In our continuing series on Things Episcopalians say, I offer for consideration another favorite slogan of self-understanding: “You don’t have to check your brains at the door.” This is a noble sentiment and is well-known from Robin Williams’s “Top 10 Reasons to be an Episcopalian.” And, depending on what it means, I (like many others) might also want it to appear on one of my t-shirts.
After all, is there any Christian tradition that more effortlessly embraces a sophisticated intellectual idiom within a refined aesthetic sensibility?
Not only needn’t we check our brains at the door, we mustn’t if we have any hope of doing more than surviving a Eucharistic liturgy. To step into the liturgy without one’s “thinking cap on” is to encounter, all unsuspecting, a barrage of verbal and symbolic pyrotechnics. We will first sing a processional hymn, and, like the two or three others that we are likely to sing before we’re done, it is undoubtedly written in a poetic idiom quite distant from our every-day discourse — eccentric word order, sophisticated grammar, chock-full of strange theological references. It will be an unusual hymn that has fewer than a dozen biblical allusions undergirded by rich typology, and it will be a more unusual worshiper who notices most, if any, of them.
Then, with the Scripture lessons, in a span of minutes we’re to transport ourselves from the time of the Patriarchs, Monarchy, or Exile, straight into the varied settings of the Psalter, and then without warning into the first-century Mediterranean (and a different Testament) in the Epistle reading, and then back to a Gallilean village or Jerusalem to hear the Gospel of the Lord. And we are to know the names, places, persons, and figures; we are to supply the historical and literary contexts; we are to have some intuition about the various genres (not losing sight of the arc of salvation-history), all the while engaging the texts attentively and existentially, such that we can, at the end of each, exclaim our gratitude for “the Word of the Lord” with some semblance of integrity: “Thanks be to God!”
Then there’s a sermon, which may or may not be easy to follow, and may or may not be worthy of following — but we won’t know without trying. Soon after, the Creed invites us to confess our faith in language that, once again, alludes in almost every line to the Scriptures, with the exception of those lines that gesture to a protracted theological controversy from the early church. Eventually, the Eucharistic prayer makes the hymnal seem timid in its density of theological-claims-per-syllable. And we haven’t even mentioned all of the symbols of adornment, architecture, motion, and gesture.
I don’t say that anyone needs to know any or all of this as a condition of sacramental grace. I mean that by “You don’t have to check your brains at the door,” we should probably mean “We dare not check our brains at the door — we’re gonna need ’em!”
My youngest daughter, a precocious church-goer, once described it this way: “The evangelical services are like grade school, and the Episcopal services are like grad school.”
I wish that “You don’t have to check your brains at the door” meant something like this. Maybe it does to some, but I worry. It seems that a more common use of the phrase points in a different direction.
It’s a strategy of distinction. As I discern it, we are implying that some Christians effectively do leave their brains at the door when they go to church, but in a certain way. Their church obligates them to believe unbelievable things and to hold untenable tenets. The candidates for our implicit opprobrium are obvious: benighted fundamentalists holding to young-earth creationism and other literalisms; superstitious Roman Catholics swallowing dogma whole “cuz the Pope says so”; fanatical Pentecostals who imagine they’re bending reality to their faith, re-routing hurricanes and whatnot.
But we’re not like that. Our faith is reasonable; it is considered. Our tradition appeals to tasteful and moderate people — and, yes, thinking people.
But tasteful and moderate people are not necessarily thinking people, and if the tasteful and moderate have been eliding the brain-check at the door, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have put their brains to work. It does not reflect well upon on us that, while making ambitious claims about our well-engaged brains, we are by almost any measure among the less theologically literate Christians. Our knowledge of Scripture is modest, to put it charitably, not least among the clergy. And, despite all of the useful prompts, not many Episcopalians are prepared to articulate their faith and their reasons for it in the public square. We are suckers for predigested, zeitgeist-ey credulity that runs the path of least resistance. We confuse gullibility for open-mindedness, congratulating ourselves for the latter when, in fact, we are guilty of the former.
Not too long ago, I was attending a very helpful diocesan meeting offered to Episcopal Church lay leaders. The place and the diocese don’t matter; this could have happened almost anywhere. At one point, we were asked to describe what is distinctive about being an Episcopalian — what does this church and this tradition have that is especially ours to offer? And, although it is generally unbecoming to nourish pride, Episcopalians sometimes of late suffer from ecclesial low self-esteem, as they watch parishes decline and pews empty. This was a good exercise. Several predictable answers followed immediately.
“The Prayer Book.”
“We’re very diverse,” said one person to the roomful of Anglo people of a common socio-economic stratum, and a room of white heads nodded in righteous agreement.
Then these shorter answers gave way to a confident, more expository pronouncement:
“In The Episcopal Church nobody tells you what you have to believe. Everybody gets to make up his [sic] theology for himself [sic].”
Again, heads nodded affirmatively (gender specificity is apparently forgivable in the service of theological diversity).
There are several things that our spontaneous participant might have meant, and it is not only good manners but Christian charity to assume the best. Our champion of constructive theology could well have meant:
Although we have a rich biblical, creedal, conciliar, and traditional inheritance that norms our theological discourse and to which we are accountable, the exploration and appropriation of that inheritance does not preclude differences of emphasis and interpretation within our humble and faithful assent to this revelatory donation.
That might be what he meant, and perhaps it was only his colloquial way of putting it that threw us off the scent. In any case, neither the priest leading our discussion nor any of the participants thought that the “make up his own theology” bit needed amplification or unpacking, to say nothing of correction. And, perhaps not surprisingly, one participant, not quite wanting to be on the record, but also hoping to be heard at least among her friends at table, added quietly, “That’s right. You don’t have to check your brains at the door.”
She was right. You don’t.
The featured image is “Brain” by Flickr user TZA. It is licensed under Creative Commons.