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My Experience of Post-Christianity

Part of the process toward being ordained in the Episcopal church is clinical pastoral education (CPE). I have long thought it would be profitable for clergy who have recently gone through CPE to reflect on their experience and put it in writing. Every experience of CPE is particular, and so it is difficult to offer a far-reaching general narrative about it. However, my suspicion is that with the exception of those actively engaged in CPE and those who have gone through it recently, the Episcopal Church is widely out of touch with what people experience in CPE.

I experienced this disconnect firsthand. It was expected that CPE would be a wonderful experience of growth for us as ordinands, that in CPE we would develop a “pastoral presence.” The hope was that we would rid ourselves of anxiety about sitting with someone in a torturous situation, and gain confidence in giving pastoral care. Without a doubt, sometimes that happened. I got lucky; the chaplain who oversaw my field work was a devout Methodist from Kenya. He was outside of the CPE system, and was therefore open to tell my colleague and I that he disagreed with almost everything they told us about pastoral care.

CPE is not just field work. It also encompasses group meetings twice a week with all the CPE students in a given area. My group consisted of about ten people who were doing CPE all over Wisconsin. My colleague and I who did field work together were the only orthodox Christians in the group. I am not assigning the label “unorthodox” to anyone; they all claimed it themselves in one form or another. One of the students in the group was from the Church of Christ, two others were Lutherans, and the remaining students were Unitarian Universalists. What all of them shared in common was a self-stated rejection of orthodox Christianity. This took shape in a number of different ways, but most notably they rejected the use of masculine pronouns for God and voted that the name of Jesus could not be used when we prayed as a group. I don’t write any of this in an overtly critical sense. The structure of the group meant that the majority had the ability to determine how we prayed as a group. And that was fine. I simply never volunteered to pray.

My point is this: it was the first time I experienced and observed what it means to be post-Christian in the realm of pastoral care. Twice a week for three months, I met with these seminarians and heard them talk about their pastoral visits and heard them critique and engage my accounts of pastoral visits. What I observed through all of this is that pastoral care offered from the perspective of post-Christianity is essentially religious nihilism.

Two immediate questions present themselves: What do I mean by post-Christian? and What do I mean by religious nihilism? My guide for answering these questions will be Robert Jenson. In 2002, Jenson and Carl Braaten edited  The Strange New Word of the Gospel: Re-Evangelizing in the Postmodern World. Jenson contributed a chapter, “What is a Post-Christian?” Jenson’s definition is perfect because it is simple: “Thus to be post-Christian is to belong to a community — a polity or civil society — which used to be Christian and whose habits of thought and policies are determined by that very fact. One can therefore be a post-Christian without knowing anything about Christianity — and many in the West’s great cities are now in just that condition.”[1] A post-Christian is someone who belongs to a community that used to be Christian. What made my experience of my CPE group fascinating is my fellow students all knew something about Christianity and now intentionally rejected orthodox Christianity.

Religious nihilism is “almost-nihilism.” It is the result of people being unwilling to take the final and fateful step into sheer nothingness, perhaps because that step is an impossibility. Almost-nihilism becomes religious when post-Christians reach for superstition. Jenson quotes G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown:

It’s drowning all your … rationalism and skepticism, it’s coming in like a sea; and the name of it is superstition … it’s the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense and can’t see things as they are. Anything that anybody talks about, and says there’s a good deal in it, extends itself indefinitely like a vista nightmare. And a dog is an omen, and a cat is a mystery … All the menagerie of polytheism [returns]: dog Anubis and great green-eyed Pasht and all the holy howling bulls of Bashan, reeling back to the bestial gods of the beginning.[2]

In the face of losing religious and moral bearings, a post-Christian individual reaches back into the superstition of old gods. There’s one important caveat: religious nihilism and its adherents know that what they are reaching for is made up and untrue. Hence it is nihilism.

Perhaps some examples from my CPE experience will help. On more than one occasion, my CPE director stared out the window longingly during our group time and talked about the Hindu god of destruction, Shiva. She would say things like, “This world is not just beauty and joy, but pain and destruction. … All of it mixed together is beautiful. … The universe gives darkness too.” Shiva, of course, did not have any real existence in the mind of my director. Shiva was a tool, something to be used, for her interpretation of what she called “god,” the universal spirit or the universe. One of the great ironies of all this is that using masculine pronouns for God was considered oppressive by the group, but no one but I and my field education colleague batted an eye at the idea that the universal spirit we were all praying to gives the pain, evil, and suffering of the world. It didn’t matter because they were just word games, nihilistic attempts at grasping beauty. One of my fellow students, a Unitarian Universalist, would lovingly quote Nietzsche without any awareness that Nietzsche would relegate her to the status of a herd animal who needs myths and lies to live. Without her myths and lies, her life would have no meaning, or so Nietzsche would say. But none of that mattered because there wasn’t any claim to reality being made. It was all knowingly made up.

What did it look like when this religious nihilism was transferred into the realm of pastoral care? Hopeless, it looked hopeless. Over the course of the summer, we had to present pastoral visits to our CPE group. At one point, I told them about a visit I had with the daughter of a hospital patient. The patient, the woman’s mother, was dying. Her daughter was distraught. Although her mother had been baptized Roman Catholic, she had also at times practiced Buddhism. The woman wanted to know if her mother was going to hell. I said the only thing I knew to say; her mother was buried with Christ in baptism. In the words of the 1979 Book of Prayer Book, she was “sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” And whenever a baptized Christian dies there is always hope. After dying, a Christian is received into the arms of the one who loved this person to the point of death. When I recounted this to the group, I was told that I stopped her “searching”; that I didn’t allow her to plumb the depths of what she was feeling; that my job as a chaplain is never to provide answers. My job is to accompany people on their journey.

Another form that this religious nihilism took was arbitrary prayer. We were instructed to use whatever form of prayer or name of God that the patient wanted. It was unthinkable to my fellow students and my CPE leader that, instead of praying in whatever form the patient preferred, I would simply explain to the patient what I believed and how I could pray. Of course, almost every patient in a hospital in southeastern Wisconsin wants Christian prayer, so over and over I heard stories from the other students about how they had to pray in the name of Jesus, even though they didn’t want to. They were shocked when I suggested that as a Christian I would never want them to pretend to be a Christian as my chaplain; that if they don’t believe in Jesus they shouldn’t pray in his name; that religious prayers and rituals ought not be inhabited by chaplains for the sake of giving comfort; that, maybe, real comfort and dignity is given in being honest. But what did it matter when they were knowingly doing something untrue?

I recognize that everything I have said is anecdotal. I hope that for every story I have there is an opposite experience in CPE. However, I think it is inevitable that the vast majority of the CPE program—if it is not already—will essentially become a cohort of religious nihilists giving hopeless pastoral care.

I offer three closing remarks, none of which is novel. First, a post-Christian world must draw us to the particularity of the Christian God. What all of my CPE classmates had in common was that they wanted to do away with the particularity of the biblical God in favor of a “universal spirit” that could encompass all forms of deity. The God of Scripture is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; he is this one and not another. Second, to the extent that pastoral care is not tied to the particularity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the particular story of God given in Scripture, it runs the risk of becoming religious nihilism or mere sentimentality. Third, the problem of evil and suffering is an intra-Christian and Jewish problem, which means we are the only ones who can properly witness to the unjust nature of suffering. When I answered the woman who thought her mom might go to hell, my fellow students and CPE director told me it was wrong to give her answers to her suffering. As if what I said gave an answer for her suffering! I have no answer for her suffering, but this is why Christians can properly witness to her suffering. It is only a Christian and Jewish conception of God that opens space for the laments of Job over his undeserved suffering.

[1] Robert Jenson, The Strange New Word of the Gospel: Re-Evangelizing in the Postmodern World, p. 21

[2] Ibid., pp. 21-22


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