You shall not lay a stumbling block for your brother*


I went to two Episcopal Circle Services (an intimate and informal communion) before I realized that each person in the circle was expected to say Christ is here to the next person during the passing of the bread. This posed a serious problem for me, because it’s one thing to sit and listen to words with which I dont agree  (as I had done with many of the hymns and readings), but quite another to use them. I wrote to one of the leaders of the service about my concern, and she responded:

“We’re not talking body and blood, we’re talking heart and soul... To me, Christ is not a person’s name, but a title that acknowledges a way of being in relationship with the ineffable, and the man named Jesus was really, really good at that relationship…. I hope you’ll stay.”
  
I took her last sentence to imply that she had said all she had to say, and that it was now up to me whether this was to be my hill to die on. I told myself, “Why not just say it? I don’t know why these people regard Christ so highly, but I like and respect them; they like, and appear to respect, me; I hunger for lasting community with different kinds of people; and I feel a need for ritual and liturgy in my life; so I’ll just use the word as a metaphor for something good.” A day later, I realized that I couldn’t bend enough to do this. If the favored word were basalt, I wouldn’t have to hunt for positive metaphors (strength, beauty, integrity, solidity, patience, and regeneration), but Christ? It’s not just the harm that has been done in that name; it’s that for every good thing he reportedly said or did, he said or did something else that was confusing, nonsensical, or appalling.

I know. The word Christ is held in highest esteem by Christians, so what could be more arrogant than for an atheist to show up at a church and object to its use? First, I don’t object to others using it. Second, the order of service states that “All are welcome.” Third, in the words of one of the priests, “the service exists, for those for whom the traditional ‘father, son, holy spirit’ language just doesn’t work.” As I see it, a group of laypeople designed Circle Service with the stated intention of total inclusivity, but then erected a barrier to everyone who doesn’t revere Jesus. While it’s true that they would be fine with me transposing the word Christ to mean light, love, harmony, or oneness, the truth is that only Christians could make such a transposition. When I think of Christ, I think of a world in which millions of non-Christians—and even Christianshave been abused, oppressed, tortured, and murdered by people who acted in his name, so to imagine that I—or any non-Christian who attaches importance to words—can take the name of the founder of the Christian religion and translate it into something worthy of reverence is fanciful.

I now eat fish, but for years I was a vegetarian. One night, a friend who knew I was a vegetarian invited me to supper, put a bowl of chicken soup before me (it was a one-dish meal), and, when I objected, said, “You can take the chicken out, can’t you?” I said nothing more about it because he was an elderly, lifelong meat eater in a rural area containing nothing but lifelong meat eaters, and I wanted to assume that he was acting out of ignorance. As often happens when I go out of my way to avoid conflict by putting a less condemnatory spin on someone’s questionable behavior, I later realized that he almost surely hadn’t been that ignorant. I concluded that he most likely saw the consumption of animals as something that normal people did, and vegetarianism as a needlessly annoying eccentricity that he wasn’t about to accommodate even when he invited a vegetarian to dinner. Likewise, I’m being invited to communion at St. Mary’s, only to find that my acceptance of the invitation requires that I say words I don’t believe—words that NO non-Christian believes. Only Moslems say “Mohammed is here,” and only Christians say “Christ is here.” The people who create the Circle Service surely realize this, or at least they would if they thought about it.

I also regard their attachment to a purposefully undefined word as an example of the slippery slope that awaits those Christians who move from literalism to liberalism. I would like to think that liberalism (which has much to recommend it) will become the dominant face of Christianity, but I don’t see it happening. I think it possible that, once a literal belief in the creeds has been discarded, most people will regard the language itself as a hollow shell. Like a Christmas ornament, it might look splendid on the outside but, too little being put in to replace what was taken out, it is empty within. A century or more ago, the Unitarian Church reduced its own God-language to the status of ornaments, but since ornaments are only useful as symbols, the further they moved from valuing what the symbols represented, the further they moved from the symbols themselves. Today, Unitarians speak sparingly, if at all, of Christ or even of God. Is this where other liberal churches are headed? One might interpret a purposefully vague and open view of Christ as a sign of higher awareness, but it could also be like the tunnel with a pinpoint of light at the end that dying people see just before all the lights go out.

*Romans 14:13. The question is, am I their brother?

29 comments:

PhilipH said...

Hmm ... Horns, dilemma spring to mind.
I suppose you could mouth those words and whisper the word "NOT" to yourself, whilst keeping your fingers firmly crossed behind your back. I dunno.
I can understand your wanting to stay in this circle and I hope you manage to square the circle, so to speak.
What's the difference, if any, twixt a humanist and an atheist?

The Elephant's Child said...

I do love to see a new post from you. And then, all too often, I am saddened by your difficulties. I understand your difficulties with the word Christ, and also understand your longing for a community. I hope so much that you can find a resolution which keeps your integrity intact.
In (perhaps presumptious) answer to Phillip, an atheist can be a humanist, but need not be. 'A square is a rhombus, but a rhombus is not necessarily a square.'

All Consuming said...

I'd just say nothing at that point, I doubt you'd be chucked out and it's crazy to say something you don't beleive to fit in. Acceptance should run high enough for that, or they aren't very accepting at all. On a different note entirely, Happy New Year to you, Peggy, Bonnie and Brewster, may 2013 be a less painful, happier year full of love, laughter and free cash. *Hugs, love from me, hubby and Lardy. xx

ellen abbott said...

I think I'd go with saying nothing. Or position yourself to be the last in the circle and then therefore you would not be in a position to say it to anyone being the last to receive.

this sort of reminds me of prayer in public forums. when people express concern about the prayer, they are told, it's OK because it's a non-denominational prayer. they seem to be unaware that saying at the end 'in Jesus' name, amen' makes it very clearly a christian prayer. they seem to think that non-denominational means not specific to any particular religion.

Snowbrush said...

"I suppose you could mouth those words and whisper the word "NOT" to yourself, whilst keeping your fingers firmly crossed behind your back."

Or march around the church carrying a picket sign that read "Episcopalians Unfair to Atheists."

"all too often, I am saddened by your difficulties."

Do like I at least try to do, which is to focus on my strengths instead of my angst. If you want me to spell them out for you, I will, but I get bummed about you being bummed about me being bummed.

About taking communion but saying nothing. I would be happy to do just that (or else to substitute another word), and I even suggested it, but she didn't mention my suggestion inn her response. This means that, if I did it, I know she wouldn't like it, and I'm sure that others would notice and probably some of them wouldn't like, and this would only result in me being hated. Another way to look at this is that I trusted that this person I wrote to would do two things. One of these was that she speak in a way that would probably be reflective of the group. The second was that she would make her best effort to solve this problem in a loving way. I couldn't ask for more than that, so if I disagree with her, I will still want to do everything I can to retain her (and the group's) respect for me just as I respect them. Like with my friend who served me the soup, I never stopped being his friend. I can think these people are wrong, wrong, and I will still like them and want to see them in other settings (such as Bible class and yoga). Another consideration is that they could just change the wording to specify Christians, and they probably would too if I persisted in doing that which they--rightly or wrongly--found offensive.

Snowbrush said...

"if I disagree with her, I will still want to do everything I can to retain her (and the group's) respect for me just as I respect them."

I want to say a little more about this. One of the biggest regrets I have in life is that I have sometimes ended important relationships completely, and it has also been done to me. I think that sometimes this is necessary, but I've done it--and had it done to me--for no reason than that somebody was being pissy because they didn't get their way. Because of these experiences, I have come to favor backing off rather than exiting. If things aren't comfortable at one level, then go to another level that is comfortable to both parties.

kj said...

Hi snow, I would not be comfortable saying that either. It just wouldn't feel congruent for me. I am probably more of a small letter god believer than you, but when I think about it I don't think I'd be choosing this 'Christian' a community at all. I would probably seek out a group of people who shared some beliefs or interests more like my own. I'd probably seek religious neutral folks. The times I've attended open sky solstice gatherings, for example, or drumming or chanting, I have felt spiritually connected without differences. Why pursue organized religion at all? Are you sure you aren't trying to push an envelope?

Happy new year, snow xoxo

Snowbrush said...

"Why pursue organized religion at all?"

Here's the list. The people you're referring to, in my experience, tend toward astrology, homeopathy, crystal healing, therapeutic healing, eccentric diets, pagan-revivalism, and other things that leave me cold. They would hate me, and I would probably feel about as comfortable among them as among Southern Baptists. Maybe in your area, it's different, or maybe I don't understand just what you're referring to, or maybe you hold beliefs that I'm unaware of, but here's how it is for me. I can go to an Episcopal Church, a Unitarian Church, or even a United Church of Christ, and hang out with people whom I can relate to, frankly, as well or better as I relate to most atheists (of course, most Unitarians are atheists). You might think that atheists, being few in number, would feel a special bond for one another, and I think they do, but it alone doesn't make most of them want to be together. It's also true that, as a person who finds religion interesting, most atheists aren't going to have much to say to me on that subject. An atheist friend wrote that he doesn't have the least interest in religion because he doesn't think it has anything worthwhile to teach him. I know what he means, but it's not how I want to live (isolated from religious people, I mean). Yet, I must admit to feeling decadent for going to a Bible study because I expect so little of good from the Bible itself. It's interesting, but I don't find it profitable. What I really want to know is what liberal Christians get from it, and even if it's useless (to me), I care about it. I know fundamentalism, Catholicism, Evangelicalism, and Pentecostalism fairly well, but liberalism is my primary interest and the one that I find it hardest to understand because in some ways liberal Christians are so much like me, but in others, it's as if they're speaking Chinese, and I don't think it would even be possible for me to ask enough questions to really understand them. As for the Circle Service, I never had an inkling that I would want to attend any Episcopal service again (although I'm very interested in Episcopalianism), but this one is powerful. If you went, I think you would say, wow, there's something good here.

The Elephant's Child said...

Me being bummed about you being bummed is my problem NOT yours. I care about you, and part of that is wanting your pain, physical and emotional, to ease. And I really, really don't want to make you feel guilty about me caring. Instead, chalk it up aa another strength that you can and have made someone half a world away care about you.

kylie said...

you raise so many issues here, snow that it needs to be a number of posts!
my sister is coeliac, which is not a choice, there is a medical imperative to avoid gluten yet i have known people to put gluten containing foods in front of her and say "its just a little bit"
i still havent figured out if its caused by stupidity or arrogance but whatever the reason people have huge difficulties in accepting diets different to their own.

i'm sorry about the circle service, it really doesnt sound to me as if they truly want to be inclusive.
at my church some of the older traditional types have actually got to the point where they feel excluded due to the huge effort which has been made in changing the culture to include everyone. i think the imperative as demonstrated by Jesus is to change the culture as much as it needs to be changed and probably then some more but the reality is that the churches are filled with frail people (ie. humans) whose egos are tied to their traditions and every effort toward change must somehow accommodate these people or be prepared to let them go.

Snowbrush said...

"the churches are filled with frail people (ie. humans) whose egos are tied to their traditions and every effort toward change must somehow accommodate these people or be prepared to let them go."

I have no idea what if anything you (being Australian) know about the American Episcopal Church, but it has become something of a renegade part of the Anglican Communion due to differences of opinion between Episcopalians themselves (liberal versus conservative) and between Episcopalians and the rest of the Anglican Communion, particularly the African churches. I wouldn't be surprised if it split, but I wouldn't have been surprised if it had split 41 years ago when I formally joined.

"And I really, really don't want to make you feel guilty about me caring."

I don't. If it's what you feel, it's what you feel, but I had just as soon that you focus on my strengths. A priest wrote to me that she respects me for coming to St. Mary's, and I thought that, oh, she GETS it, and this is enabling her to address me on the basis of my strength rather than my distress. While it's true that I feel sorry for myself at times (and can fall into the pit in that regard), I am also aware of my virtues, and they're what I try to focus on.

kj said...

Snow, do people respond very warmly to you? I'll bet you bring something to them that is both authentic and challenging; a reason to seek deeper and understand perspectives, without judgement getting in the way

You are right about my likely reaction to the circle service. I would like it and the folks you describe. I know what you mean about crunchy 'new agers'--I get impatient withe the age of Aquarius . I'm just saying in my experience church is not the only place to find kindred souls .

I know you know that :-)

Xo
kj

kylie said...

i know the episcopalians are a bit "out there" beyond that, i dont know much.

The Bipolar Diva said...

I know what I want to say, but for some reason I just can't type the words. I know what I believe and I know what you believe, or at least what you state you believe. Does that make me a weak Christian? No, I don't think so, I think maybe it's called respect. Love you....Diva

rhymeswithplague said...

I am going to suggest something here that is way out of character for me. Whenever my father-in-law offered food to anyone, he would always say, "Eat, eat, it will do you good." It was his way of saying "I enjoyed preparing this just for you" and "I took time to make this because I love you" and "I'm glad you're here at my table today" and "Don't be afraid to eat; I would never give you anything bad" and a lot of other things besides.

Since those Episcopalians are getting something that is important to them from participating in the circle service and since you also seem to be drawn to it, why don't you just think of the phrase "Christ is here" as Episcopalianese for "Eat, eat, it will do you good"? It would be rather like deciding the phrase "Adios, amigos" are Senegalese for "Why don't we get together again next week, same time, same place?" when they actually mean "Goodbye, friends" in Spanish.

A side note: Both the Spanish "adios" and the English "goodbye" imply "God be with you" in their original construction so if you would never want to say "God be with you" to anyone, you should probably stop using the words "goodbye" and "adios" ever again.

And do you know for sure whether your correspondent meant "I hope you'll stay but you'll have to say those words eventually" or possibly "I hope you'll stay even if you never say the words"?

Here's what I say to you, Snow: Eat, eat, it will do you good.

Strayer said...

I have not gone to football games for the companionship evident going on among tailgaters. I hate football, but if invited to a tailgating event, I'd go and have fun and probably would never mention that I don't like the game at all.

lotta joy said...

Snow, you have placed yourself in this dilemma, not them. And to change what they have a right to expect would become a problem for them, brought by you.

I used to step out of line when communion was being served. Then when it upset my husband, I figured : "What the hell. It's just bread and grape juice".

BUT, if I had to serve the person behind me, knowing they actually believe the unbelievable, I would be out of my rights to impose a different language onto them.

I wish I had a group of equal minded people who just wanted to be friends, but I don't drink, I don't bowl, and I don't play Bridge. That leaves me as the 'odd man out' without a country to call my own.

I understand your need. I just don't understand the course you have taken to fill that need. It can't end well.

Charles Gramlich said...

I don't have a problem separating out what I see as the good aspects of the Christ story from the nonsense perpetuated by some of Christ's self proclaimed followers. Say I like a football team and one of the fans starts a fight with the followers of some other team. that doesn't mean I now think bad things about the team I liked. I think bad things about the person who started the fight. I'm curious as to what Christ supposedly said that you find appalling. I do remember things that sounded like nonsense but can't remember being appalled by things attributed to Christ in the Bible.

Snowbrush said...

"Snow, do people respond very warmly to you?"

More than to some, but not as much as to others. I make an effort to be friendly and to look for ways to be helpful, but I'm not usually gregarious, and it's not uncommon for me to have difficulty being around people at all (especially now that I feel ill and drained of energy all the time), much less to be friendly.

"I hate football, but if invited to a tailgating event, I'd go and have fun,,,"

I would probably hate both, but I have no doubt that there are many like you, and I don't know but what some of them NEVER actually make it to the game.

"i know the episcopalians are a bit "out there"

They have the guts to take on human rights' issues that most churches had just as soon sweep under the carpet--for example, complete racial, gender, and sexual orientation equality. They are also known for such "heretical" clergy-people as Alan Watts, James Pike, and Shelby Spong (the last two being bishops). As a Mississippi teenager during the Civil Rights era, I grew up seeing Episcopal clergy facing injury and death in their fight against segregation.

"Whenever my father-in-law offered food to anyone, he would always say, "Eat, eat, it will do you good."

I imagine his voice as sounding like Zorba the Greek. I was touched and impressed by your suggestion, and I will think about it seriously. Sometimes, the line between integrity and rationalization isn't obvious to me, and I might even have to embrace the latter for a while before I realize where the line is. I would very much like--in all of life--to find the line sooner. So often, what I first regard, in my gut, to be the way I should, turns out to be the way I later realize I MUST go, and, in this case, that would be away from taking communion, but I will think about what you've said.

You probably know that George Washington was an Episcopalian who served on the vestry of his parish, but did you know that he didn't take communion? I have no idea why.

Joe Todd said...

Just wanted to wish you a great New Year...

Chartreuse said...

For the life of me, I cannot understand why you persist in pursuing Christians and attending their gatherings. I understand that you like a challenging discussion, but have you really entered into any such discussions with deep believers? I have always found that they inevitably come to a point where they call on 'faith' to explain the unexplainable. Yes, I have a few good friends who have strong Christian beliefs, but I wouldn't dream of talking with them about religion or religious beliefs. It would only end in frustration on my part as logic and reason fly out the window. I'm very prepared to allow them their beliefs but I don't want to try and argue with them, or even talk calmly, about those beliefs. After all, beliefs are, by nature, not subject to rational discussion. And discussion without reason, to me at least, is as interesting as a game of Spider Solitaire (less so, in fact).

I have come to the conclusion that you just like controversy and argument. I hope that isn't so because in that case you will soon come to remind me of my first husband, life with whom was a constant battle - one which he loved and I hated. But that's a different story.

It seems to me there could be many more useful and pleasurable things you could be doing with your considerable energies. I just don't understand your motives.

Snowbrush said...

Here's what I say to you, Snow: Eat, eat, it will do you good.

I would love to, and I loved your story too. If a store advertises a 90 day return, but your receipt reads 60 days, the store has an ethical responsibility to create a consistent statement regarding what its customers can expect. Through the person I wrote to, I presented what I believe to be a clear inconsistency in what this committee is saying. I assume that they themselves hadn't seen the inconsistency (the majority commonly being unaware of the perspective of the minority), but now that I have told them, I believe that they have an ethical responsibility to either say outright that communion is restricted to those who revere Christ, or to change the wording that accompanies the passing of the communion that makes it that way, or to let me know where I am in error.

"if I had to serve the person behind me...I would be out of my rights to impose a different language onto them."

I agree. When I serve communion to the next person, it's his or her communion and not mine, and I'm obligated to use the prescribed wording. At least that's how it strikes me, but I can also see it this way. During the Passing of the Peace, more people than not seem to change the prescribed wording. Why is changing the one any better or worse than changing the other? The only answer I have is that I don't like it when people change the wording during the Passing of the Peace, so I wouldn't like it if someone did it to me during the communion. Such things interrupt the flow.

"I'm curious as to what Christ supposedly said that you find appalling."

It would probably take pages, so I'll just toss out the first few. 1) He said hellfire awaited anyone who called another person a fool, but he himself called people fools. 2) He said that, although some might think he came to earth to bring peace, he saw his own mission as that of bringing a sword. 3) He was impatient with people (including his own disciples) who didn't immediately grasp what he was trying to tell them, and incensed at anyone who dared to disagree. 4) He said that he spoke in parables in order to prevent people from being saved. 5) He said that everyone who was not with him was against him.

"I hope that isn't so because in that case you will soon come to remind me of my first husband"

Oh, no! I should really hate it if that happened.

Vagabonde said...

I am not going to comment on your going to a church and of the language to use there or not, as I am not a church goer and the subject leaves me cold. But I’ll wish you a happy New Year with improved health in 2013 and great happiness.

Snowbrush said...

Chartreuse said: "I hope that isn't so because in that case you will soon come to remind me of my first husband"

I said. "Oh, no! I should really hate it if that happened."

If I sounded snarky, it was simply because I was at a loss for words, and I made what now looks like a weak attempt at humor. I will address one thing you said:

"I have come to the conclusion that you just like controversy and argument."

I enjoy deep discussions about religion and ethics, especially with people who think differently than I, but I almost never initiate them because I'm aware that most people don't enjoy them, aren't interested in the same subjects I am, and that they simply don't think that deeply anyway. My blog is my place to talk about that which I almost never talk to anyone about in person.

"I am not going to comment on your going to a church and of the language to use there or not, as I am not a church goer and the subject leaves me cold.

All of which makes your well-wishes all the sweeter. I know that my frequent (lately, constant) writings on the subject of religion has left a number of readers disappointed, and I do regret this because people who followed me actively for years have stopped coming round, and I miss them. The fact is that I never plan what to write about, but instead focus on whatever seems important in my life at the moment.

rhymeswithplague said...

"I believe that they have an ethical responsibility to either say outright that communion is restricted to those who revere Christ, or to change the wording that accompanies the passing of the communion that makes it that way, or to let me know where I am in error."

They have already said that their communion service is unrestricted. They have no ethical responsibilitiy to change the wording to please you. Your error is more of a social faux pas in that when one is a guest in someone's home one should probably not be expecting to dictate the terms of the arrangements.

But I see what you mean -- when "all" are invited to a meal and some who attend are vegans but the food presented is solely meat, the vegans would feel ignored, I suspect.

Snowbrush said...

"They have no ethical responsibilitiy to change the wording to please you."

I'm feeling appreciative of your input about this. I was very touched by your story about your uncle, and I am afraid I appeared tactless when I gave my reasons for not seeing that situation as ethically equal to this. I work very hard in framing my responses well, and I like it that you trust me enough that you don't become offended when I'm not as politic as I should be. Not only do you not become offended, you keep the discussion going. In my response about your uncle, a single sentence was lost in editing, and it caused me, I thought, to appear abrupt.

rhymeswithplague said...

I'm confused. I didn't tell you any story about my uncle. Do you mean what I said in an earlier comment? That was about my father-in-law.

Snowbrush said...

"They have already said that their communion service is unrestricted. They have no ethical responsibilitiy to change the wording to please you."

You say "please you" as if I'm throwing a fit over being invited to dinner and being served, among other dishes, Brussels Sprouts. As I see it, the issue here is inconsistency, even hypocrisy. If you invite "all people" to dinner, then you are obligated to respect the religious and ethical boundaries of those who accept your invitation. If you are unwilling to respect their boundaries, you do more harm than good by inviting them.

"Your error is more of a social faux pas...when "all" are invited to a meal and some who attend are vegans but the food presented is solely meat, the vegans would feel ignored"

I believe you minimize my objection because you don't understand it. Let's say you had gone with your Jewish heritage and practiced kosher. Now, imagine that someone who knew you were kosher and knew what kosher meant invited you to dinner and served nothing but un-kosher foods. Would your objection constitute a "social faux pas"? Furthermore, how would you feel if you objection was ignored? I should imagine that you would lose respect for your host, both as a person of consistency and a person of goodwill.

rhymeswithplague said...

I'm trying to think what I would do if I practiced kosher and someone who knew I was kosher and knew what kosher meant invited me to dinner and served nothing but un-kosher foods, say, shrimp cocktail and roast pork, and how I would feel if I objected and my objection was ignored.

Knowing me as I do, I don't think I would object vocally but I might tell a little white lie instead and say, "You know what, I'm not feeling well at all and I'm going to have to go home. I'm sorry, but thank you for inviting me" and I would get up and leave and probably be filled with resentment and never speak to that person again, or at least not for a very long time. Eventually, after a very long while and much prayer on my part, I might try to see the best in the person and ponder the difference in "understanding what kosher meant" and "understanding what kosher meant TO ME" because obviously the host, who didn't understand what kosher meant TO ME, probably thought he was being kind or doing me a favor by sharing his very favorite recipe for pork roast with me.

Or I might cause a scene, scream "How dare you disrespect me!" or something similar, then walk out in a huff.

Or I might just have some shrimp cocktail and roast pork.

I do not know what I would do.

What I would do doesn't make me right and you wrong, nor does it make you right and me wrong.

In the words of Rodney King, "Can't we all just get along?"