Friday, November 13, 2009
I met with my academic advisor today to plan next semester’s courses, and at the end of the meeting she, with great sensitivity and candor, brought to my attention a concern that some of the other students in the department had about me. She included that she thought they had not come to talk to me directly because they saw me as a religious authority and may have felt intimidated. I was brought up short by the concern she raised, as I was not even aware of the effect of my actions, but it made me think about what it means to be seen as a religious authority. While I know that the mere fact of being in religious life connotes a certain kind of authority, I don’t consider myself an authority on anything. I am certainly not an intellectual authority, not when it comes to knowledge of the faith, a topic that I have actually studied, let alone any other topic. I don’t consider myself a moral authority; quite the contrary, my sense of religious community is that we are here together because we are greatly aware of our fallibility, and we need to be here together because we are such great sinners. One of the great blessings of community is that, at its best, it holds a mirror to our actions like my advisor did this afternoon. In Christianity in particular, it seems to me that religious authority takes on a peculiar cast, an anti-thority if you will. I have said before how often the very people whom Jesus takes to task are religious authorities, and as a so-called religious authority, I know that I am in the hot seat. If service, humility, self-effacement are the hallmarks of true leadership (which I think Jesus makes more or less clear), then the fact that anyone could be intimidated about bringing his/her concern to a religious authority means that we have not done a good job of making clear that Christian authority is an anti-thority. Jesus repeatedly says that the healthy do not need a doctor, but the sick do, so to follow Jesus means to be aware of one's sickness, and the language of "perfection" that the Church uses for religious life is simply about the goal of learning to listen to the doctor's orders, not being free of the sickness. To be a Christian anti-thority figure means that we should be the most open to criticism, the most able to acknowledge when we have done wrong, because we know how fallible we are, how far from being in a position of superiority. If people expect perfection from us because we have presented that image of ourselves, woe to us. I was certainly embarrassed by what my advisor brought to my attention, but I was just as certainly glad that she did so; Richard Rohr suggests he needs at least one good humiliation per day to keep his head on straight, and I think that’s about right. Of course, to the degree that I take myself seriously, that kind of shaking of the foundations can throw me into a tailspin, which is why regularity of humiliation is important: to never give myself time to take myself too seriously. In one of his books Tony DeMello reflects on the book I'm OK, You're OK and says that he should write a counter-text: I'm an Ass, You're an Ass. That doesn't excuse the fact that I'm an ass, it just reminds me not to be surprised when I prove it. I had just gotten an email from an old colleague this morning, telling me how much they miss me at SLU, and I was feeling pretty good about myself (I still do, I’m not neurotic or anything), but this afternoon’s meeting brought me back to attentiveness to myself – not everyone is reading me as wonderfully as this old colleague, and I better pay attention to why they think so, because they just might be seeing something in me that I don’t see in myself. I sometimes wonder if any of the Twelve read the manuscript of Mark’s Gospel before it got into circulation; I hope so, because as much as that gospel portrays the Twelve as a bunch of knuckleheads, for them to say, “Yeah, that’s about it, we’re knuckleheads,” would be an exercise in real Christian anti-thority. I’m certainly not one of the Twelve, but I’m a knucklehead, and to the degree that I try to paint a prettier picture of myself than my actual knuckleheadedness, I turn true anti-thority into authority as the world thinks of it, and the gospel of humility and mercy becomes a gospel of "unsaved unwelcome" and self-righteousness.