Wednesday, July 09, 2014


The classic confessional furniture

This second step of my little five-step schema is the least defined and understood by me, and yet I see value in it.  In the places that I find it, all Christian, this “confession of sin” paired with “assurance of pardon” is always in terms of religious dogma.  It is specific.  Maybe it comes out of the relationship with a powerful being who has control of one’s survival and welfare.  This quickly pushes one into the problem of “theodicy,” which is that if God is the “good parent” who forgives and teaches, then why would he seem so punishing and arbitrary, so vengeful and destructive?

There is a difference between public communal "confession/pardon" and the private act between priest and petitioner.  The "box" has become a symbol of private corruption and victimization.  Priests now sit on a chair next to but reversed in direction from the person and they sit in plain sight, sometimes in the middle of a big space or in an open alcove room.

There is a second problem with a confession/forgiveness formulation which is one of dimension.  If one is confessing little tiny crimes, social blunders, why waste God’s time?  Why not just shrug and find better things to do?  But if the sin confessed is a criminal act, we no longer put God above the law.  Confidentiality is a very shaky concept.   

This paired sequence is key to the current angst sweeping the world's conscience, the church’s problems with destruction of the innocent.  But is the Pope’s audience with symbolic representatives of priest rape victims, and even his personal apology, enough to compensate for broken lives?  Is the US payment in reparation for unjust treatment of slaves or interned Japanese citizens enough?   Is any amount of money ever enough for moral, emotional, physical suffering?  

Why is it confession of sin instead of petition for redress of suffering?  Why do we assume that suffering is produced by sin, either ours or that of others against us?  Is virtue any kind of defense from harm?  Doesn't virtue sometimes make us suffer?  Why do we want a fully detailed admission of sin?  What difference can it make if the damage is already done?  What if it was a sin without perceptible damage?  (What would that be like?)  What if it were far away and long ago, like the fact that my ancestors kept slaves on sugar plantations?  Is this a kind of bookkeeping?

One of the reasons I got so interested in “worship” or “liturgy” or “ceremony” in the first place was that so much of what I sat through on Sunday morning was self-indulgent, miniature, trivial, hackneyed.  I was looking for something that was either deep or vast, Tillich’s “ultimate”.  Instead I heard stuff that was political, therapizing, sociologically in a box (usually middle-class, surburban), making (in Annie Dillard’s words) teeny-tiny statues to teeny-tiny gods.

I came to the conclusion that the confessions were teeny-tiny because once the whole concept of God comes into question (which it has), then our assurance of pardon stops working, because there is no one to give assurance.  The idea of such a thing is connected to kingship and legal records.  And yet the whole idea of a religious formulation is to give a person enough relief to proceed with life calmly and effectively.  We don’t want to cringe in dread of a thunderbolt -- nothing would ever get done.  Maybe we'd accumulate amulets and garlic wreaths for our necks.  Superstition, voodoo, indulgences.

The UUA had a kit called “Why Do Bad Things Happen?”  (It was assumed we were all “good people.”)  There were ten “reasons,” including “because you did something wrong,” “because your ancestor did something wrong,” “you will be compensated in Heaven,” “everyone is essentially bad,” “it’s all just an illusion,” “you’re earning your release from the wheel of suffering,”  “God is the only entity able to know the reason.”  Then there is ONE formulation of why good things happen, which I don’t remember.  It would seem obvious that it would run along the lines of “because you set out to do it,” or “it’s a matter of cooperation with others of good will.”

The point I would make is that this sort of reasoning has to fit the socio-ecology of the place and time.  This is why religions are always local, even if the "locality" is the span of the galaxies.  (“Why do you think what any human does matters at all?  You are so very tiny and brief.”)  There are philosophical positions like this, but I can’t think of any bureaucracy that has gone to the trouble of developing a whole institution about despair.  Maybe academia?  Is it existentialism?

This sketch was once a depiction of trust and protection.
Now it gives aware people the shudders at the predation that was protected.

So the main consideration to this mind and emotion expanding element is to provide dimension and identity to the proceedings.  It could be dropped out.  If it is included, then the assurance of pardon must be commensurate with the confession of sins.  When media (writing or film) take on the Roman Catholic rite of formal Confession as a preparation for Communion which is supposed to be real absolution and restoration in faith, the narrative often mocks either the sin (little boys confessing to wet dreams) or the penalty (ten repetitions of “Hail Mary”).  Few stories address the sin of the abusing priest.

The church itself collaborates with this by not following through on the penalties, like denial of Communion or excommunication.  It has not even enforced preventative remedies like de-frocking of priests who are predators.  In terms of church doctrine, the idea is that Communion administered by such a priest is effective because he is only the instrument and not the source of grace which is from God and supernatural.  Why would a perfect God protect a betraying instrument?  Is that not a sacrilege?  Are not all the priest's acts annulled?  It’s a morass.

A “felt” sense of brokenness, limitation, regret, and so on, could be met by a “felt” sense of pardon, inclusion, restoration, and “healing,” though I hate to invoke a word that takes on so much trivialization these days, probably because we have medicalized so much that was once considered a matter of transcendence.  For many, if not most, people a circle of understanding and forgiving people is an effective source of forgiveness, which is often defined as “inclusion,” particularly if one accepts the common definition of “sin” as being separated from God.  That’s a little too close to social exclusion to suit me.  Social standards of who is “us” and who should be ostracized are far too relative and easily converted into overt evil, the source of stigma and even holocaust when whole populations are defined as legitimate targets of God’s wrath.  (God’s little helpers standing by with machetes.)

If persons composing an event are doing something small and personal, maybe habitual like daily prayer, there’s no need to get grandiose.  If the awareness of sin/assurance of pardon is meant to be reaching out to others, a effort at mercy, then it must be defined on THEIR terms, what constitutes THEIR wound and what will close it.  Middle class people who assume they know what is right and good become a new affliction, not a support.  Maybe what I’m saying is that none of this post is meant to be a dogma, a doctrine, a syllogism, a legal requirement, a recipe, but simply one way of interpreting going about the act of empowering the brain connectome to reach the meta-level of reflection on our assumptions, a creative approach to action in the world.  These are a kind of transcendence.

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