Living With Contradictions
Last month, Kathy and I made our first (and I hope our last) visit to the Apple Store in Troy. Don’t misunderstand me: I love Apple products. At home we have two Apple laptop computers, two iPads, two iPods, an Apple TV web-streaming device, and one iPhone. We might qualify for Apple Consumers-of-the-Year. But the visit to the Apple Store disturbed me.
Part of what disturbed me was the sheer attractiveness of what they have on offer there. The walls are alive with beautiful, high resolution computer screens. Adults stand at tables playing with the computers, phones, and tablets. Children sit in comfortable chairs playing games displayed on kid-sized screens . In some ways, the Apple Store is a vision of the future: everyone isolated in their own space, connecting with devices rather than other people.
I know there’s another side to this argument: while they may seem to isolate us, these devices also help us communicate with other human beings. But the other thing that bothered me was the contradiction I observed between the glossy, hi-tech machinery on display and one of the conversations I heard as I wandered the store. Two people who were in the process of purchasing a large, expensive computer system were talking about how they were going to use this display as a way of promoting their belief in Creationism. I found it odd to hear people who deny the implications of science on the one hand but who want to live with its productions on the other. A Creationist with a iPad? The vision is a contradiction in terms.
This past month we’ve all heard a good deal about the Roman Catholic bishops’ desire not to have their institutions pay for health insurance that covers benefits (i.e. contraception) of which they disapprove. The same health insurance, of course, covers drugs like Viagra that may be taken by unmarried men. The bishops object to one benefit (for women) while allowing another (for men). Both practices would seem to violate strict Catholic teaching, yet the bishops reject one and accept the other. When they talk this way, they sound to me like those who reject science when it discusses evolution and climate change but accept it when it offers modern medicine and information technology.
Those of us who love the church should have some compassion with the contradictions with which contemporary Christian faith contends. Before we laugh too heartily at science-denying consumers of scientific devices, we should think about the contradictions implicit in our own tradition, especially the way we main line churches have made an institution out of the life and teachings of Jesus. We have taken a Gospel that is prophetic, compassionate and gracious and have embedded it in an institution that has managed, over time, to discriminate against everybody who is not white, heterosexual, and male. In trying to have it both ways, we Christians have embodied some profound and deadly contradictions ourselves.
This past week I’ve been following the publication, in England, of Richard Holloway’s autobiographical memoir, Leaving Alexandria. Holloway is the former Anglican Bishop of Edinburgh. He resigned in 2000 largely because he became disillusioned and disgusted with the church after the disastrous Lambeth Conference of 1998, a moment when an international gathering of Anglican bishops condemned both the ordination of women as bishops and all expressions of homosexuality. The Lambeth Conference has no standing in Anglican polity; it is an advisory, ad hoc gathering. Nevertheless, the spectacle of Anglicanism’s bishops attacking both women and gays was too much for many, especially in first world churches. In the words of one reviewer Holloway left the church’s ministry because to him institutional Christianity stands at the center of an “intolerable tension”:
What he loves about the [Christian] narrative is its central figure, who possesses endless pity for human beings and is endlessly subversive, in preferring compassion to rules. What he came to hate about the church is its insistence on rules, which turns it to cruelty, not pity. The attitude of the church towards women and homosexuals, which Holloway in the end could stand no more, illustrates the way the supposed rules drive out love. [Mary Warnock, “Leaving Alexandria by Richard Holloway, Review”, The Observer, 2/18/12]
I think Richard Holloway is saying something that you and I as Christians need to hear. In a world characterized by intolerable tensions, we need acknowledge our own contradictions, repent them, let them go, and learn to embrace Jesus’s call always to value compassion over rules. Whenever we try to impose our own identity and morality on others and call ourselves Christians while we do it, we are living out Holloway’s “intolerable tension”, becoming unwitting embodiments of a contradiction in terms.
A Christian with an inflexible rule book is like a Creationist with an iPad. As we walk together through Lent toward Easter, may our shared immersion in the compassionate teaching and healing of Jesus free us both into noticing our own impossible tensions and also becoming people who consistently and faithfully do our best to stand with God against those forces that diminish and oppress God’s creatures.