Sunday, March 19, 2006

Self. Service.

Went to church today.

It's the second time in two weeks. I'm "making an effort," as they say. The point here, however, is not to accost you with my journey in faith (or faithlessness), but rather to highlight two moments from today's (Episcopal*) service that are very much in keeping with the mandate of this blog. And even though in my media bookings I've consistently danced around the obvious parallels between religion and self-help, there's no dancing around what I heard today in church.

1. Father Michael's very first words were: "Almighty God, we know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves." It was the opening line of a reading, a humble plea for intercession from on-high.

To me, that's a terrible message to put out for general consumption, whether you're in church or not. I understand the intent: It is aimed at people who feel hopeless, lost, tempest-tossed, and therefore pray for God's assistance, a literal deus ex machina ending. I also understand that you can't judge a religious service, let alone a religion, based on one line plucked out of context. Still, no power in ourselves to help ourselves is pretty unambiguous. There is no way to read that (or hear it) as anything but an admission of defeat, and a bedrock-level need for some higher power to help you.** That's not what you'd call an empowering message. And though I'm no fan of today's utopian brand of empowerment, neither do I believe in reinforcing victimhood by telling people they're powerless. The truth is somewhere in the middle. In fact, I'm coming increasingly to believe that once you accept the reality of that middle ground, certain kinds of self-help may actually do some good. In particular, we'll be talking about Martin Seligman and his theory of "learned optimism" (also the title of his landmark 1991 book, now in reissue) a bit farther down the road.

Clearly there exists within us the capacity for change without divine intervention (change of some sort being the normal prerequisite in cases where people hope to escape a rut). I don't know how much of that change must be kick-started by external events and how much is possible internally, but people do change, and it's hard to conceive that God Himself plays a role in each case. (Some very famous atheists, including Madalyn Murray O'Hair, were raised in devout Christian households; I doubt that God had much of a personal hand in that transformation.) A determinist might argue that even the internal kind of change occurs not as a result of any conscious choice, but rather from the natural resolution of the body's own totally autonomous internal struggles. One might make the comparison to a computer that has spent some time working on an extraordinarily complex problem, then one day arrives at the result. The only difference is that the computer has no self-consciousness, no "meta" awareness of its own function. We do. Regardless...we can, and do, change.

2. Later, during his homily, Fr. Michael shared some highly personal reflections on his path to his current station in life. Though it's always quiet during services***, you could've heard a collection basket drop as he told the congregation about the pivotal crisis of his own spiritual journey, a crossroads from which there was no turning back: that long-ago day he weighed whether to stay with the Catholic priesthood, or leave it in order to marry Rita, the woman he had come to know and love.

He chose both.

I hasten to add, that's not how Fr. Michael put it in church today. But in effect, his solution was to find himself a somewhat altered religious state wherein he could remain in God's good graces...except now he could have sex.

I realize that probably sounds crude. And in fairness to Fr. Michael, he did spend some time at today's service recounting the analytical and spiritual process that led him to his fateful decision to abandon Catholicism. (I should also mention that Fr. Michael is one of the most genuinely kind-hearted human beings you'll ever meet, as is wife Rita. Two nicer people could not have found each other.) That doesn't change the fact that, when the dust settled.... Well, some might say it's a case of having your communion wafer and eating it too. Some might call Fr. Michael's explanation a self-serving rationalization. He calls it the Episcopal Church.

If Fr. Michael is reading this, I'd like him to know that I'm not trying to be disrespectful. Truly, I'm not. And believe me, I'm the last one entitled to throw stones at someone else's house (surely not the house belonging to a man of God). In fact, I'm going to end this post by applauding my pastor for what he did. You see, his own actions form a refutation of the words at the center of vignette 1 above. Fr. Michael changed. He redefined his personal reality, finding a different reality that worked for him. Did God enable him to do that? Doubtful. Certainly not the "Catholic God" he was then pledged to serve. No. Fr. Michael did it. He found the answers that made sense for him. He helped himself. Ergo, self-help. The real kind.

* Wags sometimes refer to the Episcopal Church as "Catholic lite: all the singing and psalming without the guilt..."
** And by the way, what happened to "God helps those who help themselves"?
*** Except for the occasional shrill gibberish of some toddler whose grinning parents think it's just so cute when little Adam or Muffy calls out in church (or in a restaurant, or at the movies, or...)


Rodger Johnson said...

Without getting into a long scriptural study about how the Christian faith teaches that God is the beginning and end of determinism. I would have to say that by understanding how powerless mankind is, that even man's breath is given to him by God, is to really begin to understand the magnitude of power God allows us: the power to choose.

Anonymous said...

I'd have said when Henry VIII broke the Church in half, the Anglicans (Episcopalians over here, for the most part) kept the beauty and the Catholics kept the substance (specifically, the Transubstantiation). A loss for both sides!