Champions of the Abstract

There is safety in the abstract.

Much as we celebrate community, relationship, and inter-connectedness in our faith communities, we often find ourselves drawn back to the abstract. We talk about God, seek to understand all the intricacies of theology and religiosity, study the Bible and learn the nuances of its original languages, write beautifully-crafted liturgies and prayers, and compose great hymns and songs.

In all this, I sense we are afraid: afraid of being seen for who we are, afraid of being “found out,” afraid of our reputation or our character being tainted by what others may perceive to be shallowness, “worldliness,” or immaturity.

I am somehow fascinated by the stories of those who have been brought up in a fundamentalist environment only to find freedom from this way of living in their adult years. What I have seen as a common thread throughout the vast majority of these accounts is the fear of being found to be a “compromiser” or a “traitor” by family, friends, and fellow church members. What happens, more often than not, is that, once they start asking questions or doing things that are outside of the list of permitted activities, they are shunned by their community. I have heard recently the sad story of a man whose parents told him “We cannot speak to you until you repent”—effectively severing their ties with him as long as he continued to behave in what their church considered to be an “immoral activity.”

So we talk in abstracts, saying things in such a way that we cannot be nailed down on a specific meaning. Our pastors preach sermons in the third person, lest their own experience weaken their reputation and cause the congregation to question their suitability for employment. We speak of our own lives in general terms, unwilling to give voice to our own struggles, questions, or understandings.

We are afraid of being misunderstood, rejected, disconnected from our community, or condemned for going against the tide of our subculture’s opinion.

We settle for the abstraction of an academic understanding of God and God’s revelation, and bottle up our own stories, feelings, beliefs, and our own real selves. As Parker J. Palmer writes:

“Instead of telling our vulnerable stories, we seek safety in abstractions, speaking to each other about our opinions, ideas and beliefs rather than about our lives.

“Academic culture blesses this practice by insisting that the more abstract our speech, the more likely we are to touch the universal truths that unite us. But what happens is exactly the reverse: as our discourse becomes more abstract, the less connected we feel. There is less sense of community among  intellectuals than in the most “primitive” society of storytellers.” (From A Hidden Wholeness as quoted in MINEmergent)

And so we have people living within a community feeling a sense of “detachment” or “unconnectedness” with people in that same community. The same is heard from those in many different communities of faith: “I can’t be myself.” It’s a perception that, while many freedoms are afforded, that of being able to freely tell your story is one that is too dangerous and, possibly, detrimental to maintaining unity within that organisation. Therefore, we sacrifice reality and connectedness for the safety of what is more acceptable and palatable to those who share our own cultural context. We become champions of the abstract, keeping our own subjective feelings, interpretations and experiences within.

When we dig deeper, we realise that this way of living is dangerous—it is detrimental to our wellbeing in so many ways, leading to resentment and bitterness which can then lead to all kinds of mental and physical disorders.

How can we rise above our fears and open up to the freedom of being who we are? I’ve got to do a lot more thinking about this because, I presume, there is no easy answer. However, I strongly suspect whatever resolution we find to this problem will be found within the framework of Jesus’ commands to “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’” (Luke 10:27)

Is this possible, given the context of our human tendency to judge and condemn, putting down others and refusing love when another does not meet our standards?

With God, I believe, it is.

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I’ve just finished reading an insightful book by Andrew Himes called The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family. He traces his own family tree in light of his grandfather’s high popularity in 20th Century American Fundamentalism. It is an enlightening book full of history lessons as well as a deep understanding of context and culture that birthed what is so widely known as “The Religious Right” in America. Yet, as one who was in the centre of this cult-like phenomenon, who turned to atheism and Marxism in his College years, and who came out the other side to witness his own redemption and understanding of the other, Andrew shares his story to show how understanding and grace trumps judgement and bitterness.

I’ll write more about this in a future post.