Friday, February 24, 2006

There's No Place Like Hell

As I was driving around yesterday, searching for my now six-year-old nephew's birthday present (happy birthday, Josh!) an old resentment (to borrow from AA's jargon) resurfaced. I saw a car which looked like a car that I often saw in the parking lot of the church I pastored, and it dredged up old and evidently still bitter feelings.

I could judge those feelings, and my attachment to them. I could describe in detail why it is unhealthy to hold grudges and resentments. But that wouldn't help. As unhealthy as it is to carry such feelings around, it is equally unhealthy to label them and judge them. I don't need to pass judgment on my experience, I need only to experience my experience, experience the rising and falling of these emotions, and then try to let go of them.

When I was a pastor I didn't often give altar calls. This is not because I was not evangelical. In my own way I am very evangelical. Each week I told my congregation that what happens inside the walls of our church is meaningless unless it carries over into our lives outside those church walls. Each week I told my congregation that inside the walls of the church, in the experience we call Sunday worship, we encounter the grace and peace of God. As part of that experience, I told them, we are called to be agents of that grace and peace outside the safety of the walls of our church, bringing each person we meet into contact with that grace and peace.

The altar is a place in which Christians (and members of other religions) have traditionally experienced God. As such it is an appropriate place to encounter God, and ought to be used as part of the worship service. However, the altar has also been abused by those for whom religion must always be tied with guilt. The altar has been used as a weapon against sinners, and as a false antidote to sinning.

My own experience with the altar is checkered. As a fundamentalist teenager, motivated by guilt and fear, I responded to every altar call that I ever heard given. But responding to those calls, those nudges by the Holy Spirit, never took my guilt or fear away. All it did was subconsciously communicate that the grace of God was not sufficient for me. That the last time I responded to it was not enough. It help create a cyclical addiction to a particular kind of guilt-and-fear-laced religious experience.

As a pastor, chastened by my own unhealthy experience of altar calls, I vowed to do them only when I could do them right. Of course, this supposes that there is a right way to do an altar call, and that I would some day (but not today) have access to that absolutely right way. I was quickly disillusioned of this, and decided to give sporadic altar calls, checking against all of the abuses of them known to me, while also assuming that I would mess it up in my own way, and that would have to be OK.

One of my last Sundays at Mt. Zion UMC, just before I discovered just how deep the divide was between me and my congregation, I gave an altar call. With my own unhealthy experiences fresh in my mind, I decided to place a kind of check on the call. I said:

Do not come to this altar because you are afraid of hell. Instead come to this altar motivated by a desire to authentically encounter the presence of God in a real way.

No one responded, and I didn't think much of it until the next week, when we were scheduled to have our Charge Conference.

A Charge Conference is supposed to be meeting over which the District Superintendent presides, and in which all of the official church business for the year gets done. People are appointed to serve on various committees, the pastor's salary is set, the state of the building and the parsonage is accessed, the church finances are examined, etc. It is an extremely important meeting for the life of the church, and it is decidedly not the time to air complaints.

However, for this Charge Conference a faction of the church, motivated by a desire to get rid of me, literally stormed the floor and took over the meeting under the threat of physical violence. They then, claiming they had been told to do this by God, aired their list of complaints against me. At the top of their list, sure enough, was my final altar call.

In their vindictive rant they quoted me as having said:

Do not come to the altar if you are afraid of hell.

The difference between that and what I actually said was just one word, but that one word makes all the difference in the world. They claimed that I was intentionally excluding the entire church from the altar, because I disagreed with them about the wrath of God. They claimed that I wasn't really interested in saving souls, because in cutting out the threat of hell I was removing the only motivation to seek God.

[note: at this point my writing was interrupted by a pillow fight with my one-year-old son. He grab a pillow off the couch a clobbered me with it, then started giggling. I had to get him back!]

For them fear of God - not the awesome respect for the Holy, the Other, the divine, but real terror of what God might supernaturally do to them if the stepped out of line - was the fuel for their religious machine. I have before called their God the whack-a-mole God, the God standing over and above humanity, with a supernatural mallet, waiting to bash our brains in if we stick our head up.

As their pastor I tried to give them a different vision of God and a different experience of religion, but they rebelled against that. And now that I'm not their pastor I can't have any control over the way that they see me, the way that they describe me to themselves and others. I can't challenge their misrepresentation of what I said in that altar call, and I can't challenge their misinterpretation of my teachings.

My emotional response to this is teaching me that, just like them, my machine needs fuel. And just like them, my machine is run on an unhealthy fuel. If guilt and fear drive them, then the need to control, the need to be understood, drives me. And just like with them, this fuel drives me to the edge of hell.

The fear of God - again, not the awesome respect for God which is sometimes characterized as fear - and the fear of eternal damnation lead to an unhealthy religious expression, a cyclical pattern of behavior which makes no sense to those outside it.

I was once on that cycle. Now I am on a new cycle. Now, rather than being motivated by an existential dread I am motivated by a need to control, a need to be right, and to be seen as right. And so when I think of the lack of control I had and have over that congregation's interpretation of me; when I think of my inability to make them understand me, what I was trying to teach them, and why I was trying to teach them what I tried to teach them; when I think of the fact that their misquoting of me will stand forever unchallenged; I feel resentment. The same resentment I used to feel toward the God who I thought consigned people like me to eternal damnation.

Life is full of all kinds of hells, and there's no place like hell.

But that's not how the story has to end. If hell is an irrational pattern of behavior based on unhealthy ideas, then the way out of our temporal hells is to break that cycle. That cycle is still broken by the grace of the God who tells us not to take ourselves or our mistakes so seriously.

Both of the errors presented here; the tendency towards fear and the need to control come from a lack of faith. We experience these things because we do not trust God. We either do not trust God to be good, or we do not trust God to be God. In doing so, in either case, we really fail to appreciate that God is God, and that we are not God. God's will, unmitigated by our fear or desire to control, is the operating principle of the universe.

To realize that is to experience heaven, to rebel against that is to experience hell.


Brian Cubbage said...

It took a lot of courage to narrate this, and I have to say that it depresses me to hear the details you mention, especially those relating to the Charge Conference. I know that your intention wasn't to depress, and I will get over it, but even so.

What leaps out at me about your story is just how much our churches have lost by adopting a Manichean version of the faith in which God and evil are equals, and it is our job to vote for the right one. If this is your view of the universe, then of course an obvious way to explain your choice of God is that you are rejecting the "other" option.

As often happens, your story sparks a philosophical question in my mind, and I'm eager to hear what people think. One common response to the difficulty (perhaps impossibility) of rationally proving or disproving God's existence is Pascal's Wager: Since reason alone declares the question a draw, Pascal argues, then we are free to decide whether to believe or not based upon our self-interest. So if we "wager" that God exists, then, if God really does, we get an infinitely good afterlife; if God doesn't, we haven't really lost anything worth worrying about. If we bet that God doesn't exist and God doesn't, we don't gain anything (on this scenario, there's no afterlife, so we don't even get the satisfaction of being right). If we are wrong, then we receive the worst evil imaginable: eternal life in Hell (or some such).

I wonder whether the rise of modernity has finally backed many of the faithful into such a corner that all they can do is perform Pascal's Wager? The way that the people at your former church think sounds an awful lot like Pascal's Wager thinking.

Sandalstraps said...

I personally don't like Pascal's Wager because it places all of the value in following God in the afterlife. When our faith is merely wagering that if we're right we go to heaven it has lost all of its value in the here and now.

I think that my former church would also not like Pascal's Wager, but for a very different reason. For them it is manifest that God exists for two reasons:

1. God's existence was taught to them by authorities which they value, from within their community and their families (more on this later).

2. God's existenence is experienced. This experience of God is central to their religion, just as it is central to mine. God is for them an experiential reality.

The psychological/spiritual/religious problem is that the wrath of God is part of their experience of God. It stands over them as a kind of moral and spiritual enforcement mechanism. They experience it as being both real and crucial to their relationship with God.

Many people in that congregation wished to impress two things upon me:

1. The wrath of God was taught to them by very important and authoritative people in their lives. Revered former pastors taught them the wrath of God. Parents and grandparents taught them the wrath of God.

2. The wrath of God was instrumental in important conversion experiences, which taught them to take their faith more seriously and provided them with a kind of meaning and purpose. When they were "backsliding," what kept them from going too far was this wrathful vision of God. When they were "ignoring God," the wrath of God, the anger of God, lead them to fear God and come back to their faith.

My problem (which I could connect to the Nasrudin story, but I'll make that connection another day) was that I was an outsider questioning the teachings of the insiders. In doing so I was also calling into question their whole reason for being religious.

They definitely had a Manichean view of the world, influenced unconsciously by Zoroatrianism and the division of the world into two equal realms. Worse than that, they imposed that view on me. To them I was literally (but unwittingly) and agent of Satan, trying to get them to deny the one true faith. Satan, in their eyes, had a foothold in the church for as long as I was there.

I was tempted to tell them to observe behavior, to see who has acting like agents of the devil, who was employing demonic means. But I'm glad I didn't, as that would have been unfair, and would not have helped. I didn't have enough credibility in their eyes to shame them into looking critically at their own behavior.

I think you're right, however, that modernism forces believers into a kind of Pascalian wager. This is because it so devalues religious experience. When God is "out there," apart from us and our experiences, and when God can only be demonstarted through reason, and when reason is incapable of demonstarting the existence of God satisfactorally, then you're left with that kind of wager.

Interestingly enough I remember a kid in my youth group growing up who had a t-shirt with Pascal's Wager on it. It said something like:

If you're living like there's no God, you'd better be right!

and it had flames and a pitchfork on it.

That kid is now a full time youth minister and a seminary student. And while he is extremely bright, he never (to my knowledge) looks critically at his own faith. Much like Aquinas he makes a sharp divide between reason and revelation. But unlike Aquinas I've never seen him try to apply reason to faith, which seems for him to be strictly in the realm of revelation. This is the revealed truth, and if I question it I am skating on thin ice.

He would have been a very good fit for my former church. I, obviously, was not.

Brian Cubbage said...

From what you describe, those at your former church sound almost exactly like Pascal. For starters, it is tradition for Pascal that communicates the relevant choices in the Wager to us. (One classic objection to the Wager is that Pascal failed to account for other options-- not just for gods from different religious traditions, but also for logically possible gods.)

Also, the way you describe the experiential content of their faith makes it sound indistinguishable from fear induced by their assent to certain propositions about God which they accept on the basis of traditional authority. Our experience is shaped by our beliefs -- if it weren't, no form of psychotherapy would work, which is false-- but that doesn't in every case guarantee that I have had any experience relevant to the belief. My belief in God shapes how I experience the world, but that doesn't make every such case in which such shaping occurs an expereince of God.

Pascal lived in a time in which the rise of modern science had changed the way intellectuals looked at the world. As Alexandre Koyré so eloquently put it, science took us from a closed world-- a large universe with definite boundaries and a privileged place for humanity-- to an infinite universe, or at least one that is indefinitely large. In 2006, unless you are totally innocent of any scientific education you cannot really see the universe the way that the ancients and medievals did. (Maybe it's impossible even then.) Pascal was in part responding to the breakdown of the notion that the universe is supposed to hold some sort of key to the existence and nature of God.

goddess_rl said...

Personally as a former technical writer. I am amazed by the wording issue. In reading your note I was amazed by the notion of one word mistaken changed the meaning. I have myself learned this week that something I said years ago altered and perhaps destroyed a friendship. I don't really believe I said what was said, more that another comment was made and misconstrued, but the fact that one statement you had carefully formed had yet been so mis-heard. It really proves that you hear what you want to hear. Most people probably only get half of what it said. (Perhaps that is, subconsciously, why I say twice as much as the average person.)

As for the reason why one acts the way one does. I must say my favorite thought on it was a poster my sister had hanging in her bathroom:
Why worry
There are only 2 things to worry about: You are either sick or well. If you are well there is nothing to worry about and...
If you are sick, you have only 2 things to worry about: You are going to get better or you are going to die. If you are going to get better there is nothing to worry about and...
If you are going to die there are only 2 things to worry about: If you are going to heaven or to hell. If you are going to heaven there is nothing to worry about and...
If you are going to hell you will be so busy shaking hands with old friends you won't have time to worry, so why worry.

I know this is a rather contrite look at it. (The poster did hang in a bathroom.) The idea though is commom. Most folks look more at hell as the place where most folks go and where the "party" really will be. Yes some churches preach the fire and brimstone approach, but those who generally would be in real danger of this, in my opinion, are probably not there listening. The question is are these people basing their faith on a fear of hell or was that simply the catalyst of their faith.

As the basis of a faith that is not really good. Behaviorist generally agree that punishment is not really a good deterent. People don't change their ways to avoid paying for the crimes, they redefine the rules or their behavior. I believe it probably is for the fancy wager rule that they see it as their catalyst.

Also those authorities can be pretty convincing. I am sure that my husband is smart, but the reason he can tell soldiers who have had more time in the army and are older than him what to do is that he was given that authority. Most psych students learn about the experiements on authority. Humans respond well to power figures. Perhaps it is a good thing, though not for you Chris, that they did choose to fill authority positions with folks who think more like themselves. They are trying to raise their children to have the same values and judgements. You are not the person they want teaching them. I know that we as "enlightened" liberals want folks to be willing to learn different things, but many people, especially in small towns (and from previous posts I think I remember this was the small town.) want to preserve those more traditional views. This is horrible for us to experience, but trying to change folks from their traditions can be painful.

I am not supporting folks maintaining closeminded attitudes, but I am always remembering one of my favorite quotes from South Park, "There is a time and place for everything and it is called College." Small town churches are far from bastions of liberal thinking, and there is no point in trying to squeeze blood from a rock.

Daniel Morgan said...

I enjoyed reading this post. Do you think you might want, later on, to plug in more details about what happened at that meeting?

Re: Pascal's Wager, and as Brian pointed out, the fallacy with PW is that we can ever guarantee to avail ourselves of the "right end" of believing. One may, indeed, gain heaven if god exists and only requires belief in god, but almost every religious interpretation of the Divine demands more. What safety does PW offer? What certainty will ever be secured? If the mormons are right, or the JW, or the Protestants, or the Catholics, or the Jews, or the Muslims, or the Buddhists...every one else is wrong. How can we put ourselves on the winning side of PW?