Many years ago I knew a man who abruptly left the church, not because of an incident that offended him or a stand on a social issue that the church had taken, but because he realized that he just really didn’t believe it. Sad as I was to see him go, I admired his intellectual honesty and his strength of character to no longer be part of something that had become alien to him. I felt that I failed him though, because I never engaged him in any discussion of what exactly he had decided he didn’t believe. It might have been something that I too regarded as unbelievable. Perhaps I thought I would come across as just pleading with him to stay; perhaps I doubted whether anything I could say would make a difference. Still I feel I failed him. What should I have done?
Does it matter? All such discussions seem to me to revolve around the literal interpretation of poetic imagery; imagery intended by the authors to convey profound truths, but dangerous, even tragically so, if taken literally. Consider the incident in the news lately of the two children killed in Montgomery County in an exorcism. Self-described as “Demon Assassins’ and ‘lovers of Christ’ the women had the notion of releasing evil spirits from children by stabbing them. Where does that come from? What was taught, or rather, what was not taught, in the church they attended that resulted in such beliefs?
Or consider the article “Love and Death in the House of Prayer” in the latest (January 30, 2014) issue of Rolling Stone. It’s an all to familiar tale of a cult under the sway of a charismatic leader, but like the exorcism story, of a group with enough contact with a mainline church to have had counterbalance to such wild ideas as Jesus returning to earth any day now with a sword to slay hundred of thousands of people. This particular cult of college age students was apparently under the sway of a book entitled “The Final Quest.” I feel that I should read it in order to be armed with the knowledge of what it says. Again, does it matter? Indeed it does, children and young adults are killed as a result of such beliefs.
Years ago Bishop Spong authored “Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism.” We need to dust that off and take up the cause in earnest. I recall a charge levied 40 years ago against the American Political Science Association for putting too much emphasis on the statistical analysis of election results and ignoring the traditional concerns of the study of government: how to structure and operate governments so as to achieve justice and the general welfare. It was said that the profession was fiddling while Rome burned and that the only thing that could be said in their defense was that they didn’t know they were fiddling and they didn’t know Rome was burning.
So let’s hear it for Christian Education, and for seminaries, preachers, and church school teachers everywhere. The purveyors of ignorance and superstition are tireless, and so must we be always.
Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 28-January-2014