When our institutions become bigger than our mythsWritten by Eric McGlade | | firstname.lastname@example.org
The late Joseph Campbell argued that all religions are grounded in story or myth. These stories or myths have grown out of either historical events that have shaped the affection and passion of a people or a psychological event that inspired a leader of a people. He went onto suggest that a healthy religious myth or story shapes the lives of people in four ways: 1). It provides a way for people to have authentic encounters with the Holy, 2). It frees a person to discover and develop a personal identity, 3). It works to create safe places where people can live peaceably and respect others, and 4). It helps its participants to live into the reality that all things are inter-connected and interdependent on each other.
Often it is the third piece of Campbell’s quadrilateral that provokes the greatest challenge to people who live out of a religious perspective. Sometimes the most religious among us are the least tolerant and safe to be around. From the Spanish Inquisition to the Salem witchcraft trials, history is filled with tragic examples of the devout and religious doing horrible things to their neighbor. The unanswered question from my seminary days that still haunts me is how could a people so acculturated by the story of my faith (Christianity) either participate in or look the other way during the Holocaust.
This is what makes all of this stuff we have been reading about around clergy abusing children so troubling. The clergy abuse is bad enough, it is the looking the other way done by church leaders that is maddening. If providing a safe place for our children to grow into the people they need to become is no longer possible because our institutional structures have become more important that our myths, then what good are we?
Of course, most of clergy types are people of conscious and good will. The percentage of abusive clergy is very small and not limited to a particular faith tradition. We become clergy types because we are drawn to a mystery much greater than ourselves committed to a cause much nobler than the self. Sometimes we fall and when that fall brings hurt and pain to others, we need to step out. If we cannot figure that out ourselves, then our bishops or denominational leaders better do it for us. If they don’t, the religious community fails to become a safe place for our people.
The Pope, is now caught in this very issue. I pray he isn’t naive about this. He has chastised the bishops in Ireland for looking the other way, and he has apologized to victims of the abuse, but he seems reluctant to raise the necessary questions that got his church in this mess in the first place. Furthermore there is some question about abuse that happened on his watch when he was a bishop in Germany. I believe him to be a good man who wants to do the right thing but one’s insulation in the institutional trappings of any organization, especially one as labyrinthine as the church can skew one’s vision. If he trusts the “myth” we will find his way. If he trusts the “institution” he will get lost. This issue is so large, it can consume his papacy if he doesn’t move quickly toward transparency.
Don’t get me wrong, institutions are important. They are the way our values, our stories and myths get passed along to the next generation. Without institutions what is important to us dies when we die. But we have to watch them. It is easy to lose sight of why they exist in the first place. The trappings and power can become seductive, the need to protect and defend becomes more important than the need to search the soul and become reconnected to the mission. If Dr. Campbell is right, behind the work of all healthy religious expressions is the work of human dignity and hope. Holy mystery, personal identity, cultivating safe and peaceable places for each other, and learning to understand how inter-connected all things are is noble work… work that will happen if we learn to trust our myths and stories, not our systems and all their trappings.
Eric McGlade is a United Methodist pastor in Bowling Green.