by George Clifford
In college and seminary in the 1970s, I was taught that stasis was theologically superior to dynamism. For example, course content emphasized that God—unlike humans—is immutable, unchanging, and unchangeable. I was taught that revelation ended when the canon closed. Yes, God still spoke to individuals, but God had no fresh message, revelation, or scripture to give to God’s people. My professors openly disdained groups such as the Mormons and Pentecostals who believed in God’s ongoing revelation.
For reasons I could not clearly specify at the time, I was not convinced that stasis was superior to dynamism. Illustratively, the Bible appeared to describe God changing God’s mind, though my professors were quick to point out the Biblical basis for believing that God is unchanging. Conceptualizing heaven as eternal bliss seemed more like an endless punishment: without change, what would be new? What would bring fresh excitement or joy? Intentionally using caricature, I scoffed at the notion of anyone finding drifting on a cloud, wearing a halo, and plucking a harp eternally satisfying. I pondered the dissonance between Christianity’s emphasis on stasis and Buddhism’s emphasis on the transitory nature of existence.
Post seminary, I began to perceive more clearly that the cosmos, in its entirety and in its individual particulars, is dynamic. At a quantum level, nothing is static. We humans are dynamic. Most of our cells live seven years or less. Brain physiology constantly changes as new synapses form, ions shift locations, and new patterns supplant old ones. Indeed, the existence of an enduring self is largely illusory, consisting of consciousness continually reemerging from an ever-changing physiology. The scientific description of the cosmos seemed at odds with the description implicit in much of the theology I had been taught. Furthermore, why is it unreasonable to expect that human knowledge of the divine will increase over time, even as human knowledge of the cosmos increased over time? Why is it unreasonable to speculate that a changing cosmos changes God?
I had been introduced to process thought in college (never in seminary!), and I began to read process thought again, discovering philosophy and theology that emphasized dynamism instead of stasis. This reading accelerated when I was privileged to study under Marjorie Suchocki during my DMin program. Every moment, and every entity, perishes.
Over the years, listening to people describe their journeys to me, I realized that yearning for stasis or permanency often expresses a desire or an attempt to avoid loss in one of its many forms, for example, death, a relationship ending, diminished capacity due to age or illness, or termination of a job or career aspirations. Yearning for stasis or permanency can also be a coping strategy after a loss. Alternatively, I discovered that an awareness of life’s transitory nature—although it can cause fear or anxiety—could also help a person to savor each moment and to cope with the inevitability of loss.
The Episcopal Church is living through a time of great loss. Membership is declining substantially. In many places, parish buildings are becoming liabilities instead of assets. Institutional structures at the diocesan and national levels that once provided vital and vigorous ministries are increasingly perceived as burdens and unnecessary overhead. A model of being the Church—the incarnate body of Christ—that served reasonably well for centuries now feels ever more antiquated. No longer do we live in Christendom, nor can we even pretend to do so (if one is honest, Christendom has always been more myth than fact).
Yet many of us cling to the Church that we love and that has given us life, light, and love. I sense a widespread yearning for stasis among Episcopalians fearful of change. The motives for resisting ecclesial change, when change is both inevitable and endemic to the cosmos, deserve reflection. These motives may include a misplaced allegiance to a place or building, selfish efforts to preserve power accumulated through current structures and systems, or desperate attempts to sustain an illusion of spiritual and emotional stability in a world that is changing too rapidly for comfort.
What would happen if we embraced the changes as signs of God’s continuing activity in the world? First, instead of fearing the changes, we might recognize that through the loss of buildings, structure, and influence God is cutting our attachment to idols and drawing us more firmly into God’s love. Shifting our theological paradigms would also end our futile expenditure of intellectual and emotional energy in vain attempts to preserve the illusion of stasis.
Second, we might find that dynamic patterns of being God’s people are more exciting, fulfilling, and life giving. A ritualized form of a communal meal becomes a real meal sacramentally shared. People, not physical or organizational structures, again become the Church’s basic elements. Living as a faithful remnant can also increase our awareness of God’s presence, more dramatically transforming our lives and accentuating our witness in the world.
Third, new wineskins for this new age might further multiply the effects. Crowdsourcing might replace assessments and complex budgetary processes. Direct democracy might replace our current representative form of democracy. (Incidentally, a US labor union is allowing its 15,000 members to vote directly via the internet to ratify or reject a proposed contract; Episcopalians can surely likewise vote on diocesan and national agendas).
Communications already flow unimpeded across the Church; why not allow money and power to do the same? Being a large connectional Church in prior generations required hierarchy and representational processes, but technology can now make both superfluous. A new model would take seriously Paul’s comments to the Corinthians that no part of the body is worthy of more honor than another; the body has equal need of all of its parts. Additionally, by decreasing institutional maintenance requirements, these changes would effectively expand resources available for mission.
In losing—letting go of that which we once considered gains—we can win.
George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, recently published Just Counterterrorism, and blogs at Ethical Musings.