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brilliant column in The Guardian; discerning God's will

Andrew Brown has an idea that, if true, could explain a lot:

"The archbishop, we can only deduce, is a humanist mole."

Here's an alternative explanation, though:

The archbishop has fallen to a condition I've seen a lot of recently. A person really believes all this Philippians 2 stuff, to the point where s/he will actually strive to live it out. It costs friends dearly, as Brown has pointed out is the case for the archbishop. This would cost a conscientious person (this is a condition to which the conscientious are particularly prone), a great deal -- s/he loses many friends and a great deal of sleep. S/he's miserable. The more s/he suffers criticism, the more miserable s/he is -- and what better evidence could s/he have that what he's doing is really, really righteous? "This isn't a selfish act, you idiot -- can't you see how miserable it's making me?"

All of this scratches a great, deep itch among white liberals. It allows white liberals to act as if the whole world were about their feelings, while feeling more self-consciously humble (yep, it's possible!) and righteously vindicated with every bit of criticism that anyone could anticipate the liberal's behavior would attract. I make others miserable; seeing them in pain makes me more miserable; some of them get angry; I get more miserable; I make others more miserable. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Repeat until you get sick of it, anyway. I got sick of it years ago.

The fruit of the Spirit is not self-conscious misery that gets more self-righteous with every bit of extra attention it gets. Last time I checked, the fruit of the Spirit was love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. That might sound to Western ears merely like a different set of feelings than the spiral of private and shared misery above, but it isn't so: these aren't internal emotional states so much as descriptions of relationships of a certain character -- much as what Paul calls "works of the flesh" describe relationships of a different character. In other words:

It's not all about me. Or you.

My feeling warm fuzzies is no better an indication than my feeling spiral-of-misery stuff that what I'm doing is God's will. It's much more complicated than that. I think our Presiding Bishop-elect is on to something when she points to the passages from Isaiah that Jesus identifies in Luke 4 as his "mission statement"; we might do well to think of God's will as bringing Good News to the poor, release to the prisoners, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and "the year of the Lord's favor," when all of this is realized. If what we're proposing doesn't do that, and even more if it actually runs counter to that, our claim that it's God's will has got to be weaker. And then there's the Galatians 5 rubric Paul proposes and I raised earlier. Passages about what builds up the Body of Christ are going to be key as well. There's a wealth of material in scripture that ought to play a role in our wrestling with all this together, and pretty much all of them have something in common:

They say that God's will is something we discern and strive to live into together.

So I'm just as suspicious of the isolating angst I'm seeing so much of as I am about the "if it itches, scratch it" mentality I've seen in other places and times. I'm suspicious of people who talk a great deal about the importance of listening and submitting to people they've never met without seeking to meet and listen to them at length -- not just on whatever the hot-button issues of the moment are. I wonder whether people like that are using those to whom they're supposedly "listening" as a blank slate upon which they can project whatever suits them. I'm suspicious of people who crudely stereotype those they claim to love. Most people don't fall wholly into one category or another. It's complicated.

That's why I'm also suspicious of calls for "clarity" -- especially when it doesn't seem to be tempered by calls for compassion -- much as I'm suspicious of calls for "compassion" from privileged people who suggest that the only compassionate thing to do happens to preserve or augment their positions of privilege.

In my own spiritual life for the past seven years or so, I've felt called to work on the Benedictine discipline of 'stability,' of staying put unless and until I felt called over a significant to move in a specific direction. It's an important balance to my Franciscan temperament, but I think the Franciscan tradition has an emphasis that's important to remember at this moment in the life of the church:

The first will be last, and the last will be first. That's not a one time chair-swap; it's the ongoing way of things in God's kingdom, as the strong use their strength only to empower the weak, and the weak become strong are called to do the same. The question facing the church is not, as some would have it, "should we change?"; it is, "how can we change to become more responsive to the Good News?" Answers to that question will not be consistently "progressive" in the secular political sense, and the dynamic nature of God's rule according to scripture (in contrast to the platonic view that God is an "unmoved mover" maintaining everything in its single proper place) means that fidelity to scripture effectively rules out stasis. Anyone who's "conservative" in the sense of conserving the privilege of the privileged will be disappointed by what God is doing in the world.

In other words, I think we all ought to be prepared to be surprised by joy, grace and peace, and new life -- and we to experience it in its fullness, we'll need to stay in conversation about where God is leading us.

June 29, 2006 in Churchiness, Current Affairs | Permalink


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Love your thoughtful alternative. Amen.

Posted by: Opinionated Old Fart | Jun 29, 2006 1:45:55 PM

I knew there was a reason we wanted you out here. Thanks very much for this -- it's a wonderfully healing text.

Posted by: Kahu | Jun 29, 2006 2:32:48 PM

Thanks Dylan...Helpful as always. xx

Posted by: Kathryn | Jun 29, 2006 6:51:57 PM

Dylan, this is good stuff. I'm curious: who do you think is "privileged?" And, pace your previous post: don't you think Archbishop Rowan has an impossible job? Those who want "clarity" as you intimate, will always be disappointed. Those who want integrity may not be. I think the man has tremendous integrity but will not jump on to either side of this sticky wicket because of his vision for the Communion and his understanding of his role as A of C.

Posted by: Elizabeth+ | Jul 3, 2006 1:48:01 PM

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