Ecclesial Epistemic Humility


It is dangerous, in the Church, not to fall in line, or as some say “drink the kool-aid” ( a tasteless reference to cult leadership.) Today, on the nightly news, there is much being discussed about what is proven or not proven or disproven by science. This is an old conversation.  It was not long ago, based on the age of our planet, that the Church had proof that the world was flat, and furthermore that it was the center of the universe and that there was only one universe. One could go on, but you get my point.

We like to believe that there is order and that God not only created that order but manages it.  When our prayers are answered, we believe in God.  When we are frightened, we believe in God.  And when we are disappointed or appalled by some great tragedy, we suddenly need to believe in Satan.  These beliefs help us to feel that we are in a rather less random universe and on a more caring planet – at least more caring than the grey ones out there and more caring than the non-Christian lands. These assurances make us feel better.

For centuries, when there was plague, pestilence, or Viking invasion, we were grateful to see a Bishop arrive with monstrances and gold boxes of bits and pieces of saints.  In a society in which everyone wore brown, the purple and red, gold, and silver of Bishop’s pomp and circumstance was a reminder that God was on the side of Christians and that clergy were the conduit to that power.  The sanctuary of Cathedrals and churches was a sign of hope that in this life, we had a safe place to run; and in the next life (if God did not incinerate us for being naughty) we would have a place to rest … peaceful even if rather dull.

Along the way, the Church developed ways to deal with pesky clergy who stepped out of line.  Well into post-renaissance, Archives hold documents that show that Lambeth Palace had two staff on the payrolls of the dungeon whose nefarious job descriptions you can well imagine. And the Archbishop of Canterbury was not alone in having a dungeon in his palace basement. The person in power determined the person in dungeons or burning at stakes.

But something new has happened.  After months of watching clergy on little videos waving their arms around (the iPhone videos on Sundays are usually silent until one clicks on one), alone in churches across the land, one begins to wonder if we need a bit less pomp and rather more circumstance.   True, clergy regale me weekly with “how my numbers are up…we had 123 on zoom last night and usually only 63 came to church.’” Hmm. I attend zoom meetings all the time online around the nation for everything from pottery to poetry to politics, and though I am a huge fan, I am also simultaneously shopping on Amazon and surfing new Audiobooks in the panel just beneath the camera’s little green light, so that everyone is sure I am spellbound if they can see me at all.

The “halo effect”, (sometimes called the “halo error”) is a cognitive bias that causes a person to project onto another person or institution, a perception of “good” because of external signs and costumes.  And that played a role in our churches every Sunday.  

But now we are at home, and have been for months on end.  And will be for months on end. And people are beginning to wonder about their pledges.  I had one person call me and ask “Should I pledge this year, or should I spend it on vacation when things get better…a beach perhaps, and a drink with an umbrella.”  Needless to say, it was a dangerous question so I simply asked if they thought God would be on that beach. Yes, a trick answer, but it worked.

Perhaps this pandemic will inspire some epistemic humility for our Church. What if our followers are becoming less righteous about the creeds, dogmas and hocus locus of our church while no less close to Jesus?  What if they find other ways to make and keep friends?  What if black clergy shirts and purple Bishop shirts just don’t have the halo effect they once had? (Pun intended.)

Maybe I am the only one, but I don’t miss racing around getting dressed up for church.  I don’t miss the music (I have an iPhone with 195 recordings of hymns and a Bose speaker.) I don’t miss the wine and wafer (I have a box of my own and some great sourdough!) I don’t miss the bowing and scraping confessions of sin (I have a spiritual director with a sense of humor – an old, scotch-swilling, cursing, hilarious, brilliant, lay-woman-poet who is wiser than any clergy I have ever met.) I don’t miss the pledge (I have a new savings account for a trip to see my family when this pandemic is over.) I don’t miss the stained glass.  I have 24 icons on the walls of my 500 square-foot apartment. And I don’t miss the coffee hour (I actually have GOOD coffee and many close friends who socially distance on my massive porch overlooking the Salish Sea through which whales swim.)

This pandemic has changed a lot and will change even more, the longer it exists.  And it won’t be the last one. It has changed how I make food.  It has changed how I nap.  It has changed how little silence I used to be able to enjoy. It has reminded me that I am on a planet of people and am within the one percent whose income is more than $51,000 a year.

The clergy with whom I am speaking (and I get calls from many, I suppose because I am old) are asking, in hushed tones, what will happen to the church and the church budgets.  I have no answers for them.  But I am aware that having less answers, less dogmas, less righteousness, less diocesan conventions, less canonical oversight of beliefs, less Bishop’s speeches, less pomp and more circumstance is, well, refreshing.

Today is Sunday.  I am planning to make a casserole, bake a homemade apple pie, bake some bread, mix a cocktail in a pitcher and have some friends over, six feet apart, to eat and drink and laugh and weep and make political donations, make the debate into a drinking game and discuss our lives – the successes, the failures. We will share life-advice and courage. And when I do that I will wonder… “what would Jesus do if he saw us doing this instead of going to Church?”

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