The Search for a Post-Church Spirituality
Saturday mornings is eggs-'n-toast for breakfast at a coffee shop, catching up with the week's news from the By supplement to Die Burger, and in the local newspaper, Eikestadnuus. My eye caught an item and my PDA remembered it for me Thursday, 2006 August 24, a public meeting in the new chapel of the Theological Seminary, University of Stellenbosch, on "The search for a post-church spirituality". Despite heavy deadlines, I had to attend.
Having no idea where the new chapel was (what happened to the old one?) I joined similarly lost souls in the parking lot, and as if being lost together would solve anything, we confidently walked on. My new travelling companion complained about the darkness, "Why don't they put lights here?" he asked. "Perhaps this way, we can see the stars better?" I suggested. He didn't reply. Thankfully, we ended up at the chapel soon enough, which as luck would have it was located on the western side of the Seminary.
The chapel is a lecture room sized chamber, with an impressive crucifix decorating the eastern wall. I never quite know how to react to graphic demonstrations of piety, but I think you'll agree with me it is very effective.
I arrived early and did the neck-craning who-else-is-here-thing, knowing that it wasn't much use, really, since I don't actually know the who's who of South African Christianity anyway. So when I helped a slim, bashful but affable chap carry a bench a few feet, I had no idea who he was. And when I later listened to his friendly opening to the meeting I still didn't know that he was Rev (well, dominee) Laurie Gaum. Yes, Virginia, I had heard of him of course.
With pencil and paper poised, I scribbled away. Rev Gaum noted in his opening that the topic on the table was "The search for a post-church spirituality," which he paraphrased as a move away from religion towards spirituality. One of the dangers of spirituality, he noted, was that it could be easily commercialised, and also easily individualized.
While he spoke, I surveyed the four speakers. The nice thing about being open-minded is that you can spend extra clock-cycles languishing in closed-mindedness, and then compare the results and laugh at yourself. From right to left, we have Tannie Esmι, Spinster; Mr Jones, a Book Keeper; Ms Mayhem, a Celebrity; and Prof Dingelburt, an Academic.
Rev Gaum introduced the speakers, although it was clear that almost everyone else in the now-packed chapel knew who they were. Cecile Cilliers (columnist, reviewer and author), Francois Tredoux (nominally of the Univ. Stellenbosch IT department), Nina Swart (actress) and Dr. Carel Anthonissen (Director of the Centre for Christian Spirituality, Cape Town).
I recorded my impressions of their talks telegram-style, so Gentle Reader, bear with me, and hear my apologies to the speakers for this hopelessly crude rendition of their presentations.
First up was Cecile Cilliers. She emphasised that she likes the church its spaces, its people. The/a church to her is the gathering of those who believe, "samesyn van die heiliges".
She inherited her religion from the father, who would take her to services but wasn't adverse to leaving if he felt the sermon wasn't worth-while. He also engendered a critical attitude in her.
She characterizes God as fair, strong, loving, having high expectations of her, and always being there for her.
She emphasised that the NG Church was, and is, rife with politics: "Power, and the maintenance of power that's what the Church is about." Propriety, a fully-packed Church on Sundays, discussions with authorities these are important to the Church. But where, she asks, is the communion with God?
Faith, she says, is not only spirituality, it is also the congregation of the believers; spirituality alone is not enough.
She urges a new spirituality in the Church, and decidedly not a post-Church spirituality. "We are the Church, for who or what else?"
As I transcribe this now, it feels almost ridiculous her incredible ability as an orator is here reduced to so much gibberish. Not an iota of her compelling style of presentation, the pitch of her voice, the now-soft now-loud intonation, is captured. Give her testicles and a sword and she would lead Braveheart into battle.
Endowed with testicles was the next speaker, Francois Tredoux. In his own style, as powerful as Cilliers, he admitted that although he is pro post-Church, he isn't sure if he is spiritual.
He first set out three reasons that led him to abandon the NG Church. The overwhelming impact of the bad treatment of Carel Anthonissen by the NG Church (Stellenbosch) left its mark on him. I have no idea what he is referring to but by proxy can understand. Secondly, the gay thing, he drawled, didn't really count for much; it rather just re-awakened his earlier commitment to quit the Church. Finally, he recounted how in his second year at Maties, he was one of the three hostel students who tarred and feathered another student. This led him to seriously question his own morality if within him he had the capacity for such barbaric behaviour.
He went on to ask, why we search for spirituality, and recounted some of his own experiences, which included investigating Buddhism: "I read Suzuki's Buddhism ... Buddhism has good ideas, but it's not a home for me."
"What works for me?" he asked-and-answered. Firstly, he described how he meditates, and how this brings about a realization that life is full of changes, and that death is just another change, thus losing its sting. Other facets he covered were silence, creativity, art & poetry, and classical music.
Regarding music, he says that it teaches harmony, which then becomes part of your fibre; "you cannot not notice dissonance elsewhere in life."
Spirituality, he said, is the search, never the place your arrive at. He read the poem "Ithaca" by Constantine Cavafy which, even to a cultural barbarian as myself, is beautiful.
My cultural barbarian remembers being rudely awaken one day when I saw the next speaker, Nina Swart, on the cover of a magazine. In something called "Sewende Laan", there was the dark-haired thespian I had played lots of pool with many years ago. I saw her one Saturday morning at breakfast, looking like Jacky O., but I reckoned she was still angry about loosing all those games of pool against me because she didn't even nod in my direction.
The first of many chuckles of laughter greeted her echo of Cillier's sentiment: "I also like the church, but I don't go". She recounted her early years in the NG Church, in which as a child she learnt charity, pastoral compassion, and that the Bible was about God's involvement and concern with man.
In her adult life, having been to other NG Churches, she has noticed two things in common to all: "niceness", and a fear of dark things. Church people are "nice", and just putting quotation marks around nice in no way does justice to the sad and angry way in which Swart expressed it. "Nice" is the cloying smile reeking from a Stepford wife that sets your hair on end, the word that says one thing but means another. As Swart put it, "If you are nice, then you are OK".
She also noticed a fear amongst the 'nice' people for the dark things in life, the things inside oneself, the anger, the depression. While they deal with the big issues Harry Potter, Satanism, drugs they ignore the individual condition.
"Being nice isn't enough," she concludes.
She witnessed about God's love for her, noting that she is able to face self-doubts and shortcomings and guilt-feelings only because she knows God loves her nonetheless. She attests that she can deal with all her bad things in the knowledge that God loves her unconditionally.
The final speaker, Dr Carel Anthonissen, noted that many people have become disillusioned with the institutional church. He said that he regularly comes into contact with people who are searching for something. Sounding much like a dominee in his style of oration, I almost applauded when he said: "Dominees preek met 'n bedekte dreigement" / "Ministers preach in covert threats".
I made a note that he said something about spirituality outside of the context of the church, but I have to admit I found his presentation difficult to follow, and experienced it as far more word convoluted than the previous speakers; I suspect that it would read better. Bear in mind, however, that I was trying to take notes, summarizing on the hoof, so to speak.
Anyway, he shared some general thoughts on spirituality, starting with the comment that true spirituality is a journey.
He noted that when you take a long-term bigger picture look at things, at life, the universe and such, you realize, in this bigger picture, how dependent we are on God.
Truth and beauty is, he says, more fundamental than evil.
You exist, not because you think, as Descartes suggests, nor because you work, as Marx says, but you exist because you are carried by God.
Christianity has to make us more humane, he says, "loyal to the earth and not just to heaven."
One discovers the meaningful in life through pain and suffering
Silence is the mother-tongue of God.
There is much knowledge of God locked up in the arts, not just in sermons.
Although I found his talk hard to follow, he is a very good speaker; perhaps if my attention wasn't diverted by note-taking, I would have understood more of his message.
After Dr Anthonissen spoke, a question and answer was held. The hiatus gave me a brief moment to enjoy the silliness of first impressions and prejudice. I read the By on Saturday mornings, not just for the news (yes I know, Virginia, I have the Internet), but for the Afrikaans. And the deftness with which it can be employed. Tonight, all four speakers left me impressed once again with how powerful eloquence is. Cilliers' quiet forceful way, Tredoux's deadpan delivery, Swart's (ag heck, she's a celebrity), Nina's theatrics, and Anthonissen's considered opinions, all persuasive, honest and from the heart.
Ten or so of the 80-strong audience had something to say during the Q&A; two of them stressed the loss of interest in the human condition evinced by the Church.
I'm no good at retelling jokes, so the punch line: "Look who thinks *he's* not worthy!" illustrates the point made by another that some Church leaders are faux humble.
Another pointed out that many people go to church to receive, but that one should go so that you can give. My homunculus nodded in agreement, until I heard the conclusion: "... because if you give, you will receive many times over." Hmm.
Following a question about dogma, Dr Anthonissen remarked: "Also the happy-clappy churches, they have a theology not always a good theology but still.." General audience laughter, except from a young man two seats down, who was not amused: "Wow! He's outspoken!"
In the open discussion, the connection between spirituality and art was brought up again, that theology can learn from art, and vice versa.
Someone characterized those interested in spirituality as having a desire for genuine experience.
From the far left of the chapel (or is that right?) came the opinion that "We here are all super-sick". Well, really.
Nina spoke for a bit on being lost; that we need to acknowledge we are lost, and then God will step in and offer his mercy. We need to get rid of the mask, admit our badness, so we can receive grace.
The final comments I scribbled down came from Tredoux, who stressed self-love, leading to other-love, which leads to God. It was pointed out that the NG Church focuses almost exclusively on God and how to love him, to a lesser degree on how to love others, but remains silent on how one should love oneself.
After two hours of discussion and sharing, the meeting ended. From where I sat, the food-laden tables and estate wines looked delicious. But I didn't stay for the socializing afterward, I had deadlines to attend to, freedom to earn, to spend Saturday morning having eggs-n-toast for breakfast.
Just like a post mortem is a poor summary of a man's life, so is much lost in trying to formulate a reaction to the evening's presentations. But I have to choose my words, and these may do as well as any others I'm going to come up with.
Some things stand out. The speakers were excellent orators, for one. If I had to choose a winner, I would call in sick and let someone else decide. Between you and me, Cecile Cilliers would get the nod.
It was a "genuine experience"; everyone spoke from the heart, and with clarity that suggested much thought and self-investment had been spent.
Regarding the audience, there the mileage may have varied. They let riff-raff like me in, for example.
The criticism levelled against the NG Church was nothing new to me, neither the politicking nor the lack of interest in the individual. I don't think one can expect anything else from a Protestant movement.
What struck me most was the emphasis on spirituality, which may sound redundant given the topic. Nevertheless, these folk were honing in on what sets us apart, ultimately, from other life on Earth the rational contemplation of that which inspires awe.
That they emphasised art, and music, as being strong correlates with spirituality, but omitted science and mathematics, only signifies their particular experiential background and is not meant as a criticism, but rather as a pointer.
And what struck me almost as hard, was their obsession with guilt. Again and again, this theme echoed through what the speakers, both panellists and audience members, were saying. It is as if God acts as a guilt-discharger; like a copper wire he conducts their guilt to ground, and in the catharsis, they experience the spiritual. They have an amazing capacity for spirituality, but remain ensnared in a religious paradigm. And no doubt, some experience the fear that loss of that paradigm will leave them spiritually barren.
This is tremendously sad.
Spirituality is not the sacred domain of the religious. Neither is guilt. But in religion, the two are layered together, making a composite that is both incredibly resilient and at the same time, lamentable.
Spirituality is not sacred at all. It is transcendent and is not mundane, but it has no necessary religious foundation, and it certainly is not rooted in feelings of guilt.
Spiritual people who are also religious, move me deeply when I allow it. I cope by ignoring it most of the time. But just sometimes, the compassion is overwhelming, and then I distract myself with pencil and paper, taking notes.
nothing more to see. please move along.