Friday, December 5, 2008

Sinners Anonymous

This post originated as a comment I left at FTN’s blog almost three years ago (before I had a blog of my own, and even before I had adopted the 'Desmond Jones' pseudonym; thus it's also of potential interest to all you 'Desmond-historians' out there. . .), but since the topic keeps coming up (altho it's getting to have been a while ago by now; Digger posted responses here and here), I thought it might possibly be worth reprising. Besides, it's Advent, and I'm in a penitential frame of mind again. . .

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Someone (I forget where I first came across the term) has referred to the Church as ‘Sinners Anonymous’, and that notion has always resonated with me. . .

One of my favorite short stories is one that Walker Percy wrote about a space voyage to another star system (you can find it in his book, Lost In the Cosmos; the book itself is an exposition of the science of semiotics, but the story, which is near the end of the book, is worth the price all by itself). When our intrepid voyagers arrive at their destination, they find an advanced civilization, but before they’re allowed to land, they’re required to state their ‘Level of Consciousness’, according to a three-level criterion*:

C1 – essentially an unfallen, edenic state of consciouness.

C2 – a ‘fallen’ state, full of internal conflicts, essentially at war with itself.

C3 – same as C2, except recognizing its need for help.

Anyway, to return to the original theme of this post – the Church is all about C3.

A common complaint about the Church is that it’s ‘full of hypocrites’, and I certainly understand where that complaint comes from. All talk of redemption aside, there really are hypocrites and other kinds of nasty people in the Church (“And God, I know I’m one. . .”) But, in the context of Percy’s ‘Levels of Consciousness’, I’ve come to think that many of the complaints about the hypocrites in church are something of a dodge.

On a fundamental level, we are, all of us, at various times and places, hypocrites, at least in the sense that our lives often don’t match our own stated ideals. That’s the Christian doctrine of the Fall (or, if you’re Catholic, Original Sin, which GK Chesterton called ‘the most empirically obvious of all Christian doctrines’). ‘Nobody’s Perfect’ is Chapter One of Basic Moral Theology. Not to excuse anybody’s sinful behavior (least of all my own) – that’s just the kind of creatures we are. ‘Sinners’ is the only raw material available out of which to form a church.

There aren’t many of us who are C1’s on Percy’s scale; I can at least say, on a purely empirical level, that I’ve never met one (though I’ve met a few who might’ve seemed to come close). The world is populated by ‘fallen’ people; the only relevant distinction left to be made is whether or not they’ve realized their need for help.

A friend of mine is fond of saying, “If you find the perfect church, don’t join it, because as soon as you do, it won’t be perfect any more.”

Sad as it is to say, when it comes to the Church, “ain’t nobody here but us sinners.”

Which might be a good reason to stay away, but me being a sinner, it’s how I get the help I need. . .

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*(a similar-looking, but very different scale than that proposed by Charles Reich in his 1970 book, The Greening of America)

20 comments:

lime said...

ever since i professed faith when i was 13 i have listened to my atheist father tell me the church is full of hypocrites.

i've given him similar arguments to what you present here but they always fell on deaf ears.

the only thing that stopped him in his tracks was when he displayed a glaring and inarguable act of hypocrisy to his own stated beliefs. when i pointed it out to him i said, "it would seem there is evidence of hypocrisy among those who avoid faith/church on the grounds that there are too many hypocrites there." for the first time he had no response at all as he mulled that over.

Cocotte said...

As always, you've given us some good quotations to think about. I just finished an Advent post today that I'm going to publish on Sunday that is along the lines of thinking outside the box when it comes to Christianity.

People are always going to use other sinners as their excuse for not going to church. Because who else can you blame? Interestingly, no one says, "I don't like what the Bible says about such & such" BUT they do point fingers at the people who quote the Bible and call them haters, etc.

Sensuous Wife said...

Beautiful post, Desmond.

By the way, I *love* Walker Percy. One of my dear friends and fellow writers recommended his book The Second Coming and I now recommend it too.

Digger Jones said...

You would know where "Sinners Anonymous" came from if you bothered reading the post (and links thereof) that you replied to!

I'm glad you brought this up, because it takes me back 3 years and I realize I'm still working on these issues, or slight variations thereof.

The oddest thing about hypocrisy is that the more we see it in others, the more we tend to have ourselves. I don't blame hypocrites for being hypocrites as much as I blame a system that seems to cultivate and nurture hypocrisy as if it were a virtue. "Hypocrite" means "actor" or "pretender." We all have public versus private faces. But churches are among the WORST places for genuine disclosure. I would sooner find truth and honesty at a strip bar or a crack house than a church service. If a pastor discloses his gambling addiction at a church, he'll lose his job and be run out of town. At least at the bar he might score a free drink or a table dance!

The church is *supposed* to be about C3, but as a whole the western churches struggle mightily with it. I see too many trying to put on a lovely public face in order to attract new members. Maybe they'd be better served by installing an open bar and a pole!

D.

Sensuous Wife said...

Sorry!

Sensuous Wife said...

I did read your post, Desmond, though evidently and admittedly without the same level of care and attention as I usually do. I have been overwhelmed with repairing my house and building the store and twitter has been all that I can keep up with. I hadn't read any of my friends' blogs in over a month and I missed y'all, plain and simple. Yours is the first blog I visited and I stopped by simply because I missed you. I had no intention of disrespecting you, Desmond. Swear to God.

Digger Jones said...

No, *I* apologize, S. Wife! Desmond and I share last [blogger] names but we're not related...AFAIK. So you mistook my snarky reply to him as a reply to you, which was unintentional.

Desmond Jones said...

Lime - Yeah. . . 'Twas ever thus. And that's really Christianity 101, ain't it? It ain't just in the church that 'Ain't nobody here but us sinners'. . .

Cocotte - And of course, having gotten help, it wouldn't be totally out of line for our neighbors to think maybe we ought to look a little more 'helped'. . .

Shula - Thanks. My favorite Percy is probably Love In the Ruins. . .

Digger - Right; I know, and in the original comment, I even credited you for originating the phrase. But I thought that perhaps I had seen it before then. I probably had, but hey, I'll happily give you credit. It's a good term, at any rate. . .

And you know, it's hard to simultaneously hold up a high standard, and be compassionate toward those who don't quite meet it. A lot of hypocrisy comes from fear, I think. We ought to be able to just stand up and say, "These are the sins I struggle with; please help me." But, as you say, we can't always count on a 'helpful' response.

In this vein, I'll just say that I've always appreciated the Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation (ie, Confession) for pretty close to this exact reason. . .

Shuls - Sorry? Did I miss something? I'm not aware of you having offended me in the least way. Stop by and see me whenever you can; I always love hearing from you.

Or, is Digger right, and you confused his comment for my response, because of the common 'D Jones' thing?

Sensuous Wife said...

Yes, Digger is right. I thought you snapped at me because I didn't mention the "correct" Walker Percy book.

And thank you Digger. I totally forgive you and thank you for clearing up the mistaken reply.

Desmond Jones said...

I'm so relieved!

You know, Digger can seem prickly, but he's really just a big ol' teddy bear. . . ;)

And just for the record, I also loved The Second Coming. . .

flutterby said...

Man... you know? I used to think I was well-read before I met you blogger-folk. Half the books you all mention, I've never even heard of.

And I'm not too much of a hypocrite/perfection-monger to admit that.

Desmond Jones said...

Flutter - Well, we try to maintain high cultural standards around here. . .

(*snicker*)

(*chortle*)


But seriously, if you haven't read any Walker Percy, definitely give him a look. . .

Therese in Heaven said...

This was a great post. Thanks, Desmond.

And I'm in the same boat as Flutterby. I haven't read any Walker Percy either.

Desmond Jones said...

Therese - Thank you.

And, seriously? 'Cuz Walker Percy is, like, the 'Catholic novelist' (well, OK, him and Flannery O'Connor. . .)

Sensuous Wife said...

The Catholic Novelist? I thought that was Andrew Greeley. He's my boy. Love him. And I'm not even Catholic.

Desmond Jones said...

Shula - God bless you. I'll only say that among Catholics of a more, um, 'orthodox' bent, Andrew Greeley would not be our first choice.

;)

But I'm told he's a very talented writer. . .

Sensuous Wife said...

I receive your blessing and appreciate it very much. The thing about my boy Andy is that his work is some of the first I ever read that showed married couples who loved God anticipating and enjoying sex. Meant the world to me, both as a wife and as an artist. When I experienced my sexual and spiritual awakening, those themes were bound to show up in my art. I was quite hamstrung and conflicted about this for quite some time, until I read Andrew Greeley's book "Erotic Desire in Art-A Catholic Perspective". It was very healing to me as an artist as I realized that portraying the good powerful energy of sexual desire in marriage was not a bad thing, it was good and a blessing. Everyone has particular reasons why they like one artist's work. For me, Greeley's work gave me permission to share the stories inside me that needed to be told and from what I hear from my readers needed to be heard. It's very personal for me, very meaningful.

Sensuous Wife said...

PS Thanks for letting me share. I felt comfortable revealing a bit of my heart and I appreciate that.

Desmond Jones said...

Well Shula, then I'm glad Fr. Greeley could help you get to a good place. Because those things you describe are good things, indeed. And I'm glad you felt free to say them.

Sensuous Wife said...

When I read your comment, I burst into tears. Happy tears. Tears of human relief.
I've lived in such a pressure cooker for so long. On one hand, I believe in every cell of my body that God is good and sex is good and I came to that belief in one soul-shaking orgasm after another. So of course, my heart cries out this is the best news ever told and I must tell it. Yet on the other hand, I am still a good Southern girl who wants to be liked and accepted and I grew up Evangelical to boot, so the pressure to conform was just ginormous. It's like those diving suits for deep sea diving. The pressure on the inside must be equal to the pressure on the outside to prevent the diver from caving in under pressure. So when I speak my truth out loud and someone from my faith tradition affirms me, reaches out their hand to me, it is a beautiful good overwhelming. A beautiful moving human moment. -Shula