I am finishing up reading a book about the Puritans, which focuses on their sense of persecution in England and coming to what will become Massachusetts in the 1620s to establish a sense of freedom here to develop a Bible-based society. The Puritans thought of themselves as “the new Israelites,” and saw “the New World” as a living doctrinal church society and a kind of Christian utopia in the harsh New England countryside as their “promised land.” Many died on either the voyages over here or in the early years from the winters and lack of growable food, yet their determination was great. Over their early years, the Puritans tried to establish what they called “the well-ordered family” as the basis for a small Christian society, which, of course, demanded regular church involvement. Those who wanted to join a congregation had to pass what amounted to a kind of oral examination from either the pastor or the congregation collectively. A kind of Baptist testimony was offered as to one’s sense of spiritual conversion. Sermons are described as lengthy and sometimes soporific.
There were many laws enacted to encourage righteous behavior in public. Punishments for infractions could be severe. There were death penalties for the following: adultery, for teenagers who knowingly cursed or disrespected their parents, for being a witch, and for homosexual behavior. Reasoning about such laws came directly from Old Testament scripture, literally chapter and verse. The Puritans were also quite superstitious and worried about the Devil’s activities, which would later contribute to the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-93.
The Puritans derived their sense of Christian faith directly from John Calvin, whose Institutes of the Christian Religion was published in 1559, and apparently was translated from Latin into English quickly enough to become part of the Anglican theology with which the Puritans struggled before coming over here. Having read a fair portion of Institutes myself, it does have a peculiar attractiveness in its attempt to whittle down the Jewish preoccupation with (613) laws as well as the Catholic preoccupation with liturgical services and décor to actually make Christianity understandable to “the masses” with simpler doctrinal material. Although I criticized Calvin in my own book, I do see that he is trying to move our faith from an expansive legal and religious framework toward something we can better “hold in our hands.” The problem is that, in practice with the Puritans, it still led to actual laws not unlike the Israelites, which people could (and did) then disobey.
Given that some 1,600 years go by between the death of Jesus and the Puritans, we could ask: is the Church too humanly-centered in its understanding of who God is and what He is trying to do with us? Whether it is the Israelites, the Catholics or the Puritans, they all have one problematic thing in common: let us teach you how to be while ignoring the particular person that you are. If there is a singular difference between the Church and psychotherapy, it is that I can not ignore who the patient is in favour of “some idea” I have to give them about themselves. I do not expect the clergy to be therapists, but what you are now faced with are people who will not be psychologically ignored in favour of any doctrinal prescriptions.
Like everything else, Christian faith exists in the context of one’s psychology — they are twined together like any other preferences or prejudices we have. It would be easy to devise sermons in this context which would draw in the congregation through psychological generalities of experiences, doubts and inspirations. Freud called this introjection, which means that we absorb influences from others (such as our parents) which go deep enough to affect our behavior, even when they are absent. Introjections can be positive or negative, of course. When Jesus uses the analogy of blindness and sight (“those who believe without seeing”), He is taking about our introjecting Him as a spiritual influence, which is sometimes done in a personal context.
The Puritans eventually imploded within 70 years because they could not address their people’s need for more than Church teachings and laws, which eventually bred rebellion and / or indifference. Ironically, they became too human in their conception of God, which has gotten the Jews, Catholics and Protestants in too much trouble. One of the themes in my own book was God was never human.
The Catholic contemplatives around this same time tried a different route, but having read Saint John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul (1619) myself, this becomes a bit muddy and speculative for me as to what is ours and what is God’s, though I am admittedly no mystic.
I have been following the just-completed Methodist General Conference, which lamely ended with no real attempt to bridge the ca. 865 delegates’ divisions on “the gay issue,” rather they decided to try to settle such an issue by a study committee, which will never work. The problem that all the various Catholic and Protestant faiths have had on this issue comes from asking the wrong questions. The clergy never asks: Why are there homosexuals, and what purpose do they have in God’s vision for us? If they can not be inherently procreative, what other purpose might He have for them? Rather, it is as it has always been: suppress what you do not understand. With gay Methodist pastors now “coming out” and risking their careers, this will continue in the face of no organized response from their church. Psychology triumphs over doctrine, for better and worse.
Any prejudice stems from our narcissism, from who we are not. The historical bias against homosexuals runs deeper than all others because of our genral lack of genital attraction to others of the same sex. This runs deeper than skin colour, nationality, language or other attributes — it is rooted in our very biology. Since God allows for many things (diseases, Natural disasters, crime and the death of His Beloved Son), homosexuality would seem to be another such example. Why do bad things happen to good people? Because God is not Calvin’s micromanager, He set the conditions for our world to work, He intervenes when necessary, and yes, allows things to happen. There is free will and there is God. There are no false dichotomies with God, He simply does what He wants and does not ask for either our permission or “blessing.” It is we who must someday catch up with Him.
(Addendum: in February 2019, the Methodist church voted to maintain status quo, and not allow gay clergy or to perform gay weddings. This was seen largely as an effort to appease the African Methodists, but displays little understanding of God’s intent.)