Sunday, June 22, 2014

A Ukrainian Priest’s Divisive Politics: At What Religious Cost?

In Lviv, Ukraine, Rev. Addriy, a priest of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church rather than the Ukrainian affiliate of the Russian Orthodox Church, said after a Mass in June 2014 that the European Union is an “empire of evil” defying the Word of God and spreading sins including homosexuality and pedophilia. The priest went on to characterize the Ukrainians who toppled President Viktor Yanukovych as “Godless deviants” and “fools . . . in the pay of hostile foreign powers.”[1] Being in the western part of the state, the eastern-looking priest was not exactly “preaching to the choir”—meaning he must have known that his message would not be well-received by his congregation. This disjunction illustrates a distinctly religious problem that can arise when clerics fly too far afield from the religious domain onto those of politics, economics, or even social problems.

The problem is multi-level. On the surface, attention to non-religious matters carries with it the opportunity cost of foregone attention to religion. To be sure, the priest spoke outside of Mass, and thus he did not detract from it directly. However, at a deeper level, he did diminish the religious value of his Masses. His own diminished stature or credibility in the political matter at hand put his religious role at risk as well.

Anger at an opposing political view inexorably puts distance in a religious relationship. The latter is not limited to new-found suspicion regarding sermons or homilies. The transcendent religious experience—communion with God in Christian terms—involves shifting attention from the external environment (i.e., what is going on around you) to an “inward” orientation to a reference point that inherently transcends the limits of cognition and perception. Feeling “safe” enough to risk shifting attention off what is going on in the worship context (e.g., the church) is essential to being wholly invested in the experience itself of yearning for that which is yearned for beyond the particular mask of eternity. Feeling that the person in the room who is in charge is in any sense a threat, or even just disliking him or her, thus detracts from the religious experience, and thus from the religion itself as an instrument thereof.

So, beyond the point that political ideology is of another domain than religion, the over-reaching can inadvertently sabotage or at least diminish the intensity of the religious experience possible in a given worship context. In other words, a dedicated context, sui generis to religious experience, is compromised as soon as stuff from other domains is brought in. The inherent sensitivity of religious experience, owing both to the intimacy in yearning for “the wholly other” that lies inherently beyond our reach and the giving up of attention to one’s immediate surroundings (i.e., what is going on in the church), is violated by the breaking in of stuff from our realm (e.g., politics, and even church business!).

In the case of Roman Catholicism, for example, the “presence” of the sacrificed or consecrated Christ in the Tabernacle on the altar sets a sanctuary apart as sacred space from the rest of the world. Whether or not such a presence is actually in the bread in the enclosure is not the point; rather, that Catholics treat the sanctuary as perpetually dedicated to religious activity facilitates their entering into religious experience as in communing with God after ingesting Christ in the Eucharist. A priest or lectern making announcements from the weekly bulletin, for example, as the congregants are intensely focused in transcendent yearning disturbs the sensitivity of the experience itself.

Interestingly, the “pure” or rarified sensitivity that is in religious experience intentionally devoid of stimuli that can dilute the sensitivity itself can carry over onto ensuing experience back in a person’s daily world of quotidian stimuli. That is the religious experience is in one sense a “sharpener” of a person’s sensitivity, which on return to the world can “carry over.” Although the heightened sensitivity to the ordinary doubtlessly fades as a person’s ordinary sensitivity level kicks back in amid its customary context, regular “religious exercise” may give its more finely-tuned sensitivity greater staying power, such that the “sensitivity weight-lifting” sessions may eventually not be necessary for this purpose.

Applied interpersonally in a person’s daily life, the greater, “microscopic” sensitivity gained through religious experience is commonly known as compassion. In fact, this byproduct is typically misclassified as religious rather than ethical in nature, and this error in turn can invite or provide an opening for interlarding content from the world such as social issues (e.g. abortion, poverty, social justice) into the worship context. In the case of Unitarian Universalism, especially when its humanist movement reached its zenith in the 1970s in the United States, social structures based on the ideology of egalitarianism are regarded as sacred. Such self-ideology as sacred can be interpreted in religious terms as a manifestation of self-idolatry, which snuffs out or blocks outright transcendent spiritual or religious experience.

Therefore, sensitivity not only pertains to transcendent religious experience devoid of interfering external stimuli, but is a byproduct known as compassion that is of value in the world. Though not religious itself, the ethical principle of what Adam Smith calls “fellow-feeling” in his Theory of Moral Sentiments can itself thwart the sort of invective inflicted by the Ukrainian priest on his disheartened flock. “Do not cause your brother to stumble,” Paul advises in one of his letters to a congregation just a few decades after his Lord’s crucifixion.  If a cleric is not sufficiently careful in this regard, we can assume that he or she has little regard for the value of others’ religious experience, and even such experience itself, relative to more “worldly” agendas.

It is ironic, to say the least, to find religious functionaries and even institutions oblivious to what is conducive to a religious experience that is transcendent in nature. Both in being of value in itself and for one of its byproducts, intense dedicated yearning for that which inherently lies beyond the limits of human perception and cognition may actually receive scant attention in most religious services. Even where the rites are conducive to such experience, clerics may tend to treat the ritual as an end in itself rather than as preparatory. In how many Masses, for example, is the experience of communing with God after the Eucharistic ritual treated as the high point, or core, of the Mass? 

In this photo, furnished by the U.S. Defense Department, a bishop consecrates the bread into the body of Christ. Is this moment of the sacrifice of Christ in the Mass its high point even if so in terms of the Eucharistic rite? Behind the priest is the tabernacle, in which previously consecrated pieces are stored. They make the room into "sacred space" continuously rather than merely during a Mass. 

Instead, the priest-centric consecration of the bread and wine is said to by the pinnacle, and the Mass itself is typically quickly ended as soon as the priest finishes washing the dishes. Unlike any experience oriented to the external stimuli of a priest holding up the consecrated species, which admittedly can be quite meaningful to a Catholic, the communing experience following the ritual transcends even the worshipper’s immediate environment and thus is more conducive to isolating the eternal (by transcending the external) and then sensing that of the eternal back in the person’s daily life, including in other people. This sensitivity is more finely tuned to them, and thus to the subtle indications of their suffering; and I suppose the experience of yearning transfers over in a way in the motivation to relieve the suffering. However, the heightened sensitivity itself may also furnish the motivation. 

In terms of liturgy generally, religious ritual can be thought of as preparation, rather than as the whole of a religious service—distinctly religious experience being the immediate objective; as the referent is both by definition and experientially inherently “beyond,” the intensity can be put on the yearning itself, especially if the religionist is willing in true humility to transcend even the given mask of eternity to the raw numinous experience itself. Put another way, the yearning itself, or communing, can extend beyond the human reception of divine revelation into our familiar categories of thoughts and images. To the detriment of such "pure" religious experience wherein the immanence of transcendence demands a heightened sensitivity, the divisive Ukrainian priest had other treasures in mind, and therein in all probability his heart and god could also be found.

[1] Andrew Higgins, “Ukrainian Church Faces Obscure Pro-Russia Revolt in its Own Ranks,” The New York Times, June 21, 2014.