In my last post I confessed that I found the whole “Ashes to Go” movement to be incredibly unsatisfying. I appreciated many of the comments that shared how imposing ashes outside of the context of a worship service was a meaningful and evangelistic gesture of hospitality. I understand that the ritual act of marking one’s forehead with ashes is a multivalent symbol and in this new context the symbol takes on new meaning. This leads to a couple more questions for me. First (and I won’t offer an opinion because the answer seems to me to be based simply on preference), do we lose something significant by imposing ashes in this new context? Are the gains worth the losses? Second, and I will try to answer this, what does this new practice suggest about our beliefs?
To get at the question I turn to my old friends Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche read through the lens of Merold Westphal. In his fabulous book Suspicion and Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism, Westphal argues that the hermeneutics of suspicion (of which Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche were masters) are essential for people of faith, particularly during Lent. He advocates for “the deliberate attempt to expose the self-deceptions involved in hiding our actual operative motives from ourselves, individually and collectively, in order not to notice how and how much our behavior and our beliefs are shaped by values we profess to disown.” This is not an evidentiary atheism that militantly argues that there is not enough evidence to believe in God but a healthy suspicion of religious practices that is grounded in critical self-reflection. It is an honest evaluation of the correspondence between what we say we believe and how we actually live our lives.
In the last ten years the Episcopal Church (and many other mainline denominations) has experienced a precipitous decline (the reasons for the decline were the subject of an interesting debate last summer between Ross Douthat and Diana Butler Bass). The much discussed recent Pew survey revealed that as many as one in five now identify as “nones,” that is to say, they do not have a religious affiliation. This trend does not look like it will be reversed any time soon as nearly 1/3 of those who are 18-29 identify in this way. There is a growing consensus that what happens in religious communities is largely irrelevant. Even the Dalai Lama appears to agree.
It is in this context that bishops and clergy and theologians are insisting that what happens in a church community does in fact matter. Yet (and here I will bring my critique) the very act of ashes on the go appears to affirm that what happens in church IS irrelevant. There is no need for pause, there is no need for community, you can get your absolution or religious identity marker or whatever the symbol may mean to you on your way to work or wherever it may be that you are rushing. It can be profoundly significant to both the priest and the participant. But is reveals a sense that church is not necessary for that profound moment. And maybe it is not.
The act also undercuts another assertion that is trendy in Episcopal circles, namely, that in the baptismal covenant all equipped to do the work of God (the so-called “total ministry” movement). Priests have an additional function (presiding over Eucharist and forgiveness of sins) but they and the laity share the same call. The act of ashes on the go raises the public profile of the priest or bishop in a way that undercuts the evangelistic call of all the baptized. Yes, it may be hospitable, but it reinforces the idea that the heavy lifting of the work of the church is under the purview of the clergy. (Perhaps priests are just longing for affirmation of their ministry as numbers dwindle and certain church folk continue to be annoying know-it-alls.) Again, the practice reveals what is truly believed.
Finally, as I noted previously, it seems to me that many of those who are most excited about this phenomenon are also those who are most perfectionistic when it comes to the liturgy. Perhaps the two are related. Perhaps for these priests who find joy in a perfect liturgy, God is in fact dead and the communal act of worship is somehow meaningless apart from a perfect performance. Impeccable liturgy is God. The communal aspect is only beneficial insofar as others are there to witness the perfection (and certainly not to screw it up!).
I have mentioned much here that may be objectionable (or just plain and simple misinformed!), please offer your insights in the comments!