by Brian C. Taylor
Why is the Episcopal Church – generally so socially-engaged, thoughtful, aesthetic – not bursting at the seams? With its contemporary approach to an ancient faith, it seems to be tailor made for today’s world. So why are so many seekers indifferent to what it has to offer? This question strikes at the heart of any conversation about conversion. After all, conversion implies that there are people on hand who want to convert.
The Episcopal Church usually approaches conversion in the same way that St. Benedict set forth in a vow for his monks: conversion of life. Conversion in this sense is a gradual process of transformation that takes place through an alchemy of individual effort, community life, and God’s grace. So far so good – one would think that seekers today would respond eagerly to this approach. The promise of gradual transformation of life, taking place with the support of an engaged and thoughtful community, is surely more attractive and reasonable to many than the hope of heaven and threat of hell.
Some might say seekers don’t respond because we haven’t been effectively “telling our story,” or “getting the message out” about who we are. Perhaps, but I think one of the other chief reasons has to do with the way we use language in our liturgy, even in its more contemporary forms: we can’t seem to shake the habit of dualism. (My use of the term dualism here is not the historical Christian separation of spirit and flesh, but rather the separation of subject and object).
Again and again we find ourselves as subjects addressing God as an object, a separate being – one whom we seek, appeal to, and praise. We ask this divine being to respond, to have mercy, to grant, to forgive, to act, just as we would ask another person to do the same. “We” speak to a God who is not “us,” but something else, whether we think of God as the one in whom we live and move and have our being, or as something impossibly far away. In other words, we think dualistically.
The problem is that the language we use in church doesn’t resonate with the experience of many seekers today. If you ask them whether they are “religious,” they will frequently say “No,” because they can’t believe there is a super-being who exists apart from us. Instead, seekers today often describe the divine as an “energy,” or a “sense of the sacred infusing everything.” Whether they know it or not, they are describing a unitive experience, rather than a dualistic one. They sense that they are part of a mystery, rather than a subject relating to the source of mystery as if it were an object.
Paul Tillich addressed this issue by referring to God as the ground of all being, in which we have our individual being. He wanted us to avoid what he called “theism” – the tendency to make God into an object, a separate being. But he also believed that the use of personal, relational language when speaking of (or to) God was inevitable. His logic was that our limited consciousness can only conceive of the ultimately unknowable divine mystery in personal, relational terms. These terms, for Tillich, were to be understood as symbolic of something beyond words.
Most Episcopalians would probably agree with this logic, and there is merit to it. Our theology and liturgy is based upon it. For my 30 years as a parish rector I used
and unpacked the symbolic language of scripture and liturgy. As a preacher, I translated the language of traditional symbol and metaphor into the reality of experience.
But since I’ve retired, I’ve begun to see a real problem with Tillich’s conviction and our practice as a church. If over a lifetime we become accustomed to language that constantly reinforces the impression that we are subjects relating to God as a separate object, this language no longer functions symbolically, but seems to describe the reality itself.
For some 25 years, I have studied and practiced Zen Buddhism, and it has provided a refreshing perspective on my Christian experience of unitive prayer and theology. Most Buddhism – like psychology or science – is agnostic. It does not concern itself with the subject of God, but it does have its own way of speaking of what religions call “God.” In doing so, Zen uses poetic, not definitive, language, often pulling the rug out from underneath all our assumptions and easy definitions of reality. And so we Christians hear echoes of “God” when we hear Zen teachers creatively hinting towards the mystery, using phrases such as our original face, emptiness that makes all existence possible, pure being, Buddha-nature, universal mind, the single energy, the absolute, no-thing that manifests as “things”…and so on.
However, in Zen, the absolute is not an essence or a being before all other beings that is something other than what we are. That would make us separate from it; it would then be something to reach, something to achieve. Instead, the nature of reality is our nature. We are that life-giving, spacious emptiness; we are manifestations of universal mind; we are Buddha-nature. We are distinct individuals, to be sure, and therefore in relationship to what is beyond our individuality; but we are not separate from it.
It is no coincidence that in our day and culture, interest in Buddhism is growing just as interest in Christianity is declining. That shift has come partly because Buddhism has a way of speaking about reality in a way that is resonant with contemporary seekers. After all, many of us know ourselves to be part of an inter-related, infinitely diverse, and vastly gifted global village. Contemporary physics tells us that we, and all matter, are not a collection of separate objects, but an interactive flow of energy.
In the same vein, many contemporary seekers sense that they are not a person “over here” who relates to a divine being “over there,” but part of a sacred reality that reveals itself in infinite ways – as you, as me, as trees, as circumstances, as everything that is, seen and unseen. We can willfully separate ourselves from this unitive reality, creating great harm for ourselves and others, or we can live into it cooperatively, encouraging healing, justice, and harmony as we do.
If we are serious about conversion of life for those who respond to our invitation to “Come and see” what God in Christ is all about, perhaps we need to rethink the language we use. This can be awkward at first, just as it has been for many men when they first begin to use gender-neutral liturgical language. But the reason we make that effort was that we have come to the conclusion that our language no longer fits either our understanding or our experience. If we were to stand forever on tradition, we would continue to alienate a growing number of people, especially contemporary seekers who could care less about our tradition.
Aren’t we in a similar situation now, with the language we use to speak about (or to) God? Isn’t it worth the awkwardness and the effort to do something about it? If so, how might we express this mystery in a way that resonates with our understanding and experience, but is also faithful to Christian understanding and experience? Most importantly, how shall we move beyond the reinforcing language of dualism in order to support conversion of life in our day, and thereby, to more fully bring about the reign of God that Jesus promised?
The Rev Brian Taylor is an author, CREDO facilitator, and retired Rector of St Michael and All Angels, Albuquerque, NM