“Most of the actually existing church acts as a type of drug den with the leaders being like the nicest, most sincere drug dealers. What we pay for are songs, sermons, and prayers that help us avoid our suffering rather than work through it. In contrast I am arguing for … a church where the liturgical structure does not treat God as a product that would make us whole but as the mystery that enables us to live abundantly in the midst of life’s difficulties.”—Peter Rollins, “A Conversation with Peter Rollins” in the back of The Idolatry of God (New York: Howard Books, 2012).

I think I get what Rollins is trying to say here. I’m a fan of his work. But here he seems to assume that being made “whole” must be sharply contrasted with being enabled “to live abundantly in the midst of life’s difficulties.”

But for me and almost every progressive minister I know, that is simply what being made whole means. Indeed, to avoid working through suffering is the opposite of wholeness, especially as that term is used in pastoral care. I mean, look at the way I use the term when preaching in a mainline church (from a 2003 Palm Sunday sermon):

“Like the whole season of Lent, and especially Holy Week, Mark’s Gospel shows us a God who won’t rescue us. Instead we have a God who won’t leave us when we run away, who won’t lecture us when we scream words of doubt and abandonment, who makes broken lives part of God’s very life, who calls the most unlikely people into friendship, and who moves all that we are toward wholeness—a wholeness that’s always a bit beyond our grasp but that won’t ever leave us behindThe procession that begins with hosannas and waving palms moves us on through broken bread, broken lives, desertion and waiting for shalom. And that’s where God’s risen life will be found.”

In that sermon, wholeness simply is “the mystery that enables us to live abundantly in the midst of life’s difficulties.” The message might have startled some listeners (I was aiming for that), but it got a ringing endorsement from my Bishop, who was presiding that day. Contrary to what Rollins implies, it’s a hierarchically endorsed “product” of a church in love with highly structured, traditional liturgy.

How can we say that living abundantly in the midst of life’s difficulties is not a form of wholeness? For a process thinker like me, what other form of wholeness could there be, even for God? Wholeness is not completeness, not in process terms. Wholeness is no more—and no less—than the happening of “novel togetherness” that Alfred North Whitehead called “creativity” (Process and Reality [New York: Free Press, 1978 (1929)], p. 21).  That’s all the wholeness we and God are ever going to get. 

I’m going to keep peddling this as wholeness.

I also think that this sort of wholeness is precisely what many people are finding in all sorts of already existing liturgical structures. That sermon was typical. It’s definitely what I find consistently at All Saints, my parish, and that’s what I found in other progressive churches before I became Episcopalian. I even found it in some Southern Baptist settings.

You won’t see it, of course, if you fixate on certain parts and fail to see how the parts combine into a functioning whole. You might think that reciting the Nicene Creed is an attempt to enforce dogma, while most Episcopalians see it as an act of appreciation for our ancestors’ attempt to speak of God’s unfathomable proximity to us.

And you won’t see it if you are only an occasional spectator. You have to participate mindfully, over time.

True, others may find in the same liturgy a drug that helps them avoid suffering rather than work through it. That depends largely on the worshiper, not just on the liturgy. And that avoidance can happen just as easily through “transformance art” events, highly programmed to look subversive, as it can through an established liturgy.

There’s no such thing as a liturgy, established or “subversive,” that can’t become a drug for many people. We tend to find what we are looking for, and people looking for a drug will find it in any gathering.

(Besides, in most effective therapies today it’s not an either/or choice between taking drugs and working through suffering. Often both are needed.)

Drugs or not, sometimes you need to avoid suffering until you are in a space where you are resilient enough to work through it. It’s not a competition.

So again, I’m going to keep offering wholeness, not as a drug, but “as the mystery that enables us to live abundantly in the midst of life’s difficulties.” It’s what I always try to communicate. It’s what many established, institutional churches try to communicate. I’ve observed it most of my adult life. Sometimes people get it. I’m glad Rollins discovered it after working through a conservative evangelical experience, but the message has been around for decades in communities he tends to discount.

Fr. Charles