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Don't make me Moses: On spiritually hazardous uses of models and metaphors

It's very common in the organizational culture of the Episcopal church, and in a quite a lot of other church cultures, to hear any argument against a proposed change dismissed as anxiety in our family system. That language of family systems theory, popularized amongst religious congregations chiefly by Ed Friedman, whose books are easily found and widely consumed.

Sometimes -- perhaps even often -- it might be true that those who resist change are motivated primarily by anxiety. And sometimes (even some of the same occasions), family systems enthusiasts use language of "anxiousness" as a functional synonym for "pathological wrong-headedness, in contrast to my fabulous and almost unerring instinct for what this family needs."

And yet we also have in our tradition the Benedictine model of stability, which I perhaps simplistically sum up in brief as "until you feel strongly called and communally affirmed in a particular direction, stay and pray."

Taken to extremes or applied without care, thought, and prayer, either one can be destructive. Either one can be used, whether cynically or unintentionally, to spiritualize as the very voice of God a position or direction that is a personal preference or idea.

Not every idea and not even every really well-informed and carefully considered idea amounts to holy revelation or command. Very few do, I suspect. Our preferences and ideas sometimes do match up with something greater.

I am wary, though, of nearly all comparisons of suggestions regarding our polity to the burning bush Moses saw.

I believe that metaphor should be used for one's own position only with care and prayer. It's a metaphor with immense potential to assist us in overestimate our own prophetic gifts and the magnitude of revelation and what's at stake. I think the name of YHWH outranks anything that will ever appear in our constitution and canons.

Furthermore, if adopting a particular set of polity reforms is the Exodus and someone (let's say me) gets to be Moses, then just about everyone who disagrees with me gets cast in roles such as these:

  • an Egyptian slaver/soldier about to be drowned by God in the Sea of Reeds
  • an eater of dead quail about to be as stiff as the bird was when it fell
  • a willing and eager slave, happy to go that way for some leeks and onions
  • a stubborn Pharoah who's about to get every firstborn son of his people, including his own child, struck dead by God
  • an idolater building a golden calf while the good guy is seeing God's back and receiving the Torah
  • a constantly grumbling crowd about to get the great prophet so angry that he'll hit a rock and shut himself out of the Promised Land

... you get the idea.

None of these people gets a name, let alone a voice or a story of their own, and they're all portrayed more or less as villains who get what's coming to them when God strikes. Heck, most of the people who DO agree with me in that metaphor don't get a name either; they just get to be a nameless Israelite wanderer who sticks with the prophet and the conqueror and hence survives until the credits roll.

Language matters, and I think sometimes we intentionally or unintentionally use the most inspiring and awesome words of Holy Writ in ways that are far from respectful of the dignity of those frustrating our understandable desires to see our vision realized regarding some matter.

I also think I should be very careful -- actually, it should probably reach the level of trembling before God -- before I use any metaphor that makes me Moses. And any metaphor that makes me Jesus should be a cue for my friends to take me aside for a gentle word of caution.

March 27, 2012 | Permalink

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