The Third Who Walks Always Beside Us Response to “In Chapel Perilous” a paper by Nicole Kirk Dr. Brent A. Smith, Minister All Souls Community Church (Unitarian Universalist) Grand Rapids, Michigan Scene: At bedtime in the still house of the Smiths, circa 1993. The wife, Pat, and the husband, Brent, are in bed after a long day: Pat: Listen to this, from Wilma Mankiller’s autobiography: “In our tribal stories, we have heard of a Women’s Council, which was headed by a very powerful woman, perhaps the Ghigau. This oral history is frequently discredited by Western historians as ‘merely myth.’ I have always found their repudiation fascinating. An entire body of knowledge can be dismissed because it was not written, while material written by obviously biased men is readily accepted as reality… How I long to hear their voices!” (Mankiller: A Chief and Her People, Wilma Mankiller & Michael Wallis, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1993, pp 19-20.) Brent: How would she know it is their voices she hears and not really her own back at her? There is no possibility of a Cherokee historiography until 1821, when the tribe adopted Sequoyah’s alphabet and could write things down. Until then there is only oral history which, while a history of a sort, is even more susceptible to the distortion of self-interested ideology, pouring one’s own words into the mouth of the past. Oral history is like the “ether” where all past emails are relegated after they’ve been read and erased. Pat: Go to sleep. * * * The man fires a rifle for many years, and he goes to war, and afterward he turns the rifle in at the armory and he believes he’s finished with the rifle. But no matter what else he might do with his hands – love a woman, build a house, change his son’s diapers – his hands remember the rifle and the power the rifle proffered. - Jarhead, Anthony Swofford, Scribner, NY, p 123 In the Introduction to her paper, “In Chapel Perilous,” author Nicole Kirk states that the purpose of her contribution is to outline and comment upon “the Unitarian Universalist relationship to the hero myth.” She begins her task by refining her focus on this relationship, noting to the reader, “The hero myth is a popular symbol for leadership in the mythological imagination.” Next, she observes that the mythic model of the hero “finds a welcome audience among Unitarian Universalists… [in] The oft-utilized nomenclature of ‘journey,’ ‘quest,’
and ‘discovery’ [which] focuses on the leadership resources of the individual rather than a community,” and in the nature of understandings of ministry “as an exemplary individual who leads through good preaching and other sundry skills.” And, finally, she begins her quest in earnest by suggesting that in the Unitarian Universalist fascination with “UU heroes,” we have the consummation of the mythic model of the hero as exemplified in the Grail legends, with UUism and its most widespread paradigm of leadership. The Lady Kirk’s travels take her to Princeton and bronze plaques commemorating, among others, Elijah Parish Lovejoy and James Joseph Reeb. Why our faith tradition’s Calvinist rival honors these two is answered in the plaques’ texts. Next, she is swept up and onto the modern Grail trail, the internet, where she stumbles upon our Round Table. But The Lady Kirk uncovers a disquieting, hidden truth: “One key problem plaguing many of the strong leaders featured on “Famous UU” lists: the relationship of the leader to the Unitarian and/or Universalist faith is questionable, and thus his or her leadership within Unitarian and/or Universalist tradition is lacking.” This has unfortunate, maybe even dire implications for the authority of the mythic model of the hero within a faith tradition that at this time is struggling not very successfully with a “language of reverence” that is self-referent and transcendent; that is, metaphoric religiously. Employing “Famous UUs” as leadership examples also pushes away from the concept of metaphor to the trap of a model. The metaphoric aspect of a leader’s work is often lost among the details of the individual’s personality and peculiarities. Although such leaders are touted for the very reason of religious association, how being a Unitarian Universalist may or may not shaped their work of fame is not included. In this way, they are sanitized leadership metaphors and models. Ironically, the very same challenge of religious metaphors with the tendency to make them into fixed models, or even idols, is the exact same danger for “Famous UUs.” Not inherently mythic, “Famous UUs” accrue mythic stature… But “Famous UUs” are not mythic heroes in the sense they are not multivaliant symbols filled with mystery such as the mythic heroes of the Bible or Homer’s epic poems. And finally she asks: What does it mean for a tradition to so fervently claim men and women whose relationship to the faith tradition is tenuous at best? What does it say to claim adherents whose only association with one of our congregations may have been the mistake of seeking shelter in the doorway during a rain storm or standing on the steps to straighten a piece of clothing. The subtext of these claims points to a leadership that accepts and honors those whom do not commit to a Unitarian Universalist
community as viable Unitarian Universalists. In addition, falling into the habit of accepting “anonymous Unitarian Universalists” translates “commitment” into something taken lightly. Further, leadership that is valued happens outside of our congregations, and if it involves leaving the tradition, then so be it. Even with the potential of a vital link between a famous or notable Unitarian Universalist’s actions with their religious faith, this information is missing from most biographical accounts. Once a parishioner urged me to challenge the creator of one “UU Heroes” web site on the accuracy of a “Hero” whose rebellious disdain for our faith tradition was well documented, and who wasn’t in covenant with any faith community in our tradition while alive. The creator assured me, “He confided to me that he was Unitarian.” I think the meaning of Nicole’s quest can be succinctly stated: Our current view of leadership is the mythic model of the hero, Romantic in character, rebellious in mood, and capricious by selection, evidencing an historiography more appropriate to oral history. It may also be how we conceive of and respond to leadership, and its responsibilities, authority, accountability, and outcomes. It is individualistic and subjective and, therefore, inherently charismatic. Conceiving of religious leadership in this way produces a Round Table. In this, are we evidencing what is so prevalent in other spheres of society? Ever since the beginning of the Romantic movement the dominant belief has been that a true poet or artist, whatever his genre, must be a rebel against the established order of society… André Malraux said that "All art is a revolt against man's fate." Malraux seems to me to reflect the Romantic view that is determined to see the artist as an individual apart from, superior to and in rebellion against the established order. -In Defense of History, Donald Kagan, 2005 Jefferson lecture What does it mean for a tradition to claim so fervently men and women whose relationship to the faith tradition is tenuous at best? Perhaps a metaphor might suffice. Colleagues have with pride told me that Elijah Parish Lovejoy was a Unitarian, a pride I too adopted. He was a Presbyterian minister, and Reeb started out as one. Are they wellsprings of our faith or Donacon springs? There is a peculiarly a-historical and un-redemptive quality in this mythic model of the hero because there is no sense of the individual being part of a “people of faith” walking together through time. There is little sense of the spiritual life involving devotion to a particular faith community proclaiming a distinctive gospel. It is a private journey of trial and travail, through which others can be uplifted vicariously. Ironically, the ordinary individual’s consent is to identify vicariously with the hero’s atoning example, rather than consenting to covenant equally with others in a faith community of memory and hope. It is an understanding of the spiritual life as a “free and disciplined search for truth,” but
it is a freedom largely outside of or over against covenantal commitment, and a disciplined search shaped predominantly if not exclusively by individual selfinterest. Is it a sign of walking away from a faith tradition’s path, or of forging a new one altogether? The mythic model of heroic leadership, as fashioned in the Grail legends and embodied in the proclamation of “Famous UU’s,” perpetuates an historiography in servitude to the projections of the self and rife with political ideology. How would she know it is their voices she hears and not really her own back at her? That may be its larger and hidden implications. Despite collecting and enumerating “our heroes,” “UU’s” continue to wander in an aimless ennui in search of a distinct faith identity. The fortunes of this faith seem to rise and fall with the public’s political predilections. We yearn to have an identity as a “people” using an individualistic model as an archetype and metaphor! I couldn’t help but wonder whether in Nicole’s juxtaposition of the mythic model of the hero and the Grail legend of the search, with the example of the Iowa sisterhood, she uncovered an ideology so deeply embedded in Unitarianism’s religious identity from the Transcendentalists to our own day that it is difficult to admit. Yet, in continuing to conceive of leadership in the mythic model of the hero and the spiritual life in terms of a Grail-like search, is it a blindness we are doomed to perpetuate? And is it a turning away from a faith tradition that once declared the revelation that all souls are made in a likeness to God, and lifted up “covenant” as the form of the spiritual life? What if the spiritual life is conceived of not as the individual searching for the Holy Grail of truth, but as being faithfully devoted to a covenant; to self, other, and a Lord of History who judges us in a manner we are in want of in judging ourselves? I suggest this because the mythic hero on a quest for the Holy Grail of truth, as a model for the spiritual life, takes moderns past ideology and towards clutching a prize that today threatens human connectedness. Nicole explains: My new favorite version of the re-telling of the Holy Grail story… is a novel written by Naomi Mitchison… where two rival reporters in a medieval setting wound with modern motifs. Camelot has a newspaper industry and the art of reporting is layered with the ideas of chivalry. The hero and heroine work for rival papers. They are sent to the Chapel Perilous to investigate the strange occurrences there. There they find not one Grail, but five. And there is a possibility for more grails. The three Grail knights from tradition, Perceval, called Peredur, Galahad, and Bors arrive at the chapel to find and leave with their own particular grail. Other knights from the Grail stories appear, Lancelot and Gawain the anti-hero, leave with grails too…The burning question of the journalists, of course, is similar to ours. Which one is the real Grail?
Today, the quest for the “real” Grail yields murderous terror, as various knights with their grail in one hand and a rifle or bomb in the other, clash inside the Chapel Perilous and out. We struggle in disbelief. How can sincere (they so confided to me), heroic knights on a sacred quest for truth do such terrible things? There are three general roles yielded by the mythic model of the hero: the martyr, the conqueror, and the impotent. The martyr dies, and at best is remembered, although memory, as exemplified in the famous UU’s site, is fickle, narrow, subjective, elusive, and capricious; that is, finite. The conqueror, the one who fulfills the quest, risks the hubris of self-interest, of being blinded in the glare of holding the shiny chalice aloft. The impotent is the one who goes on the pursuit and returns empty handed, having not arrived at the aimed for destination by the measurement of questing and journeying itself. He neither gains the prize nor dies trying, a modern misfit born of the despair we now see in “jousting with windmills.” He’s left with scraps from the table; the meaning was in the journey! Nicole draws out the conqueror and hints at the impotent: Standing at the threshold of the Chapel Perilous in a far off corner there is a knight kneeling before a candlelit altar. In the Grail romances, our hero always, eventually, succeeds. The Grail is found, and the knight asks the correct question, or performs the correct ritual to embrace the Grail’s power. In our contemporary times the Grail is understood differently. It is often unobtainable and out of reach or bespeaks of nothing of the ordinary but only the spectacular. The mythic model of the hero and the quest is theologically bankrupt because it is not redemptive. Today the journey of discovery at the root of the meaning of the mythic model of the hero can yield no prize, except, I would argue, the theological “bait and switch” of “the journey is the meaning.” Or, the quest yields self-delusion, or worse, cynicism and despair. Redemption is completely different. It requires something different of the self. It requires a view of the self as a part of a redemptive history, and history understood as more than biography. Redemption requires the self in covenant with others to form a community which itself is part of a larger tradition of “walking a path that in covenant redeems.” It requires a community that is part of a faith history and tradition, a redemptive story as it were which the self can be located in and can help shape, but ultimately is larger and differentiated from the self. It requires a covenant of Being yielding a new being. Or, as one past President said to me while reflecting on our religious community’s conception of the spiritual life as a covenanted walk: “A walk with others doesn’t need a destination like a journey does, but it is not aimless wandering, either. It is something completely different.” (Conversation with Dr. Roger Gilles, Professor of Writing at Grand Valley State University.)
If ever there was such a thing as a knight who went on a quest for the Holy Grail, rest assured that in the solitariness of his dotage, his hands would remember the lance and the power the lance proffered. His dreams would be nostalgic and chivalrous, but awake his days empty and long. Today he would write about Jarheads trained as snipers, whisked off to contend with an adversary they would not encounter, ending their “triumphant” quest with rifles ejaculating their bullets into the empty desert air. * * * * * Who is the third who walks always beside you? When I count, there are only you and I together But when I look ahead up the white road There is always another one walking beside you Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded I do not know whether a man or a woman -But who is that on the other side of you? -The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot, lines 360-366 Why this topic by this group at this time? I began asking myself that during the long drive home last year, a question similar to the one I always ask coming home from the cinema. Why study the Grail at a time in our country’s history when civil liberties are being radically redefined, separation of church and state redrawn, abortion and euthanasia prominent, the Bible and God shape national and international policy with Biblical illiteracy rampant, terrorism abounds, and we have emerged from a troubled century that included such luminaries as Barth, Tillich, Niebuhr, Camus, Adams, Hartshorne, Ricouer, and others whose thoughts have shaped our concepts of ourselves and of meaning? Why study something from which the knowledge gleaned only begs the question of history and ontology? “Insofar as critics have sought to establish a dialogue between modern thought and medieval romance, psychoanalysis has been the popular option.” (“The Ethics of ‘Writing’ Enigma: A reading of Chrétien de Troyes’ Conte du Graal and of Lévinas’s Totalité et infini’,” Kathryn Banks, Comparative Literature, Spring 2003 (55, no. 2), pp. 95-111) The modern genre of literature most like Chretien de Troyes’ original poem would be the fantasy literature of Tolkien or Lewis. What can be made of an interest in literary fantasy or in the psychoanalytic analysis of the self? The day is awash in them, drowning any authoritative voice that might sound from something distinct from them and which is our particular calling: the theological task. The existential situation as I read it was recently described thus:
More than 60% of the American people don’t trust the press. Why should they? They’ve been reading “The Da Vinci Code” and marveling at its historical insights…We’re happier to swallow a half-baked Renaissance religious conspiracy theory than to examine the historical fiction we’re living (and dying for) today. And not only is it remarkably easy to believe what we want to believe. It’s remarkably easy to find someone who will back us up… This week The Los Angeles Times announced its intention to exile the square and stodgy voice of authority farther yet. The paper will launch an interactive editorial page. “We’ll have some editorials where you can go online and edit an editorial to your satisfaction,” the page’s editor says. [They have taken as their] model Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia to which anyone can contribute, and which grows by accretion and consensus. Relatedly, it takes as its premise the idea that “facts” belong between quotation marks… What is new is our odd, bipolar approach to fact. We have a fresh taste for documentaries. Any novelist will tell you that readers hunger for nonfiction, which may explain the number of historical figures who have crowded into our novels. Facts seem important. Facts have gravitas. But the illusion of facts will suffice [today]. One in three Americans still believes there were WMD’s in Iraq. -“The Interactive Truth,” Stacy Schiff, NY Times, June 15, 2005 Are we happier to study a Medieval based legend than to examine the historical fictions we’re living and dying for today? The theological task is to correlate the existential situation with the revelations of ultimacy represented by a particular faith community and tradition. It is a creative task within a community of memory and hope, and in the liberal theological tradition its creativity is aimed at understanding human nature in order to speak to the human condition as part of the ongoing story of humanity’s covenant of Being. “Theology stands on the boundary between philosophy and literature... The task of the theologian is to distinguish the responsible and appropriate development of images from their perversion.” (Christ in a Pluralistic Age, John Cobb, chpt 3, number 1, 1975) The theologian’s path is between the understandings and perversions of philosophy and literature, gaining from the understandings but resisting the perversions, all in order to fulfill a distinctive role in humanity’s quest for meaning. While it must consider seriously the questions of philosophy, theology puts those questions to use to find meaning in the ongoing events of humanity and creation. Without theology philosophy becomes a series of concepts that distorts the real sufferings and trials and burdens of real human existence by constructing a unitary metaphysics of resolution, a Merlinesque spell that Medieval scholasticism fell under and pragmatists abhor. “The being of entities repeatedly
eludes the philosopher's grasp.” (IBID) Philosophy gets lost in a Cosmic Mind. Likewise today, without theology, literature becomes a series of metaphors and myths that distorts the story of real events. It threatens to transform them into Romantic, idealistic archetypes, wherein their resolution lies in the illusion of the “unitary self” that rewrites history to its own liking. “Life in the midst of images tends to become dissociated from the actual facts of the world and to overlay those facts with a vision that both illumines and obscures them.” (IBID) Theologian John Cobb further explains the modern theological task: Theology must resist this tendency in both philosophy and literature. Christ is not a concept or fluid nexus of concepts. "Christ" does not designate Jesus as such but refers to Jesus in a particular way, namely, as the incarnation of the divine. It does not designate deity as such but refers to deity experienced as graciously incarnate in the world. To abstract the designative element from the conceptual would be to distort the meaning of "Christ" beyond Christian usage. But to abstract the conceptual meaning from the designative one is equally unacceptable. The responsible development of the conceptual side of the meaning must be checked by repeated reference to both history and ontology. (IBID) The impotent expeditions of our time are all about us. It is time for religious liberalism to abandon the spiritual life as a “free and disciplined search for truth,” and take its place in the revelation history of a covenant of Being. The inspiration for the frontispiece of this final section came from Shackleton’s Antarctic voyage whereby it was recorded that, walking in a stupor of exhaustion and hopelessness they spied a hidden companion constant with their journey, an attendant who, when they were in full possession of themselves, they could not distinguish. But, one who, apparently, had accompanied them all along. The party of explorers finally saw this shadowy figure as a delusion that “there was one more member than could actually be counted.”(T.S. Eliot: The Complete Poems and Plays, T.S. Eliot, Hardcourt, Brace, & World, p. 54) To those of us who conceive of the spiritual life as a walk instead of a journey, the third is not a delusion but a haunting spiritual reality with a real history. There is always one more member to the party than can actually be counted. But who is that on the other side of you? The more entrepreneurial among us might say, “The potential new member and next ‘famous UU,’” a response the consumerist culture venerates. Others might answer, “A projection of the individual or Collective self.” Still others, “An imaginative product of the Cosmic Mind.” I think the third is a figure from the past whose witness we leave locked up in the sanctuary of still, small Houses. Would that we would see it, or at the very least hear its voice as that of all souls still waiting to be redeemed. We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning.
Published on Nov 15, 2010
Published on Nov 15, 2010
Scene: At bedtime in the still house of the Smiths, circa 1993. The wife, Pat, and the husband, Brent, are in bed after a long day: