Thursday, May 26, 2016

Hozier and Personal Faith

Hozier's song, "Take Me to Church," analogizes sex and worship. It can come off a bit uncomfortable for people of faith, although the honesty of the lyrics and his performance is tough to over come. I'm not sure whether this was his intent in writing, but, being an Irish singer, it's not difficult to see the complicated relationship between the Irish people and the Catholic Church coming through here.

Seen with that perspective, the song becomes even more powerful. Hozier talks about giving his partner the knife with which to cut him, but also being dependent on her for whatever satisfaction he finds in life. Relationships are like this in a lot of ways - the trust we put in another person is certainly a double-edged sword, but it also speaks to what's traditionally been the relationship between the people at the Church, especially Roman Catholicism.

There is so much emphasis on the Church itself as the means of salvation - and while I certainly agree with that in principle, it often becomes an unhealthy obsession with a human institution. The Irish Catholic Church, as has been revealed over the last few decades, really took the trust of the Irish people and trampled it for a long time. The very deep and devout faith of the people was used as a knife to cut them deeply - yet, because of generations of church teaching, there was literally nowhere else to turn. It's not hard to see how it can feel like a prison.

The Irish Catholic Church largely failed to properly mediate the gospel for the people in its care. The result is a whole generation of Irish kids, shaped and formed by an extremely religious culture, running from faith altogether - at least the sort of organized, formal faith that so marks their land.

In the song, Hozier doesn't depict an equal relationship. He's not approaching his love from the same footing she approaches him; the power dynamic is off. It's not as though he can be blamed for the position he's found himself in. It's far from ideal and certainly different decisions could have been made to prevent it, but, like the Irish relationship to the Church, what we really have here is abuse and manipulation that feels like a inescapable trap.*

For me, it speaks to how we understand our personal faith. Even that term itself can be tricky. So often you hear people talk about personal faith. I have a hesitancy to use the term, mostly because it sounds so individualistic. Personal faith means, I decide. I become the arbiter of value and truth. In some sense, we do all have to be that - we live in a world with free will. We get to make decisions; there is some measure of autonomy, even if we're ultimately connected to each other. At the same time, we really move onto shaky ground when we become the arbiter of anything - that could be illustrated no better than the recent failures of the Irish Catholic Church.

Perhaps the better way to speak about things is taking personal responsibility for faith. Traditionally, the Church served as the mediator of faith - this is how traditions with a strong lay/clergy split still function. The priest/pastor represents God to you. As a pastor, this is a pretty scary, solemn responsibility. It's almost too much.** No person, no institution, really, can be the proper mediator. Trouble really arises when those failures compound.

This is outsourcing our faith. That's a problem in the Catholic Church, sure, but also in a low of evangelical protestant churches as well. It's not an issue of theology or practice - it's an issue of humanity and religion. People go to church, essentially, so its someone else's problem. We don't have to ask and answer the questions if there's a pastor/priest there to do it for us. We'll just show up now and then, listen and be good.

This was never a good idea, but it worked so long as the mediator was trustworthy. Now that we've reached this age where pretty much no one fully trusts religious institutions, things are all coming apart.

People tend to respond to a failure of mediation by assuming a personal faith - in essence they become their own mediator. They might still show up in church from time to time, but now, instead of following blindly, they'll just take what they like and leave what they don't. This is a very pragmatic faith, but it's not helpful in any way. This kind of individualism is dangerous for all the reasons outlined above. It's the source, I think, of all the "spiritual, but not religious" talk happening with younger generations today. That's the next step: saying, "why do I even show up at all? I'm capable of figuring this out. There's an understanding of something outside ourselves, but we have no means of faithfully reaching it, because the mediators we've been given have failed us or have proven untrustworthy. So we become the mediator.

I think there's another way to respond to this cold shower of realization. Instead of simply taking the faith we've outsourced and making it a personal faith, what if we just, I don't know, took responsibility for the faith we've ignored? There's still an element of individualism here - I'm not sure how we get around that when we are, in some measure, individual people. But we're just as flawed a mediator as that church or priest we rejected; it would be silly and downright arrogant to think otherwise.

There is a real value to having other people, especially a people with a history and a tradition, speaking into our lives, providing guidance and wisdom and influence. The idea of Church is not a bad one - in fact it's really, really good. The problem is blind acceptance. We need to enter the mediating relationship with our eyes open, recognizing that we're all just people - the whole thing is people. Yes, there is, if you believe in God, some force working through it all, but we can't just take the conduit for granted.

We can and should ask questions. We can and should do our own leg work, investigate what's being told to us - not out of suspicion, but out of care and concern for our own spiritual (and physical) well being. Faith is, of course, meant to be personal, but it's not meant to be all personal. We're naturally connected to each other - now and in the past. History is important, as is tradition - so long as we're not outsourcing our faith to them irresponsibly.

I think that's why the Hozier song is so powerful. Sex ends up being a perfect analogy. We recognize in (both spiritual and physical) ecstasy some real larger truth that's at once within us and completely outside ourselves. But that ecstasy is a moment within a larger life - and realities of that life outside those moments is so much bigger and more complex and less, well, ecstatic. We can't simply chase the moments; we have to figure out how to incorporate them into the whole of our lives in healthy ways.

*The official video for the song is even more complex and emotionally disturbing on a number of levels - it explores this notion more deeply and troublingly that certainly I was expecting.


Odist_Abettor said...

Having been myself so all-encompassingly devoted to a church community which ultimately proved more manipulative and abusive than in any way willing to contemplate the possibility of its own failings, I can understand the sense of structurelessness so often found in a personal faith departed from the institution meant to give it context. The power given to those mediating authority figures can easily be one focused solely on the survival of a system which maintains their authority and their methodology regardless of any spirituality besides a mechanical set of observances. You're very right in saying the power dynamic is at best skewed. It's a trap.

Still, whether personal responsibility or communal, why is it always us that's to blame? Is it not enough to seek hope and be constantly bombarded with our inadequacy? Will there ever be such a thing as divine accountability? We can't even hold our pastors and mentors accountable for their contradictory reasoning that always leaves the followers to blame for every fault. Just have more faith, we're told, every time. All the good is God and all the bad is us. When will we finally be allowed to think that maybe the God of the universe or even just the massive institution of the church might perhaps be to blame? You brought this up with Ireland but anywhere people are labeled sinful and God is labeled perfect, there will always be those trampled on by the authority-holding mediators.

Ryan said...

I think that's sort of my point - people have given away authority to an institution/pastor/church/whatever - and when that person lets them down, they abandon faith altogether.

It's the assumption that someone or something else should be mediating faith to/for us that's the problem.

What's that line from Spotlight, when the victim advocate was talking - "The priest was God; how do you say no to God?"

Everyone is religious; it's part of being human, but we can't outsource our religion to someone else - that's only going to end badly.