The Answer Is Usually To Change Yourself
Observant readers will notice that I’ve changed the title of this series (after only one post!). This may have something to do with my love for tinkering, but I hope it owes just a little to my desire not to give the impression that I have arrived at some place of personal enlightenment from where I can pronounce on the lessons that everybody else needs to learn in order to join me. I don’t want to be a person who feels that he has arrived anywhere. And this is not out of a sense of modesty, but because I don’t ever wish to have “arrived”.
Many have observed that becoming is an essential quality of being human. And if this means anything at all it must be that human flourishing can never be a settled state of self-awareness and personality development. In fact, there can be nothing settled at all about flourishing. Rather it is to be found in that constant, self-conscious effort to grow. But this is a topic for another post.
All of this, however, is related (if only tenuously) to what I want to say in this post: the answer is usually to change yourself.
One of the tasks of the minister is to be an agent of change within the church. I’m not talking here about simple changes to processes, but the more difficult stuff like church culture and responding to new situations, people and ideas. I’m thinking here of the kind of thing that almost always boils down to the nature of the relationships within the church.
One way of trying to bring about this kind of change presents itself immediately to the minister. Thor has his hammer, Captain America has his shield and the minister has his pulpit. The preacher can always try to proclaim his way through the fog of inertia, generated by the inadequacies of the church’s response to Scripture, and into the clear blue sky of his vision for church life.
There are so many problems with this mindset that I hardly know where to begin. I could write about the ethical questions it raises, I could write about the power dynamic it creates within the church, or I could write about the objectification of the congregation and its effects. But I’m going to satisfy myself instead with writing about the basic assumption that underlies it, which is that it is everyone else who needs to change. As assumptions go, this is as unhelpful as it gets. It is simplistic, it comes from a one-up position and it arises from anxiety. Let me deal with these in turn.
1. Simplistic. It is the product of a simplistic world-view, one which sees all actions and responses as fitting neatly into the two pigeonholes labelled ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or ‘righteousness’ and ‘sin’. According to this world-view, all that is needed to transform any situation is for a person to move their actions from the ‘bad’ pigeonhole and put it into the other one. Simple! The repentance of someone else is always the answer. There is no need to inquire into the reasons for someone’s actions and no need to delve into the complexities of the web of interactions that produce the problem because there is nothing complex about sin. If the cry, “Repent” was good enough for John the Baptist, then it is good enough! Happily, though not for anyone who holds this view, the world refuses to comply with this demand to conform to binary-ism. If human relationships are anything at all, they are complex.
2. One-up position. To assume that it is everyone else who needs to change is to possess an outlook on the world that declares, “I’m OK; you’re not OK!”. This approach to the rest of the world has given preaching its bad name in Western society. Rather than involve himself in the lives of his hearers, the preacher who occupies the one-up position elevates himself above others such that he can pronounce on their lives and their attitudes. I guess we might wish to defend this practice by claiming that he tries to occupy God’s perspective on the world, while declaring God’s word to the world. But didn’t God involve himself in the frailties of human existence and the difficulties of human experience, and didn’t he do this in the most radical of ways?
3. Anxiety. In his absurdly difficult book, Totality and Infinity, the Lithuanian philosopher Emmanuel Levinas makes the point that to truly encounter another person is to be challenged to change yourself. We are, through this meeting of another human being, immediately presented with an ethical question, do we authentically enter into dialogue with this person, respecting their personhood, or do we flee from the challenge they present us with by reducing them to something less than a person, such as a theological theory. A member of my congregation put it to me in much simpler terms the other day when he said that we often don’t want genuine dialogue because we are afraid of having to change.
Building on what Levinas (and my friend) have said it is becoming clearer to me that the way to bring about change in the church is for me to change how I relate to others. I cannot separate myself from the relationships that exist with the church as though somehow I floated above them in holy and untouchable isolation. And if I cannot see myself except as a person who is involved in relationships, then I am a part of the dynamic out of which the need for change has arisen. Problems are often located within that dynamic and very rarely (if ever) solely in the behaviour of one party. To change the church then, it is I myself who must change.
I am not repeating that millennia-old chestnut that the condition of the church depends on the sanctity of its leaders. Today’s incarnation of this belief is nothing more than a version of the ancient donatist heresy, which claimed that the effectiveness of the church’s administration of the sacraments was dependent on the quality of the life lived by the officiating priest.
My concern is not to express the grandiose belief that some infusion of grace or outpouring of blessing will be denied my poor helpless congregation unless I am careful to monitor my spirituality. My concern is instead to draw attention to the fact that we are all (whether not we occupy some pastoral role in the church) involved in relationships that depend to a large extent on us for their flourishing. If this is true of all relationships, then it must also be true of our relationship to the church .