Atheism for Lent

GODISNOWHEREIn 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!



Filed under culture, religion

8 responses to “Atheism for Lent

  1. Jonathan

    While it’s important to practice one’s faith daily, it has never been all that important to go to the church building every day (although being able to do so opens up some lovely options). Consider how the Desert Fathers lived. The only time the hermits would go to the church was for the synaxis. The rest of the time they would either stay in their cell working and praying, or go visit a neighbor’s cell to talk about a what was going on in their life and get some advice or some spiritual topic. A similar pattern shows up repeatedly among those who strive to live the Christian life without joining a monastery, and even monastics carved out exceptions for those who can’t conveniently get back to the monastery church.

  2. benvarnum

    Couple of quick thoughts — one is to Jonathan: the Desert Fathers’ life of prayer really wasn’t one of solitude. The early hermits who “withdrew” from secular life depended heavily on living near a community to provide them with food and care, and some of them were even influential in politics at various levels up to the national (Antony once wrote a letter to a garrison commander that so incensed the commander that he road out with troops to arrest Antony, only to have his horse throw him to his death, proving a vision Antony’d had). The koinonia (community) of monks under Pachomius and later monastics were structured around a common life: the day was focused around what you were doing in community and for the community, and common prayer was frequent. While monks did have individual cells in this sort of monasticism, the cells were in dormitory houses with as many as 40 members, and there might be dozens of these houses in each monastery. Monasticism was hardly an isolating thing, and probably represents more the pinnacle of life WITHIN the church than life AWAY from it!

    As for David’s push regarding whether “Ashes to Go” somehow re-emphasizes clergy importance, I’d note that the practice is discussed in clergy circles that support it as a way of getting the priest un-cloistered and out into the world. The desire to be in the world and not the cloister is, to me, a struggle by clergy to climb off the pedestals we’re sometimes placed on.

    As for the act itself; I’m not sure how Ashes to Go makes clergy more important, relatively speaking. If passersby were to have ashes administered in the church, the clergy would be doing it. So having the clergy be the ministers of the ashes outside the walls doesn’t seem to be an expansion of their role . . . merely the place where that role takes them. I’d say Ashes to Go is an attempt to make the Church more visible, and to meet people where they are (on the assumption that AtG is intended to supplement a full service by reaching those who would not attend one, rather than replacing the liturgical practice of the faith community). The priests and deacons happen to be the persons being the visible church in this moment, but I’m not sure that makes them “more important” in a significant way: perhaps a helpful parallel is asking whether outreach done by the laity through the church makes the layperson “more important” relative to the clergy? I could see an argument that it does, in an informal way, simply by accruing visibility, but I’m not sure there’s any zero-sum stake to it that isn’t present in older and more significant divisions of labor by the orders of ministry: presumably, presiding at the Eucharistic table or pronouncing absolution after confession will remain more significant separations than administering Ashes to Go.

  3. Thanks for the comments. Jonathan, I think your perspective is exactly what I am speaking to. We want to insist that worship in a community matters but our practices suggest otherwise (historical situation of the desert fathers aside–and some did lead total lives of isolation).

    I appreciate your perspective, Ben. “More important” is probably the wrong phrase. The act raises the public profile of the priest and this is healthy in some ways–the church reaching out to the world is important, and clergy on the streets communicate this clearly. And maybe this is the draw for priests. The cynic in me wonders (and I am an ass to do so) if they are not somehow seeking some sort of public affirmation more than anything else.

    • benvarnum

      It’s a fair cynicism, David . . . though I’d offer that clergy who want their egos stroked have little enough trouble receiving that without stretching their practice beyond resting-on-laurels and keeping-fires-stoked. A lot of parishes are willing to have an underfunctioning rector who doesn’t challenge them, and the people who want to be “the special guy” in a community grow good at finding those places. People trying out new expressions of ministry don’t usually strike me as in it for the glory, for what it’s worth.

  4. Jonathan

    Ben, you seem to be conflating community and the church. Ashes to go, however, is both in the community and outside the church as are some types of eremetic monasticism. In particular, as you say, the Desert Fathers were clearly connected economically and socially to their local community, but that doesn’t mean that they were in church on a daily basis. Again as you say, things are quite different for cenobitic monasticism. It really is a sort of pinnacle of life within the church, but the cenobitic tradition has almost always recognized the validity of the eremetic tradition. The RB even views hermits as having the more advanced practice of the faith.

    David, practicing the faith in community does matter, it just isn’t the only way to practice the faith. Most of us most of the time need community in order to maintain our spiritual practice and/or to advance in the virtues, especially love (Saint Benedict’s brief explanation of the different types of monk is worth reflecting on in this context). However, there is a lot of variability in the frequency with which and manner in which any specific individual needs to gather for prayer and fellowship with others. Additionally, it is just as important to have a personal or private practice of the faith. Even contemplative monastics, who can and must go to church many times a day, are careful to carve out personal private time for prayer and reflection although their private practice is clearly constrained by the intensity of the community practice.

    To put it another way, church community is generally beneficial (and a requirement for some), but not an absolute requirement for everyone.

  5. Thanks for the clarification, Jonathan. I guess I am left wondering, what is the purpose of church? Is it simply to meet one’s individual needs? Does it have a larger purpose? If I am reading you correctly you seem to be suggesting that the church exists for an individual’s felt need. Is this a fair read?

  6. Jonathan

    Yes and no. The church also exists to worship God and advance the good of the community. Even the work for individuals isn’t just to meet felt needs. In fact, felt needs are less important for the spiritual life than the less pleasant experiences by which one learns how to love. It is possible to learn love without community and re-enforcing conversation, but it is also very easy to lie to oneself about one’s ability to love.

  7. Pingback: Good Friday. God Is Dead. | dyingsparrows

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