Shuck and Jive

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Problem with Preachers

I think I have it figured out. I have heard it said many times by my colleagues something along these lines:

If you (as a preacher) take away the object of a parishioner's faith, you need to replace it with something better.

In other words, if you show them that a particular story in the Bible is fiction rather than historical, you need to show them how seeing it your way makes for a stronger faith.

If you deconstruct various beliefs (virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, physical resurrection, a literal heaven and hell, a personal deity, etc.) you need to replace what you have deconstructed with a better construction.

The point being is that if you cannot give them something constructive then don't deconstruct.

This advice is what I have received from most of my colleagues in ministry. It appears to be pastoral and compassionate. It is what a good shepherd would do.
It is also, in my view, a dead end.

While it has some value
on smaller questions and to some degree on the questions the preacher has worked through himself or herself, it does not work on the questions to which the preacher has no answer. This approach has other problems too:
  • It aborts creativity and spiritual development. All people are capable of creative thought. All people need the darkness and the emptiness of deconstruction. Without letting go there can be no creativity and discovery. When we fear deconstruction, faith (or its various objects) is something to be held onto at all costs. This results in putting our trust and our lives in that which is not bread. Many of our constructions or mythologies are simply false and damaging and need to be dismantled.
  • It sets preachers up as the theological answer wo/man. This prevents the creativity of the community from emerging. The reality is that the congregation as a whole knows a lot more than the minister does. Propping up beliefs for fear of being honest about them because honesty may cause pain or anguish sets them up as sitting ducks and encourages passivity in the face of grave danger.
We need to embrace and feel the pain of and anguish of change in order to move through what is ailing us. We need to practice the spiritual path of letting go. Carl Jung once quipped:

"People cannot stand too much reality."

I suppose preachers know that and so shield any reality from possibly reaching the pew. I think we need to preach "reality" even if we do not know where it will lead. In other words, I think preachers need to deconstruct and be honest even if they have not figured out what will replace what is lost.

Both preachers and political leaders have been shielding us from reality. What reality?
Reality is honesty about our condition and the mythologies that keep us rigid and prevent us from making needed changes.

The reality is that neither the market nor our technological know-how will solve our energy and environmental problems. The problems are not environmental (climate change) nor energy (fossil fuel limitations) in and of themselves. The problem is the mythology of growth and progress.

The mythology of progress and economic growth is a pervasive and destructive doctrine. It is the biggest lie on Earth. That we will carry on indefinitely with our merry motoring, Wal-Mart bargain-hunting, latte-lapping lives is a myth worthy of deconstruction. That we will in the nick of time with a sprinkle of Tinkerbell's stardust switch seamlessly from oil to ocean currents and never miss a Cheese Puff is the myth we are being led to believe.

It is a blind trust in technology and the free market which are nothing more than gods of our own making. If preachers and political leaders had any spiritual depth they would be telling us the truth.

Our way of life based on endless economic growth fueled by oil that has reached peak production
forever is unsustainable. The bill is due. All of our twittering fantasies, technological fixes, global economic dreams, and projections of what the computer wizards will deliver to us in 2050 are unrelated to what is happening on the ground (or under the ground).

Everything we enjoy about civilized life is based on the abundance of cheap oil. It will soon become very expensive and less and less available. It doesn't take much of a tweak (price hike or shortage) to send our incredibly complex and interrelated economy into a tailspin.

No one has to believe me of course. In fact, most people don't. Those who do entertain the possibility for a couple of minutes soon realize that this is too painful (a la Carl Jung's quip) and believe the closest fantasy at hand (usually a technological or market fix).

Others enter into a vicious circle of depression to denial and back again (and again). Still others think they will beat the odds and head off to the back woods with their guns, seeds, and a solar panel. (Dumanoski, p. 213)

I don't have the answer. I don't have the construction to this deconstruction. We are not going to stop climate change and we are not going to stop the changes we will experience due to the end of cheap oil. However, simply being aware can enable us to be more flexible and less panic-stricken when we run into a resource shortage.

It is also important for us to dream about a different way for human beings to exist on Earth. Modern industrial civilization is not the only way. It is not the best way. It certainly isn't sustainable even as it was fun for a few for a while.

What might we leave for our children? I don't mean our children as in some far off future sense. I mean our children who are graduating high school today.

I recently finished reading
The End of the Long Summer: Why We Must Remake Our Civilization to Survive on a Volatile Earth by Dianne Dumanoski.

The long summer is the past 12,000 years when Earth entered a period of stability in terms of climate change. This stability allowed for the rise of complex civilization.

This summer is ending. The climate is changing and there is little we can do to change that. Our industrial output has added to the climate change but we have already overstepped the no return line.

Changes in climate could come fast and furious and unexpected.
The challenge now before the human race is to survive. She is quite hopeful that we can. In order to survive we need to rethink what a good life is all about.

Industrial civilization isn't the only way to be human. Now is the time for conversation, dreaming and planning. It is time for creativity. It is time to let go of destructive patterns and mythologies and to find new metaphors and models.
She is a profound writer with an important and clear message:
In times of danger, bitter truths serve us better than sweet lies.

The modern era has not taken us where our guiding myth promised. The belief in deliverance through progress has been shattered by developments such as the ozone hole and global warming. Our most rapid progress now may be toward making the planet uninhabitable for many kinds of life, including ourselves.

The decades ahead promise unimaginable loss. Much of the world as we know it--the maple forest of the New England autumn, the coral reefs in tropical waters, the polar bears and countless other plants and animals, low-lying islands and sandy beaches, and perhaps even some of the world's coastal cities--will likely vanish in the lifetime of a child born today. These are not the dark prophecies of environmental apocalypse invoked to scare us into changing our ways, but simply inescapable consequences of the change already set in motion. Shutting off all greenhouse gases today will not stop the warming any more than shutting off the engine can stop a runaway train hurtling down a mountain (though it might switch us onto a less precipitous and calamitous track). The century ahead promises to be a wild trip.

...Looking ahead it is natural to focus on the dangers, but those who will be making their way in this uncertain future will also have unusual opportunities, although these may not be of the kind that one would have chosen wittingly. In the struggle to continue the human journey, they may live lives enlarged by a shared sense of great purpose, leavened by imagination, and enriched by the creativity that survival has always required. pp. 247-252
Ever read the Hebrew prophets? They said stuff like that. They were right. Of course, no one wanted to listen. The people (especially the politicos and the priests) were too invested in a way of living to hear that it was ending. They couldn't imagine what this kind of change could be like so they missed the obvious signs all around them.

The amazing thing is that human beings did survive. There was a remnant. A shoot came from the stump. Creativity (God, if you like) found a way but only after they had experienced the loss of what they had known.

We have but one role. That is to prepare our children for a future that is beyond prediction, beyond what we can construct, beyond what we know. What will this preparation involve? Practice. Practicing flexibility. Practicing creativity. Practicing cooperation. Practicing collaboration. Practicing trust. Practicing dreaming.

We need first and foremost to be honest. We need to talk about it. In regards to the ideology of growth that is now crashing into planetary limits, Dumanoski writes:
There is no avoiding what becomes more obvious day by day--the need to reconsider not simply the means by which we pursue endless growth, but the wisdom of the goal itself....There are no simple answers to these difficult issues, but there will be no possibility for creative thought if we don't have the common sense and courage to even ask the questions. p. 244
We are holding a conference, Saturday, September 26th. It is called Awakening the Dreamer: Changing the Dream. Hope you can join us!

There’s a Movement emerging on Planet Earth, new ways of living which will take us beyond the crises of our age into a world that works for all. Our work is helping to build the movement of awake, committed, engaged people, an invitation we extend to everyone. Who we can be, and what we can do at this point in history has never been so significant, or so much fun.

The Old Dream is dying. Its demise becomes inevitable as we discover the devastation we’ve caused to our own planet home, as we count the rising cost of our inhumanity to each other and as we see how our current way of living fails to deliver lasting happiness. All of these are the inevitable conclusions of an old dream rooted in acquisition, consumption and putting personal gain above communal good.

The New Dream is emerging! It's community, collaboration; it's life-enhancing and earth-honoring; it's together and for our grand-children, rather than Supersize me Now! So we’re seeing the largest social movement of all time, millions of people and organizations working for environmental sustainability, social justice and spiritual fulfillment, three facets of a new dream for humanity and planet Earth.
We will be at different places. Some will think we can reverse climate change or slow it considerably. Some will think we can find alternatives regarding energy use. Some will be less optimistic. However, all are hopeful (meaning we care about our children) enough to be honest and informed. Conversation with others in and of itself can help us to avoid despair and nihilism on one hand and "party on" denial on the other.

This is our time to dream about what is possible.


  1. This might possibly have been one of your best sermons.

  2. On the other hand, the failure to at least give a sense of direction sorta renders the whole "being-a-pastor" thing moot.

    It's not so much about giving folks a new set rules and regulations as giving a sense of how to live a life filled with a gracious openness to the other. You can't proclaim the Gospel without being normative. If it ain't the Most Excellent Way, then it ain't nothin.'

    You also can't be the creating form from tohu wabohu way...unless there is intentionality. Creativity *is* constructivist. And if you want to be creative as a progressive community, you have to find a shared vision...which is a norm, eh?

  3. very well written and thought out... and rings so true..