Cult of Personality

I served as the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Montclair, New Jersey, for nearly six years, an experience full of significant moments and wonderful people. I learned much. One thing I learned is that I am in no way cut out to be the pastor of a church, not even a liberal one such as First Baptist was. (It had been the first pastorate of the famous “Bootleg Baptist,” Harry Emerson Fosdick many years before.) I believe I dealt with my congregation with genuine pastoral concern, but I just could not live up to (i.e., conform to) the requisite social role, the professional persona. For one thing, I am a slob. For another, I am an academic. I loved church tradition, despite my virtual lack of theological beliefs even then. But I was not cut out for congregational politics or for the administrative tasks, especially since we were a shrinking congregation, and money troubles seemed to devour all other concerns. And I was clueless there. Finally, not only did I leave, being pressured out, but my departure occasioned a congregational split, as several of the few remaining members left with me and continued to meet in my living room. We called ourselves, at first, Holy Grail Universalist Church, then simply the Grail.

These Sunday morning meetings were much less structured than ordinary church services. Baptist churches have very rudimentary liturgies anyway, but the Grail had none. Not that I dislike liturgy; I always enjoyed that of the Episcopal Church. But we weren’t set up for it. With the group we had, it would have been out of place. We were there to discuss ideas and issues. Existential issues, moral issues, issues of speculative spirituality. We thrived on what I liked to call a spirituality of inquiry. I believe that dogmas function as sleeping pills for the soul and that open questions cause the stretching and nourishing of the soul. (How to define “soul”? You tell me.) I bought a lectern from a local antique shop and would stand at one end of our small living room and speak from a prepared text, just as I had done at First Baptist, for about a half-hour. Sometimes I had to speak with a co-star, as our clever cat Helix would hop up onto the lectern, then onto my shoulder, before I was finished.

I sought to explore reflective questions and to challenge my hearers to introspection and authenticity. I had never beat the drum for any doctrine even in the liberal Baptist days, so this was little different. The edge of my critique of religion did become sharper, though. Eventually, in fact, the increasingly negative, critical character of the whole enterprise was one of the major factors in my calling it quits. But while it lasted, it was great. After I was done speaking and woke everybody up (just kidding—there was only one guy who regularly started to snooze), I would sit down and we’d go around the circle discussing the morning’s topic. Anybody could say whatever he or she wanted. And there was no budget, no church property to keep up, nothing mundane to keep us dragging along the ground. And the discussion was genuinely personal and profound. I still thought of these good folks as my parishioners, my flock, and I loved them.

But finally I decided I had said all I had to say. In fact, I came to feel I was done with living in New Jersey, a state I loved and still love, though I love North Carolina, too. In fact, as you know, Carol and I decided to move back here. And as soon as we did, I returned to St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in nearby Goldsboro. This was the church I had come to love in the mid-eighties and had always missed even when I was pastoring First Baptist. I came to sense (and still feel) that there was no place for me in New Jersey anymore. All the exciting avenues I had been pursuing for some years seemed to be going nowhere. So I was glad to leave.

But what made me decide to leave the Grail? As I’ve said, I eventually realized my increasingly anti-theological “preaching” stank of the same fatal irony one often observes in the Unitarian Universalist Association: having a religion that was all about being non- religious. As a religion, it was like Sanka, or as the Mormons used to call it, “Coffee-Near.” It had become obvious that what we were doing (at least for me) was essentially a therapeutic transition from religion into irreligion. Later still I came to realize that organized atheism and humanism were also substitutes for religion. As Marjoe Gortner once quipped, “Can God deliver a religion addict? Yes he can!” But organized atheism seems to be the methadone to religion’s heroin. At least that’s how it looks to me. I could be missing something, as I often do.

But there was a deeper dimension to my discontent. I realized that in conducting what I viewed as a tiny conventicle of the intellectual elite, I was not much different from the fundamentalist or Pentecostal minister presiding over a “righteous remnant” of “true believers,” only I guess we were “true unbelievers.” Wasn’t it time to leave the club house and grow up? It’s not that I no longer wanted anything to do with the intellectual discussion of issues religious, moral, and philosophical. Carol and I tried to start up a new branch of our Heretics Anonymous discussion group once we got back to North Carolina, and we did, though it has been more difficult to get it on track than we expected.

But we didn’t start up a new Grail. We didn’t even try. For one thing, I wanted to go to St. Stephens Sunday mornings. But I haven’t been to church for over a year now. I just lost interest in it, though I may well return–who knows? So I do have Sunday mornings free. So why no North Carolina Grail?

I guess it’s this: I am uncomfortable with the role of an ostensible spiritual leader, as if I had any right to stand behind the lectern and tell anybody anything. Christian clergy of all stripes seem to feel they have a hot-line to heaven, but I know I do not. Even the very liberal ones think they can speak with moral authority. But do they have that right? It all seems to boil down to that business about the pastoral role. I want to be a compassionate friend, sure. But a “spiritual leader”? Personally, the more someone does come across as a “spiritual leader,” whether Christian, New Thought, New Age, whatever, the more suspicious I become. If they maintain a front, a persona, it is inevitably in some measure an act, a schtick. I prefer the unpretentious. I prefer to be unpretentious. And that seems to be incompatible with the “Moses down from the mountain” persona of a spiritual leader. It is not mine to be a role model. I possess no authority and want none.

No, the only role I will accept, besides straight scholarly teaching (and at First Baptist they complained that I did too much of that, and they were right), is the Socratic one, to stimulate and to facilitate the thinking of others. And I believe this column is the proper forum for that. Why? Because it is a hit-and-run venue. It has the same advantage as the Internet generally: authorial suicide. Roland Barthes wrote of “the death of the author.” As soon as his work is launched into the public sphere, it must stand alone. The text speaks for itself, albeit in partnership with its readers who help co-write it by virtue of the way they interpret it. And the writer cannot intervene to correct them. After all, his reading of “his” text will only amount to one more interpretation of it. The author has no privileged priority of interpretation. His word will not return to him. This column is like an arrow. It may bring you a message. You may dodge it. Or it may find its mark. Or it may miss. But the arrow is all you need be concerned with. It simply does not matter who fired it. This is why I seldom add a comment to those contributed by readers (though I enjoy reading them all). The issue is not whether “the Price is right,” as if I needed to defend “my views,” as if they constituted some sort of party platform. It is enough that my remarks get you thinking and sharing your thoughts with fellow readers. Have at it!

As for me, I am Zarathustra, and there is no Zarathustra.

So says Zarathustra.


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