Thursday, March 5, 2009

stumbling stone

The truth of what one says lies in what one does.


-- Bernhard Schlink, The Reader (trans. Carol Brown Janeway)


By their fruits ye shall know them.


-- Matthew 7:20 (KJV)


A colleague of mine, a friend, had trouble with his certifying agency. They told him, with unanimity he says, they can’t see how he’ll get from his theology to valid practice. I must tread carefully in describing a meeting where I was not present, and which I know only by a single account. But I am within the facts if I say that, while his theology is conservative, theirs is apparently, and on a particular point demonstrably, liberal.


Ours is a liberal profession. Though we hope to enact good news, we do not proclaim it: we hope rather that it will be proclaimed to us. We revere the autonomy of a client, reading him as sacred document, as scripture that has been renewed. God, we would say, whatever that means, is to be found there. For a chaplain, revelation was never sealed.


We remove our sandals, and suspend our claims to knowledge, for this is holy ground. We do not pronounce to a burning bush. The truth is somewhere in the flame, and if we have not seen it yet we must keep looking. If the burning truth is inconvenient, if it contradicts the truth we thought we knew, we must embrace the dialectic.


The opposite of such reverence would be to import Good News from another time and place, knowing the prescription before examination and dumping it on the loading dock. Good for what ails you. Take two and call me in the morning -- if you’re all better. And give the extras to your friends, it’s good for them too.


The professional virtues of a chaplain are curiosity, suspicion, empathy and agnosticism. Job is our model: if you’re not prepared to argue with the god who has appeared to you so far, expect the judgment that befalls the confident. But who am I to say that persons of conservative theology can’t find their way to virtues? Who are we liberals to say that liberals have a lock on them? Job, after all, was no atheist; he was renowned for piety. That’s why he got picked out for trouble. (There, you see – scandal starts within the scripture, and dares us to read!)


So what’s the skandalon, the stumbling-stone on which my friend has tripped? He believes that homosexuality is sin.


My take on this question is what’s called liberal. To me my friend’s belief looks like a flat misreading of the Word, as well as of human nature and the root of ethics, for neither Yeshua nor Ten Commandments have anything to say about it. But I sit regularly at table with many who profess otherwise. Any Roman Catholic chaplain, priest or Eucharistic minister, for instance, represents this belief by proclamation of high authority – and I have no authority to challenge their professional status on that account.


I seek no such authority. I am a liberal. I don’t disqualify people by their theology. The qualification of a chaplain has to do with the way she approaches a client. Does she remove her sandals?


If my friend has been subjected to a litmus test, then that was neither liberal nor professional behavior. Are we planning to enforce liberal theology on our liberal profession? No one explained that to me when I joined up. I have more faith than that. I trust that truth will make us free; and therefore I must speak the truth as it encounters me – and so must you.


How, he was asked, can a chaplain minister compassionately to a gay man, if he believes that homosexuality is sin? They said they could not see it. They assumed that such a person can’t remove his sandals. Well, I don’t see the logic of it either, but I have seen it happen. I know an open gay man who is loved and affirmed by his Catholic congregation. He has run for, and been elected to, congregational office. He would not choose to go anywhere else. I didn’t lead that ministry; if I can’t follow it, I should get out of the way. I must swallow hard and accept it. I must accept it as a miracle if necessary. My inability to understand is not a virtue.

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