Monday, January 19, 2009

On Inaugural Prayers and Such Like

Bishop Gene Robinson of the ECUSA is in the news again (which begs the question--exactly when is he NOT in the news?) He led in prayer at the pre-Inaugural ceremonies on Sunday. It seems this prayer, or rather his comments beforehand, have caused a bit of a stir.

I have never jumped on the Bishop Robinson-as-bogey-man bandwagon. In my view, his selection is merely symptomatic of deeper problems. I will let my Episcopalian friends sort out their own crises. But then Bishop Robinson sat for an interview with the NYTimes. This took it out of in-house Anglican politics and placed it firmly in the public square. It seems he is often his own worst enemy (as most of us are.)

The interview with the Times, here, raised a number of questions. My concern came from the following:

Bishop Robinson said he had been reading inaugural prayers through history and was “horrified” at how “specifically and aggressively Christian they were.”

What gave it away, Sherlock? Could it be the 43 Christian (in the general understanding of the word) presidencies we have had to date? Why anyone with even a superficial knowledge of American history would be surprised that inaugural prayers have been "specifically and aggressively Christian," is beyond belief. I think Bishop Robinson should stay indoors, away from television and far from contact with the general public, for he is much too easily "horrified." Taken on its own, his statement here is buffoonish.

“I am very clear,” he said, “that this will not be a Christian prayer, and I won’t be quoting Scripture or anything like that. The texts that I hold as sacred are not sacred texts for all Americans, and I want all people to feel that this is their prayer.”

G. K. Chesterton can usually be marshaled for a quote on most any subject. He does not disappoint here. "There are those who hate Christianity and call their hatred an all-embracing love for all religions," and "These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own."

Chesterton's comments point to the abject silliness on Robinson's part. I recall an anecdote about the late Brooke Astor, doyenne of New York society. She was the younger, later wife of the last of the Astors, and died only recently at age 104. Brooke Astor was one of the city's greatest philanthropists, and insisted on inspecting first-hand the work of her various charities. Invariably, she dressed in hat, pearls and white gloves, even if visiting the poorest projects. Some aides suggested that she might consider dressing-down a bit for these occasions, to which she replied: "the people expect to see Mrs. Astor, and I do not intend to disappoint them." She knew something about herself that Bishop Robinson doesn't know about himself. She knew who she was--she was "Mrs. Astor." It is not clear Bishop Robinson knows he is a Christian pastor. I would think a Christian should never be embarrassed to offer Christian prayer.

Bishop Robinson said he might address the prayer to “the God of our many understandings,” language that he said he learned from the 12-step program he attended for his alcohol addiction.

This is just lovely, isn't it--perfectly suited to our age. But in the end, a prayer to "the God of our many understandings" is a prayer to no God at all. I couldn't help but think of Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood, with Hazel Motes and his "Church of Christ Without Christ":

"...that church where the blind don't see and the lame don't walk and what's dead stays that way. ...there was no Fall because there was nothing to fall from and no Redemption because there was no Fall and no Judgment because there wasn't the first two."

So, my advice to Bishop Robinson is this: be a man, just say your prayer, stop apologizing for it being "Christian," and most importantly, stay away from reporters. The prayer itself, here, actually wasn't that bad, for this sort of thing. Though most of it was standard kumbaya boilerplate, there was one line I found to be exceptional for our times.

Bless us with discomfort – at the easy, simplistic “answers” we’ve preferred to hear from our politicians, instead of the truth, about ourselves and the world, which we need to face if we are going to rise to the challenges of the future.


B. Hold said...

He'd be better off if he'd never gone through that 12-step program. He's about as "Christian" as Andy Reid is a "coach".

John said...


The Ochlophobist said...

Bless us with discomfort...

Is it discomfort then which replaces the Cross in ECUSA religion?

I more-or-less liked that prayer too, context considered, but I got to thinking about it last night, and I can't figure out the rules of the paradigm at hand. I can believe virtually whatever I want and be an ECUSAite (except, apparently, a fervent orthodox Christianity). I can have sex with pretty much whomever I want, so long as it is "safe," even if that means leaving my wife and kids. But I get my asceticism-lite by becoming uncomfortable with the speech of politicians?

The "a father only gets one shot at his daughters' childhoods" was a line that almost sounded remorseful.

I don't suppose that our "remembering that every religion’s God judges us by the way we care for the most vulnerable in the human community" will include the unborn.

Gene R is, for me, a bit like George W. Bush. My wife always says about W. that he would have made a great high school janitor, and a great next door neighbor. He is the sort of guy I'd like to have a beer with. I enjoy many of his mannerisms and quirks. But not in my President, so much. With Gene, you see this fellow who is a colossal screw-up, who ruins himself and pretty much everything around him, and is so obviously trying to make sense of it all, but with the poverty of spirituality best-seller clich├ęs. He is that sort of man who so desperately wants to be liked, but is in a position where that is not possible. Most of Those who "like" him do so mainly for ideological reasons. What a sad and lonely life .

John said...

Good point. While reading Robinson's words, the first thing i thought of was your recent post recounting the hiding of the cross in the ECUSA church.

I liked the "discomfort" passage because that is a pet peeve of mine--the simplistic solutions in our public discourse, and failing to face the truth about ourselves as a nation. That said, I doubt that Robinson would agree with my "answers" or agree to the truths I hold. I suspect that it would be my turn to be "horrified" if his answers and his truths gained the day. And as you say, their "discomfort" would never extend to concern for the unborn.

I agree with your observations on Robinson's character and that of Bush (although I'm not even sure I would want to have a beer with him--particularly after my cousin's account of W trying to get her to have a beer with him back in mid 60s Houston...but that is another story.) What you see as a "poverty of spirituality" is as good an explanation as any of why I thought Robinson should never give interviews. It is always evident in his words. Even the picture here shows it. Yes, it is sad.

s-p said...

Spot on, GK and all. When a Christian exchanges the "Truth of God" (Christ), for a lie (a higher power), is there any hope? Christianity is supposed to concretize God, not make Him more generalized. Perhaps Gene should have paid more attention in seminary, but then perhaps he was too hung over in first hour dogmatics. sigh, what a world.
What if he was blessed to be blessed with his own prayer: the discomfort of coming to terms with his own issues in light of the Cross which he seems to be ashamed of?

Kirk said...

Oh boy! Robinson appeared on The Daily Show tonight. He has a dream of the day a GLBT will be elected president. He also referred to himself as a queen. Sigh.

John said...

Oh dear--glad I missed that. The man just can't seem to stay away from the spotlight. This brings up another pet peeve of mine: It can't just be "G." It can't just be "G & L." No, it's got to be the whole GLBT deal.

Steve Hayes said...

Interesting then that Obama had no qualms about quoting scripture in his inaugural address.

It reminds me of C.S. Lewis saying that there was a time when the layman felt diffident because he believed so much less than the vicar, but now it is because he believes so much more.

Milton T. Burton said...

Excellent piece. Mirrors my thinking exactly.

D. I. Dalrymple said...

A part of me wants to stand up for American civil religion on occasions like this. Inaugural prayers are a somewhat recent invention, 20th century, I think. Lincoln and all the others before him, to my knowledge, used no inaugural prayers. I actually would prefer it that way. And Billy Graham kept Christian-specific language to a bare minimum when he performed them. And I think that’s right. It should be no offense to Christians or the Christian God to use more general terms (which we often employ anyway) on occasions like this. It encourages civil coexistence and it’s just the generous thing to do.

This, I suppose, may be more of a critique of Rick Warren’s prayer than of Robinson’s, since the latter’s was given in a somewhat more private setting. But there you go.

John said...

The problem wasn't with Robinson's actual prayer--for as I mentioned, I really didn't find it that bad, for this sort of thing. What I objected to was his expressed "horror" over the overt Christianity in previous inaugural prayers and his determination that his would not be tainted by such. In other words, he could have just given the prayer without the disclaimers beforehand, and it would have been just fine, and appropriate. I heard Warren's prayer on the radio as I was rushing to get to a television in time. It didn't really seem to rise to the occasion, did it?

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the balanced approach to this prayer that all of you have offered.

The part of the prayer that I found the most amusing was the juxtaposition of "God of our many understandings," with a a very definite understanding of God: "Every religion’s God judges us by the way we care for the most vulnerable in the human community."

This is completely contradictory. I couldn't help but feel sorry for Gene's AA friends whose "higher power" is nothing more than the coffee machine that most decidedly does not judge us by how we treat the most vulnerable, and were therefore excluded from this prayer (to say nothing of non-theistic religions like Buddhism).

Here we see a great example of the intolerance of tolerance and the exclusivity of inclusivity. Under the banner of tolerance and inclusivity Gene is willing to level the differences between all religions and make a blanket statement about what the God of all religions is like and what he/she/it/them/us does.

John said...

Thanks, T. Nathaniel.

The "intolerance of tolerance and the exclusivity of inclusivity"--I like that turn of phrase. This is often what is at work when we hear the call for "dialog." No honest discussion is really intended, but rather a ceding of ground on your part. Once done, their inclusivity totally excludes that position thereafter.

Thanks again for posting. I have had a chance to check out your blog, and was quite impressed. I look forward to reading further.

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MichaelFacingWest said...

I know how untimely this comment is but having just stumbled across this blog in search of the text of the prayer you're discussing, would like to weigh in. I thought Bishop Robinson's prayer was lovely, appropriate, theologically sound and a breath of fresh air. It ministered to me in a deep way and called me into a better understanding of God's will. We are lucky to have Bishop Robinson's wise and loving voice as part of our country's mostly ugly national conversation about religion.