doubts, why would they bother to show up? It’s easier to sleep in on Sunday mornings and read The New York Times.

On the other hand, I’m very certain about the Christian religion; I believe every word of the Apostles’ Creed as written. Apparently I threaten the Uncertains; they’re definitely not used to being criticized for their unhelpful expositions of doubt. So they accuse me of being dogmatic and judgmental, which I’m not. I just don’t want them yapping their uncertainties from the pulpit or on websites with my Church’s name on them.

I expect to meet Gandhi in heaven, don’t you? On the other hand I believe Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. The Way, not one way.

I do not believe that Islam, Judaism, Hinduism or any other religion are “equally valid” with Christianity. But I think all of them are good insofar as they draw believers in God’s direction.

When I get to heaven he’s going to tell me my understanding is limited and wrong too – so I’ve got a lot in common with those Muslims, Jews, etc. I’d much rather they believe in something good than hang out with zombies and vampires all day.

As Desmond Tutu points out, what religion a person has is largely a result of where she happened to be born.

So I threaten JCF; big deal. What makes me so certain? I really am, but I don’t know how I got this way.

I speculate that if JCF had had my same set of experiences, he’d probably feel the same way. But maybe not. Maybe he’s so concerned about the epistemological issues involved (how do you know what you know?) that anyone certain about anything makes him take potshots.

How do I know what I know about God? I’m willing to take that on, it’s what this post is about.

I regard my certainty as a gift from God, a grace that I didn’t earn and didn’t expect. I have the gift of not spending all my time (or any of my time) wondering about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They’re one God in three Persons (functions, job descriptions, identities, times of activity) and I’m totally comfortable with him/her/them. To me God is an objective reality and Jesus is God’s son.

The certainty, which I didn’t choose, does free me up to get some things done – so I’m very happy to be in this condition, which I’ve been in my whole adult life.

The Church, now, that’s a different story. The Church has a great capacity to disappoint me, and lots of other people besides. If I had to prove that God exists because the Church is here, I’d walk away from the debate. The Church, in fact, is the source of uncertainty.

Who can believe in the Church when the Pope’s running around saying such stupid things? Who could possibly believe in the Archbishop of Canterbury?

As for those TV preachers and politicians, fuhgeddaboutit. They’re senseless, all of them. Part of the comedy club. Like Anthony of the straining Weiner.

The best-named website in internet history is called Crooks and Liars. You can’t improve on that; it sums up the entire world of politics and religion.

I believe in God with certainty because “he” gave me the gift of that. But there’s more, too: unusual (but common) manifestations of God’s presence, what the Orthodox call “everyday mysticism,” and two times much greater than those when, I’d swear on a stack of Bibles, God talked to me.

Heard a voice and everything, and it wasn’t my voice.

Well, I take that back; I didn’t hear a thing. It couldn’t be measured in decibels. You and I could be standing side by side and you wouldn’t hear what I heard – because God doesn’t talk out loud.

He kind of invades your brain instead, in the most loving (but dramatic) way.

I’ve written about these elsewhere, so I’ll make a long story short, just the content of the messages:

• I love you just the way you are.
• I do want you in the church.

The latter happened as I was wondering about, talking to God about, a faith community vs. the liveliness of prayer, which I’ve enjoyed for a long time.

“In the church” means not just a gathered community that believes in something or another, but the faith community that worships Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

I got marching orders! So I’ll never question that again.

To me, when God says, “March,” that’s what ya do. I don’t know whether those other Episcopalians didn’t get the order, or whether they did and preferred to debate each other about the epistemology of it all.

In my new, just-finished novel, The Gospel According to Gay Guys, I include two episodes where a miracle occurs. A close friend and fan of mine, a priest, was very uncomfortable when he read them – though he’s very orthodox too. Another friend and fan, who’s only the vaguest of believers (and even then only once a month), told me right away to take them out. I can well imagine that casual readers who’ve never met me before would find them shocking.

Thomas Jefferson edited all the supernatural stuff out of the New Testament because he felt it didn’t belong there. That is, it didn’t suit his ideology. This left Jesus as just another contributor to Poor Richard’s Almanac.

But he wasn’t; he was the Messiah.

When I was a kid I doubted the Virgin Birth, but I shed that conceit when I grew up. I thought back then it was sort of anti-sexual, as if there’s something unholy about two people making a baby; couldn’t Jesus get here the same way all the rest of us did?

That was my adolescent mind. As an adult I realized that if God is really God, he can do anything he damn well pleases.

Concede that notion to God and the miracles start to make sense.

(The real purpose of the Virgin Birth is not to condemn sexual intercourse but to prevent any accusation against Jesus that he was tainted by original sin – which never was fucking, by the way, it was eating an apple and knowing right from wrong.)

I believe Jesus performed miracles not only because people needed healing, but because supernatural acts, out in plain sight, help people overcome their doubts.

Jesus knew people find it hard to believe in a God they cannot see. So he showed them evidence of God they could see, and they killed him anyway.

But it was all in God’s plan, and now here we are. A Gospel without miracles isn’t a gospel worth attending to. It isn’t a gospel at all, it’s just some guy sayin’.

My Gospel According to Gay Guys has to include miracles. I’m sorry my priest-friend doesn’t know that – or maybe he just thought mine were particularly unbelievable.

Many of our clergy (of a certain age, he suggests) do have doubts; Harvard Divinity School prides itself on how many students leave with their faith destroyed.

I think fewer of the laypeople have as many doubts, but of course one’s going to flit through your mind every now and then no matter how faithful you are. One passed over my head the other day, though I couldn’t tell you now what it was about.

Gay men in particular are open to faith, because for a lot of us, it’s a miracle we’re still alive.

New York, 1985. I was working at Gay Men's Health Crisis at the time.

Every alcoholic and addict in recovery knows a miracle when she sees one; but I guess addiction never happens to Episcopal intellectuals.

Did I in fact hear the voice of God those two times? If I were up before the Spanish Inquisition (or its successor, Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), I would cheerfully recant – because in fact a lone individual can never be 100% totally certain about such a thing. We need what the Quakers call a Clearness Committee for such questions; Episcopalians call this “discernment.” The truth is found in the community of faith.

But I ask you as one Gay person to another: Do you hear the voice of God in these two statements? Are they anything like the messages God’s sent to you?

• I love you just the way you are.
• I do want you in the church.

If you answered yes, I rest my case.++

Happy Pride Day, everyone. The slogan of P-FLAG, from the same time I got my first message, is "We love our children just the way they are." Where did they get that, do you suppose?

One Response

  1. Hard questions. I´m not certain being ¨gay¨ has much to do with answering them (except as a random point of view).

    • I love you just the way you are.
    • I do want you in the church

    What love? The love on inclusivness? The love of a rushing warmth that sometimes pours over others from me (and sometimes only in my mind and not to be confused with sexual attraction)?

    Every time. Every single time I admire character virtues and aspire to have them in my life I fail. It´s not that being mindful of ones character, or lact of good character, isn´t helpful, it´s just that I know how to PORTRAY good character, exhibit it to you and others and not have it, no, not really…sometimes profoundly so. So loving just the ¨way you are¨ is quite a glaring question you put to me…it doesn´t mean I don´t want you to live amongst me and that you are unwelcome at my table but it does mean, after a life journey trying to discern true welcome from ¨showing off¨ that I do say NO and hope for the best as the ¨rejected¨ make time to think about taking advantage (we have a special word for it in Spanish) of me or anyone else…how I wish I could unconditionally accept and be helpful to someone who abuses– but, I´m not that great gift giver and sometimes having a ¨passive¨ mind leads to neglect and enabaling– yet, here is the chair next to me and I welcome you to be in it and even if you are raving mad I wish you genuine peace of mind–yes, I do, even as you spit at me and spew lies about people like me (just one example coming from the ¨gay¨ pew sitter)…ignoring reality isn´t good and I think that is the ¨termoil¨ part the Church finds itself in–I do believe the answers ARE in the listening…perhaps there ought be seat belts or straight jackets but I do want you in the Church because I know first hand that you didn´t , and sometimes still don´t, want me and I frankly, don´´t give a damn (what is what I imagine is happening to many LGBTI people in many denominations)…we have tenacity in the God receiving department–yes, I don´t know where it comes from but I´ve felt and seen it my whole life and when I relax and appreciate, that´s the key, difference, I´m flooded with glee– yet when there are choices to be made I must do my best to say yes, no, maybe (or change my mind) as that is ¨expected of me¨ by the God of my understanding–it´s about being vulnerable instead of striving to be safe–trust is better than pretend. Trust is what it´s all about for me after I do my best (with what I´ve got)…God is always there for me especially at the ¨¨falling off places¨ in my life. Living requires full participation for a bungler like me…more will be revealed (and should be).

    Love to you and Lukest,
    Len

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