This past week the daily meditations from Richard Rohr’s Center for Contemplation and Action have well expressed the way I currently see the world around me and my own role in it. The timing of these articles is uncanny. It was almost as if Rohr had read my mind. Little wonder that I will be starting a two year program at Rohr’s Living School this September.
Prophetic Critique: A Rare Art Form
Monday’s meditation was entitled “Self-Critical Thinking.” Focusing on the Hebrew prophets, one of my favorite parts of the scriptures, Rohr said
The Hebrew prophets are in a category of their own. Within the canonical, sacred scriptures of other world religions you don't find major texts that are largely critical of that religion. The Hebrew prophets were free to love their tradition and to criticize it at the same time, which is a very rare art form.
Prophets saw themselves as called by G-d to stand just inside their institutional religion at the margins, charged with the role of loving the religion enough to note the places it fell short of its ideals as well as to endure the personal attacks that inevitably come from one’s peers when such critiques are articulated.
Rohr provides a convincing account of why this happens:
Even today, one of the most common judgments I hear from other priests is, "You criticize the Church." But criticizing the Church, as such, is just being faithful to the pattern set by the prophets and Jesus….
[Yet] the presumption for anyone with a dualistic mind is that if you criticize something, you don't love it. Wise people like the prophets would say the opposite.
Dualistic visions construct the world they encounter in highly simplified black and white terms. Yet, the reality is almost always more complex, cast in shades of grey. As cognitive scientist’s William Perry’s research has shown, dualistic constructions of the world are very low level, undeveloped ways of thinking which become dominant in adolescence. Most human beings mature out of this way of thinking but it always remains a possibility for anyone, particularly about subjects in which we are deeply invested.
Dualistic thinking constructs the world in dichotomies: One either is for the religion, one’s profession, one’s country et al, as they currently exist or one is against them. George Bush provided a classic example in the days after the 9-11 attacks when he sought to silence any critique of his plans to invade two different countries, saying “You’re either for us or you’re against us.”
But prophets see a bigger picture. They see not only the institution at hand in its current state, the status quo, they also see the institution in its ideal state. These are often the very ideals the institution itself has articulated. When the prophet calls the institution to live into its ideals, the critique of the status quo s/he articulates is often experienced by the beneficiaries of the status quo as an attack on the institution itself. We hear that today in the common mindless description of critics as “haters.”
Bear in mind that the popular dualistic slogan “My country right or wrong…” is only half of Sen. Carl Shurz’s original quote. The remainder sounds pretty prophetic: “…if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”
Meanwhile, Down in the Psychic Basement
Carl Jung often wrote about the tendency of human beings to repress aspects of ourselves we don’t want to face, aspects that end up taking on a life of their own in the unconscious psychic basement of our minds. Jung called the complex of repressed elements our Shadow. The darkness of that Shadow is often proportionate to the brightness of our Personae, the positive aspects of ourselves we readily display to the world and often wrongfully see as our true selves.
Unfortunately, our Shadow rarely stays put, being readily projected onto others who are unable to protect themselves against such projections. Consider the way we talk about terrorist and religious extremists. Now go read the Senate report on American torture.
The prophet essentially serves as the reality check for any institution prone to project its disowned shadow onto others. Hence the reason they are resisted at all costs, as Rohr notes:
The Church's sanctification of the status quo reveals that we have not been formed by the prophets, who were radical precisely because they were traditionalists. Institutions always want loyalists and "company men"; we don't want prophets. We don't want people who point out our shadow side or our dark side. It is no accident that the prophets and the priests are usually in opposition to one another (e.g., Amos 5:21-6:7, 7:10-17).
When I was about to be ordained priest, I was incredibly ill at ease. While the priestly ordination reflected my successful completion of the four years of preparation for the priesthood and the assent of the institution to that ordination, I also knew that my primordial calling was to be the prophet. When I confessed this to my assistant rector who had been assigned to marshal me through the ordination process, she simply said, “Harry, the church needs its prophets.” I quickly replied, “But it never wants them.” Her reply in turn was indeed prophetic in its own right: “But you are being ordained as a priest to the margins.” I simply never knew how far they - or I – could stretch.
It Has Never Been a Comfortable Existence
On Tuesday, Rohr’s column dealt with what he called “Archetypal Religion.” He said:
The biblical tradition hopes to reveal that whenever the prophetic function is lacking in any group or religion, such a group will very soon be self-serving, self-maintaining, self-perpetuating, and self- promoting. When the prophets are kicked out of any group, it's a very short time until that group is circling the wagons around itself, and all sense of mission and message is lost. I am afraid this is the natural movement of any institution.
Establishments of any kind usually move toward their own self-perpetuation, rather than "What are we doing for others?" In fact, the question is not even asked because self-perpetuation is presumed to be a high level necessity. Thus the prophetic and Pauline words for institutions were "thrones or dominions or principalities or powers" (Colossians 1:16). They consider themselves "too big to fail," usually because they are protecting their own privilege--which is too important to question.
This is decidedly my observation. I have seen it in public schools and public policy making regarding public education. I have seen it in my practice of the law and my ill-fated attempts to make life better for the juveniles I saw being warehoused in hell holes with no attempts to rehabilitate those who went in as children and emerged as hardened young criminals with a slew of new criminal skills. And I have seen it in my years at the university where any pretense of being a process designed to provide the means for its customers to emerge after four years as educated human beings has largely gone the way of the pay phone.
In each of those encounters, I have found myself unable to remain silent, to keep to myself the pathologies I observed and the places where the institution fell short of its own ideals even as it often cynically praised itself regarding them. And I have often paid the price for speaking out, lurching between the perceived need to speak truth to power and the perceived need to be liked and affirmed by my peers, the conflict of dominant Myers-Brigg iNtuitive and Feeling functions.
It has never been a comfortable existence. And there’s a reason for this:
Prophets step in to disrupt the usual social consensus--"How wonderful our group is!"--and say, "It's just not entirely true!" So you see why the prophets are all killed (Matthew 23:29-39). Prophets expose and topple each group's idols and blind spots, very often showing that we make things into absolutes that are not absolutes in God's eyes, and we relativize what in fact is central and important. As Jesus so cleverly puts it, "You strain out gnats and you swallow camels" (Matthew 23:24).
And yet, my sense of calling to a prophetic vocation has never left me. Indeed, I feel a strong calling today to a new form of prophetic work. I do not know where or how that will play itself out. But I strongly feel change is coming and that it cannot come soon enough.
The Desert Calls
Today’s meditation by Richard Rohr well describes the current status of my life. In “Knowing and Not Knowing.” Rohr says:
We need transformed people today, and not just people with answers. I do not want my too many words to separate you from astonishment or to provide you with a substitute for your own inner experience. We all need, forever, what Jesus described as "the beginner's mind" of a curious child. A beginner's mind or what some call "constantly renewed immediacy" is the best path for spiritual wisdom. Tobin Hart writes: "Instead of grasping for certainty, wisdom rides the question, lives the question.... When the quest for certainty and control is pushed to the background, the possibility of wonder returns. Wonder provides a gateway to wise insight"
(Information to Transformation, p. 11).
That is where I find myself this Ash Wednesday, riding a host of questions, entering into a 40 day solitary journey into the quiet darkness of the desert. I am seeking guidance and, hopefully, wisdom. And yet I know the path to wisdom always comes at a cost.
Human consciousness does not emerge at any depth except through struggling with your shadow. I wish someone had told me that when I was young. It is in facing your conflicts, criticisms, and contradictions that you grow up. You actually need to have some problems, enemies, and faults! You will remain largely unconscious as a human being until issues come into your life that you cannot fix or control and something challenges you at your present level of development, forcing you to expand and deepen. It is in the struggle with our shadow self, with failure, or with wounding, that we break into higher levels of consciousness. I doubt whether there is any other way. People who refine this consciousness to a high spiritual state, who learn to name and live with paradoxes, are the people I would call prophetic speakers. We must refine and develop this gift.
Incorporating negative and self-critical thinking is essential to true prophetic understanding. At the same time, we must also trust that we are held irrevocably in the mystery of God's love, without fully understanding it. Alongside all our knowing, accompanying every bit of our knowing, must be the humble "knowing that we do not know.”
If I am to live into a prophetic calling, I must learn to make friends with my Shadow. I have never been oblivious to my shortcomings. The Psalmist’s words say it well: “My sins are ever before me.” But the human mind is an efficient machine when it comes to repressing Shadow content. That’s particularly true of those who have spent lifetimes honing the powers of that mind.
I know there is much yet for me to confront and I assume that task with fear and trembling. I have never doubted G-d’s presence with me, even in the darkest moments of my life and I know G_d is my companion through the desert. I also know I will not emerge from this journey unscathed or unchanged. If I said I was not fearful, I would be lying. And yet, like the Jesus overwhelmed by his experience of the divine at the Jordan River, the desert calls.
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Asst. Lecturer: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
Osceola Campus, University of Central Florida, Kissimmee
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
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