Thursday, June 30, 2005

Revelations versus questions

Last weekend I went up to Wisconsin to say goodbye to my grandmother. She died on March 7, but I didn't go to the funeral a few days later. I regret making that decision, because I think I really needed to say goodbye while the emotions were strong. I can't say that I was very close with my grandmother, but she was a kind and caring woman who was there for many of my life experiences. She had a beautiful smile, the kind that emanates from the eyes rather than the mouth. I see that same smile in my father, with the eyes that both pierce and warm at the same time. She was also very devoted, still deeply in love with my grandfather who had passed away over thirty years ago. It's a wonderful example of the strength of love, one that gives me hope for the future of my family.

Last weekend, very close to her birthday, Grandma was memorialized with a new baptismal font during the church service. It had been a long time since I had attended a Lutheran service, so I paid close attention to the sermon and the liturgy. While I was happy to be there to show my respects, I was also struck by the wrong direction that this church was taking, which is really the same flaw in many organized religions.

In the previous week, my 20th century theory and literature class had been studying pieces by Charles Ives: "The Cage", "General William Booth Enters into Heaven", Sonata no. 2 for Violin and Piano ("The Revival" movement), and The Unanswered Question. Given the outwardly religious tone of the inner works, there was talk about whether Ives was sincere or satirical in his portrayal of Salvationist belief or a Baptist revival, especially as both works end with a musical question. General William Booth denies the final cadence, ending with the same drum beat that starts the song. The third movement of the violin sonata ends with a drop from G major to F for a final quote of the "Come, Thou Fount of Ev'ry Blessing" hymn, ending incompletely on a half cadence. Because of the uncertain ending, some of my students wondered if Ives was purposely undermining the religious tone of these two pieces. But this is highly unlikely, as Ives was a devout Christian, married to the daughter of a Congregational minister and active in the local Congregational Church up until his death. Instead, Ives shows that religion doesn't have to be all about revelations. "The Cage" ponders if life is simply pacing back and forth, with no goal in sight. The Unanswered Question realizes that some questions have no answers, and is at peace with that, while still asking the question. The uncertain endings of "The Revival" movement and "General William Booth" couple the quests with religion.

At the Episcopal cathedral in Buffalo, Dean Farabee (recently retired) used to state that Jesus wasn't the answer, he was the question. I found out later that the Buffalo parish was more universalist that many Episcopal churches, that in fact most Christian churches would adamantly disagree with that statement. To them, truth has been revealed, and life is about the acceptance of that truth. I disagree with that attitude because it doesn't lead to self-improvement and the taking of responsibility for decisions of morality. If morality is determined solely by revealed truth from a "Just and Angry God," then adherents to that morality have not decided to act morally because it feels right or just, but to protect themselves from the wrath of God. Contrarily, a person who examines the underlying purposes of morality as it is portrayed in Scripture, asking why rules were made and judgments given, is more likely to create an ownership to his/her morality. Is this moral relativism? Possibly, though in the Anglican pillars of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason would create a shared basis for morality in the first two pillars, even if people disagree about the application of the third pillar. It is the unexamined certainty of organized religion that keeps me from accepting their precepts, though it doesn't stop me from asking my own questions and arriving at my own moral beliefs.


Anonymous said...

I think many churches feel that morality can be found by believing in a loving God. Where have you been going to church on your off Sundays husband?

Anonymous said...

You would like Grace Cathedral, the seat of the Episcopal church in San Francisco. A very welcoming and open congregation that sees more questions than answers. (I'm a secular Jew and felt very comfortable on a recent visit to Grace. Oh, and they have a lovely organ, too. )

Scott said...

Dearest wife, a loving God is better than an Angry God, but responsibility still seems to be misplaced. A passing of the buck, as it were.

Lisa, that seems like a very nice church. I do also like the Indianapolis cathedral, though they emphasize Jesus more than I would like. The Dean had a nice sermon yesterday that acknowledged the misdirected fear that many American churches teach.

Anonymous said...

What about free will. I would say that gives us plenty of responsibility.

Anonymous said...

Scott, re the cathedral emphasizing Jesus, isn't that what Christianity is all about, the ministry of Jesus. Note the differences between the New and the Old Testament. One wouldn't believe that could be the same God, and the difference is Jesus.


Scott said...

Many Christians do not talk or act as if there is free will. They say that God causes everything, and thank God for everything.

Dad, there is a difference between teaching the ministry of Jesus -- love your neighbor, feed the poor, act humble and thankful, etc. -- and claiming that salvation comes only through acknowledging Jesus as the Son of God. Proclaiming the Gospel is usually about the latter, which I don't like, and not about the former.