Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Church of the Unchecked Brain

A particular Episcopal catchphrase has attracted attention of late due to its appearance in the letter to the church from the Taskforce for Re-Imagining the Episcopal Church: "you don’t need to leave your mind at the door." Robert Hendrickson wishes we would stop saying this, and so do I, and his reasons are largely my reasons for saying so.

But let me be blunter about it. "Checking your mind at the door" is a code phrase signifying on the one hand the anti-intellectual climate ascribed to the Southern Baptists, and on the other the rigid dogmatism ascribed to the Roman Catholics. Now, there's no doubt that we do serve as a refuge from some people who find either extreme impossible to live in as a churchman. But that isn't our mission; it's merely a beneficial side effect of the way Anglicans are supposed to do theology. We are supposed to have a theological tradition which ranges over the entirety of Christian thought, but which lacks a magisterial commitment to a single program dictated by the hierarchy.

But what it means in practice is that we have made our church, in far too many places, the chaplaincy of a particular and narrow segment of the upper middle class: college-educated and in a perpetual state of rebellion against a perceived (and generally assumed to be politically conservative) establishment. Therefore "not checking one's mind at the door" means that we have priests and even bishops telling people that they ought not to believe in core tenets which they then recite as part of the Creed. It means, in practice, that the concrete notions of the Anglican tradition are deprecated in favor of the alien notions of Tillich and his fellow modernist travellers. It comes to mean, in practice, "we don't believe any of that primitive stuff." As Hendrick observes, "much of our culture already thinks that we have checked our brain at the door simply for believing at all," so we've positioned ourselves perfectly for those who want church for the aesthetic or "spiritual" experience, without those nasty religious commitments.

Thus there is now a constant struggle between those who still have a commitment to the religion of our forefathers, and those whose evangelistic targets are those intellectual progressives who find the Unitarians lacking in poetry, the Ethical Culture Society lacking in God, and the atheists lacking in couth. Increasingly those of a more conservative cultural bent have thrown in the towel because they are held in such contempt and treated as heretics in this supposedly tolerant church. The church has become more narrow-minded and expresses, all too often, the very mental closure that is supposed to be a selling point. And I, too, have experienced the ignorance, the lack of theological curiosity, and the theological rigidity which Hendrick observes among our clergy. Ignorance is not of itself a fault, if acknowledged and if one be open to education, and likewise a lack of curiosity; but to brag about our intellectual tradition while mired in either is hypocrisy, as is the spurious claim to open-mindedness. It all amounts in the end to a class appeal to the kind of person who doesn't notice, because they share the prejudices of the clerisy.

And it is the class signal which is the most bitter. Back in England the Anglican church and its worship were part and parcel of the culture, and both the day laborer and the lord of the manor were expected to worship in the same place under the same rite, if not in the same pew. In the USA we have gradually abandoned this, so that while there are a few of the old colonial gentry who continue to attend out of a sense of noblesse oblige or because they feel it would be too lowering to go elsewhere, our emphasis on being the intellectual church leaves no room for those in the lower classes for whom education is a stigma rather than a mark of social standing. Even our potential college-educated recruits are turned away by our commitment to the intellectual and social program of liberal academia, because they did not frequent that side of campus.

Above all, the self-congratulation in this catchphrase is deeply corrosive to the soul. It stinks of "We thank thee, Lord, that we are not like other Christians." Well, except that we probably wouldn't say "thee", nor "Lord" for that matter, since That Word has fallen out of favor among our class; We are, after all, not only better than those of other churches, but also our forefathers in our own church. This needs to end. It's about time we instead said, "OK, Lord God, have mercy on us for our pride and arrogance."


The Archer of the Forest said...

This is exactly one of the reasons I finally left both the Episcopal priesthood and the Episcopal church itself. The intellectual snobbery drown me nuts, when people had little idea what was in the bible and believed even less of what they did know about. That's not checking one's brain at the door?

AAK said...

Spot on.

AAK said...

It's probably also true that if we had a little more intellectual vitality in our pulpits, as opposed to the self-congratulatory spiritualism you describe, we probably wouldn't need a "Taskforce for Re-imagining the Episcopal Church" or any such cant.

I heard an unexpectedly fine sermon on October 27th (Luke 18:9-14 (the Pharisee and the tax collector)) that made something akin to your good point about what the hymn writer describes as "wanton, selfish gladness" (H.E. Fosdick, God of grace and God of glory). The Gospel knows no class lines, and the task for us all is to become common, saying, "Lord, have mercy upon us."