May 30, 2005

Ministry retreat

Friday afternoon I drove over to Urbana for a retreat, the third-annual Midwest Discordian Ministry Assembly. The attendees were mostly people I knew who in some way "minister" spiritually to people, though I use that term a little loosely. The faith traditions represented there were relatively diverse and not at all restricted to Christianity.

In particular, it included a number of disaffected Christians and some who were actively anti-Christian; the main reasons, for all of them, had to do with the churches being seen as bigoted, hypocritical, exclusionary, and chiefly interested in power. This is a difficult perception to counteract, because in the case of a lot of the Christians in power and that get the most press, it's pretty much entirely true. I don't know how we can solve this problem, but until we do, we'll only see an acceleration of the current trend where the good, smart, examined-life people leave, which of course just makes the problem worse.

A major theme of the weekend, as indeed of Discordianism as a whole, is the idea that seeming or even actual contradiction is not necessarily the end of the world. Especially when dealing with ephemeral, spiritual matters, as soon as you try to express a truth, you've made a simplification that makes the expression not quite right. If you make a different simplification, you have a different approximation that seems to contradict the first, and yet, both are expressions of a larger truth. The summary of this by "Saint Syadasti" is:

All things are in some sense true,
in some sense false,
in some sense meaningless,
in some sense true and false,
in some sense true and meaningless,
in some sense false and meaningless,
and in some sense true and false and meaningless.
To which the good Discordian should mentally append the doxology "including this", which really sums up the whole thing in a nice two-word nutshell. And although this sort of thing infuriates a lot of Protestants, it's quite compatible with a Catholic understanding of truth; our theology is riddled with seeming inconsistencies and contradictions, but each half of the contradiction can separately impart wisdom, and so the whole is useful, even if it is in some ways false and/or meaningless. Jesus himself said "it is all presented in parables, so that they will look intently and not see, listen carefully and not understand, lest perhaps they repent and be forgiven." (Mk 4:11-12)

Another theme was the constant questioning of authority. How much do you believe just because someone said so? Why should you give anyone that much power over your beliefs? And again, this is entirely consonant with a Catholic understanding of spirituality and belief. We don't regard the Bible as the sole source of truth and literally correct in every detail. It goes hand in hand with our centuries of tradition to interpret it. And even when the RCC has an official line on something, it is still contingent on a personal formation of conscience: the RCC says all sorts of things, but, at least officially and doctrinally, all of it is tagged with an implicit "but don't take our word for it"; you must form your own conscience through thought and prayer, and it is this conscience you must follow, even if it is in discord with the (thus presumably incorrect) Catholic doctrine.

So, it was a really interesting and productive weekend. And now I've spent enough time writing and really need to get back to grading and other school-related things....

"I know you're usually more prone to reading things like the History of the Romanian Basketweavers Revolution and shit like that, but Potter's on par with LOTR and much less longwinded. It's kind of a "Chronicles of Narnia" for pagans. It's a must-read, if you want to keep up with the state of the mythological arts." --Jonathan Prykop

Posted by blahedo at 6:10pm on 30 May 2005

I don't know how we can solve this problem, but until we do, we'll only see an acceleration of the current trend where the good, smart, examined-life people leave, which of course just makes the problem worse.

Unitarian-Universialism seems to be a refuge for people like you describe. Or at least, that's my perception from the outside. I actually haven't meet that many people who actually belong to that group.

Posted by ansible at 7:48pm on 30 May 2005
One issue is that if one is an examined-life sort of person, it becomes increasingly difficult to sustain a belief in a cosmic daddy who is omniscient, omnipotent, and gives us our morality from on high in easily-misinterpreted and confusing hints. The problem, really, is that as a culture we're finally rich and well-educated enough to have time to seriously consider these questions -- and to be able to enjoy answers which do not involve throwing up one's hands and doing whatever your parents did. Posted by Kimmitt at 2:07am on 2 Jun 2005

Lots of people have been considering these questions for millennia. The institutional religions and their scriptures and traditions represent the condensed wisdom of a lot of people, and it's sort of silly to throw all that out the window just because you disagree with some of their conclusions.

Anyway, your initial claim is incorrect. You have increasing difficulty etc, etc, but there are a lot of smart, examined-life people out there that remain churched, or who leave their church but continue to believe in God. (Or gods.) If you can generalise anything, I think it's that smart people have a hard time with corrupt individuals and institutions, but that's not a particularly interesting or novel assertion.

Posted by blahedo at 12:47pm on 2 Jun 2005

If you can generalise anything, I think it's that smart people have a hard time with corrupt individuals and institutions, but that's not a particularly interesting or novel assertion.


Something slightly more interesting is that the church (whichever one is local to you) has a lot less direct power over your life than it used to (like 300 years ago).

And switching religions isn't the shooting offense it used to be either.

Another interesting bit is that with increased communication technology, it is easier for aforementioned smart people to learn more about their church in much greater detail and scope.

Is someone aware of a good book which discusses these sorts of issues from a historical perspective?

Posted by ansible at 3:11pm on 2 Jun 2005

Speaking as a Unitarian-Universalist (by birth, upbringing, and choice), I can say that it is true that many UU folks migrated from other religions. Their reasons, however, only occasionally have to do with the issues of authority, the source of truth, the contradictions in various scripture, etc. It is much more common for people to come to UU after having deliberately and vehemently discarded all organized religious institutions in reaction to an oppressive religious upbringing. They tend to be walking wounded, and the very mention of certain trigger words such as God and Christ or even amen or prayer will make them uncomfortable and upset. These are not people who have considered religion and decided they like one faith better than another, these are people who are seeking a church-like community that will not remind them of the unpleasant aspects of their childhood.

Such people make up roughly half the congregation I grew up in; the other half are mostly the examined-life types, which is largely made up of people who are born and bred UU. Not counting those under 18, who we can expect to be still figuring out what they believe, there are only a very few who are there more by habit than by decision. I will also mention that UU congregations are often very different from one another, so this mix is likely unique to my home congregation and should not be considered valid across the entire UU world.

I had a friend in high school who became a born-again fundamentalist Christian while I knew her. She had not been brought up that way, but had chosen fundamentalism after careful consideration and examination. I cannot fault her for that, regardless of what I might think of her chosen faith (or, more to the point, the vocal majority of people who have chosen that faith). I had several interesting and informative discussions with her, and it was clear that she had come to her chosen faith with her eyes open. By the same token, I cannot respect someone whose faith comes from one parent or the other without conscious consideration, regardless of how enlightened I might consider said faith. (Note that being of one's parent's faith does not necessarily mean that one did not consciously choose it, but that is most often the case.)

Posted by Greg at 11:15am on 3 Jun 2005
If you can generalise anything, I think it's that smart people have a hard time with corrupt individuals and institutions, I don't agree with this; smart people can make their peace with corrupt individuals and institutions as long as they get something out of the deal, just like everyone else. The problem is the same one that Plato identified way back when; when people start seriously thinking about whatever religion is currently in vogue, they start leaving it. I really feel that the difference is that our relative prosperity and developed liberal tradition make it feasible for one to live a reasonably good life while declining to use faith as a bulwark against the amorality of one's desires. When one's needs are reliably met, one does not need to guard so assiduously against immorality in the service of satisfying one's needs. The thing about Christianity is that it is both kind of absurd and extremely poorly practiced, both now and in the past. You're focusing on the second part, which is valid, but the first part is just as important. Posted by Kimmitt at 7:05pm on 4 Jun 2005
When I had my first "fight the establishment" anti-religion phase somewhere in middle school, it was unsurprisingly as a result of the Science vs. Faith dichotemy I percieved. I was suffering for a lack of spirituality though, and it wasn't until I read the Principia Discordia that I finally learned to stop taking things so seriously. Or humorously. I've been consulting my pineal gland for all major life decisions since. Really though, I'm usually surprised by the people who are aware of the Principia, and equally surprised by people I'd expect to have heard of it who haven't. You'd at least think it would make an occasional appearance in some Intro to Alternative Spirituality course, or something. What do you think of the Principia's value (to society, or something) anyways? Posted by Aaron at 5:08pm on 17 Jun 2005
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