“I don’t go to church anymore,” an acquaintance once told me. Because of my line of work, people often (unprompted) feel that they have to tell me the status of their faith life. “It’s all about making people feel guilty, and I just don’t need that.”
I barely knew this person, and she didn’t strike me as being particularly open to conversation, so I said little in response. I didn’t know what her experience of church had been like. Certainly there are any number of faith communities willing and eager to dish out huge helpings of guilt. I have heard many people over the years share complaints like this one with me.
But there is irony in her comment. Human beings would appear to need no help from the church, or from anywhere, in feeling guilty. “If you’re not feeling guilty about something as a new mother,” a new-mother-friend of mine once said to me, “you’re doing something wrong.” She might have made the same observation about our eating, our work, our downtime, our spending habits, our cell phone use. If we’re not feeling guilty about whatever it is we may or may not be doing, we’re probably just not thinking about it enough.
The church doesn’t need to make us feel guilty. We are good at feeling guilty all by ourselves. Not only are we good at feeling guilty, in fact, one could even argue that we like it. Many have walked away from the church’s so-called version of guilt, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not still as defined by a message of inadequacy and failure as we ever were.
The Cleanse: The New Ritual Purification
“If you called it Celebrity Crank Diet it would not catch on. But calling it A Cleanse dignifies it. It speaks to this idea of ritual cleansing present in just about all of the great religions of the world. I think that part its appeal is this wish to not be these secular, over-privileged, over-fed characters that many of us are, but to cleanse ourselves to be something higher, purer, more ascetic, more in touch with our souls, and less with our bodies.”
-Katherine Ashenburg, author of The Dirt on Clean
In the book Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?, Professor Timothy Caulfield examines a popular dietary fad: The Cleanse. Although he concludes that there is no research to support that they, or the expensive products that go with them, work, he remains sympathetic to the cultural and even religious reasons why they have become, and why he believes they will continue to be, so appealing. He discussed the book in a new year’s interview on CBC’s Q, the theme of that day’s radio program being fresh starts and resolutions—always an enticing topic after coming off a month of steady over-indulgence over the holidays.
Caulfield argues that it is precisely in using semi-religious language that these radical cleanses are so intuitively appealing. Rather than being repulsed by them, we gravitate toward these messages of guilt. The feasting that we have done over the holidays is re-cast as sinful. (“I wonder why eating and drinking with friends and family would make us think we’ve been bad?” the interviewer on the program mused). Now we need to pay. Whereas we might have once looked to religion to offer us absolution from the “sins” we have committed, now a fancy celebrity cleanse is marketed to us instead: we can repent from our bad eating behaviour and re-start our systems, make ourselves squeaky clean again.
That human impulse to feel guilty or even unclean is as strong as ever, even with the very weakened hold organized religion has on our collective psyche. And as usual, there are those who will manipulate that guilty impulse toward their own benefit. Whether in particular versions of church, or particular versions of dieting, we can find the package that will purify us… if…
If we subscribe to strict religious practices.
If we subscribe to strict eating practices.
Clean or Real?
In the Christian tradition, baptism has been associated with repentance and forgiveness from the outset. The water overtly symbolizes cleaning, purification, the washing of sin. We die to an old way of life and are raised to a new life in Christ. All of those same basic premises noted by Caulfield and Gwyneth Paltrow are present in that ancient language and symbolism used around baptism: a system re-set, a starting over, a cleansing, a purification.
But if we look to the story of Jesus’ own baptism, we find another possibility in how we might understand this central Christian ritual, and therefore an alternative narrative by which we may cast our lives. Jesus, we can suppose, was a disciple of John the Baptist. All four Gospels are consistent in seeing Jesus’ baptism as a defining moment in his life, launching him from obscurity as an unknown peasant carpenter into a highly controversial and contentious public ministry. And yet, when Jesus emerges from his full-body plunge by John into the Jordan river, it is not a message of purification that he receives. “You are my beloved son,” a voice from heaven thunders. “With you I am well pleased.” Jesus had, as yet, done nothing in particular to please God. He had not yet embraced his identity as Messiah. He had not proven himself, he had not met expectations, he had not lived a life that was noteworthy or extraordinary. But God loves him. God embraces him as a beloved child.
In contrast to that basic human impulse to be washed clean, Jesus’ baptism instead brings to mind that most touching passage from the children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams:
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but Really loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get all loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
- Jesus doesn’t need to be cleansed. He needs to become.
- He needs to become able to see that even he, this shabby and humble peasant Carpenter from Galilee, can bear God’s Light.
- He needs to become capable of being hurt, to know that being hurt won’t destroy him.
- He needs to become so real that he can surrender himself. So real that he will not lose himself in letting go.
From his baptism, Jesus will go on to reveal this becoming in disruptive acts of healing and feeding; in disarming intimacy with Abba God; in his calloused desert-dry hands reaching out to touch the defiling realities of lepers and corpses; in his receiving of water from a Samaritan woman at a well, hospitality from a notorious tax collector, anointing from a nameless, foolish, wasteful, extravagant and sinful woman just before his death. Jesus’ entire Way will cultivate, till, and claim this reality: that we meet God in the muck, the connectivity, the mutuality that actually marks our existence.
His becoming starts with those surprising and unearned words of love.
Bread of Life
What does it look like when the church embraces this version of baptismal life that takes us into the muck? When we are offered, not purity, but truth as the way to lift the burdens of guilt that we so naturally carry?
It might be as simple as our hunger. Jesus understands that our hunger can lead us to settle for junk. Then our hunger can lead us to guilt about the junk and then the search for that junk-free fresh start, the squeaky clean body which must mean a lily-white soul to go with it.
But Jesus claims his life as Bread in the possibility that we can also re-learn the lessons for which we are hard-wired, that our hunger can lead us to community, relationship, joy, and love. Our hunger can lead us into an encounter with God that promises to re-shape our human encounters.
Perhaps we gravitate toward these messages of guilt because that guilt is an expression of the powerlessness of living lives which are so thoroughly tainted by the world around us. And somehow that voice of love seeks to break through the clouds into our lives too, to beckon us into the waters, to embrace us so faithfully and fully that we can surrender, we can be mixed up and muddled about in the mess around us and within us, we can be taken into the heart of the world’s hurt. We can embrace the muss and fuss, the awkwardness and challenges and startling beauty of the human life, and in doing so, we can become. Not pure, but connected. Not clean, but real.