Christianity: More Interesting Than You Think

A letter from Dean Hansen to Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Dish

Dear Andrew,

I started watching the hour-long Discussion you had with Ross Douthat. As soon as you put forward the question, “…Why the collapse of “self-confident” 50’s style (Catholic) Christianity in the 1970’s?” I knew I had to stop the video and try a little experiment.  I wanted to write my own answers to this question to see if and how they lined up with yours and his, before returning to hear the rest of the discussion.

Here’s what I wrote starting with a famous lyric:

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

The Russians have a word, Dolgostroi, which symbolizes projects that drag on endlessly and are never completed.  That’s what church was to me.  The place of God’s absence.  The sounds of silence.  The collapse that you’re talking about occurred because people began to make noises back and forth.  Something was rustling beyond the doors. They started murmuring.  Boredom, restlessness, a sense of repression, bad smelling hair gel and the advent of the sexual revolution and the burgeoning demographic of the young exploding into puberty, all promoted and urged on by modern media and later by the Internet, moved them away in droves, and gave them instant feedback on what others were feeling. They were no longer in the mood for unchallenged orthodox ideals developed over the eons for the benefits of some obscure reward in an unnamed metaphysical future. Dissatisfaction and the revelation of inadequate social connection and false hegemony is what moved them out.  The great, white, pragmatic (and high tech) eschatology was beginning. When secrets were being shed or exposed, and old confidences broken, and Cohen’s crack in everything began occurring to let in the light. Once the conversation began, there was no going back.  All was lost you might say, or resurrected, to put a more accurate and honest spin on it.

People didn’t go to Catholic mass in the 1950’s and early 60’s to communicate, exchange ideas, or learn. They were communicants rather than communicators. They went as audiences held captive by a priestly figure who poured a ritualized and impersonal litany on them in an endless prostration of formulaic regularity.  It was for most, an anhedonic torture. The 60’s revealed, with the advent of the pill and the countercultural revolution, that coitus bears more of the stamp of creation than Latin rituals offered by celibate Irish immigrants in old, drafty mausoleum-like buildings dedicated to the memory of a God whose revival was dependent on his congregants bounding out of Lazarus’ Catholic entombment and being more fully alive. That may be why it’s called the Sermon on the Mount rather than the sermon in the vestibule.  The principle intoxicant of life is this life, not the next one.  This one is being enjoined to become the next one.  I come that you might have life, and that more abundantly, but only if you ignore the one you have now….No.  A church that tells you to prepare for the next life by smothering the crap out of this one is doomed to ultimate despair and failure.  Paul may have demanded that out of a false sense of urgency and misdirection; we don’t.  We also know more than Paul, Augustine, Constantine, Tertullian, Chrysostom, Irenaeus, Origen, Aquinas, and the disciples ever could.

+++++

Here’s what I added after watching the video:

I can imagine that many people, starting with Ross, will struggle to find some way to praise God for the benefits of an affluence which they feel uncomfortable attributing to him while simultaneously cursing themselves for enjoying the benefits derived if the enjoyment is too protracted or deep.  Sigh.  Could it be that to the extent God proves providential in one area, he might be providential in the other as well?  What is the church, then, without its endless cudgel of guilt to parse the differences?

Regarding Jesus’ position on sin and the law, and sexuality specifically, you both touched on it and circled the topic, but neither one of you gave a satisfying or believable answer.  I think you are at least in the ballpark due in part to the prominence of your own marginalized sexual disposition seeking a legitimate expression in a difficult time against seemingly crippling odds; Ross is in the bleachers somewhere, or in the middle of the bay.  Jesus intensified the law not to force us into an impossible standard of behavior but so that we should abandon it altogether and trust him to do what we cannot do for ourselves.  It’s what Paul introduced as the righteousness of God without the law.  The intensification of the law and its practice doesn’t make it or us righteous; it makes it impossible.  That’s the good news.  I earnestly believe that was the whole point that Jesus was making.  He took the law away and nailed it to the cross, once and for all as the scripture says.  All of it. He goads the Pharisees and scribes into challenging him in an attempt to break them free from their stubborn self-righteousness and open their hearts to a new and better way.  Not to help them churn more theological butter on the millstone of self knotting.  Let he who has ears hear.  I get the sense that Ross spends many sleepless nights lusting after things he imagines he can’t have and spooning up the guilt he feels as a way of preserving his walk.  I hope I’m wrong. In any case, I loathe even the insinuation of this kind of doctrinal harness and refuse to wear it.  Therefore, in Paul’s words, “by the deeds of the law, shall no flesh be justified in his sight…”  That seems a fair enough insight in view of what’s being offered in its place: Freedom.  It is utterly senseless to extrapolate and belabor the dangers involved in license (which the church does constantly) without first acknowledging the freedom that makes those dangers possible.  (Which the church rarely if ever does).  Freedom of conscience.  That’s the ball game. Why else would Paul say that the purpose of the law is to create guilt in those who are slaves to it?  To force them into silence, take the Zen slap, and stop pushing the millstone up the hill like an irate Sisyphus.

The 60’s and 70’s wasn’t a “shock” to anyone who was awake.  It was just the demographics of sexual maturity bitch slapping Momma-church for denying its children the education and honest confrontation with life it deserved.  If the church is shocked by sexuality and life it’s because it never took its responsibilities as seriously as all its droning, morbid theology of mortification would have you believe.  Now it’s discovering, to its chagrin, that there as many raging hormones within its confines as without. And it is discovering what happens to a group of “holy” men when they’re misshapen and warped by repression, abstention, severe self-discipline and denial.  The church has effectively closed the damper on the stove fire of belief to see what would happen.  We know what happened:  Heat without light.

That’s not to say that everyone who leaves mother, father, sister, brother, wife and family for the kingdom of heaven’s sake won’t eventually end up raping little boys, but it provides a pretty good yardstick for understanding why very few undertake the task of being eunuchs for this or any other kingdom when they’re taught to despise the body from a young age.  Do you really think that Jesus intended for us to be miserable on earth?  “I bring you good news!  Hate your family and follow me, biatches!”  “If your eye offends you, pluck it out!”   I can certainly understand why atheists (and honest Christians) struggle with this shit.  It creates the worst form of theological schizophrenia in anyone dumb enough to pursue it beyond the limits of her sanity. Apparently, after an informal survey of the sanity of most Christians, the conclusion has to be that they can never get enough of what they really don’t want.

Remember the famous scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where the German priest invokes some ritualistic prayers and opens the ark of the Covenant and we get the lovely if hyperbolic Hollywood melodrama of melting Nazis?  One thing you have to admire about Spielberg is his attention to Biblical detail.  The Ark of the Covenant contained the tablets of law.  Represented by the Ten Commandments (but encompassing, by inference, all the laws of the Mosaic code).  No one can gaze upon God’s “perfect” law and live unless they are perfect themselves.  The law is death.  The covering on the ark, called the Kapporeth or Mercy Seat, is meant to symbolize Christ who eclipses the law and stands between the demands of a righteous God and the broken nature of men.  Think of the lead shielding around an atomic pile and what happens if you remove it.  I don’t have a clue what any of this stuff means teleologically or metaphysically and I really don’t care.  As far as I’m concerned, Hitchens’s exercise in commandment writing is less onerous, but probably just as impossible.  But this is where Caritas lurks if it lurks anywhere. Paul utilized that symbolism (minus Spielberg) when he talks about faith over works.

The best way to repair and rebuild “the institution” of the church is to ask if that is seriously what believers want to do, since most of its troubles arise from its institutional bulk.  The church is supposedly the body of Christ.  The living body of Christ as represented by believers the world over.  That’s where the vibrancy lies if it lies anywhere.  Does it need a bureaucracy?  An administrative technology?  A plutocratic oligarchy? The architecture of a packing company or a museum?  St. Francis didn’t think so. Does it need to answer mysteries, or just hold people spellbound by them?  What about ostentation and pomp?  (“Let the candied tongue lick absurd pomp, and crook the pregnant hinges of the knee, where thrift may follow fawning…”)  When the levers and gears and cogs of power  become odious and oppressive, you leave the machinery behind.  At least that’s what Mario Savio thought.  And he took off his shoes when standing on the roof of a squad car at Sproul Hall, which you don’t do if you’re not a nice, respectful Catholic boy worried about scuffing the paint.

The Episcopal church, which doesn’t traffic in guilt to anywhere the same extent, is shrinking faster than the Catholic church.  That’s hardly a big surprise if you posit that guilt keeps people there.  But the ones who are still dominated by guilt are greying and will soon be gone. Which is better?  To leave because you no longer believe or because you simply no longer care but still vaguely hope to if offered something worth returning to?

As for politics, Martin Luther King believed that whenever love confronts hate, love always wins and hate always thinks it does.  The long arc of justice redeems through time what human agency stumbles over in the short term.  That’s why it’s fair to say that religion trumps politics only when it abandons coercion.  Because it is required to leave coercion and force behind before it starts on its journey.  King understood this brilliantly and it’s why he mastered what could have been a merely political cause and elevated it to a transcendent one which reverberates through time.

Abortion.  Think of it from the fetal standpoint.  It’s a free get out of jail card. You transition immediately from a juicy, comfy, dark amniotic bath in mommy’s tummy into the weeping arms of Jesus with nary a whimper in between.  No creepy Catholic limbo to endure;  no 75-year detour on earth station whacko where you are forced by the sin of Adam to work by the sweat of your brow all the days of your life and listen to your loving, fellow Christians endlessly remind you what a sinning, steaming pile of hell-bound crap you are.  What’s not to love?

Transubstantiation:

When I loved you,
and you loved me,
You were the sky, the sea, the tree….
Now skies are skies,

And seas are seas,
And trees are brown, and they are trees.

And wafers have always been and continue to be wafers, and wine, wine.  I don’t need Jesus to turn wine and bread into flesh and blood.  That would be a cheap trick if it worked.  I need him to convert my flesh and blood into its eternal equivalent through resurrection so that I can get some questions answered and hopefully snack at a better banquet.

Do this in remembrance of me, but try to avoid seizing.  The last supper is simply a sacrament of remembrance.  That’s all it is and all it ever will be.  I am the bread of life (so stop loafing around)  I am the door.  So why don’t we wear miniature doors on necklaces instead of crosses?  If Jesus were strangled to death instead of crucified, would we wear decorative garrotes?  I think the church places way too much gravity in the Eucharist.  It’s a symbol, that’s all.  A smile and a warm day is my eucharist.  I think of God every time I see a Raccoon in my garden or a cat in my window, or read a poem that touches my heart.  Why wouldn’t I?  Real observances are surprises, fresh and compelling. I don’t require a specific focusing agent to get there.  God is everywhere.  Even in hell, where I more often than not make my bed and share it with friends.

What it all comes down to is this:  What will God, or Jesus or the Holy Spirit do to you if you fuck up?  Is your dedication to Christ based on fear of the consequences of not being dedicated to Christ fully enough, or just blind obedience as an alternative to thinking about it too much?  What happens If you’re not generous enough, or self-effacing enough, or humble enough, or self-sacrificial enough, observant enough, or doctrinally pure enough?  Or, in my case, confused enough?  Will he throw you away?  Lock the door? Burn you like branches in a fire?  Cast you with the pigs into a lake?  And if those things are even a possibility, and not just some tacit, utterly counterproductive metaphorical threat or allusion with no substance, won’t there ultimately be some kind of revanchism at work in the believer, moiling beneath the delicate surface sensibilities of outward compliance?  Don’t we all have mixed emotions here? Can you love in blind obedience an unknown quantity?  Can a God of love ask you to do that?  Did he?  I don’t think so.

I believe as you do, in a physical resurrection of the body.  A restoration and intensification, not a replacement.  That means that God values matter.  The smell, touch, sight, taste and sound of experience, of existence itself.  Heaven is not less of reality, but more.  A theology that disposes of the things it needs by criminalizing existence is not interested in resurrection but exhumation.

God Bless,

Dean

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