Saturday, February 03, 2007

Resignation Letter, P. 1

Alan Watts was born in 1915, grew up in England, attended the Anglican Church, and received a solid elementary and high school education in Anglican boarding schools. But he was also precociously fascinated with Eastern philosophy and religion and became secretary of the London Buddhist Lodge at the age of 16. After he got married and came to America, he needed to find work that ideally allowed him to support himself and his family from his continuing study and practice of religion, and it seemed like a good idea at the time to become an Episcopal priest. He immersed himself in his seminary studies, was ordained in 1945, and became chaplain at Northwestern University which gave him "all the advantages of the academic environment and a congregation of young people whose religious ideas and attitudes were not yet firmly embalmed." His book, Behold the Spirit: A Study in the Necessity of Mystical Religion served as his Master's thesis and received praise from religious scholars including Canon Iddings Bell who hailed it as "one of the half-dozen most significant books on religion published in the twentieth century." His ministry and membership in the Church lasted until August of 1950, when he wrote his letter of resignation. Below is an excerpt from that letter that can be found, along with ensuing correspondence, on pages 207-217 of his autobiographical masterpiece In My Own Way. Tomorrow, I will post another excerpt.

I have come to the conclusion that I cannot remain in either the ministry or the communion of the Episcopal Church.

In retrospect, I believe that I entered the ministry under the influence of a tendency which has become rather widespread--a tendency to seek refuge from the confusion of our times by giving in to a kind of nostalgia. In a world where all the traditions in which men have found security are crumbling, the mind seeks peace and sanity in an attempt to return to a former state of faith. It envies the inner calm and certitude of an earlier age, where men could put absolute and childlike trust in the authority of the Church, and in the ordered beauty of an ancient doctrine.

Undoubtedly, the form of Christian doctrine and worship contains the most profound truth, but I am afraid that the attempt to maintain and revive it is an ineffectual resistance to inevitable change. For so many people, the forms no longer convey their meaning, and the language they speak is both archaic and cumbersome. Others want to believe, and try to convince themselves that they do so, but their faith has that hollow self-consciousness so characteristic of the modern convert, since the mind is acting a role untrue to its inmost state. You cannot imitate faith, and when forms of belief, like all other finite things, begin to die, the effort to revive them is imitation. It doesn't ring true. But the forms perish, not only because they are mortal, but also because the Spirit within them is breaking them as a bird breaks from its shell.

We are living in a time of disintegration and iconoclasm which the Hindus call Kali Yuga. It hurts and frightens us, but is not essentially evil. It is rather a universal Passion in which man cries "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" But it is the prelude to a Resurrection, because spiritual growth depends upon ceasing to cling to any form of life for security. Forms are not contrary to the Spirit, but it is their nature to die; their transiency is their very life, and a permanent form would be a monstrosity--a finite thing aping God.

The Spirit uses forms, and reveals itself through them, for which reason they are both wonderful and necessary. But they are not exempt from the simplest law of life--that, like every other living thing, to grasp them is to strangle and kill them. To preserve them in death is to cling to corruption.

He who is, for Christians, the form of God, "the express image of his person," did not forget to warn us: "It is expedient for you that I go away, for if I go not away, the Paraclete cannot come unto you." After his Resurrection the same warning was given to Saint Mary Magdalene: "Do not cling to me!" The tragedy of the Church is that in trying to love form, it has denied its whole nature by trying to make it absolute. The image and the words of Christ himself have been corrupted in the very act of giving them permanent and absolute authority. He has been made into an idol which must be destroyed in his own Name...

1 comment:

copithorne said...

This is lovely and perceptive -- Watts' description of nostalgia.

Another word for it is piety. It's the sensibility that faith would be good and virtuous, or retro chic, to have. And you will defend faith against the forces of modernity which threaten to act as a solvent. But you don't actually have faith yourself. And you think that nobody can notice the difference.

I think of our friend Bob Godwin who writes polemics in favor of religious tradition and rails against the people he sees as diminishing faith. But he doesn't attend church and there is no reason to think he has any faith himself.

This is what Kierkegaard called "Christendom" and it should all be hewn down and cast into the fire. Anytime people are engaged in apologetics or polemics, it's this phony piety or nostalgia that they will be defending.

Yet Watt's statement doesn't address my circumstance in which I can say: I love Jesus. I love Mary. I love Mass. I love Holy Communion. I love going to Church. I love prayer. I am nourished by these relationships. I meet many people who are fed like this and I enjoy their company.