Tab: For The Beautiful People

Last week I was taken, quite generously, to a cabaret. It was horrible. More vulgar than Belle Barth ever hoped to be. After the show as we walked up 8th Avenue it happened. It happened right across from the Port Authority. Someone in the party started in on a reverie on the importance of the evening. “it’s so good, so important that we’re here this evening, on this street, at this time with these buildings and these lights.” I quickly changed the subject.

It reminded me of a very long response to a post that I’d written on the blog Praying with Evagrius The post is titled Spiritual but not Religious:  Following up on Lillian Daniels. I’ve slightly edited my response and posted it below.

The Annunciation to the Shepherds by William Blake

“it will be Question’d, “When the Sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?” O no, no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying, `Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.’”
-William Blake

Pantheism? Deism? Syncretism? The New Age?

There is a ubiquity of Christ, but this is not to be confused with pantheism, or Deism, or even the New Age. I must admit that I have little patience for New Age navel gazing. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been at a lunch or dinner party where someone at the table midway through the meal (that started with a plate being set down rather than a prayer) started in with “It’s so good and important that we’re here together. We are so blessed to have good food and company, good friends that we can share with.” This usually comes from someone who’s been sober for the last 20 years, and in therapy for the last 30. (Please don’t think that I’m anti AA or therapy, unless it’s an excuse to be spiritual but not religious.) It’s not that the sentiment isn’t true. We’re definitely blessed with good food, company, whatever. But the sentiment usually doesn’t go further. It stops right there, confusing a sense of contentment with spiritual depth and fulfillment. This self-indulgence is what bothers me. It comes from people who have life coaches. Life coaches who pander to their client’s whims and encourage ego masturbation. I wonder, does the same person who sees God, or perhaps god, in the sunset, or while walking on a gentle shore, or in a Spring day, also see God in the sublime, or only the beautiful? “It’s such a beautiful day, really a perfect day. We are so blessed.” Like having a good, fresh, locally sourced, organic dinner with a small group of friends. Sure, that’s great. But is it a beautiful day when there is flooding, a hurricane, 100 degree heat and humidity? At the church I attend (Anglo Catholic even though I’m Evangelical Catholic) we pray the petition for seasonable weather, not good weather. Does the spiritual narcissist see god in scorching heat, or the loss of property? I doubt it.

Having a religious identity is what allows a person to say “Here I Stand.” It is that religion that connects a person to a tradition, even a culture. And the great thing about that tradition is that it’s not self-referential. It does not allow one to revel in either contentment or sinful remorse. People who find “‘community’ among their family and friends and their spirituality in nature” are missing the communion of Christ. They are missing out on being a member of the body of Christ: That which gives substance to the communities of family, friends, and work.

There is comfort as well as challenge in religion, in being a part of Christ. There is milk for babes, as well as meat for men in religious tradition. Within a single congregation a pastor will find “varying levels of commitments to the teachings of Jesus and the scriptures, as well as various understandings of how that should be lived out.” Surely, not all people understand “the notion of self-sacrifice and reflection, of service, of mercy and generosity.” However there is something there for everyone, even the Christian in name only, the Christian who thinks “of the church as a social or moral obligation.” Priests or pastors may long for congregants to step up to the challenge of living a Christian life, to actively participate in the mission of the church. I do believe that interaction with history through liturgy builds the connections that enable parishioners to realize that they are the body of Christ and that carries with it certain responsibilities. But it seems that (with few exceptions) the Church is looking more and more at non-traditional models. Denominations dilute their specific historical identities in a move to be more accepting, more willing to compromise their traditional stand for a contented “assembly.”

I was reading in my Small Catechism the other day:

“The Evangelical Lutheran Church is in reality the old original Church which came into existence on the day of Pentecost. Luther simply threw out the errors which had crept into the Church during the course of the centuries, and held fast the doctrines taught in God’s Word.”

This was a little extra history lesson from Joseph Stump in 1907. Clearly he’s missed the boat, as this claim can be made by every one of the protestant denominations, catholic or not. I’ve even heard it from the lips of Evangelicals, or my favorite denomination: Non-denominational churches. The only one I cannot imagine making such a claim so explicitly are the Anglicans, but even there I’d bet you could find a priest or two with a similar view via some branch theory.

There is variety in the in liturgical expression. There is variety in ones personal experience of God in nature, but I do not believe that Blake was encouraging spiritual self obsession, but rather encouraging his reader to be open to the awful power of God, to the sublime, to put that power to use in the world, to participate in the communion of saints, to participate in and engage the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant as the Church. “Spiritual, but not religious” is neither milk nor meat. Perhaps it’s Tab.


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