South of the Hugh River, NT 2016

I Believe

Jan: It has been a long time David, despite all our best intentions to keep talking!  Where does life find you now? (Feb 2001)

David: Kind of suspended, I think.  I'm happier than I have been for years.  And yet, if not lost, certainly I do not know where I am. I am no longer in a parish.  I have great difficulty with conventional belief...  I am not at all sure what I am about... and yet I am glad, mostly, to be out of the church.

Jan:  What has happened for you to leave parish ministry?  This was something you were good at, and passionate about.

David: I lost all enthusiasm for the work.  Almost overnight...  It felt like this long running, pointless game, that I could no longer bear to be part of.  On the surface, I did not have the energy to play the usual parish  games of letting people vent their spleen and carry on about inconsequentials, and hold fast to their little prejudices.  Like I had a huge attack of impatience and intolerance... if people want to go round in circles until they die out that's their business, but I am not going to waste my life helping them. 

I became utterly sick of 'playing church...' and doing things that were a waste of time and had no point to them.

Jan: But this was only on the surface?

David: Yes.  It is one manifestation of something deeper I think.  Because around then, my belief changed dramatically.  The whole imagery of God ceased to work for me.  I knew, of course, that the idea of God as we saw God in the Church was only an image... a story if you like... which kind of fleshed out the experience  and longings we had of the Divine.  But it stopped working.  It just ceased to work.

Jan: I think this is hard for people if they haven't met your particular philosophy before.  Perhaps we could explain it in some more detail.  When you say we have images of reality, you are saying that reality is infinitely more complex than we can understand, and yet also, in some areas almost flimsy in that we can perceive only a little of it. And...

David: ...and so to make it work.... like so we can understand it,   we construct models.  We have detailed pictures of what is   to inform us of the meaning of the reality around us, and to control it and make it safe. 

God is one of those things.  We sense and intuit that there is something greater and beyond us.  Something ultimate, more powerful, which transcends our limitations and fears and shortlivedness. So we tell a story of  a great God.  Kingafap, Brian Wren calls it: "King, Almighty Father and Protector."  And where that does not add up, or is inadequate for our reality we change the story.  We find, truthfully I think, intimations of Friend, Suffering Servant, Fellow Sufferer and Pilgrim in the story of our religion. 

The genius of the Great Religious Stories is that they throw up new ways of seeing reality and dealing with it.  So the religious story you and I have been in, was able to see the evil of sexism, and of arms race etc and move from Kingafap kind of God to a more honest, gentle suffering alongside of us kind of God.

But not only did I find that lots of my parish just wanted to stay put with an old model that no longer worked, but suddenly none of the model worked for me.  I had nothing left to say.

In a sense I became too conscious of the model.  It ceased to inform me or convince me.  It became unreal...  It's hard to explain.

One of the problems the church faces is reification.  That is, people take an image and reify it; they make it to be Real, when it is only a symbol or story or a sign pointing somewhere else.  For me it has gone the other way.  Although I still have a sense of the God-thing, the symbols and stories have lost all their reality.  They have little or no power.

Once I could stand in the Cathedral and know it was all story and that God was much more than all this... and very much nothing like this... and yet the story moved and held and nurtured me.  Suddenly it all stopped.  It became just story...  no- it became empty story.  I suppose that in one sense I became all too aware of what it didn't say and didn't answer.

It was odd in a way, because it is not as though I had 'lost my faith' as they say.  I still see that there is something we could call 'God.'  If anything my sense of awe of the world and all reality was, and is, even greater.  My sense of aesthetics, of beauty, of poignancy, of the Gift of life... and I must say, of the depths of tragedy and futility, was greater than ever.  I just felt I could say very little if anything about the GOD thing behind them.  And felt that a lot of the church was saying was parroting jargon, un-thought, and often shallow.  Like it failed the test of reality, and really wanted to imagine a tame, accessible God who would be nice and good to us.

Jan: So where does this leave you with the Church?

David: For my part, there has been a lot of anger and disappointment.  Anger at first, mostly.  As Miriam Therese Winter says in a lament:

What do I say when the ones I trust
cross examine my inspiration,
when the God of my heart
no longer fits
the old theological frame?

There was a fair sense of alienation.  A sense of having been abandoned, if not outright rejected, because I could not conform to their desires to own a minister who would tell them everything was OK. 

Now, mostly, it's just disappointment.  I sat in my study the other night, wondering about God and life and meaning.  There's all these books... hundreds of them.  And they say nothing to me where I am.  That's sad.

On the church's part?  Well, it was a funny kind of going... there isn't a parish to be in at the moment anyway, so no one's had to confront the fact that they have one of their ministers in a crisis... "he just doesn't have a parish right now."  Although, I think there might also be a secret relief that we don't have to deal with him either.  I don't really know... no one has asked really! A few questions about what am I doing now, but none about why. My presbytery minister has talked and cared, and a colleague.  It's sort of been a non event!  

David: As to where I am now... well, that's hard.  Miriam Therese Winter's lament says

Who among us has not mourned the loss
of childhood's imaginary friend,
the end of a cherished relationship,
the moving beyond perimeters
of our own securities,
the death of the God
of our own making?

Myths crumble, boxes break,
Mystery bursts
beyond our boundaries,
refuses to fit
our frames of reference,
refuses to leave us,
even as structures no longer serve us,
oldtime religion no longer saves us.

 

The disappointment and grief I know a lot about.  Although I have sublimated a lot of it with overwork and buried more of it under a quiet dignified sort of depression. But it does come out in anger and impatience.  I have lost absolutely all of that thing you might call pastoral patience, where you sit and let a person get stuff of their chest, even if you think they are talking rubbish.  My tolerance toward my family is pretty low.

And the mystery is still there.  It is not as hopeful as Sister Miriam presents it in her Psalm.  More muted.  Cloaked by my depression.  I guess I am cynical that I can be surprised again, or transcended, so to speak.  But I hope this is simply the defensive walls of depression speaking.

Jan: So you believe, but it is a grim, subdued belief?

David: Yes.  That's a very good description, sometimes.  And a silent kind of belief.  I just don't feel I have anything I can say about God.  Something touches me and draws at my hopes, that is all.

Jan: Then in your imagining, when you reach out to God, what are you looking for now?

David: To be relieved from the burden of living.  To have a sense of being held and being able to let go of all the pain and tiredness I carry with me. To have a sense that Someone understands and cares.

 I find the work I am doing stimulating and challenging.  I get time to walk in the evenings or to stand and look out from the hill where I live in the early morning.  Life is wonderful.  But it is hard and lonely, too.  Just sometimes I would like a God who I felt was a little closer, and who understood and cared.  That, I think, is the reality I have lost.

Carole Etzler says in a song

Sometimes I wish my eyes hadn't been opened
Just for an hour how sweet it would be
Not to be struggling, not to be striving
But just sleep securely in our slavery...

I get that feeling.  But I also have a fierce hope and sense of the glory of life. I'm glad I've gone where I've gone and that what has happened has happened. Etzler's song was about feminism but it's got a wider truth... we were created to be free people, she says.  The very church whose maxims I have grown past and find limiting and alienating, has put me on an eye-opening road.  I don't think we are finished with each other yet

February 2001
We have not been able to find the location of the Psalm by Miriam Therese Winter. Carole Etzler's song is in Everflowing Streams Ed Ruth Duck and Michael Bausch (Pilgrim Press 1981)

 


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