Monday, May 31, 2010

A.A. and the Church, Part 2

A continuation of my previous post on this topic. I was talking about how I got involved in the church - against my own will and better judgment, for the most part - and what my current influences are. I was talking about my experience with A.A., and relating that, as I have done pretty frequently on this blog over the past 6 years, to my experiences with the church.

And I come, basically, to this:
  • I'm in this now - the church, I mean - willingly or unwillingly; it seems that I'm being "called" to something here, and I'm going with it even though I don't know where I'm going;
  • I've been on a spiritual path in A.A. for a quarter of a century now - and A.A. is actually among the best spiritual paths I've ever had contact with;
  • The church continues to lose members;
  • Many believe it to be boring and irrelevant at best; many think it has nothing to offer except bigotry, "fairy tales," and worn-out attitudes;
  • I believe that my very life depends upon my spiritual condition - that if I don't at least attempt to maintain conscious contact with God I could lose everything, including my life and/or sanity;
  • It seems to me (and this is the penultimate step of the proof - and where the proof might in fact break down, unfortunately!) that the difference between me and anybody else is one of degree, and not of kind.  IOW, that alcoholism/addiction is just an extreme example of the brokenness and distress of the human condition; that everybody is broken in some way or ways, small or large - and that, therefore, all people need to attempt to maintain conscious contact with God in order not to lose everything.

    This I suppose is a bit controversial - but honestly I don't see why it should be.  Yesterday I was crucifer at one of the Sunday services; I don't usually do this job, but lots of people were out yesterday and I took it because I was there.  Anyway, I held the cross very high; that's my style, because I think of the words of the hymn, and because I want it to be very obvious and the most prominent thing in the room.  I should say this is a fairly new development in my personal theology, too, although I'm not sure why it wasn't immediately obvious that the cross should always be presented this way.  Well, I'm dense, that's all.

    Anyway, it made me think again of something I'd read a few years ago - that "the traumatic truth of human history is a tortured body." Surely this is obvious to everybody, isn't it? That human beings can get up to all kinds of horrific things - things (we say) we find unbelievable later but that were accepted as normal at the time?  Surely it's obvious that, as John Huston put it in the movie "Chinatown," playing the hideous Noah Cross (!): "Most people never have to face the fact that, at the right time and the right place, they're capable of... anything!"

    Surely that's clear, isn't it? Think of what the church itself has done in the past - and what it continues to do when it thinks it can get away with it. Think of Western Imperialism - and Eastern Communism. Think of Rwanda. Think of the Trail of Tears. Think of the Bataan Death March. Think of My Lai.

    Remember Arendt's "banality of evil." (Although that idea is currently being questioned, it doesn't seem at all controversial to this gay person. I'm sure it doesn't seem controversial to anybody who grew up black in the United States during most of its history, either.  And it won't seem controversial to the people whose lives we're currently ruining by our actions or by our neglect, either way.)

OK.  So, while the last bullet above is something of a leap that needs more justification, what I'm saying is that human beings, by definition, are all in need of rehabilitation - you and me both.  And as in A.A. (where this is accepted as completely uncontroversial) it's not a one-off, either; it's a continuing process that needs to occur over the course of a person's lifetime.  And since A.A. is not for everybody, nor was it meant to be, some other organized group needs to take charge of this problem.

But, wait!  Another organized group has, in fact, addressed this very problem!  Religion has!  Including the religion we're involved with now, Christianity!  What do you know about that!  For more than two thousand years now, Christianity has been claiming that we and the world are broken and in need of salvation.

I submit that perhaps it's actually true.  I submit, too, that most people know this anyway; everybody in New York, for instance, is in therapy - and this has been true for a long time.  They are in therapy for the same reason that everybody in Biloxi, Mississippi goes to church:  because that's the fashion locally.

But, as posters to the Mockingbird blog often note, the church does not do a very good job of addressing the sickness of the human condition.  In fact, it becomes sick itself - it decides that nobody outside its circle has done or can do anything right - then tries to push that off as health.   Here's Mockingbird again:

By way of contrast, the Christian church often creates an environment where people cannot really be open and honest about their struggles. It can appear that Christians have no besetting struggles, just “victory,” and the occasional assaults of the devil, but very few inwardly generated liabilities or recidivistic tendencies. The person in AA who denies these things is nothing more than a liar. To quote 1 John 1: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves.”

Imagine walking into a church where all who entered were asked to sign a waiver at the door that said: “I’m a sinner and by stepping into the room today I acknowledge that fact.” Ministry and church life would be tremendously more effective. Unfortunately, you can come into church these days and sign up for any number of identities: Easter/Christmas type, fanatic/Pharisee, sinner, middle-of-the-road, or whatever. In AA there is only the option of sinner.

I'm sure it's clear to you by now where I'm going with this. The church offers, by way of ancient spiritual texts and interpretation of what's contained in those texts, a way for human beings to live and be saved. Ancient spiritual texts are so interesting in their own right (at least for me) because it's clear that people had need of spiritual sustenance in times and places that were lots less "safe" than our Western experience is today. And those people needed to find that sustenance on their own - without the aid of chemicals or technology. They are, in other words, addressing at depth and directly the facts of the human condition - which, it seems to me, makes them more or less timeless. Or, at least, applicable until the next great evolutionary change occurs in the species homo sapiens - and I really don't think we're there yet.

IOW, all ancient texts are in some way "Wisdom Literature." They continue to have many, many things to say to us - and when you attend a great Bible study class, for instance, you realize this immediately. And when this is paired with a view of Grace such as the one you find in A.A. - that hopeless people (AKA "sinners") are given the free gift of life and sanity completely undeserved and unasked-for - it becomes a startlingly clear path towards healing.

And that is where the church misses the boat, from Evangelicals to liberal Episcopalians; "Grace" and "healing" have been utterly forgotten. That is where our focus needs to be, and isn't.

Maybe more later.....

A.A. and the Church

As I've been posting here recently, I've started to follow a blog written by an organization called "Mockingbird Ministries."

The reasons are several; one is that I've come into strong contact recently with the Reformation idea that "Grace" is the key to the faith life and to "salvation." Another is Mockingbird's explicit drawing from the literature and example of Alcoholics Anonymous. You might notice on the blog that the first link in their "Churches/Sermons/Resources" section is to Calvary/St. George's in New York City - a church where A.A. has deep roots. I think some of the founders of Mockingbird, or writers on the blog, have been connected with Calvary in some way.

Keep in mind that my experience with Christianity has been almost completely experiential; I have had very little contact at all with systematic - or formal in any real way - theology. I've just had a particular experience and have been putting one foot in front of the other ever since, because I felt "called" in some basic way - "obligated" is how I've put it in my more sardonic moments, because I was never really looking for it. And actually, I'm in a number of ways almost totally unwillingly involved in all this.

This is to say that my relation to faith is not intellectual, but emotional, really, I guess. I certainly feel that I'm being swept up into something that I have been completely unfamiliar with - and highly resentful of even at the best of times.

So, anyway: what I'm interested in now - and this has been a theme for me for years, actually - is how religion - Christianity in particular - can create health. Don't forget: I have been intimately involved in that particular experience via A.A. for more than 25 years now - and A.A. is explicitly "spiritual." I know from my own life experience the difference between extreme illness and health - and I owe my life to this difference even now. And almost everybody in A.A. acknowledges - after we get a little better, anyway - that we did absolutely nothing to deserve - or effect - the second chance at life we're getting. We were not in control of our lives or our resurrection from the dead; it was a free gift from God.

And of course, this is the exact definition of "Grace" as taught by Luther and other Reformers.

And the more I read the gospels, the more I realize that "health" is really a central idea there. People come to Jesus for healing - all kinds of people with all kinds of problems. Nothing has worked, as long as they've lived, to solve these problems: the invalid at the Sheep Gate was lame for 38 years, and could never get into the Pool first for its healing effects; the woman had had the hemorrhage for more than 12 years and no doctor had ever been able to help her; the paralytic at Capernaum had been seeking to be healed for a long time, and needed the help of his four friends to get him to see Jesus. These stories are completely familiar to people who get sober in A.A.; many have tried everything - but could never get better until they "surrender" and admit complete defeat, asking God for help. (This is notwithstanding the many anti-A.A. attitudes currently in fashion. Here's an interesting recent example of one; this particular argument claims at once that A.A. keeps people from obtaining necessary care for their desperate problem - and also that alcohol abuse isn't really that serious, but something that most people simply outgrow naturally. Interesting contradiction there, don't you think?)

So, OK. This is a long-winded introduction to my major point, which is that if A.A. can succeed at changing people's lives in such a dramatic way - why can't the church take a few lessons from it? I've talked about this many, many times on this blog - and am finding that this is what Mockingbird argues, too, quite often.

There are definitely distinctions to be drawn; I've been drawing some, as I see them, at their blog lately. (Funny thing is, nobody's responded to me yet, not even when I wish them the best as they move their organization from New York to Virginia! Whenever that happens, I always suspect it's because people have linked to my blog and seen posts I've written on gay-related topics and decided I'm not really that welcome. Who knows if that's really true? But there's no question that they are coming from an Evangelical perspective, and of course we've all written volumes about that whole relationship.) These distinctions are actually quite important, in my view - and need to be drawn in order to understand how to work this problem out for the general (non-addict/alcoholic, that is) population.

More later; this post is growing too long at this point. Do check out, though, their Memorial Day post; it's a stunning and fascinating video of the "Honor Guard Inspection" portion of the Changing of the Guard at Arlington National Cemetery. Better yet, here's the video itself.