Called to Stay

I handed my collection check to a friend and slipped out early to my car. I was surprised that I wasn’t angry. I felt curiously at peace, despite the sudden disruption of my worship plans.

I am only recently baptized and have tended to hide on the periphery of various churches, suffering from culture shock. Now back at my first church, my goal was to immerse myself fully as a member of the church community. I knew there would be moments of friction, misunderstanding, and even offense. So why was today the breaking point?

Three older men had called me “girl” in a space of ten minutes before Bible class. Irritated, I mentioned this to two women but they told me they like it when men call them girls. I do not like it. In my work in a male-dominated profession, I have seen too often how such apparently benign language oppresses women and diminishes their accomplishments. I headed out the door. I was primed to take offense—not an attitude I wanted to bring to communion.

I’ve been reading the volume of essays, Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor. The pastors who write the essays in this collection are grappling with these kinds of issues, where the secular self finds a quarrel with some aspect of churchgoing.

Ten years ago, with his bestselling Our Secular Age, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor opened up the dialogue about how to think today about churchgoing. Being in church today is just one option of many. As the contributors to the Taylor edition point out, I could just as easily express my spiritual sensibilities by going for a run on Sunday mornings or indulging my appetites with a gourmet brunch—all options I used to enjoy before my birth to this new life.

Taylor coined the phrase “The Nova Effect” to describe the dozens of options that cross-pressure our contemporary life choices. As I left the church today, I felt the Nova explode around me. I was excited. This could be the moment that would liberate me! I could start over! I could find a better church! I could start skipping church if I wasn’t in the mood!

Not so fast. This is exactly what the secular age wants me to do: turn away from a Christ-centered life with a focus on service to others and on being true to myself. This “self” is what the Taylor called the “authentic self” or the “buffered self.” The buffered self says, “If it gets in the way of your human flourishing, don’t let it get to you.” By this paradigm, even my obligations to my church community should take second place to my own fulfillment. If church leaders don’t treat me right, then I am justified when I reevaluate my being in church.

Taylor contrasts this buffered self with the “porous self,” which says, “Take me and transform me.” This self is vulnerable. It will feel uncomfortable, yet stay with the sources of its discomfort in order to keep its focus on Christ and strive for a Christ-centered life. The porous self is not a pushover. It is a self that can be transformed. I know I will encounter uncomfortable situations as I stay in my church. I hope I can remain present to these situations, and not run away from them. I’m scared that I won’t find the right ways to speak up.

The Catholics have a phrase that helps – obsequium religiosum. One of my Catholic friends calls this the readiness to assent, inspired by reverence. I love this. Assent doesn’t mean I have to submit to other fallible people. My assent is to Christ and His intention for a strong church community. I want my church to be a community that can overlook offense in the higher service of the Christian call to die to self and to love my neighbor. But not just that – I also want a community where everyone can communicate respectfully, and everyone can feel welcome.

January is a good time for resolutions.

I resolve to dedicate myself to making space in my community for those who have questions about churchgoing.

 My mission is clear—to stay in my church, to assent with reverence to the bedrock of its Christ-centered intention, and to be a force for the kind of stability that can tolerate the uncomfortable questions that define the year 2018.

Claudia Hauer has a Ph. D. in Classics, and teaches in the liberal arts at St. John’s College and the U. S. Air Force Academy.  She had an overwhelming conversion experience five years ago, and is just now learning to tell the story of her faith journey.