The Joy of Being Wrong Essays, Part 1C--"The Kingdom of God is Like a Big Party"

In the last few posts, we have discussed the idea that we don't know how to talk in Catholicism anymore, and out failure to talk makes many of our problems difficult, contentious, and insoluble.   So, what language should we use?  How can we talk to each other?

We can start by paying attention to how we talk about this thing that we are all involved in together--the Church.  An almost endless series of metaphors for the Church have been employed throughout the centuries.  I tried my hand at the plow with the "train to the Land of Hope and Dreams" (borrowing from the Boss).  Alison has a similar, if perhaps more festive, suggestion:

I’d like to say that for me being Catholic is being at a huge and very spacious party at which there are an awful lot of people, most of whom are not at all like me and with whom I don’t have much in common. Furthermore this is a party to which I have been invited not because I’m special, or any of the other people are special, but because the host invited me, part of his little joke, a joke whose full sense isn’t yet clear to me. And yet I’m beginning to get the sense that it is a good joke, that the intention behind it is benign, and that if only I can let go of taking myself too seriously, then I’ll get it and will really enjoy the dance.

Think about how event invitations work in our our normal social experiences.  Most events we attend condition receiving an invitation on having a certain status.  This doesn't have to be elitist or discriminatory, but it is true nonetheless.  If I were to throw a barbecue in my backyard, I would invite people I know; the status of "I know the host" is the thing which causes one to be invited.  Even if I extend the invitation to "bring whoever you want," it is still the relationship to the host (even if second or third order) that is the basis for the invitation.

Otherwise, social events work on a ticket system.  I have to go and get a ticket and present the ticket in order to get admission to event.  Even if the ticket is free, I still need to get the ticket and present the ticket in order to get admission to the event.

This is so fundamental to our social experience that we tend to start from the proposition that this must be true with the Kingdom of God.  We assume that you must have some status or some special ticket in order to be invited.  A truly gratuitous invitation with no preconditions is difficult for us to wrap our minds around.  It creates a kind of a vacuum at the heart of Christian life--at least from our perspective.  And, like all vacuums or awkward silences, we have a tendency to try to fill it.

One of the things about this party is that quite a lot of us spend quite a lot of time trying to work out who should be at the party and who shouldn’t, even when the evidence is that the host is pretty promiscuous in his invitations. Right now we’re faced with the growing possibility that a bunch of people who it has long been agreed by almost everybody shouldn’t be at the party can take off their masks and be at the party as themselves. And this means facing up to the possibility that a lot of us have been very cruel and nasty to a lot of people over a long time, thinking ourselves quite right to be so.

One of the best shows on cable television is Bar Rescue.  The concept is basically the same as Gordon Ramsey's show Kitchen Nightmares, except with bars and a more interesting host in the form of John Taffer.  I find the show to be completely fascinating--far more interesting than Kitchen Nightmares.

Anyway, I was watching Bar Rescue a couple of days ago, and they were doing an episode involving a nightclub in, I think, Atlanta [Ed: wrong--I just looked it up, and the club was in West Palm Beach, Florida--Episode 14].  One of the problems the club was having was that it had developed a reputation for having violent incidents occur in or around the club, which was scaring off patrons.  As a result, a significant portion of the episode revolved around training and improving the bouncers and doormen.  Which, in turn, got me thinking about bouncers and doormen and what their role is and should be.

As John Taffer made clear throughout the episode, there are people that you simply cannot let come into the club, because they bring with them things that ruin the enjoyment of everyone else.  No one is going to attend a party where they are afraid they are going to be shot or assaulted, if you allow people to bring drugs into the club then it poisons the atmosphere and invites police raids (which ruin everyone's fun), if men are allowed to grope or act inappropriately around women pretty soon you will have no women at the club, etc.  There are simply some things that you can't allow to go on in the club if you want everyone to have a good time and come back to your club.  I think most people understand the need for this sort of screening.

Taffer also emphasized the importance of enforcing a dress code as a prerequisite to entry, and provided a number of marketing reasons why such a dress code is good for your club.  Now, far be it for me to doubt the wisdom of John Taffer visa ve how to run a club, but it seems to me that enforcing dress codes is categorically different from enforcing a no-gun policy or throwing out guys who behave inappropriately around women.  There is no inherent difference between someone in a t-shirt dancing in a club and someone in their finest dancing in a club.  What enforcing a dress code does, and Taffer is completely transparent about this, is inculcate a certain attitude and perception among the people in the club about themselves--we are classy, we are elite, we are high status--and by extension cause people to have that perception of the club.

That may be good for business, but you are playing with fire a little bit.  It is not hard for that attitude to spiral into the baroque displays that became legendary at places like Studio 54 in the late 70s and early 80s.  Prejudices of all sorts creep into the selection process, leading to a dehumanizing process of judgment and condemnation that excludes people from the party for no real reason other than the whims of the bouncers.  Most people, I would hope, view the stories of doormen humiliating the people trying to get into Studio 54 as a kind of sadism, one that has no place in an industry where, at the end of the day, everyone is just trying to have a good time.

The official hierarchy of the Catholic Church are the bouncers of Catholicism.  They have had a very clear set of rules that prevented certain people from entering the club.  Those rules, in principle, are good and necessary for the club to function properly.  No one is saying that bouncers should be abolished.  The question is: are the bouncers are behaving like the bouncers trying to keep guns out of the club?  Or are they acting like Studio 54 doormen and allowing their prejudices to run riot?

Well, here’s where we are at: there is a fundamental disagreement about an issue of truth. Either the host does welcome gay people into his party, or the host does not. Here is the trouble. The host notoriously gave it into the hands of humans to decide who was in and who was out, to bind and to unbind. And how that power to bind and unbind operates has from the outset been a matter of a squabble. Scarcely surprising when you consider the ludicrous project which the host has, of getting us to become the agents of his party when he knows that we are much better at saying “no” to people who are not like us, than at saying “yes”. . . .

Now, let me be quite clear: it is one or other of these possibilities. One or other side is deceived. There is a question of truth at stake here. And I personally think it would be very dangerous if I were to translate that into “One of us is wrong, and it isn’t me”. The question seems to me to be a different one. Given that none of us is the host, and given that all of us are in this by accident, have been invited thanks to the generosity of someone else, isn’t the real issue NOT the question of who is right or wrong, but rather how we talk to each other in the interval while we wait for the host to make it clear? This is back to the question of discourse again. What runs the risk of destroying the party is much more how we talk to and about each other than it is what conclusions we reach. And this is for the obvious reason that the conclusions we reach are entirely dependent on how we talk.

A great conflict at the heart of Catholic theology is that we believe that the Church is ultimately God's project that God will see through to whatever end God desires, while at the same time God has turned the operation over to people, people that God must know will run things poorly to a greater or lesser extent.  So, there is always this tension between the underlying drift of the Church toward whatever ends God has set for it and the day-to-day direction of the Church which may or may not be consistent with this ultimate end.  In fact, the ultimate end is very often only obvious in retrospect and from a distance.  We can be confident that in the end the Church will end up in the right place, but that doesn't really give us any concrete guidance as to what to do in the here and now.  All we can do is flail around as best we can until it becomes clear to everyone where God it taking us.

Because this is true, and because it is only going to be obvious in retrospect what the right answer was, Alison is arguing that we have to approach all questions about the Church from a posture of humility.  That is not to say that we can't, or shouldn't, have opinions and views about the right answers to these questions--as Alison says, there is a question of truth at stake.  We can believe very strongly that we are right and the other side is wrong.  But we can't know that we are right and the other side is wrong until God makes it clear to us through the process of history (Alison has more to say about this process, and the Church's role in the process, in Part 5).  And our inability to know creates obligations toward the other side.

My own hunch is that God is revealing to us that gay people, just as we are, are part of humanity and that it is as such that we are invited to share in the party. But I may be entirely wrong. Nevertheless of this I am sure: that being right or wrong is not so very important. Being so grateful to be invited at all that I am quite determined to be as warm, charitable and friendly as I can learn how to be towards those who completely disagree with me is terribly, terribly important: for it is by this that I will be judged.

If what I am saying is true then it is a fundamental theological point in this discussion that it is not how I defend my own, but how I imagine, portray, and engage with my adversary which is the only really important issue at hand. It may even be important to lose the argument, as only the really serene and confident can, if that is the only way to win him over. After all, our example is One who was happy to be counted among the transgressors so as to get across the power of God and the wisdom of God to those who couldn’t understand it.

Here's where our inability to believe that our invitation to the party has no strings attached comes into play.  If I assume that I need some sort of ticket or status in order to be invited to the party, then being "right" about whatever the issue of the day is becomes very, very important.  Lurking in the background of being right is the fear that if I am not right, then my invitation to the party will be revoked (or, worse, I will learn that I never was invited in the first place).  I need to be right in order to reassure myself that I have a bona fide invitation.  Conversely, if my invitation is predicated on being right, it stands to reason that those who are wrong do not have a valid invitation.  That logical move makes it all the easier to justify slipping into bouncer mode and trying to keep those that are wrong out of the club.

However, if it is the case that the invitation is completely gratuitous, it is not conditioned on me being right.  I can relax into the notion that, even if I am wrong, I still have a place at the party.  But, more importantly, it means that, even if I am right, the people who are wrong have invitations that are equally valid to mine.  Even if they are wrong, I have no right to kick them out or play the sorts of Studio 54 games that all of us deep down love to play.

Now can I say how one of the things which delight me in my own Church is how much easier this is made by my own Church structure. One of the things which are impossible as a Catholic who thinks about theological matters is to get by for long without thinking about how Church order impinges on creative thinking and activity. Or, in other words, no flights of fancy about heavenly gradations or celestial emanations are ever able to get very far without the sheer fact of the Vatican knocking us back into what I call “Realkatholicismus.” And I am utterly delighted by this. 

The Catholic Church is an absurd entity--the largest organization on Planet Earth being run as an absolute (in principle) monarchy administered by, of all things, Italian bureaucrats.  Business school students looking at its absurdly convoluted org chart would go insane, much like people go insane from reading the Necronomicon in the Cthulhu mythos stories.  The Vatican has a unified curriculum for seminarians that applies whether they are doing their theological education in Chicago or Kolkata or Kinshasa, which is bold but kind of nuts.  Both now and throughout its history, every measure of venality and criminality can be found among its official representatives.  It also feeds more people and educates more people than any organization on Earth.  It has heroes and villains in its ranks, but at the end of the day it is mostly an impossibly huge mass of people from all over the world trying as best as they can to stay together and follow Jesus and become a better person.

Being a Catholic means having no choice but to confront the bigness and the "there-ness" of the Church as an institution.  It is extremely difficult to entertain utopian fantasies about what it is like to be a Christian and be part of a religion when you are Catholic, because you are endlessly confronted by the concrete reality of the people sitting next you in the pew, as well as the reality of the inherently flawed nature of human institutions, even those operating in the name of God (or, perhaps, especially those operating in the name of God).  Catholicism, despite its sometimes exaggerated efforts to cloak its leaders in an aura of perfection, slowly grinds down any illusions you might have about what you can reasonably expect from people.  People, even very, very well meaning people, are flawed and limited and weak and will screw things up, and any institution consisting of people (of which the Catholic Church certainly qualifies) will take on all of those characteristics.  Every time I try to hide from that reality, this leviathan smacks me in the face with it.  

It means that I am always going to have to be in communion with fundamentalists as a condition for staying at the party. Any tendencies I might have to belong to a group of people like me, who think like me, agree with me, and with whom I could form a nice friendly like-minded clique, are constantly being smashed. And the wonderful thing about this is that there are only two ways of dealing with the sheer fact of the Vatican. One is to be scandalized by it, go into rivalry with it, let it be the hidden or not so hidden “double” in all my thinking – perpetually there as the bad guy over against whom I make myself good: in short a stumbling block.

And the other is to regard it as an extraordinary grace to have such a large and visible mirror over against which I can gradually learn to let go of my self-importance, my need to be right and so on. It is as I gradually undo my own paranoia, my own fear of my own fundamentalism, my own dictatorial tendencies, all of which it is terribly easy to project onto the Vatican and thus think of myself as good by contrast, that I become able to see what it is really like to be at this extraordinary party. In short, the Vatican becomes something much closer to being a rock on which there is built a hugely spacious edifice where others are burdened about responsibility so that I can be free to experiment, confident that between us we won’t get it too wrong over time.

The leviathan is good for us--when we rage at the flaws and limitations and weaknesses of the Catholic Church, we are really raging at the flaws and limitations and weakness we see in ourselves.  The things that drive me crazy about the Church are the things in myself that I don't like.  When I complain that the Church is narrow-minded or judgmental, I am doing so because I know that I am narrow-minded and judgmental.

The ever-present temptation is to attempt to prove (to whom? ultimately, myself) that I am not the thing that bothers me by railing against that thing when it is expressed by the Church.  I am embarrassed by the fact that I refused for a long time to question my prejudices regarding gay folks, so I make a point of picking out the very ideas I used to hold and beating them over the head.  In doing so, I make myself feel better--I feel like I am one of the "good" ones and they are the "bad" ones.

In other words, I am using the Catholic Church as a scapegoat to get my "fix" of catharsis.  Because the Catholic Church is so big and so diverse, if I am looking to find something in myself that I want to soothe by attacking the same thing in someone else, I can always find it somewhere in the Church.  The Catholic Church will serve as the scapegoat for whatever I feel needs scapegoating, and so it is always going to be available for me to beat up on when you want to feel better about myself.

Or, I can use it as a training ground for the basic lesson of Christianity--all of us, at the end of the day, are the same.  We are all driven by the same distorted desires, and we are all trying in our own often ineffective ways to work ourselves out from underneath that burden.  If we all stick here, together, maybe we can all find our way through this tough and painful process.  The size and scope of the Church helps this process because we see, despite the vast numbers and diversity of the Church, that everyone is working through the same issues.

If I may make this point: now, at this time, in all our Churches one of the things which the “gay” issue has exposed is gaps between so-called liberals and so-called fundamentalists, and about the near impossibility of dialogue between them. I want to say, as a Catholic: never, ever let go of your fundamentalists if you wish to stay at the party. It is of course terribly dangerous for them to be left to a world of their own creating. But it is no less dangerous for those who do not share their expressed opinions to leave them. Because we are almost invariably run by the same patterns of desire and so forth, but displaced onto something else. If you want an example, then think of this, told me by an Episcopalian in the US the week after the consecration of Gene Robinson. He said “Well, it’s simple. They’re wrong, and we’ve got the money”. In fact, this was told to me by someone who was in favour of Bishop Robinson’s consecration. But you can easily see that exactly the same sentiment could have been uttered by someone opposed to the same consecration. Down this route lies the mutually incorrigible umbrage of mirror-image sects.

But we’ll never work through our own fundamentalisms and our own anger and small-mindedness, our own longing to be safe in a group of people like us, and so come to all truth, unless we find ways of hanging in with those who we think of as unlike us. Especially since their “unlikeness” is usually a projection of the bits of ourselves we don’t like onto someone we feel safer about fearing than ourselves. It’s only when we can relax about God wanting them at the party that we really will be able to get over our hidden fear that he can’t really want us.

In these two paragraphs, Father Alison convinced me, finally and for good, that I have no choice but to stay in the Catholic Church.  The reason is not primarily that the Catholic Church is intrinsically better than other Christian bodies--though, as discussed above, I do believe that.  Nor should we read the comments about Gene Robinson as a swipe at the Episcopal Church specifically--those comments are an example of a universal problem, not something unique to the Episcopalians.

The problem is not being an Episcopalian (or anything else); the problem is leaving Catholicism for the Episcopalians, and why I would be doing such a thing.  There is only one reason that I would do such a thing--because I am fed up with Father Z and Archbishop Cordileone and the whole lot of the Catholic Right, and I think that by going to the Episcopalians I would be free of them.  I would be going to a group that is more in line with my own preferences and worldview, and so I think that things would be easier and happier.

As logical as that move might seem, Alison is insistent that it is fool's gold, and I now think he is right.  It's fool's gold because, deep down, I am just as much of a hardliner, just as rigid and inflexible, just as convinced of my own correctness and righteousness, as anyone in the Catholic Right.  If I leave, I will in time find things in my new setting to be rigid and righteous about, over and against some other clique who I will no doubt label (correctly, but unhelpfully) as fundamentalists of one sort or another.

The fundamentalist trap, of which all of us are guilty to one degree or another (whether in religion or politics or in sports fandom or whatever), leads to a endless cycle of slicing the pie thinner and thinner, cutting out the "unrighteous" in the hopes of getting to some equilibrium, some pure end state.  But it is turtles all the way down.  The only stable end state is one in which you are convinced you are the only righteous person.  It leads to solipsism and narcissism.

And why do we do this?  Again, it's because we need to reassure ourselves that our invitation to this party is authentic.  We set up the rigged game where we insist that some MacGuffin that we know the Other lacks is necessary to get into the party, when I know that I possess said MacGuffin which secures my own place.  Saying that the MacGuffin doesn't matter leaves me without the bona fides that I have used to reassure myself that my own place is secure.  People police boundaries not primarily to keep others out but to reassure themselves that they are really in.

The most radical part of the message of Christianity is that God loves everyone, including me, and including you.  It's so radical that we are all terribly afraid that it is not true, and so engage in all sorts behavior to try and push that fear out of our mind.  And the easiest way to do that is to try to hold on tightly to some MacGuffin that will act as our ticket to "earning" and "deserving" our place as someone God loves.  But we can never earn it and never deserve it--it just is.  Only by relaxing into that truth can we (to use an image that Pope Francis loves) slowly untie the knotted cord of our fundamentalism, our need to grasp on to and hoard our status as beloved of God.

Now if this is the case, then the really hard work in Christian theological discourse lies in the ecclesiological sphere: creating Church with those who we don’t like. Or to put it another way: as a Catholic, the only way I could conceivably be right in what is recognisably a new theological and moral position is if I show how that being right is nothing to do with me, and how it includes an account of how we have all been wrong together in which I too am on the side of those with whom I disagree as someone undergoing a change of heart along with them.

That's the "Joy of Being Wrong."  All of us are wrong, and it is through that wrongness that we can ultimately get it right.  Because we are all wrong, we are all the same.  And because we are all wrong, we know that being wrong is not an impediment to being invited to the party.  That's something worth celebrating.


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