Thursday, January 31, 2008

Can't we just all get along?

Susan Russell, the dynamic national president of Integrity, the ministry of LBGT Episcopalians, recently posed a provocative question in her always interesting and provocative blog, An Inch at a Time. She began by citing the conservative Episcopal TitusOneNine website which made the following assertion:

The first task of a Christian should not be "economic evangelism” but “Christ evangelism.” By focusing on “social justice” or “economic justice” we lose focus on Jesus Christ. Rather than trying to turn clergy and lay church politicians (those who attend the various conventions) into economists and politicians, lets be sure they first understand the Christian faith and then get them to turn politicians and economists into Christians.

Of course, that's a fairly predictable dualistic statement which marks the thinking of most conservatives generally. No surprise, as the Integrity president noted. But then she went on to say, "Which got me thinking about the either/or thing." Russell then goes on to quote a sermon from Rev. Ed Bacon, the rector of the church where she serves on staff, All Saints, Pasadena:

So what I’m wondering this morning is if we’ve really gotten beyond the place where there isn’t room in Christianity for both ... if we couldn’t yet find a way to be a people of God who believe in individual salvation not for individual salvation’s sake and who are committed to social justice not for social justice’s sake, but see it all as part and parcel of belonging to the God who called us to walk in love as Christ loved us and love our neighbors as ourselves.

It’d never work if my litmus test for your welcome at the table is how you vote on social issues and your litmus test for mine is if we agree on the same theological explanation for the salvific power of the cross. But what if we could agree that good people of deep faith WILL come to different conclusions on how God calls us to walk in love with each other—and what if we could regain that historic gift of Anglican comprehensiveness that leaves room for different theological understandings of the same God and Creator of all?

At some level, it's the Episcopal version of the Rodney King question: "Can't we all just get along?" In my fondest visions of Anglicanism, I have found ways to answer in the affirmative to that question by focusing on the eucharist as that which binds us one to another while unilaterally agreeing to disagree about the specifics which would divide us. It's a rather catholic vision of a tradition which has always been a bit schizophrenic with its catholic anima focused on inclusivity and belonging and its reformation animus focused on sectarian exclusivity based in believing at war with each other. But as I've thought about this question this week, I wonder if it's not asking too much for people of differing temperaments and stages of moral development to come together under the big tent.

Sensate inclined believers will always need specificity. In Anglicanism this often manifests itself in a form of bibliolatry whose Protestant roots wrongly assume the bible is the basis for the church. Sensate driven worship tends to be focused on details which can, in their best incarnations, assure beautiful liturgy and music but in their lesser incarnations can display themselves in showy military precision drills confused for "the work of the people," the definition of liturgy. We iNtuitives prefer lots of symbols, room for the holy to speak to us through our lesser senses in the form of candles, incense, images, chanting, pools of colored light from stained glass and lots of room in our understandings of the holy. Judging types often feel the need to nail down the details of the faith and will find churches which do not focus on unquestioned traditional theologies and ancient confessions and creeds to hold them safe too loose and insecure to abide. We Perceivers, on the other hand, find confessions too confining - the divine cannot be captured by words, structures, forms - what's the point? Thinking types need rational sermons that lay out ideas not unlike a good closing argument. We Feeling types need our hearts "strangely warmed," as Anglican John Wesley described it.

Clearly, all human beings are capable of operating out of all aspects of their types. But the reality is that we aren't all alike, we never have been - as the history of the many expressions of the Christian tradition reveals - and the notion that one religious approach will meet all needs is wishful thinking on a good day. Human beings with varying temperaments bring very different needs to religious experiences. "That we all may be one" is a beautiful goal but it is rarely realized and it is probably not realistic to expect it to be.

But the question the good rector's sermon raises is probably better answered through looking at different stages of moral reasoning. The Stage Two Pre-conventional reasoner is predominately self-focused: "What's in it for me?" If the focus of religion is simply so that individuals can feel a sense of existential security about this life and the next, such focus doesn't leave much room - or need - for concern about the world around the believer.

Many church bodies are the domain of Stage Three Conventional/tribal moral reasoning. Focusing on the affirmation of significant others within the tribe, the sectarian whose "true religion" is readily comparable to the corrupted religion of the larger institution will find the big tent approach anathema. If one has "the truth," why would one want to contaminate themselves by mingling with the damned?

Stage Four Conventional believers find their authority in institutions. For the conventional/law and order believer, the approved prayer book liturgies complete with their appointed lectionaries, ancient creeds and confessions are the bottom line. To consider social justice ministry means getting past the initial hump of being able to even consider that the status quo of institutional life could be unjust or that the concerns of the church should look beyond the immediate institution to the larger society.

Thus it is not until one arrives at Stage Five, Post-Conventional reasoning that one is able to appreciate the concerns for individual salvation, affirmation of one's valued significant others and the positive contributions of institutions of the three preceding stages and still see the need for social justice. Higher stages inevitably both incorporate as well as surpass the stages through which their moral reasoning has already developed. The post-conventional believer recognizes the needs for existential security of the stage two pre-conventional but they also recognize that "what's in it for me?" is too limited a focus for mature, adult social animals. Similarly, the embrace of the tribe, while providing the comfort of belonging, proves too confining for the post-conventional believer who readily recognizes the partial nature of all revealed systems of truth. And while post-conventional believers readily recognize and uphold the value of conventional institutions, they also recognize that too often a "law and order" approach is much more fixed on the latter of those two goals often at the expense of justice. The post-conventional scope of concern extends to those outside the institutions as well as being able to critically examine the ever important question of cui bono? - good for whom? - within the institution itself.

In short, the answer to the question of "Does it have to be either/or?" is both yes and no. Some believers are capable of getting along, of acknowledging and accommodating those whose goals are very different from their own. They are capable of respecting the need for existential security that focuses on individual salvation evince. They are capable of respecting those who feel the need for tight tribal bounds or institutional definitions even as they resist having those needs define the larger body. But they also recognize the need to engage the world, to seek to heal its woundedness, to be agents of Jesus' kingdom of G-d here and now. In short, it doesn't have to be either/or. But it usually is.

The reality is that very few human beings ever achieve post-conventional reasoning, perhaps a quarter of the population at most and then primarily at middle age. While most evangelism focuses on pre-conventional believers seeking to shore up their own existential security and then quickly move them out of self-focus into the tribe, churches predominately attract conventional believers, many at tribal stage three within the circled wagons of sectarianism but often led by those at law and order stage four who will do anything to save their institutions - including selling their integrity if not their very souls. And for the few who do manage to transcend conventional moral reasoning to its post-conventional critique, ongoing engagement of the institution and the tribe often proves to be too exhausting and frustrating for many to endure for long.

This is not to say that it must be this way. In the first place, moral reasoning is dynamic, subject to change, growth and development. Often such growth is the result of crisis, of ongoing cognitive dissonance resolved by development to higher stages of moral reasoning. In the second place, leadership at higher levels of moral reasoning, capable of recognizing and appreciating those at previously lived stages, can work at providing a place for all believers even while recognizing that such work is often subject to failure. Finally, the more the catholic (lower case c) ethos of unconditional belonging is emphasized over the reformation mantra of right beliefs, the chances are greater that sectarian and institutional litmus tests will not prevail.

So, does it have to be either/or? Can't we all just get along? The answers to those questions don't bode well for an intact Anglican Communion or Episcopal Church. But, at some level, that simply means we are probably more true to our Christian roots than we would like to think. The history of the Christian movement is one of diversity of thought, understandings and practice. While the overarching banner of the Christian stream of tradition may allow us to see ourselves as one in a very generalized way, the reality is that those calling themselves Christians historically have never all believed the same things and practiced their faith the same way since the beginning of the movement 2000 years ago. The question is not whether it has to be either/or, it's whether we can come to grips with the fact that cherished notions of unity - too often confused with uniformity - are largely the product of wishful thinking in the Christian experience.

Thus, the real question is simply whether we can be OK with being who we are, living into our vocations as we see them, and not feeling guilt or shame when those who find other ways of believing and living more compelling than our own don't share our vision. While Christians will probably never be one, perhaps achieving a generosity of spirit toward those who don't -probably can't and won't - share our own vision is as close as we can get. And perhaps that's enough.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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