Thursday, June 7, 2012

On Faith -- and the Dark Side

Something is going on all around us, and we need a name for it if we are to be able to deal with it.

Sorry for the paranoid-like opening, but this is serious -- deadly serious.

People are lost to the faith all the time, I know -- it is nothing new. So it's not just that the people I am talking about are either losing their faith, or are turned off by professions of faith, or whatever.

It is that one can see their minds going, going, going... until they are gone. Gone, to the dark side.

To the side where "reality" is nothing objective any more, where "reality" is simply whatever they choose subjectively to make of it.

Here -- let me try to give an example. This is a description of the world he inhabits by a young man who also happens, more than once, to have been inside a church. He begins forthrightly enough:
Can I be honest? 
I find the church exhausting. At times infuriating. 
I’ve spent the last decade working for a few different local congregations—from conservative Baptist to non-denominational to mainline Protestant—and to be honest, regardless of their theological/ideological/political nuances, they have all generally caused within me the same feeling: endless frustration. 
Now don’t get me wrong, I love the Church. I believe it to be the single most potent and powerful possibility for the transformation of the world (and by “transformation of the world” I mean the actual restoration of the various ills and suffering and ecological devastation we experience and cause one another and the creatures around us…not the whole “getting people to think and vote just like me” agenda it’s been turned into). It’s why I continue to participate in it, why I continue to identify myself as “one of them.” 
But there are times—more often than not—that it drives me absolutely crazy.
So far, so good. The writer has not expressed any frustration which all of us have not experienced from time to time. And his vision of "restoration of the various ills and suffering and ecological devastation we experience" is appropriately fired-up with youthful enthusiasm for going about the business of change.

But change to what? "Restoration," after all, is a Rousseau-inspired myth. There is no going back to a "better" time. But let us listen on. In the passage that follows I have bolded some of the language -- not for emphasis, but to flag it as the first of many clues:
I’m in my early 30’s. I was born at the tail end of Generation X. I grew up with corporate downsizing and political scandals, and am therefore generally skeptical of people in positions of power. I was a latchkey kid, so being independent is pretty much second nature (although, inwardly, all I want is to connect with others). I spent a good chunk of my childhood in a single parent household, so the whole ‘nuclear family’ thing is actually bit of a foreign experience/concept for me. I have seen technology advance exponentially throughout my lifetime and was young enough when the trend began to have been able to ride that wave fairly comfortably and competently.
All right, the stage is now set. We have introduced the protagonist of the struggle, and have highlighted the clues for what will follow, and will almost surely stupefy and sadden you. Prepare yourself:
I exist in a world of diversity and globalization, of extreme expression and sharing (a la social networking). I engage a society and culture that connects virtually, that speaks more with sounds and images and “Likes” than it does words, and where the words themselves are becoming symbols and codes for other words through an almost tribal form of emotive texting. I am comfortable with (and actually excited by) the mashing up of ideas and concepts and sources into a cacophony of stories and thoughts and experiences (notice my almost obscene use of hyphens?) in which there isn’t any one right answer or message save for the one that YOU take away from the whole thing. I am deeply postmodern. This is the world I live in. This is my experience of existence.
This time, instead of bolding, allow me to extract from that passage the parts of it that evidence the phenomenon I am trying to describe:
I exist in a world ... of social networking. I engage a society and culture that connects virtually, that speaks more with sounds and images and “Likes” ... through an almost tribal form of emotive texting. I am ... excited by the mashing up of ideas and concepts and sources into a cacophony ... in which there isn’t any one right answer ... save for the one that YOU take away from the whole thing. ... This is the world I live in. This is my ... existence.
Now can you begin to see what I am talking about?

This is a young man who grew up with no experience of family, and who expresses a burning desire to be connected with others. But to him who grew up in this world of atheistic, arrogant technology, that connection can be achieved only remotely, by means of that technology, through "networking" over the Internet. (There are over 900 million people on Facebook. That is 15 percent of the global population. But people are feeling lonelier, and more isolated, than ever. That is the "Internet paradox.")

And so what kind of reality turns him off?

Precisely. The reality which he encounters in a church:
... This is the world I live in. This is my experience of existence.  
Except at church.  
At church I step back into a veritable time warp…and I’m not talking about a “This is so old/ancient it’s cool!” sort of scene, but more of a “Why does this place smell like my grandma’s living room? Seriously, it smells JUST LIKE her house” sort of vibe.  
I am officially at a loss for words when it comes to the insistence of so many churches to try and preserve within their walls a snapshot of a certain cultural point in time…while at the same time bemoaning the fact that there aren’t any young people around, and secretly dreading whether or not their congregation will even exist 50 years from now (which I have found many mainline Protestant churches to be doing).... 
His principal beef with churches is that they "try [to] preserve within their walls a snapshot of a certain cultural point in time ...". Yes, young man, that is precisely what churches try to do, what churches are obligated to do. It is called "keeping the faith once for all entrusted to the saints."

That faith, by definition, does not vary with time. It is true that the manner in which it can be expressed may vary with cultures and languages over time, but the faith "once for all entrusted" does not change -- it is eternal, and hence unchanging.

Your problem, my son, is that you have never been given the equipment to hear it, let alone to appreciate it for what it is. For all of your technological savvy and skills are bent to a single purpose -- to making your own virtual reality out of the "cacophony of ideas and concepts and sources" with which you surround yourself, of your own free will.

You rely on no higher judgment than your own in this impossible task. And so, not surprisingly, what you are able to take away contains no clue, no grasp whatsoever, of anything that could be such as to never change -- to be eternal. And why are you unable to do so? Indeed, you yourself supply the answer:
Because there are a couple things young people simply won’t tolerate. They will not put up with what they deem to be a lack of community and/or authenticity, and they will not abide anything that appears to simply be going through the motions or the semblance of just being part of some spiritual/religious club. They aren’t interested in towing [sic] the party line that has no bearing on their social and cultural experiences. And–most terrifying to previous generations–they aren’t threatened by threats of “It has to be this way or nothing at all.” 
Because this is a generation of self-starters and micro-entrepreneurship. They have no problem whatsoever starting up their own things. And they have been. And they are. And they will continue to do so. 
"Starting up their own things." In other words, rejecting the things which their elders try to hand down to them. And thus we have the problem -- the problem for which I am trying to find words. In its essence, it is this: how can we hand down to such a young person the faith that has been handed down through the centuries to us? And if we cannot, what will happen to that faith? Listen to our young man a bit more:
And they’re not coming back to darken the doors of the places that insisted it had to be done THIS way and THAT way or it couldn’t be done at all. Churches have been reduced to elementary school playgrounds with the endless bickering and threats made by this faction or that one taking their proverbial ball and going home. And those playgrounds are getting noticeably more empty.
Some of this, of course, rings true. It is true that some churches break down arguing over things of no consequence. And I am sorry if your own experience included -- or includes -- such a church.

I daresay, however, that most of the breakdowns which you could witness today are not over inconsequential matters. They are over the fundamentals -- such as the authority and interpretation of Scripture.

But that is just the kind of dispute which you could not recognize as such, young man. For to you, who decides what your own reality is, all such disputes appear trivial, because for you, nothing in particular is consequential. All is ephemeral -- here today, perhaps gone (or different, at least) tomorrow. Best not to place much reliance upon it, and certainly not worth arguing over. Live and let live, isn't that the idea?

There is more where the quotes came from -- indeed, I have excerpted from what is only the first of a promised two parts. But I have read enough to know already that we have probably lost you, young man -- lost you to the dark side, where they let you make up your own reality to your heart's content. And there are plenty of "churches" who will welcome you into their folds, while claiming to give you all the room you need. Indeed, they see their sole remaining role in society as providing you with all the reinforcement you require to remain as isolated and alienated from "the old stuff" as you wish.

It is too bad that no one who knows and rejoices in "the faith once for all entrusted" will be able to reach out to you, young man. Indeed, I am at a loss to envision how that could happen.

Unless -- unless -- well, perhaps it is worth a try, should this post ever make its way into your hands.

Should that happen, young man, please remain open to a possibly new experience of something that is very, very old. For I am going to take you far back in time -- to an age when the churches were musty, and smelled of wax and incense, and mould and dung and who knows what else. I hope that the words I am about to quote will do the feat all by themselves.

For they are old words, from the middle of the sixteenth century. Some of them may look strange to you, because the spelling differed back then, but that very spelling is part of the experience I want to try to share with you.

Picture yourself as a medieval knight, in England, in 1550. Normally you would be in armor, but for this occasion -- the wedding ceremony in the manor church of your lord and master, as he marries another lord's daughter -- you have doffed it, and are instead in full formal livery. You are right up there in front as the priest begins to intone the words of the ceremony ... [close your eyes for a moment, and use your twenty-first century technical skills to put yourself into the picture] ...  

Ready? Begin:

DEERELY beloved frendes, we are gathered together here in the syght of God, and in the face of his congregacion, to joyne together this man and this woman in holy matrimonie, which is an honorable estate instituted of God in paradise, in the time of mannes innocencie, signifying unto us the misticall union that is betwixte Christe and his Churche: whiche holy estate, Christe adorned and beutified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought in Cana of Galile, and is commended of Sainct Paule to be honourable emong all men; and therefore is not to bee enterprised, nor taken in hande unadvisedlye, lightelye, or wantonly, to satisfie mens carnal lustes and appetites, like brute beastes that have no understanding: but reverentely, discretely, advisedly, soberly, and in the feare of God. Duely consideryng the causes for the whiche matrimonie was ordeined. One cause was the procreaciion of children, to be brought up in the feare and nurture of the Lord, and prayse of God. Secondly it was ordeined for a remedie agaynst sinne, and to avoide fornicacion, that suche persones as bee maried, might live chastlie in matrimonie, and kepe themselves undefiled membres of Christes bodye. Thirdelye for the mutuall societie, helpe, and coumfort, that the one oughte to have of thother, both in prosperitie and adversitie. Into the whiche holy estate these two persones present: come nowe to be joyned. Therefore if any man can shewe any juste cause why they maie not lawfully be joyned so together: Leat him now speake, or els hereafter for ever hold his peace. 
And also speakyng to the persones that shalbe maried, he shall saie. 
REQUIRE and charge you (as you will aunswere at the dreade full daye of judgemente, when the secretes of all hartes shalbee disclosed) that if either of you doe knowe any impedimente, why ye maie not bee lawfully joyned together in matrimonie, that ye confesse it. For be ye wel assured, that so manye as bee coupled together otherwaies then Goddes woord doeth allowe: are not joyned of God, neither is their matrimonie lawful.

Can you even begin to grasp the kind of minds who would receive this speech as perfectly ordinary, understandable, and normal, young man? For in their world, they did not decide their own reality. No, their reality was God-given: it came from outside themselves, they were born into it, and they lived their entire lives inside its sheltering folds.

For them, God made their world, and that was the end of it. They stood in fear and awe of it, even as they exercised man's dominion over it. (And so there were lords, knights, serfs and peasants -- yes, I know. But God knew, as well, and God settles all accounts on the day of judgment. Thus, it is not for you to criticize, or to fret over, or to use as reason to abandon the faith.)

Ponder those words of ceremony, and savor them. They are soundly based in Scripture -- in the "faith once for all entrusted to the saints." As such, they are part of your heritage -- receive it or not.

May they bring you back from the dark side -- that is my fervent prayer.


  1. Mr. Haley,

    I join in your prayer, and hope that there will be many whose lives are changed as a result. Nevertheless, a part of me recognizes that there is a point in each person's life beyond which the idea that "everything is relative" can become incontrovertible, but only so up to the point that one's personal voyage runs aground on the rocks and shoals of absolute truth. Some survive the encounter and change, others do not. It is beyond a sorry state of affairs that our children should be facing such a future, but I fear that we may well be nearing a point in the course of Western civilization where it may, at least for a time, founder on those rocks and shoals. I hope and pray that our children and grandchildren may survive the travail and be saved.

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer

  2. "To thine own self be true" (Polonius a.k.a. the 'rat', a.k.a. the man who plays the fool in his own house). Shakespeare had it all figured out. I couldn't read his is so full of dry, nebulous vanity. I hear enough of it. Sadly, it is probably too late for him: he would rather watch his porn, play his video games, and continue thinking he is a clever fellow...oblivious to the tedious gasbag he really is.

    If I can ever get this stupid dissertation written (which isn't easy teaching 40 hours a week and then coming home to a loquacious and ever-attentive 6-year-old and a loud and dexterous 2-year-old...and all their friends, etc.), my wife and I want to leave the town where we live and move to one of three of four different areas where (1) there is an orthodox Episcopal/Anglican congregation and priest: we want to start a ministry for single moms and their children in urban and suburban areas.

    I think you have to start there...please pray that I can finish this academic stuff so that God can use us.

  3. Keith,

    I don't know if there is "a point in each person's life beyond which the idea that 'everything is relative' can become incontrovertible..."

    Having been raised in Episcopal church and having survived the most liberal teachings of "everything is relative," I pray that this young man will also discover that this is but a tender trap. A trap which ultimately leads to faith in uncertainty, which is not Faith at all. It results in a loss of your first love, the Love of Christ crucified, dead, and resurrected so that we might live. That is a loss that you, me, this young man, and the world can ill afford to have occur in our lives.

  4. Underground Pewster,

    I wholeheartedly agree, which is why I join my prayers to our esteemed host's and to yours. I was simply observing that there seem to be, and to have been, individuals who did succumb, and some of those may never have regained, insofar as we can know this side of the grave, their faith in anything absolute. It is indeed a most dangerous position in which to find oneself, and I see a lot of people around me in danger of falling victim to it.

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer

  5. An interesting article. I would suggest that what you're choosing not to hear is the belief by many of the young that what is given over as God's Word is in fact the machinations of human minds trying to acquire and maintain power over others - assertions to the contrary while going about business as usual simply endorsing their views.

    Interestingly those communities of Christ followers who emphasize the mysterium of God seem to be doing alright irrespective of their theology or liturgy (or lack thereof)...


  6. Thank you for your comments, SFitC. If the message of the Gospel which young people are hearing may be interpreted as all about human power, then it is not the message of the Gospel. The Gospel is all about God's redeeming power through the sacrifice of His Son, as understood through the grace of the Holy Spirit. If it were twisted into a means of some humans exercising power over others, then I, too, would recoil from it.

    My problem is not so much with what the young man in question is hearing in the churches he attends, but more with what he has prevented himself from hearing in those churches. How can the Word of God, even assuming it is being preached, be heard when all the listener hears is a cacophony -- which he likes, and assumes is normal?

    It all rather reminds me of an old story about an equally forceful young man who believed with all his heart that "music soothes the savage beast." So he took up the study of the violin, and studied so long and so well that there was no person who could listen to his playing without being moved to tears.

    Determined to put his skill to the ultimate test, he booked a safari to deepest Africa, and took his violin with him. Once in the midst of the jungle, he left the group and took off on his own until he found a clearing, whereupon he unpacked his violin and began to play.

    One by one, the wild animals of the jungle gathered in the clearing, spellbound by his beautiful music. A large number of them had gathered around the young man, when suddenly a huge tiger bounded into the clearing, pounced on the violinist, and devoured him then and there, leaving only his violin and bow behind.

    The other animals asked the tiger: "What in the world did you do that for? He was making such beautiful music!"

    And the tiger, laying a paw beside his ear, responded: "Ehh? What's that you say?"

  7. This post grabbed me and I had to read the original, but what jumped out at me was different. His comment,"..all I want is to connect with others" and his observation what his(and my)generation won't accept:
    " They will not put up with what they deem to be a lack of community and/or authenticity, and they will not abide anything that appears to simply be going through the motions or ... just being part of some spiritual/religious club." He sounds...single. Like he's been to too many churches like mine that say they welcome all, but if you're not married or don't have don't exist. For me, I want creeds and solid beliefs and sermons, etc. but the culture the church is protecting isn't the faith in Christ Jesus, it's a faith in nuclear families with kids. And if you don't have one of those, you're not welcome. It's common to many churches and denominations. Some are frank,"Let us help you find someone so you can join." Others more subtle.It's still true.

    When I read it I thought of the cults/gangs in the news my whole life and how they start out by befriending/"caring" for people first and then then teaching them what to believe, but the church says believe and have a family and then you can join. Your example of the marriage ceremony as the faith the church protects was so perfect.