Last night on public radio I heard half of a broadcast of a City Arts and Lectures event featuring Anne Lamott. I was listening during my evening commute home from work. When I got to the house, I turned off the radio, thinking I could later purchase a transcript or audio copy. Silly me. The City Arts folks don’t offer tapes or transcripts (boo hiss). If you didn’t hear it, you missed something wonderful. Lamott has one of the sanest approaches to Christian spirituality that I’ve run across in a long, long time. She also is inspiring as a writer and a teacher of writing.
Much of what Lamott said made me laugh, or made me think. But two comments particularly stood out. She mentioned that whenever she teaches writing, she counsels her students to “write the book you wish you could read.” Such simple, all too obvious advice, and yet so easily forgotten (at least, by the likes of me). Her other comment I can’t remember well enough even to try to quote; she was saying something about how religious teachings can sometimes contain an element of hostility in them — we are told (by the tradition or by the reigning religious powers that be) that to be a good Christian we must be obedient, be docile, be forgiving, etc. etc. Lamott made a reference to some such strand within the Christian web and then tossed off a comment about how she was so tired of having such hostility directed at her. That snapped me to attention. It was one of those moments when all sorts of random-thought-flotsam-and-jetsam within the soupy sea of consciousness suddenly comes into a unifying focus. Yes, hostility indeed. Our dear religion puts so much emphasis on being hostile to sin, to evil, to the devil, that such hostility sloshes all over the boundaries of the faith, and said hostility ends up getting pointed at the very people who are the most desperately in need of grace. Meanwhile, some really nasty stuff in our world (that is, perhaps, much more deserving of our righteous hostility) manages to walk in and out of the religious lens, unnoticed.
Here’s a rather blatant example, from official Catholic teaching: artificial contraception and same-sex lovemaking are denounced as mortal sins because each represents a sexual act that is not open to the possibility of creating new life. Setting aside for a moment the complex and deeply contested question of whether there is any merit to such doctrine (!), let’s just go with the idea that Christian morality (however it is interpreted and applied) involves an ethic of life. With this principle in mind, consider whether the rampant toxification of our environment through the burning of fossil fuels, the dissemination of pesticides and herbicides and all-sorts-of-cides, not to mention the continued use of non-recyclable plastics and CFCs and countless other nonbiodegradable substances, presents a grave threat to the future of life? To me, the answer to this question is self-evident. Nevertheless, practically all Americans commit (either actively or passively) life-thwarting actions that contribute to, or result in, environmental degradation every day. Yes, even nice married heterosexual rhythm-method-practicing Christians commit acts which directly or indirectly harm the environment, each and every day. Few if any of these acts serve any higher moral imperative than the convenience of the person(s) committing them; in other words, we as a society have traded the well-being of our ecosystem for the decidedly short-term gains of personal convenience. Frankly, I think it is obvious that such actions are profoundly, even gravely, sinful. But the church, Catholic or otherwise, seems so quick to forgive (read: ignore) the sin of ecological harm. Why? Perhaps because few Christians really perceive such actions as sinful (that may have been an excuse a generation ago, but it doesn’t really pass muster today); more cynically, I wonder if the church avoids confronting ecological sin because it would drive too many major donors away. Whatever the reason, the church refuses to express anything more than the most general of criticism against ecological sin. Given this, I have to ask: why, then, do the “sins” of non-procreative sexuality remain such a particular point of contention for so many Christians? I believe a strong case can be made that the church has got its priorities entirely backward when comparing these two ethical issues. I suppose it’s obvious where I’m going with this: that the problem here is not so much about how soft the church is on ecological sin (although I think that is a problem), but rather, how harsh the church is in its condemnation of sexual “sin.” In other words — perhaps traditional Christian sexual morality can all too easily become just another means by which the religion can be a purveyor of hostility rather than grace?
Thank you, Anne Lamott. You’ve given me much to ponder. Now if only City Arts & Lectures would start offering transcripts!