Sunday 21 December 2008

Systemic Degrees of Dishonesty

I've tended to sit at the front in the parish Eucharists in recent weeks, as no more than a condition of laziness. There have been two benefits: to go up to the communion rail sooner and get back quicker, and sit down more quickly at passing of the exit procession. Also, because no one occupies the first or second row on the right hand side, I can sit at the second row, spread out my plastic basket and stuff, and stick my feet out in front around one chair.

However, the first benefit is lost as I have stopped going to the communion rail (at least, as planned, for the time being). It also has a disadvantage, in that although I am up and down like everyone else and know when to do stand and sit, I'd really rather stay sat during the creed I do not say. You get up for that after a sermon and then sit again. However, it is not for me to make public protests, so I get up, and simply say nothing before sitting again.

Unfortunately, I give off body language, and the different preacher today, who I know has the full understanding of the gospel-written and mythic origins of the nativity (borrowed my Bart Ehrman book recently) gave a history-like sermon that just filled me with incredulity. My reactions were rather obvious to an observing choir member (given my seated position). The preacher included, for example, what Mary must have thought as a 12 year old when visited by an angel, and angel who had been rather busy. There was quite a discussion afterwards. I said it brings up the issue of truth. As for the twelve year old element - why should she be a young virgin - I suggested it is because of suggestions of a different view of virginity that equated to coming to puberty. That's by the by, however: another, immediate and reactive discussion was on this history-like presentation, so I'm not alone.

What must she have thought? Perhaps she really liked Joseph! Perhaps it was expected that she join the builder in a good Jewish marriage and have lots of babies, so that enough survive. Who knows what she thought.

The point that annoyed me, and I mouthed the words, "Oh bullshit", turning away though (I start to look sideways) was when the nativity story was said to be the true one when the St Nicholas and Santa Claus myth has overtaken it with tinsel. My personal reaction was that it is all myth, and that at least the Santa Claus and related business is understood as myth and has become as meaningful (and more meaningful) for many.

Up and down the land preachers who are aware of how the nativity story has been constructed will have done this history-like presentation, in a focus on Mary. It is because they are obliged to do it. Some further think that if they examine it as myth it will be upsetting. Upsetting to whom and of what? Only surely because of perceived expectation. No surveys get taken in the dance of perceived expectations: congregation of preacher, preacher of congregation, preacher of his or herself.

I happen to think truth is a precious commodity, because it is connected with honesty. Truth has to be individual, and this notion that you can say something collectively while disbelieving it is extremely limited. It should be very limited in religion, because of all places where honesty is practised religion should be the first place.

There are people paid in public relations jobs who mouth their employer's case. We know that these people are spokespeople, and that they are paid. We expect them to give a collective view. Nevertheless the person who does the role should be comfortable in making the expression given. You would not expect a personal vegetarian, for example, to be a spokesperson for Mac the Knife Butchers in justifying factory farming. However, in a less extreme case, it may be that a meat eater cannot quite justify factory farming. We must allow the paid person to stretch somewhat over some difficulties on the basis of having general agreement.

Politicians also take collective responsibility or put the party argument. We know that many squirm when presenting a particular policy; they compartmentalise their personal ethical stance when presenting the asked for Civil Service briefing or retelling the latest paper from party headquarters. I always watch for the grin on some politicians as their answers are given to journalists; some would make poker players.

So it is with the Church of England, where there are these promises, and for some the difference between the presented liturgical dogma (to which the promises relate) and what they have studied at theological college and university. The promises do not ensure personal integrity: they undermine it. To me, truth is sacrificed if the collective view is put, if that is consistent with "preaching the Gospel" but inconsistent with study. It's like say a sermon on the genealogy of Jesus, where at no point comes the comment that this is a load of rubbish; why not say: they didn't know, they made it up, one genealogy is inconsistent with another and both inconsistent with a claim about virginity, and they don't fit the likely timescale involved, and in any case Abraham is something of a made up patriarch and Adam is a complete myth (where the ancestral issue is species of human). So it is treated as if it is beyond criticism, when actually it is tripe. So it can be interpreted as significance, just as virginity suggests the chosen prophet. It is myth after myth after myth.

And I do find it offensive in the sense that truth is compromised and honesty is compromised. Why should people criticise "liberals" for crossing their fingers at the creed and in sermons when the whole thing encourages dishonesty?

Our language of presentation today suggests that these so-called events are open to historical methods, that they can be falsified, or somehow evidenced, but given the privilege of the pulpit, they are heard as having happened. The necessity instead is to stress meaning/s over event: event after modernism does not suggest meaning.

Dealing with organised religion today is like dealing with degrees of dishonesty. Please understand that the argument here is not about particular people and any particular place, but about the systemic dishonesty that takes place when there are promises made by those then approved and expectations understood that then get played out.

There is a solution to this, and we hear it from Evangelicals. It is that only the actual, real, heartily subscribing believers in this stuff as history (in a modernist sense) should occupy teaching and presiding positions in the Churches. Such then has a simple outcome: the rest of us, usually with brains attached, leave. So there has to be a compromise built into the system, a little wriggle room.

However, my point is that the wriggle room is tiny, and it is still about degrees of dishonesty.

This is why (for me) it starts with a reflection that I cannot say those promises, then goes on to not saying the creed, then finding what is said by others to be degrees of dishonesty. It comes to it that the personal space one tries to find is harder to maintain.

The best part of the service is the organ music at and after the procession. I have become better trained at cutting out the chatter and using it as a kind of reflective space (so I sit until it finishes). Also a silence before a service starts is good. There are several reflective points, including intercessions, that are engaging and some may come as surprises. You just find your way through. One should say that sermons and readings do include positive jolts: after all, a week ago a sermon said, "Do it," and I did.

In the end, though, the tide is going out again. The institutional-personal dynamic is stretching very far again, as this particular piece of elastic always threatened to do. Yet, what has really changed? I had these views years ago, and I have them now.


Erika Baker said...

Presenting the nativity story as fact is as dishonest as taking it literally and then calling it a lie.

Both approaches are dishonest because they miss the point of the stories.

It doesn't matter which elements some people might believe in or not - and don't forget that in your average congregation there are those like you and those who have a very traditional faith, plus a whole bandwidth of points in between.

But the real issue is that these stories, these myths, have a profound meaning. They're not told because they were "true", and the writers of the bible didn't write them because they were literally "true". They point to the truth. They use powerful words that the people at the time thought were appropriate for pointing at the deep truth they were trying to convey.

If we ignore that and keep sticking rigidly to the surface of the stories - either believing or ridiculing them, we simply miss what they're about.

We shouldn't ask "are they true", but "what are they trying to say", "to what do they point".

If you ask meaningful questions of the stories you do get the chance of hearing meaningful answers.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

It depends if the stories are given literally. Asking how Mary felt is a question open to biographers, if there could be any. You can rephrase all of these for uncovering meanings. However, sometimes meanings depend on the actuality to then have a meaning: and the lack of actuality means there is no meaning. Thus a pure myth and no actuality takes away what Mary might have thought as a 12 year old being spoken to by an angel, in that simple sense, though you can still sing the Magnificat, which is Mary's opinion in obvious myth.

Erika Baker said...

I wasn't at the Service, so clearly, I can't comment on it. But you made a more generally applicable point, and on that I can have differering thoughts.

Once we have decided that these stories are myths, and because of that full of deep meaning, we have to have some mechanisms for unravelling that meaning.

And as the meaning is given to us in story format, the first and most obvious way of engaging with them is at that level.

It's like asking children "and how do you think Hansel and Gretl felt when they were left in the woods". We're not saying "these actual fairy tale children were left in a wood and had real feelings". But we're saying: given that this is the story, what is it saying to us? What, for example, could it be saying about children who suddenly find themselves abandoned by their parents? Or about children who feel that their step parent has alienated their real parent from them?

The fairy tales distill human experience into story.
The bible stories to the same.

And so "how do you think Mary felt" can, if put properly, be a genuine enquiry to explore deeper meaning of how it can feel when God acts in our lives.

rick allen said...

A myth understood as a myth no longer functions as a myth.

It then has to be translated into an ethical imperative or a psychological state or a metaphysical construct--none of which are any more historically verifiable or demonstrably true than the original myth, and all of which perform a reductionist work which never quite covers the original.

Why is it dishonest to believe that an anger spoke to Mary, but not dishonest to hold to the ten thousand other convictions we cannot verify?

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I'm quite happy to understand it as surprise, service, doing the right thing and all sorts. "This is a story about" is a good way to do it.

History as history is about the recording of events, and rather different in approach from myth and from convictions.

Erika Baker said...

"History as history is about the recording of events,"

I wonder how many people did think of this as a truly historic recording of events. Most don't.

I usually really value your contributions here but I don't think I understand this sentence "A myth understood as a myth no longer functions as a myth."

Could you explain it a bit further, please?

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Rick may mean that the illusion of history is necessary for a myth to function. If you know how a magician does a magic trick, then it takes away the trick.

I used to think this was a good argument until you looked at the skill of the magician, and started to see the world as a series of enhanced skills including by human prophetic figures.

Erika Baker said...

"If you know how a magician does a magic trick, then it takes away the trick."

Only if it's important that the trick is "real". If the deeper meaning of the trick is the magic it spreads and the enjoyment, then knowing that it is a trick doesn't do it any harm.

We know myths are not true stories. They're much more important than that. And they have a much deeper meaning than a true story can have.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

No that won't do. Of course others have the illusion and the enjoyment, but you yourself with the manual don't go 'ah' - you might though think that it's very clever.

You can make an elephant disappear on TV. What you do is have a viewing platform on rails on a curve, and move it along, the people at the front move in the same pattern but the elephant goes off to the side. It's a very clever trick when the elephant vanishes but all else stays the same, but there is no 'ah' factor when all you've done is move the viewing to the side.

rick allen said...

"We know myths are not true stories."

Erika, from my point of view, that's claiming way too much knowledge.

We do not know whether myths are true, in the sense that our host means "true."

As revelation we accept them as true, but we don't know, and can't know, exactly what kind of truth they embody.

At most, we can say that they aren't verifiable in the sense that scientific historiography demands verification. They cannot be verified as I can verify the price of wheat in Michigan in 1922.

But whether Mary actually, literally, spoke to an angel, or whether that's a roundabout way of saying something else, I can't prove one way or ther other. I will try not to be too harsh with the person so utterly caught up in 19th-20th century thinking that he can't admit the possibility of angels. But for myself I'm happy to just go on as if she did.

"A myth understood as a myth no longer functions as a myth."

That's probably too absolute a way to put it. I fear the self-consciousness induced by over-reflection and attempting to precisely define a "real" meaning for the myth can drain it of its power, and often in many cases miss the point. Much better to keep rechurning it through sermon and painting and carol than to try to de-mythologize it.

(Please make no assumption if I don't answer further for a while. I slogged my way to work this morning in a foot and a half of snow to find all state offices closed, and I'm not sure what's up next. If I don't answer soon, Feliz Navidad from Nueva Mexico!)

June Butler said...

A Blessed and Merry Christmas, anyway!

By the way, I know what Mary thought. She appeared to me and told me, but she said not to tell. Sorry.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

That happened at the end of his life too.