As I have related in previous posts, I have recently been immersed in my own “religious turn.” Regular church attendance (at a local United Church of Christ congregation) has turned into participating in lay leadership, which has turned into teaching opportunities, which has turned into being a delegate to my local conference, which may eventually turn into me seeking ordination. It has all happened rather quickly, and suffice it to say I’m still trying to make sense of it all. A while back I promised a more lengthy post about this, but put it off to the point of completely forgetting to do so. Adam’s most recent post below has compelled me finally to do so, as I think some of my experience speaks to the division in question there.
Let’s start by being perfectly clear: I have a very touch-and-go relationship with the Church, whether it be liberal, conservative, catholic or protestant, or anything that says it’s none of the above. Perhaps more clear still: I am not a “believer,” at all or per se. Nevertheless, for now anyway, I’ve decided that the political and social power of the community that calls itself a Church is such that my belief and/or disbelief doesn’t really matter (provided this belief/disbelief isn’t hurting or causing injustice to somebody/some thing). In short, what I am suggesting is that it is not about me. I have incorporated, you might say, a kind of Buddhist sensibility into my Christian practice in, in that I’m more inclined to be identified as a Christian who does not believe than a Buddhist who is identified as such.
Does that make sense? Just case, let’s back up and then slow down. By “Christian who does not believe,” I mean a Christian who does not subscribe to the underlying dualism of the whole Christian system, in most of its various incarnations, which includes the installation of and adherence to an orthodoxy that is dependent on a transcendent divinity.
I am of the mind that what the Church believes about itself is of far less consequence than what it actually does. I could, of course, invest lots of energy in rationalizing and articulating a conception of the kingdom of God as a fully immanent reality that is not dependent in the first or final sense on a transcendent divinity. (Or, alternatively, I could recommend Thomas Altizer’s Genesis and Apocalypse or Dorothee Soelle’s Christ the Representative, and let them do my work for me.) There is surely some value to such rationalizing and articulating, and it will inevitably arise; but of more value, I suspect, is how one “fleshes out,” by way of activity, one’s conception of the kingdom of God. The conception that relies on dualism, I feel, is informed more by its suppressed immanence than it is its avowed allegiance to transcendence; and it is toward the former that I try to direct my energies. (This is to say, to echo our own Dan Barber’s phenomenal work, the “avowal” is always performed via a tangible, immanent fiction–it is what one tells oneself & others–and as such is always subject to the ebbs and flows of immanence before the power and place of transcendence is installed. Thus, the priority I place on the immanence of “doing” over the transcendence of “believing,” even if the two cannot be altogether sundered.) The real power of the church, such as it is, then, is in what it does, rather than what it believes about itself and what it does.
Now, I confess I sometimes inappropriate devalue belief to an extent that some find a little troubling. When “the orthodox” scream “heretic,” I find myself looking for a better, third term. Even when it is not that dramatic, and it seldom is, it certainly sets me at awkward odds with those within my particular community. The most interesting critique is that inasmuch as I am cloaking myself in the guise of a Christian without actually believing Christian things, I’m engaging in an overly pragmatic, fairly deceptive practice, and justifying it all in the name of social justice, activism, etc. I’m still working through this critique, as I am through all this, but this in particular on a fairly intensive, meditative level. The obvious key to it all is thinking through the issue of deception.
If the immanence of activity has a certain priority, a shared commitment to acts of justice and virtue should obviously be in place. But need the belief about those acts? Surely a leader should not be in the business of dissimulation, but what is the nature of this dissimulation? — If integrity requires an absolute accord, where the community and its leaders share both in the activity and the beliefs informed by said activity, I should think suggest we’re probably setting up an unrealizable ideal. The vagaries of a prioritized activity result (in addition to a corporate movement and action) in a shared recitation of a narrative or confession; but what one does “internally” (i.e., as a belief in the so-called proper sense) with that recitation is important to the community, I suspect, only if it changes the activity.
The issue of deception arises would seem to arise most when talking about one’s belief, whether it is prioritized or not. Ideally, if one is having this conversation, it will be within a community with which shares a commitment to all the “activity” described above (including the recitation part). Integrity and honesty would behoove one then to articulate one’s theological disposition in the language of the recitation, and to articulate it such in a way that matches what one does in fact believe (in the proper sense described above). Self- deception arises if one’s articulation has no relationship to the recitation of faith (such a deception is, of course, hard to identify, and often is only realized in hindsight); deception of others arises when one’s articulation to others does not match one’s articulation to oneself (this can occur via an active, intentional cynicism, but not always, as one often only realizes one is deceiving others upon realizing one is deceiving oneself, which as noted above typically occurs in hindsight).
Where does this leave me? I haven’t the foggiest. It’s where I’m at right now, and I fully reserve the right to reverse course and confess self-deception all along. But at least there is public record (until I delete this post) that at some point I was in fact honest in my dishonesty.